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“Students all have money,” said PriceCheck‘s Andre de Wet, who sold denim jackets while studying Medicine in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Inspired by his father, De Wet sold his first business at the age of 27. The South African entrepreneur traveled the world, worked in Singapore and London but always made his way back to his home country. He came back to a market he reckons is ripe for innovation and one that he’s definitely going to take advantage of.
Today, he’s heading up one of South Africa’s most popular mobile ecommerce companies, PriceCheck, which he’s grown from four to 41 employees in the past few years.
These were some of the achievements De Wet shared at Startup Grind Cape Town recently, together with curious lessons learned as a salesman and opportunist.
From hustle to exit
After dropping out of Medical School, De Wet’s father urged him to get a job, and so becoming a pharmaceutical rep was next in line. “One morning I was sitting 7:30 in traffic and thought: ‘I gave up med school for this?'”
After scouring through job ads in the local newspaper, De Wet finally came across an interesting position: selling encyclopaedias door-to-door.
“I’m friends with the people I met there to this day,” De Wet quipped, adding that the structure of how the business was run was incredibly appealing. Each morning, for instance, the team would recite their sales pitches. De Wet guarantees that these remain near full-proof to this day.
Apparently, door-to-door selling is more valuable than a business school education. “I sold about five sets of encyclopaedias per night,” the entrepreneur reminded us, who is now inspired by the book Getting There: A Book of Mentors. The book tells the story of how John Paul DeJoria — the co-founder of the Patrón Spirits Company — benefited from selling encyclopaedias in his early days.
It just so happens then that De Wet’s former boss also went on to sell his shares which turned him into a millionaire overnight.
“I decided to use the technique of door-to-door selling to selling education,” he shared his chapter when working in Hillbrow. “My friend was involved in the education business, teaching kids how to learn.”
But in 1993, Chris Hani got shot and the socio-political environment began to become unstable. De Wet then sold off the company and decided to settle in Blauwberg, Cape Town for about nine months where he ended up selling timeshare. “We hold the record for the most timeshare ever sold in South Africa after we sold 85 weeks in Monkey Valley and Dolphin Beach,” he boasts.
The royalties from his exit earlier that year eventually dried up after De Wet “signed a deal with some guys to import phones that never came.” De Wet’s interest in the mobile space quickly grew, however, and he soon found himself starting a wireless application service provider or WASP.
Bitten by the mobile bug
“We developed the first premium rated MMS service,” De Wet told the Startup Grind audience, adding that the company received an average of 300 000 requests per month at R10 an SMS.
Now, which service would people spend R10 per message for, you ask? Adult content of course.
Following his new found passion for tech, De Wet eventually headed to the UK where mobile was “exploding”. While there, in 2007, he got the rights for a universal prepaid card geared for Africa. The entrepreneur then came back to South Africa where he raised R3-million from a local VC together with his brother.
The business plan was solid.
The problem was that you needed a banking license to distribute the cards. De Wet and his team of four had to go to the Bank of Athens for an extension of license which had one branch locally. Unfortunately, 2010 saw the foreign bank pull out and things spiralled out of control.
De Wet then spent around two years working Singapore’s finance industry then, before he got homesick (again) and decided to get a job at South Africa’s media conglomerate Naspers.
De Wet noted that emerging markets are incredibly special when it comes to developed countries. In places like Africa, people are forced to think for themselves and innovate — no one else is.
If you have something to fall back on, you’ll inevitably fall back. [In emerging markets] people think on their feet, because they have to. Suddenly there’s a pent-up desire for people from Africa to come onto the internet.
While working corporate in South Africa, PriceCheck founder Kevin Tucker eventually sold his business to Naspers, which then appointed De Wet as CEO. Today, the price comparison site enjoys over 2.5 million visits a month with distribution partnerships with the likes of MTN in its pocket.
De Wet hinted at some of PriceCheck’s near future features which it has up its sleeve, something he dubs “everywhere commerce”.
“If you think about it, less than one percent of retail happens online,” he explained. Around 40% to 50% of the buying decision is on mobile or desktop. The potential then to reach brick and mortar stores through online is bigger still.
He envisions a world where offline stores could become collection points to whatever the customer is looking for on their phone, desktop, tablet or wherever — it’s like the “Uberfication of ecommerce”. In Africa — where most companies don’t have an online presence — this concept shows huge potential.
De Wet explained that both Africa and mobile commerce lie close to his heart. “Everybody in the world doesn’t see Africa. Everyone goes to India, but the shares are getting too high. The Asian market is very closed off. Within the next two to five years, big players are going to look to Africa,” he predicted.
But above all the stories, the entrepreneur stressed that there’s a lot of value in the little things, which are too often taken for granted. “Everyone talks about building these big businesses,” he explained. “You can build something up from the ground quickly and walk away and be just as successful. Be first, be fast.” He recalls one December holiday when he managed to sell 20 000 Chinese lanterns in some beach towns in South Africa.
“Our current economy and the world allows us to be the hunting ground for new ideas. New ideas abroad can work here. Use everything that’s out there — we have access to everything.”