Starting, operating and closing a Start-Up company in South Africa – a journey

Founders beware – the following commentary may be too much to bear.

Late in 2013 I had an idea. A simple solution to a vexing problem. I whipped out the old battered HP Laptop, wrote up a draft business plan, and pitched to a friend who had some money. Fast forward a few months, and he decided to invest, later bringing in some other investors. A business was born.

To many founders, the seed capital for an idea is the hard part – in my case, and the way my memory serves me now, the seed capital was not the hardest part. That comes later in my story, but for now, a short summary is in order.

With the first few Rands in the bank, a prototype knocked out in  a few weeks and some basic software, I did my first demo, and it worked! The investor was happy to go ahead and the plan was to build a few units, then launch. NPV’s were drafted, valuations agreed and the second round of funding secured (a million Rand). We were set to take over the world, and then life happened.

Lesson #1 – it ain’t a deal, until the signature is on the contract!

We set out to secure a contract with a leading e-commerce player. Mr A (the new guy appointed to head up the division at the e-commerce company) was excited, happy with the initial pilot, easy to work with and excited to drive the project from his company perspective. Draft contracts were sent back and forth, and within a few days we had a working contract, with solid financial backing that supported both parties vision of the future. The deal was so to speak done. We all relaxed a little. And that was the first mistake I made – not chasing that contract harder. Not getting it signed, sealed and delivered! One email not replied to quickly enough, one weekend. I called Mr A after not getting a reply. He had lost his job, moved out, moved on. And no replacement person at the e-commerce company. Days of trying to find out what was happening. Nothing. All cold. Despair set in. But there was another plan.

Lesson #2 – don’t take your eye off the ball – be part of the talks – all of them!

My co-founder was close friends with the new co-CEO of the e-commerce company. They shared wine together, and other mutual business interests. I counted on this friendship, and my co-founder promised to follow it up. I was not part of the talks, I had second hand info about what they were talking about. The project was on again, Mr CO-CEO would be driving the project! We had a new champion. All was good again. Except, it wasn’t! Over dinner, Mr CO-CEO dropped the bomb – the decision to go with us was not his, but that of the other CEO, a well know hard ass and tough negotiator. We were back to square one. This time, I was shocked, but determined to find another way.

Lesson #3 – no contract means you don’t have a business. Period.

Make another plan. A change in thinking, the biggest bomb came from my fellow investors. Understandably, without a contract, the business was going to struggle, but there were some other options. Or were there? With investors edgy, the next round of funding would not emerge, as defined the deliverable had not been met – A signed contract with ”e-commerce” company A.

Lesson #4 – know when to cut your losses, and move on – quickly!!

The writing was on the wall when the Investors made a call to not fund the business further. This entailed letting all staff go, and that included me not taking a salary. I was to continue ”working” the business to try and save whatever shareholder value I could. Dumb move. I should have asked for the shut down of the company immediately, and moved on – either with new investment from other sources, or gone and done something else. This is hard.

Lesson #5 – The business you created stopped being ”your” business when you took on investors and shareholders. Its their company now, and you are simply another shareholder

Separation of the self and the business identity is hard. I poured everything into making it work. The personal cost of starting a business is high – personal relationships suffer and some end. The ongoing stress kills enthusiasm, and once you have agreed to bring on shareholders, the game changes. Reporting, deliverables, milestones, targets – all become a reality. Turning an idea into real business is hard work and requires a change in thinking, something loads of founders simply cannot do. Equity? Can you eat it?

These are just some of the lessons I learned along the way. Would I do it again? Yes! Would I apply the lessons? Most definitely. Was it worth? Hmmm…the jury is out on that one.

of Gratitude and Equal opportunity

Anie * (not her real name) is 28. She was born in 1985. She was 9 years old when her parents voted for a New South Africa. 

I met Anie last night. She works in a late night coffee shop in Claremont. The coffee shop closes at 10 and Anie has to take a taxi to Cape Town, then a train to Khayalitsha, to arrive home at 1.30 in the morning. She has to be up again at 4.30, to get ready to be back at work by 10 a.m again.

Anie is tired. Anie has no way out. I engaged with her, just a little, or as much as is possible in a late night coffee shop, without much trade any more. Where do you come from? Where do you live, the usual banter. But then I asked her if she had had a dream. What was her teenage dream? She paused for a second, to think about what I has asked. A Teacher! She replied. I then asked her why that dream did not happen, what prevented it from happening? Her reply? money, circumstances, parental neglect, poverty. 

I asked her what High School she went to. Livingston. A decent school, drawing students from well to do suburbs like Rondebosch, Claremont, Wynberg. Anie probably had classroom friends who came from decent middle class homes, where their parents had decent jobs. Where the children probably did not really grasp concepts like Gratitude very well. Where having things came easy. Where little effort was required by the child, and much was likely done by the parents.She and her peers would have graduated in 2003. Matriculated. Many probably went to Varsity, or college, or simply found jobs. 

Anie works in a coffee shop. a franchise. a brand. She probably earns between R3000 (approx $350) and R4500 ( $500) a month, and has to make ends meet. Survive. Transport costs alone will be about 40% of her monthly income. 

So how does Anie reach her dream? Way past school leaving age, she is now part of the forgotten student population, someone who made Matric in 2003, who celebrated like so many other 17 and 18 year old’s that year. Where are these people today? Sadly, most likely just  a part of the statistics of this amazing land – just another unemployed youth, another sad number.

I asked Anie if she listens to the news on radio. She replied with a yes. Did she pick up the FNB debacle and the ensuing fracas between the ANC and the Bank? Yes. Did she care? No! For her, and most of the young people in her position, the news is abstracted, something afar, something for ”other” people. She hears about it but it has no real impact on her. She lacks the social media voice to make a noise, to talk about herself, her situation, the reality of a 28 year old in South Africa, who spends more than a quarter of her life traveling to a job that has no real future, to continue to be the girl who serves coffee late at night.

I asked about her mother. a smile. My mother is now a Teacher! She recently graduated and is now teaching. Where? I don’t know. What? I don’t know. But she left her husband, eventually, with the three children, went to school to study, and became a working professional. Sadly, her mother will also probably only earn R3500 to R5000 a month, and continue to live in Khayalitsha.

On the bright side, her younger sister also finished Matric last year, aged 17. She managed to secure a bursary, based on her Physics and Maths marks, and is now enrolled at UCT. Anie looks proud when she talks about her sister. Proud that someone in her family is going to University.

But what about Anie? Where does she go? Who does she go to for help? There are places that she can go to, but how does she find them? Like everything else in life, if she does not make the effort then she won’t find the help she needs. And when she does find the right place, she still needs to put in the effort to make it happen. There is no such thing as a free lunch. And Anie needs to know this. 

Still, so many questions, all these years later, about change and opportunity and opportunity being equal. Still so many obstacles standing in the way of success for people just like Anie. Who has failed who here? Has the system failed Anie? Or has Anie failed that last test – the one of making that extra little effort, that little bit more to cross the winning line? I suppose time will tell.

My take away from this little story? I am super privileged to lead the life I live. I am blessed beyond belief with all that I have. I have opportunity. I have a roof over my head, multiple forms of motorised transport at my disposal and more. And I am forever grateful for all that I have. 2013, a year of big things. I am going to make a difference to people like Anie. That is part of the plan. To show them the way, to lead. And then to hopefully see them make that extra effort and make that difference. No a hand out. No. But some direction.

9 August 2012 – National Women’s Day – South Africa

Never post a blog in a rage – good sage advice. Well heeded. However, sometimes, one needs to let the rage surface, just enough to bubble into comprehension, perhaps one thing will come out that makes sense of the mad world we live in…

I grew up in a family surrounded by strong women. At home, I had my Grandma, my Mother, my three amazing sisters. Next door, Auntie Tiets (yes, that’s her real name), Auntie Shabira across the road, Auntie Malam the neighbour, Auntie Miriam a street away, Penlyn Ma, Aziza, Ghairoe, Suraya, Bhanu, and the list goes on. Each of these women had some small role to play in who I became as a man and who I am today.

I saw women suffer, toil, struggle, survive and thrive. I saw meals cooked with no budget, yet fit to feed kings. I saw women who lost husbands at a young age, left with small children, but who refused to allow suitors to line up, in respect to their dead husbands memory, rather choosing to live the life of widows.

I saw women raise children while their husbands were off screwing anything that moved (yes, everyone knew about it) and the same men sat in Mosque next to me on a Friday. I saw these women smile, wipe the snot off the face of another child (number 6), and simply carry on.

I saw women go to work for the first time, when useless men simply dropped them, and take work that would make a migrant worker wince. Hard.

I saw a mother go to work to help a depression ridden household, leaving 4 children at home to fend for themselves, then cry herself to sleep after working on another dress for another low paying customer, the tiredness soaked in so deep that she did not even know she was tired anymore.

And through this, I saw women as beautiful, sensuous, loving, caring, fallible, happy, sad, sickly, healthy, pregnant, and again, teaching, nurturing, comforting, praying and many other things – but the one thing I never saw was a weak woman. I saw strength, and when it was not visible, I was made aware by other women.

I grew to love Woman, not just for the breast I could see, the bums protruding, the glow of healthy hair, but for what was hidden inside. When Auntie X was beaten by her husband, I saw her bruises, and learnt that that was not the way to treat a woman.

So I guess what makes me mad, sad and a little bit angry (OK, a lot of angry) is that now, in 2012, so many women are still treated as second rate citizens, abused, raped, scorned, mistreated and generally ignored. Why, in a society that pretends to be based on equality, a woman is still seen in the same old stereotyped role, a mold that perpetuates and cannot be broken?

And we need a day to remind us of this? No, this Women’s Day is not a celebration – but rather a reminder of what still needs to be done – the silent woman needs a voice, the abused wife needs your support, the young girl needs to learn that being a woman is about so  much more.

I end by thanking those women who made me who I am – who formed me into the man I am. Each of you are remembered today. This is your day.

Gatvol – Clarity, finally..

WARNING AND DISCLAIMER: STRONG LANGUAGE MAY BE USED IN THIS RANT

These past few weeks have been an extremely busy time in my life. My short stories have been noticed and I made the decision to go ahead and publish it in a physical book format.

Work has also been very busy with loads of new developments happening – all of which has kept my mind occupied and unable to focus on anything else for longer than 20 seconds.

My better half decided that I needed to take a bit of a break this weekend past and as those who know us already know, we love everything about books – reading them, listening to authors talk, discussion about books, even writing books (me) and reviewing and discussing books (Julia). We set off for the picturesque town of Franschoek, where the annual Franschoek Festival was taking place, hoping to witness some debate and take in some culture at the same time.

Driving the road to Franschoek from Cape Town is a stress reliever in it’s own right. One leaves the city behind when climbing the Plattekloof hill, and the distant mountains shimmer in the early morning light.  This Saturday, the N1 was covered with a fine layer of mist, and may have put off some of the early morning motorcycle riders, but not the keen literary hungry people of Cape Town.

We arrived in the quaint little Town and found parking quickly – a bonus of visiting Franschoek is that street parking is still free, unlike in Stellenbosch where parking can cost you up to R80 for the day, or the equivalent of a bottle of good wine! Anyway, we parked our car and hurried to meet our dear friend Lize, then managed to squeeze into the next from last row of the NG Kerk Hall.

Then my day turned upside down. What started as nice day trip out to winelands suddenly turned into something unpleasant. But at the time, I could not quite put my finger on what exactly happened to sour my mood. Part of it was  the first talk I attended which I found a little too abrasive, the  canned homour somewhat unpleasant so early on a Saturday morning, and that on a stomach that had not had a cup of coffee yet. Only later did the true cause of the irritation become apparent. After a day had passed, and I had tasted the fruits of my freedom and lived like a true South African and had time to digest my so called freedom did the root of my irritation expose itself fully.

I am sick and tired:

I am sick and tired of the politics and issues of our New South Africa. Tired of hearing about Apartheid and people trying to justify it. Tired of hearing about the failings of the TRC. Tired of stupid people tweeting like empty headed birds, and finding themselves suddenly without a perch. Tired of Black Entitlement and White Righteousness. Tired of people always finding something to moan and complain about. If you don’t want to be here, fuck off. Leave. And if you don’t have enough points to go to Australia, go to hell. I don’t care! I’m tired of people complaining about the old taking over the new, the old South Africa, the New South Africa – hell! There is only this ONE struggling South Africa. I feel everyone’s pain, not based on race or color or sexuality or religion, but as a human being, a citizen being taxed to the eyeballs! I am taxed on my meagre income, I am taxed on my petrol I put in my bike every week, my car every other week (yes, I have a car and a bike and must by extension therefore be super -fucking- privileged). I am tired of ambiguity, where people mask there tendencies with words – be they racially motivated, sexually motivated or religiously motivate – I am tired of it. I want to be left alone, to make a decent living, so I can put my kids through a good (government)school – yes, they do exist! I want to send my daughter to medical school and have the means to pay for her education (partially). I want my son to realise his dream of becoming an accountant, and see him become successful, without any reference to affirmative anything, and have him achieve based on merit only. I want to see my children marry who they want, have happy fulfilling relationships, build friendships with like minded people and not have to live like I do, having to watch what I say because someone may take offence, because I have butchered one of their sacred cows! I am sick and tired of people finding something to be intolerant about, because God knows, you will find something if you look hard enough.

Enough is enough. I’m done. I will do what I have to do, to make my life pleasant and workable. On issues like crime I will take a stand – I will buy better security, burglar bars, join my neighborhood watch, get a big dog, build higher walls, put in electric fencing. The reality is that the criminal does not have a color any longer – he is a desperate person that society has failed. Correctional services have failed those being put back on the street. On poverty issues I will try and help the poor – I will build a business and  try and employ more young people, people who can take something home and feed a family. I will get involved in my community. I will plant a tree. I will recycle my rubbish, where I can. I will make my voice heard when I am unhappy and I will not be silenced, by anyone!

And when I lie on my bed at night, I will worship my God, in my way. I will not be dictated to by anyone as to what form my belief must fit in. I will forge my own steel, my way.

If you agree with me, then I know I can call you friend. If what I say hits a nerve, then pass it on. If you don’t agree, feel free to debate. But don’t you dare tell me what to think, or how to behave. I will do things, my way.

END OF RANT…

16 May 2012, 6.55 p.m

Collaboration – Photos and Fiction, can they work together?

A short while ago a dear friend twisted my ear over coffee and tried to convince me to add photo’s to my blog.

At first, I resisted. I mean, why would I want to do that? I use words, adjectives, to describe things I see.

Then I saw some of Zoe Moosmans pictures and I was instantly taken by the idea. Allow me to share this with you, the community.

I write about people I see everyday. Someone I walk past, someone sitting at a security desk, others doing jobs they hate
and others doing jobs they love. I try and capture what I see, and perhaps a little bit about how they feel in a few word. The
rules are simple – I must do this in less that 1500 words, preferably between 800 and 1200 words. I must build a character
that people love, or hate, or identify with, or who they see in someone they know. And then I want to bring people to my readers
who they have never spared a second thought for, someone they would not even see as human (today I wrote about a prisoner
serving 30 years who writes to his mother, telling her he loves her… http://mukhtarm1.wordpress.com)

So can photos play a part in my story telling? what do yo think?

Reputation

So January has come and gone, 2012 is well on it’s way, and everyone is full swing into work mode again.

There seems to be a pervasive air of optimism around. Everywhere I go, people are talking things up. All very different from last year, when we all suffered from the 2010 hangover.

So facebook is worth 20 billion US dollars? Wow! That is a huge amount of paper millionaires that are walking around. All of which got me to thinking….

What is facebook really about? Is it about sharing photos with friends? finding old school chums? keeping tabs on ex girlfriends? playing some games?

I think  (and this is my opinion so feel free to disagree), that facebook is all about the ‘I’. How popular ‘I’ can be, how much ‘I’ have done, where ‘I’ have been, look at me, see how great/bad/happy/sad/etc etc. ‘I’ am.

facebook is a personal broadcaster of me, and my life. And my ‘friends’ can either ‘like’ the things I say about my life, or like the majority, remain silent. Ah, yes, the silence…

So when I post about the fantastic work day I had, and 12 people click that they ‘like’ it, the rest of my friends are notably quiet. Why? ’cause they had a bad week? ’cause they hate their jobs? ’cause they suck at what they do? ’cause some of them don’t have jobs? And so on and so on. I guess m point is that facebook has become a way of making a part of our lives visible. A part we choose to ‘share’ with a circle of ‘friends’. And not all friends are going to ‘like’ what you have to say about yourself.

facebook raises many questions while answering a startling few. So how are you doing? bought a new car? you must be doing well then! moved into a new house? nice new furniture dude! And people read things into your life, the way they want to, and make assumptions based on what you post. mostly.

facebook opens your day to day world to people you would normally have limited access to. People you may have seen once or twice a year. With Time such a precious commodity, how many people can we really connect with in any given period? 12? 6? 4?

We are all part of the system now, who can say that they will no longer post updates to facebook? Not many. I too have tried going off facebook, only to return again. I also tried other things, like removing toxic friends, people who shared my status updates with my ex, and tightened up on my profile security and so on, but I guess what makes facebook so alluring and keeps pulling us back is that it is driven by our personal need to share ourselves, a version of ourselves, that will make us popular, even if its only for 12 people, 6 likes, or 4 approvals. We return, each day, to see what our friends have been up to and also to tell them what we have done, or are planning to do. We share pics of things we see, places we go to, friends we spend time with. And then we wait, patiently for a comment, or two, or 4 or 6 or 12..

Another way of looking at the facebook valuation is to say that you and I and our ‘friends’ lives are valued at 20 billion US dollars. Our reputations are now worth so much and is so valuable, and yet we share this information freely. We open ourselves to our facebook friends in a way we seldom do with our real world, day to day friends. And facebook friends are neatly segregated into categories, some need be seen only every now and again. And if you have enough of a person, disagree with a post, then its really simple, you hide them, or better yet delete them. Easy. 1, 2, 3 and they gone. No messy emotional scenes in coffee shops, no phone calls, just delete, gone, no goodbye.

What are you doing to protect your online reputation? Are you choosing your ‘friends’ more carefully? Mixing work  and friends? Perhaps its time then  to head over to facebook and check those friends settings…catch your updates later (or not…)

Promise

I woke this morning, and the first word that popped into my head was just that – Promise.

I have never been one for protracted New Years resolutions, but somehow, something feels different this morning.

Perhaps it is the process of aging that I am more aware of, but as this year begins, and the memories of last year fade away, I felt the need to make some resolutions, to resolve to change a few things, to instill some new thinking, develop a new habit or three, to take a step forward this year, but most importantly to approach the year ahead with a plan.

1. To write something at least once a week. I think that this action will help me clarify my thoughts and determine how I become a more effective communicator. So watch this space.

2. To take better care of my health. I discovered some great healthy eating tips in 2011, now I need to keep at it, keep tweaking it,make it optimum and find the best balance.

3. To take more exercise. Following on from number 2, this one is also becoming more important as I grow older. I made it to the gym as per the Vitality minimum requirements, but I know I can do better. So this year, the aim is to go at least 52 times, but to push for double that.

4. To implement a financial savings plan. With all the uncertainty I faced last year I discovered that one thing that helps me sleep a little better is to have some cash in reserve. So I start 2012 off with a positive savings balance. A little put away every month makes all the difference. 4.1 – To implement a debt restructuring plan. Also underway and will require even more discipline than 1,2 and 3 above. But there is a plan.

5. To make more time to see the people who are important to me. With a mere 52 weekends ahead, this one is going to be tough. But I have a plan. To celebrate life. So when the opportunities arise, expect more party invitations from me this year.

 

So those are my NYR’s.

May 2012 be filled with all things good,  may the promise of what lies ahead reach fulfillment, and may you and your families be blessed with all things wonderful.