‘WHAT I LEARNT FROM FAIL­ING’ - WIGROUP’S BEVAN DUCASSE

Af­ter his first busi­ness idea failed wiGroup founder and CEO Bevan Ducasse could have called it a day, but in­stead he picked him­self up and started build­ing the busi­ness that to­day op­er­ates more than 65 000 till lanes across SA and the rest of the con­tine

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Natalie Greve

one rarely en­coun­ters an en­tre­pre­neur for­ti­fied with the self-as­sur­ance to have rolled the dice on a fledg­ling busi­ness con­cept be­fore hit­ting their mid-20s. Even more scarce is to find such busi­ness nous cou­pled with a gen­uine in­ter­est in and re­gard for the in­di­vid­u­als on which a prof­itable busi­ness re­lies. wiGroup founder and CEO Bevan Ducasse, how­ever, ap­pears to en­gen­der both qual­i­ties.

Emerg­ing among the new gen­er­a­tion of tech­nol­ogy en­trepreneurs in the mid-2000s, the Hil­ton- and Stel­len­bosch Univer­si­tye­d­u­cated busi­ness­man now finds him­self at the helm of his own 130-per­son Cape Town-based mo­bile trans­ac­tion so­lu­tions group at the age of 33.

wiGroup, winner of the 2016 FNB Busi­ness In­no­va­tion Awards, is a provider with two core of­fer­ings: wiCode, a pointof-sale in­te­grated, open and in­ter­op­er­a­ble mo­bile trans­ac­tion plat­form; and wiBlox, an advanced suite of ser­vices that links mo­bile ap­pli­ca­tions to mo­bile loy­alty, re­wards, vouch­ers, coupons and an­a­lyt­ics func­tion­al­ity. While some R6bn worth of trans­ac­tions were pro­cessed through the com­pany’s mo­bile plat­forms this year, the jour­ney to com­mer­cial suc­cess has not been an un­fet­tered one.

Dis­rup­tive po­ten­tial

Telling fin­week that he has long been mo­ti­vated to build his own busi­ness, Ducasse says in­spi­ra­tion hit dur­ing a two-year work stint at con­sult­ing firm USC Con­sult­ing Group, when he re­alised the im­pend­ing dis­rup­tive im­pact of tech­nol­ogy on tra­di­tional busi­ness prac­tices and the in­flu­ence it held in cor­po­rate busi­ness.

“Af­ter achiev­ing a BCom de­gree at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I ended up get­ting a job at a con­sult­ing firm in Cape Town, which al­lowed me to prob­lem solve and work with peo­ple – the two things I thor­oughly en­joyed doing. It also made me re­alise that even as a 21-year-old at the time I was able to con­trib­ute and add value to ma­jor or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Pick n Pay,” he ex­plains.

“This re­ally gave me the be­lief in my­self and the re­al­i­sa­tion that I can ac­tu­ally launch some­thing; I can add value. We of­fered a per­spec­tive that peo­ple with 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence didn’t have, and so that in­spired me to chase the dream of start­ing some­thing up.”

Hav­ing been raised by a farm man­ager fa­ther, whose in­come was gen­er­ated on a month-to-month ba­sis, Ducasse re­alised early on that he wanted to de­velop an an­nu­ity-based busi­ness.

“I also re­ally wanted to build a busi­ness where peo­ple could come to work and love what they do as op­posed to just hav­ing to be there. I re­mem­ber clearly say­ing to one of my mates: ‘Imag­ine if we could build a busi­ness where our mates come and work and love be­ing there ev­ery day.’ So those were the two main drivers,” he notes.

Draw­ing on his predilec­tion for tech­nol­ogy, Ducasse de­vel­oped a mo­bile con­cept that al­lowed con­sumers to pay for goods us­ing a mo­bile phone linked to a credit card. At the time, this mode of mo­bile pay­ment was un­heard of.

“It was a bit like Dragons’ Den, but even­tu­ally he agreed to 50%in­vest R4.4m for a share in the com­pany – dou­ble what I ini­tially asked for.”

Af­ter spend­ing three months draw­ing up a busi­ness plan and de­vel­op­ing pro­to­types along­side long-time friend and now wiGroup chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer Basie Kok, Ducasse quit his job and headed for Jo­han­nes­burg to pitch the idea to a po­ten­tial fun­der.

“It was a bit like Dragons’ Den, but even­tu­ally he agreed to in­vest R4.4m for a 50% share in the com­pany – dou­ble what I ini­tially asked for. That was De­cem­ber 2007 and when he asked when I needed the funds, I ad­mit­ted that I wouldn’t be able to pay that month’s rent with­out im­me­di­ate cash, so he agreed to wire R100 000 im­me­di­ately,” Ducasse re­mem­bers. “That was re­ally a piv­otal mo­ment and a spe­cial mo­ment, be­cause that was the cat­a­lyst for where we are now. It took one man’s be­lief in me.”

The brav­ery of youth

Ducasse down­plays the where­withal re­quired for a 23-year-old with lit­tle work ex­pe­ri­ence and an unin­spir­ing bank ac­count bal­ance to ap­proach a ma­jor fi­nancier for sup­port and har­bour in­ten­tions of dis­rupt­ing a grow­ing tech­nol­ogy mar­ket dom­i­nated by cor­po­rates.

“It was just the twoand-a-half years of work ex­pe­ri­ence that gave me the con­fi­dence, as I was, as a 21-year-old, ad­vis­ing the heads of ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions and the feed­back was one of, ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t look at it like that, that’s go­ing to change the busi­ness!’ and I’m go­ing… ‘Re­ally?’ I think the point that I got to pretty quickly was not that I’m smarter than any­one, just that, as a young per­son, I saw things from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.”

Af­ter launch­ing wiWal­let – the mo­bile con­sumer pay­ment app – in 2008, Ducasse ad­mits that he re­mained naïve about the en­trenched cor­po­rate be­liefs that would make the up­take of the ser­vice a hard sell to ma­jor or­gan­i­sa­tions and the ex­tent of com­pe­ti­tion that had since de­vel­oped in the mar­ket.

A few months later, the young en­tre­pre­neur found him­self and his wiGroup col­leagues as­sem­bled around the board­room ta­ble to brain­storm ideas that would re­place the now-failed con­cept and en­sure the com­pany broke even.

“We got quite ahead of our­selves and we thought we’d made it and then the real world prob­lems hit. That was a hard mo­ment, be­cause the idea failed and it dented our con­fi­dence.”

New busi­ness model

That meet­ing, how­ever, ul­ti­mately re­sulted in the wiGroup busi­ness as it suc­cess­fully op­er­ates to­day in more than 65 000 till lanes across SA and the rest of Africa – on a busi­ness-to-busi­ness ba­sis rather than a busi­ness-to-cus­tomer model.

Clients in­clude es­tab­lished con­sumer goods re­tail­ers, banks, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies and branded goods com­pa­nies.

Ducasse’s vi­sion for the com­pany re­main am­bi­tious, with plans afoot to ex­pand be­yond South­ern Africa (the com­pany is cur­rently ac­tive in SA, Nige­ria, Zam­bia and Zim­babwe) into other for­eign mar­kets. “We’ve set clear profit goals. We’ve grown 50% in the last 12 months and we plan on grow­ing just un­der that for the next three to five years. Also im­por­tant is to keep the cul­ture and pas­sion of the com­pany alive, which is of­ten hard to do as com­pa­nies ex­pand.”

The bold en­tre­pre­neur is out­spo­ken in his fun­da­men­tal be­lief that the sus­tain­abil­ity of a prof­itable com­pany is con­tin­gent on the suc­cess­ful ac­ti­va­tion of its peo­ple. “Get­ting the right peo­ple on your team and ac­ti­vat­ing them is the most im­por­tant thing that I’ve learnt. You need to fig­ure out how to cre­ate a cul­ture that makes peo­ple come alive, and main­tain a bal­ance be­tween car­ing for peo­ple and mak­ing a prof­itable com­pany. That bal­ance is so in­tri­cate and yet so im­por­tant and I think busi­nesses rush ahead to build profit and leave peo­ple be­hind. If we lose our sense of iden­tity, wiGroup will be­come a place I wouldn’t want to be,” he en­thuses.

The bold en­tre­pre­neur is out­spo­ken in his fun­da­men­tal be­lief that the sus­tain­abil­ity of a prof­itable com­pany is con­tin­gent on the suc­cess­ful ac­ti­va­tion of its peo­ple.

Bevan Ducasse Founder and CEO of wiGroup

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