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.

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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?

New Beginnings

A new beginning…

A few weeks ago I got a call from Justus Visagie. A seemingly innocuous call, just shooting the breeze, and then a suggestion of a get together to talk about my writing and my passion for bikes and cars and such.

So earlier this week we met up at the delightful Knead Bakery at Wembley Square. We chatted a bit about this and that, and then Justus asked if I would like to take a bike for a few days, then write some stuff about my time with it. Naturally I jumped at the chance! Any bike, any day, I said.

Now my initial thinking was that maybe it would be the naked 1000 Honda, or perhaps the new v four, but when Justus called to say the Goldwing was waiting for me, I was a little apprehensive..A Goldwing?! 1800 CC of American Cruiser?!

But as the days ticked by, the anticipation of the ride started building up. I rode my little CBF600 at cruising speed on the N1, wondering what the beast would be like, and how much of a difference the 1800 would be to the 600. My math told me that the GL was three times more bike! Yikes!!

Many superlatives sprang to mind – The Bus, The Beast, The Bruiser, The Brute…

I decided not to have any expectations. I mean, after all, the bike was just a bike. Right? Wrong!

I first laid eyes on the bike, standing on the street in front of Mike’s place in a shimmering copper green. And it was huge!

My initial take was simply that it was so big, and slightly intimidating.

Mike showed me around the bike and started pushing buttons here and there. The bike comes with a standard CD player, an MP3 connector, an intercom connection. All these controls are on the left handle bar, things like volume and auxiliary selection buttons.

Then we got to the nitty gritty. The right handlebar has a few buttons and switches, one of which is a reverse gear selector! Reverse gear? On a bike? Yes, and it works like a dream. The starter button serves as the reverse throttle. Select neutral, then depress the reverse gear selector, then push the starter/reverse throttle. The button takes a few pushes to get used to and the bike then moves backwards very slowly. I think ALL bikes should have this function – who has not parked on a steep incline and struggled to get the bike back into the street?

I turned the bike expecting the turning circle to be very small, and was pleasantly surprised at how nimble the steering felt. Gingerly, I set off into the peak hour traffic, and again I was surprised at just how smooth the shaft drive handled the gear changes. I love shaft drive bikes, having first owned a shaft drive back in ’91, when I bought my first CX 500. Approaching the first traffic light, I shifted down, and heard the big motor rumble beneath me! She did not like the sudden clutch release, and told me so! After a few more traffic lights, I started getting the hang of the gears, and could feel the smoothness of the big motor beneath me. Taking my first turn onto the freeway caused me to worry about how she would turn, but again the big bike surprised me. The 180/60/16 Bridgestone tyres turn easily, and soon the bike was upright again, and merging with the fast moving traffic.

I carefully opened the throttle, expecting some lag, but the instant response from the big engine was fantastic! My smile widened with each passing kilometer, but too soon I had to take the next off ramp and head back home.

So my first ride on the bike was over too quickly, but I felt assured that my next ride would be OK…

Feedback and Photos to follow…and miles of smiles too 🙂

Honda GoldWing 1800 GL Deluxe 2011

First time I laid eyes on you..

In memory of my friend Barney Van Heerden

I am struggling to deal with and work through the terribly sad news I received late last night.

My good friend Barend J Van Heerden, better known as Barney, was brutally murdered over the weekend.

I woke in the middle of the night and could not fall asleep again, my thoughts returning to him.

Barney and I met each other in 2001, when we worked at Standard Bank in Johannesburg. I was Project Manager and Barney was an allocated resource to the project. I forget the details of the project, but I remember Barney and his sharp intellect and inherent ability to solve problems, especially complicated ones. Another of Barney’s great asset was his people skills. An openly gay man, Barney had the ability to engage with both gay and straight men and women, and simply bypass many of the preconceived silly ideas people had about gay/straight relationships.

Barney was the first gay person I really got to know. I asked openly naive questions, and Barney gave me totally frank answers. About lifestyle choices, about desires, about love and about relationships.

Much of my development as an open minded person over the last 10 years can be attributed to our friendship. I learnt to understand that Barney and his friends were just like me and mine – we wanted to enjoy life to the max, build lasting relationships and grow intimate friendships.  Barney taught me that it was possible to be good friends with gay men. Never did he cross the boundaries and never did I feel in any way uncomfortable in his company. Yes, eyebrows were raised at work at our growing friendship, but I was secure enough to smile at the corridor sniggers, Barney simply ignored them. Having had to deal with adversity for most of our lives, Barney and I shared the common theme of being shoe boxed into preconceived moulds, moulds we strove to destroy wherever possible.

Barney was a lifelong student. In his constant desire to make a difference to the world he lived in, he often made choices that most others found bizarre. I remember that when I met him he was driving a gold coloured BMW. A little while later he sold this car and downgraded to something simpler and more fuel efficient. He decided to buy a Citroen, against the common thinking of most of his friends, because he believed that driving a diesel would make a difference to the environment.

Later, he enrolled for university courses at Stellenbosch, in sustainable development and development methodologies. We had many talks about the impact of continued unconstrained development on the environment and he firmly believed in a better world. The tragedy of the unmitigated disaster of global expansion was high on his agenda and I am sure his study partners learned much from him during his time with them. Last I heard he was doing a masters course in something or the other, continually striving to improve himself.

I am especially saddened by the timing of this horrible thing. Just last Friday we talked about the significance of Pride Weekend, to both gay and straight people. He posted saying that we must not forget that not long ago, gay people were not allowed to walk hand in hand in the street in South Africa. Barney used this opportunity to highlight the plight of other gay and marginalised communities in Africa, calling on his close friends to be mindful of this fact. My response was that Julia and I are both aware of discrimination in all forms and make a concerted stand against this sort of thing.

For me, Barney was a friend I never really lost touch with, even after I returned to Cape Town. I will remember my friend as a fun loving warm person, a caring individual who made an effort to really listen and not simply hear, someone I could bounce ideas off, without fear of ridicule. But mostly, I will remember Barney for the easy way he made me understand his gayness, how it never became an issue for us and how over 10 years our friendship grew stronger and stronger. The real tragedy here is that many people will not ever know this about him, never know how much love and caring he had within him, for his friends and even those he knew only fleetingly.

You will be missed my friend, by all who knew you, and those you did not yet meet. Your kindness and compassion will live on, even though you will not be here to see the works through to fruition.