Fundamo success busts startup myths

NEWS from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor that there has been a depressing 30% drop in the number of South Africans who are considering starting a business — despite the fact that they think there are opportunities to do so — is cause for concern.

One of the reasons cited by the research for the decline is that the country’s cultural and social norms do not promote entrepreneurship and self-employment as aspirational, and that a culture of entitlement and corruption undermines entrepreneurial ambition.

Another contributing factor is that too much attention is placed on celebrating successful entrepreneurs as superheroes — exceptional men and women who have achieved wondrous feats — when in fact they are ordinary people who grapple with faith, decisions, self-doubt and challenges.

For an entrepreneur just starting out, the story we hear or believe is one of success and victory. Why do we dismiss the human elements of being an entrepreneur — the failures, the learning, the real stories along the way? These could be far more motivating because they are far more real.

Hannes van Rensburg’s recently published  Cash In, Cash Out tells the “real story” — it is a personal account of an entrepreneur who built an African start-up, Fundamo, that transformed the industry of mobile payments because he was willing to take a leap of faith.

In  1999, when mobile transactions were scarcely a pipe dream, Fundamo had a radical vision: SMS banking. Not only did they succeed — signing major deals with MTN, and finally selling Fundamo for $110m to Visa in 2011 — they did so against tremendous odds.

The Fundamo story not only has important lessons for start-ups in emerging markets; established businesses would also do well to take a leaf from its book. It is no mean feat to move from the periphery of a rapidly growing global industry to a product that revolutionises consumer behaviour on a grand scale.

It is even more extraordinary when you are a start-up at the periphery of Africa’s emerging mobile markets.

FUNDAMO’s staff had to face years of uncertainty and struggle before they hit the big time. Their story reveals the rare humility and tenacity that allow a new business to push ahead despite repeated failures. It also demonstrates that overnight success is a myth.

Fundamo grew step by step, customer by customer, country by country and continent by continent.

Starting small, however, had a distinct advantage, Van Rensburg says, since it gave Fundamo a chance to develop its products and business to the point where they could handle bigger clients, such as MTN.

Working with smaller firms can serve as a crucial incubation period for start-ups, and should not be viewed as a lesser achievement.

The word entrepreneur, as coined by Richard Cantillon, means “bearer of risk”. Or “entreprendre”, from Old French, means “to undertake”. There is no getting away from the fact that an entrepreneur will have to take a risk.

Fundamo was able to change how industry giants did business precisely because it was a small African start-up that had nothing to lose. The ability of Africa’s people to take big risks, says Van Rensburg, gives them a distinct advantage over established businesses in developed countries.

A fearless approach was crucial to Fundamo’s success, and a trait it shared with its first clients. Established firms peered into the crystal ball of analysis and decided that neither Fundamo nor its products were ready or viable.

But smaller players in Africa, such as Fundamo’s first client, Mobile Systems International, were willing to enter uncharted territory, and this is what got Fundamo off the ground.

Also crucial was that the company did not get stuck in analysis paralysis. Instead of attempting to predict what might go wrong based on complex analysis, Fundamo and its early clients took the much more organic, solution-orientated approach of crossing bridges when they encountered them.

When MTN contracted Fundamo in 2007 to deploy a mobile banking solution, the company was near bankruptcy and developing countries targeted for roll-out, such as Sierra Leone and Sudan, had differing banking regulations and infrastructure challenges. MTN rolled the dice, largely because Dare Oukoudjou, a young graduate from rural Benin on his first MTN project, instantly bought into Fundamo’s outrageous plan to expand to 21 countries over two years, instead of taking the safe approach of reaching two countries a year.

Fundamo and MTN ultimately managed to complete the roll-out in 19 countries in two years, catering to the varying needs of incredibly diverse client groups. It pays to surround yourself with people who believe in you and what you are trying to achieve.

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Fundamo’s clients were active partners in product development.

It joined forces with Mobile Systems International to solve problems together.

The success of these interactive partnerships shows the benefits of taking a personal approach. Van Rensburg and Fundamo worked as hard to build trusting relationships as they did on product development.

The closer you are to your customer, the more likely too that you will know what they want. In its early days, Fundamo faced rivalry from a new startup run by a former that was attempting to lure clients away.

RATHER than continue costly legal action against the new opponent, Van Rensburg looked at what Fundamo clients really needed, and developed products that trumped the competition’s. The result: Fundamo did not lose a single client.

The Fundamo story is testimony to the fact that entrepreneurs can make a difference and make money. Its SMS banking was at the heart of a movement that sparked a revolution in the business dealings — and lives — of hundreds of millions of people from developing nations throughout Africa and Asia.

More than a decade before the launch of Apple Pay, MTN’s cash-in, cash-out stalls, enabled by Fundamo’s technology, made mobile payments possible.

Fundamo not only made a tremendous contribution to economies in the developing world, but also proved that smaller players in emerging markets can significantly influence established industries.

Africa’s start-ups have the vision, the courage and the ingenuity to have a global impact on major industries.

• Arnold is the manager of the MTN Solution Space at the UCT Graduate School of Business

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