When Aisha Pandor’s startup, SweepSouth, made news in 2015, she joined a league of women techpreneurs the likes of Annette Muller, Darlene Menzies and Tania Mukwamu who are among a number of women who are making an impact in the country’s tech startup ecosystem.
These women-headed startups are also part of the continent’s growing ecosystem. According to African Tech Startups Funding Report, African startups raised in excess of US$185 million in 2015 with South African companies taking the biggest slice, receiving over US$54.5 million.
Despite the growing startup ecosystem, the gender gap continues, with Pandor in a previous interview saying in South Africa’s far less mature environment, the number of female-owned SMEs stands at just 8%. She says while there is far less of the “bro” culture in comparison to Silicon Valley, (which she experienced as part of the US-based accelerator programme 500 Startups), she still, however, feels pressure to prove herself as a woman CEO.
This gender gap is also reflected in the diversity figures from major tech companies globally (including Google, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn) which show that the technology space is still heavily male-dominated, with women filling less than 20% of tech jobs.
But what does it take to make it as a techpreneur in South Africa’s tech scene? Why are there so few female techpreneurs in the country and what advice should all aspiring entrepreneurs in the tech space know? We pose these questions and others to 4 female techpreneur powerhouses.
They are: Annette Muller, founder of FLEXY, an online skills-on-demand platform, and founder and CEO of DotNxt, a innovation management specialist firm; Darlene Menzies, founder and CEO of SMEasy, an online accounting and business management tool, and Finfind, a web-based funding solution; Aisha Pandor, co-founder and CEO of SweepSouth, an on-demand cleaning service as well as Tania Mukwamu, co-founder of Pluritone, a software development and IT services consulting firm and MaxiCash, a virtual wallet application.
Nature versus nurture – are good techpreneurs born or are they made?
“I think it is a combination of both, entrepreneurship is both deeply rooted in who you are as a person at a DNA level, but also a combination of your life experiences and exposure.” – Annette Muller
“I think good techpreneurs can be made in the sense that their upbringing, context and their opportunities as far as education and access to networks are concerned can position anyone for success even if they are not naturally gifted entrepreneurs. Personally, I believe true unicorns are born, it’s in their DNA.” – Darlene Menzies
“It’s a combination of both. There are often signs of techpreneurial thinking from quite early on in life. Non-conformity, a questioning mind, an innovative spirit, that “fix it” attitude and tinkerer’s mentality are mostly inherent. But to make a good techpreneur, these need to be complemented with opportunity and an environment that encourages constructive innovation.” – Aisha Pandor
“I believe that the curiosity for technology and the desire or will to build something tech-driven and contribute to society are attributes that one may be born with. However there’s more to entrepreneurship that I believe is made through learning and experiences.” – Tania Mukwamu
Do you need to be tech-savvy to be ‘techpreneur’?
“I think it depends on the product, if you leveraging technology to enable the sale of a good or service, it is different to building proprietary software to sell. But being tech savvy certainly helps. In the end, I find it is all logic and mathematics anyways, but some days I definitely wish I could simply code myself to fix the problems faster! :)” – Annette Muller
“I don’t think it’s important to be tech-savvy to build a successful tech start-up, but it’s vital to be business savvy. I have established three successful tech startups and I am not in the least bit tech savvy. It is important for the entrepreneur to be business savvy and have the ability to sell the innovation and build the market and the business i.e. you need to be able to bring in the money! You can employ tech expertise.” – Darlene Menzies
“There’s being tech-savvy and then there’s knowing how to code. It’s a plus having a coder/being a coder as a founder of a tech startup, but it isn’t essential. On the other hand, being tech-savvy is non-negotiable. You need to embrace the ecosystem your business is operating in and not only understand, but at times be able to forecast tech progress and trends.” – Aisha Pandor
“It’s very important to be tech-savvy, not to be confused with being an expert. I come from a supply chain background personally and I believe that most importantly, one needs to educate himself or herself and understand enough about the field they choose to get into, to be able to build an A team and deliver on their vision and promise. It is surely a plus to be able to jump in and code a few bug fixes too.” – Tania Mukwamu
The biggest misconceptions about tech startups
“That for some reason because it is called a “startup” it is somehow different to any other “new business”. The tech part may be the product or the driving passion and influence, mostly enabler, but all the other parts of starting, building and running a business still exists and are equally important in order to succeed.
“Many people think the product development is the most difficult part for tech startups, in reality, it is far easier to develop the product than to get it to market. Tech startups have a misconception that customers want the product to be ‘perfect’ and to offer all the possible features before they will buy it. They therefore tend to err on spending too much time over perfecting their product rather than getting to market as soon as possible. Launching is vital for gaining early customer traction which is needed to secure venture capital.” – Annette Muller
“Starting a tech startup is easier than people think – you don’t necessarily have to be tech savy, you can build a tech team…you need to have an innovative idea that addresses a gap and has a big potential market. There is a lot of help for tech startups in South Africa.” – Darlene Menzies
“That they are always about some complicated concept, and also that automatic association of co-founders with the hoodie-wearing Mark Zuckerberg type character. Startups are actually about using tech to find fast ways to bring a new or existing product or service to a market. Anyone who understands how to use technology effectively in this way can therefore become a tech co-founder. Also, the “overnight success” is a fallacy. Even those companies lucky enough to become “unicorns” within a few years have put in bucketloads of blood, sweat and tears and sacrificed their time, money, health and relationships.” – Aisha Pandor
“The first that comes to mind is that it all happens overnight, great product, success and funding. This couldn’t be further from the truth, many attempts fail and we get turndown by investors more often than not. The second would be that we don’t have lives. I believe in work-life balance, it is possible.” – Tania Mukwamu
What it takes to be a great techpreneur
“Technology decision making, everything moves so fast, and unless you are an engineer or from a technical background yourself, it is like a big black box that means you are always relying on your CTO or trusted advisor…” – Annette Muller
“The ability to close deals.” – Darlene Menzies
“Great technical skills combined with excellent understanding of your market dynamics.” – Aisha Pandor
“I would say positivity. The odds are against taking that leap of faith and the road is long and hard but very rewarding if seen with a positive outlook.” – Tania Mukwamu
The truth about South Africa’s tech startup landscape
“The venture capital community in South Africa is much stronger than it used to be and it is continually growing – there is money available for good tech startups. Finding good developers can be a challenge at times.” – Darlene Menzies
“[The challenges are with] mostly deal flow and access to affordable technical talent. Which kind of goes hand in hand. In other parts of the world top talent is remunerated with Stock Options, because deal flow makes fundraising possible and viable. In South Africa, that game is a bit more slow moving and even though the industry is picking up more and more especially in Fintech, most start ups are heavily bootstrapped and self funded.
“The other unintended consequence is the maturity of the technology industry as a whole. There are not that many successful tech entrepreneurs in South Africa to learn from, mentor and give back to help and grow new and younger entrepreneurs as they come into the industry. This may sound like a softer need, but it is often the most impactful. The conversations I have had with successful tech entrepreneurs have done more for my business growth than anything else. – Annette Muller
“The landscape is changing and maturing quickly, and there are so many more opportunities than there were a few years ago. There are many new angel investors, funds, incubators and accelerators out there, as well as companies that serve as great inspiration for aspiring founders from all backgrounds. The involvement of private sector (FNB Vumela Fund, Barclay’s Rise, Standard Bank collaboration with SeedStars) is a big win for the ecosystem, and local and national government is recognising the power of startups for economic stimulation and job creation. It’s an exciting time and place to be in the tech space!” – Aisha Pandor
“South Africa is buzzing and full of opportunities and I believe that substantial economic and social change will come from employment created by SME’s in various areas especially in agriculture and technology and it’s very encouraging to see so many young entrepreneurs willing to change our world. The biggest challenge remains the limited access to funding which can make it difficult for a startup to hire highly qualified people” – Tania Mukwamu
What makes me good at what I do
“Energy! To keep going, to keep being positive no matter the mistakes and always find solutions. There is no such thing as “can’t” :): – Annette Muller
“Risk taking and deal making.” – Darlene Menzies
“As a scientist, I loved problem solving and I also love both learning and execution, so I find satisfaction in turning ideas into reality. I’m also more logical than emotional, and can be very focussed on attaining a particular goal. I go through what I call micro-failures all the time, small-scale fails that I need to adapt to. Finally, I’m pretty sociable for a former lab rat!” – Aisha Pandor
“I’d like to think of myself as a pretty organised person. I do take time to plan and structure anything I intend to work on.” – Tania Mukwamu
What being in the trenches has taught me
“The ability to move between different views, being in the detail and zooming out to big picture thinking seamlessly. To work fast, but not rushing.” – Annette Muller
“The ability to properly manage cash flow and finding innovative ways to bridge cash flow while maintaining composure and keeping the team grounded when the ends aren’t meeting. This is not something that can be learnt in a text book, it comes through experience.” – Darlene Menzies
“Definitely grit. You only know your limits once they’re tested, and they certainly do get tested when building a startup. It’s not something you can learn from theory.” – Aisha Pandor
“I think patience and resilience are skills that I have developed over time and have seen me through the toughest times of my entrepreneurial journey.” – Tania Mukwamu
Some of the biggest challenges faced
“The biggest hurdle for me has always been finding the right people, at the right time, at the right price and then, keeping them happy and motivated and productive. It was such a hurdle I started a brand new business to tackle just this problem – essentially buying and selling flexible skills online. A brand new way of working!” – Annette Muller
“Capital raising for pre-revenue innovations – the skills that I have honed while overcoming this hurdle are improved pitches (through understanding what investors are looking for) and deal closing.” – Darlene Menzies
“Lack of funds and needing to be frugal. Once we’d sold our house and car for our business, I was surprised at how little we could live on per month, and this experience has carried over into how I run my business. It has also taught us financial discipline, and we are mindful of the returns we expect for the business from every rand we spend.”- Aisha Pandor
“The economic downturn in 2013 was particularly tough on us as many clients pulled out of projects or faced tight cashflow positions. Again our resilience and adaptability made us relook our company positioning and offering in order to improve, innovate or come up with new revenue streams for our company.” – Tania Mukwamu