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What would life look like now without the internet?
We’ve only been using it for a couple of decades, but in that time, we’ve come to rely on it for everything: it is a doctor, a dictionary, a credit card, a travel agent, a psychologist and our main method of communication.
Arguably one of mankind’s greatest inventions, it has completely altered the way in which the world does business. It has transformed the landscape for new businesses especially, bringing about a veritable landslide of opportunities.
The age of the internet has also given rise to a slew of modern millionaires – more, in fact, in the last five years than throughout the entire history of mankind. The success stories of this era are those of youthful origin – digital disrupters, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, surging their way into every industry and defined by their courageous (if not cut-throat) entrepreneurial spirit. Beyond the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world, there are similar success stories: Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, was just 24 when he became a billionaire two years ago, while the three Airbnb founders, all in their early 30s are now worth a cool $3 Billion each.
These innovators show how the entrepreneurial narrative has evolved over the last few decades. You no longer need to be 35+, or have a degree and lots of corporate experience to set down this path. We chatted to one of SA’s youngest entrepreneurs who understands this all too well.
Torr, co-founder of the online dinner kit delivery service UCOOK, describes his tech start-up experience as “propelling off a cliff in a homemade plane and hoping you’ve engineered it to fly.” Clearly some good work went into the engineering of that plane, because UCOOK’s subscribers have grown by 1000% in the last year, with deliveries now spanning the nation. Both sincere and light-hearted, he lacks the detached austerity often associated with the tech sphere’s market leaders, and he is all the more refreshing for it.
“I don’t think I was anatomically designed to be an employee. I have never taken well to authority and have the attention span of a gerbil.” says David with a glint in his eye, hinting that his school years were far from mundane. But it was only in his mid-20s that he decided go all-in on his true passion: food.
“The South African landscape possesses a thriving aspirational food and cooking culture and I felt that the positioning of high-end food online made sense. As I examined the success of retailers like Woolworths during tough economic times, it occurred to me that relative spend on food goods in South Africa compared to earnings is very high in the upper LSM environment. Aside from the business sense it made, I also love food. A lot.”
And while going it alone can bring with it a high level of reward, he is quick to issue a warning on the hindering factors that most start-ups will experience: “The first problem lies in the funding environment,” he muses. “While the country is home to a healthy plethora of private equity firms, seed level investment is an activity that few people are interested in participating in.
This makes starting a business fairly difficult. It becomes even more difficult if the investment ask is one that looks to the distant future before realising returns, which is the case with many tech businesses.
Finding the right team to get your business off the ground can also be a struggle. “Hard-to-find funding means hard-to-find salaries, which for many people with the capacity and aptitude required, can be a deterrent.”
Against the odds, they’ve built a team of 50 and managed to acquire funding even though at times, a few setbacks threatened to derail them almost entirely.
“This article would have to span 30 pages if I were to list all of the errors and mistakes made during UCOOK’s short life.” jokes Torr. “The highlights read as follows: deleting our entire website, delivering the first batch of boxes without any recipe cards, our payment gateway collapsing, resulting in the team having to contact 1000+ people personally and ask them to EFT for the week’s orders. When things go wrong, we are often quickly defeated by the size of the problem or the lack of clear means to remedy it. However, I’ve learnt that most challenges that seem insurmountable at first can be overcome by starting small.”
His advice? “See each failure as a vaccination against future failure. You’re going to fail, things will rarely go to plan, but do not let those failures burden you, learn to adapt and improve and never accept any failure as utter defeat.”
Torr’s sage words belie his 26 years, and it becomes very apparent as we chat that a high level of intuition has accompanied all the hard work. But in a world where single razors or dog food delivered to your door have become multi-million dollar businesses, is it possible to predict which ventures are the most viable?
“Convention states that an idea has potential if it can deliver on visible market demand or solve an evident lack in the marketplace.”
“Today, things are a little different, entire industries have been invented creating success stories that have exceeded expectation. I’m definitely not insinuating that market research and the validation of an idea’s monetary potential are redundant measures, I am saying that sometimes the market doesn’t know what it wants until the solution is delivered. So innovate and don’t let the markets expectations weigh down on your dreams”. Perhaps that’s easier said than done, but Torr’s anything-is-possible attitude is certainly infectious. How else could he have convinced four friends to join him unpaid while working on second jobs as they attempted to get UCOOK off the ground?
While UCOOK still has a big mountain to climb, there are aspects that make up for all the late nights, slip-ups and seven day work weeks.
“There are few things more satisfying then watching something that you were part of creating, grow. Better yet, come success or failure no degree or corporate job will teach you more about yourself, than going at it alone. There is a new adventure that awaits every entrepreneur, each journey different but much the same. Few things will bring you more satisfaction than the materialisation of your own destiny.”