‘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
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.
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