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Why Joburg’s HackR House stands empty a month after intended launch

Featured image: HackR House foudner Craig Wing (Supplied)
Featured image: HackR House foudner Craig Wing (Supplied)

It began as an idea to get entrepreneurs to live and work together in one house. Now Johannesburg’s HackR House — which was set to launch last month — stands empty, while founder Craig Wing ponders what to do next.

Wing’s idea stemmed from his experience working in Silicon Valley where he ran a cleantech startup and his belief that tech entrepreneurs need round-the clock support — and that those that live (and work) together will have a higher probability of success.

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The “live-in” programme aimed to give participants business coaching and mentoring in addition to access to other support services.

But after receiving only eight applications for the eight available spots, Wing says he is considering what his next steps will be as he has “not managed to get the right mix — quality and quantity.

“I haven’t been able to get the right calibre of applicants,” Wing said yesterday (28 March) in a phone call with Ventureburn.

Read more: Q&A: HackR House founder on why he invested entire savings on project

He said of the eight applicants, three were not able to commit to living in the house for the pre-requisite six months owing to family and work commitments, while another two decided that the timing was not right for them.

HackR House founder Craig Wing invested in excess of R2-million in the project — all from his personal savings

“One was about to complete their university degree and wanted to review his options as he had a job offer,” he said, adding that another applicant was about to travel to China to review suppliers and could not give a date on when they would be back.

“Two others were very keen and ready to commit, but never replied to emails back and were unprepared to ‘invest skin in the game’,” he said referring to a subsidised rental amount of between R5000 and R6500.

“I believe this is a key component to ensure full commitment, even a nominal amount,” he said.

Case of wrong timing ?

Why then had the programme not taken off as planned? Wing puts it down to two things — timing and marketing.

The call for applications for the programme went out around October and November, around the same time that, he said, startups as well as corporates were getting ready for the end of the year.

He added that the challenge around marketing was likely because he had not been able to secure a major corporate sponsor.

“I suspect that one of the main problems here is that I’ve been unable to bring onboard a headline sponsor who would help bring exposure and marketing to bring this to market,” he said in an earlier email in January.

“It’s a really tough place to be in since I am so passionate about entrepreneurs and believe that this could be a groundbreaking addition to the local support mix,” he said.

Partners still committed

Wing says the initial partners of the project, business consultants Growthwheel and business incubator Ignitor remain interested in the project and have shown a commitment to support and get involved in the project should it carry on.

He added that angel investor network Jozi Angels — which had not invested any money in the project as yet — is also “wholly committed to HackR House and still willing to assist where they can”.

“What I have realised is that the support system for entrepreneurs is small and those that are really dedicated are open to support where they can. However, many (if not all) are constrained by time, cash and talent — however, I am honoured that many have ‘rubber stamped’ the idea beyond those mentioned,” he said.

Shift in mentality

“I am 100% if this was launched in Silicon Valley (where I lived) this would be flying,” he said. “A huge number of people (in South Africa) don’t understand what entrepreneurship is and what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” he said.

He thinks this is because not enough is being done to appreciate the importance of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship he said needed to be celebrated at a grassroots level, and not just for established entrepreneurs like Herman Mashaba, who is presently serves as City of Johannesburg mayor. “Corporates and government need to have a bandwagon to support entrepreneurs,” he said.

What happens next?

Wing is currently working on trying to pivot the project’s model and to secure corporate sponsors. He said he will, over the next six weeks, make a decision on the next steps he’ll take.

For now, he’s considering shortening the programme length from six to three months and converting the property to a coding house which would drive awareness and skills “in a fourth industrial revolution age”.

He says another alternative could be to create an “Innovation on Demand” service where companies or the government could present a problem, and over a period of a week entrepreneurs are encouraged to work in the house to come up a solution.

Call for sponsors

He says the ideal sponsor for the project would be one that “realises that entrepreneurship is a very lonely journey and that as an active, responsible corporate citizen it’s more than a once off or short intervention but a sustained multi-month (even year) journey”.

“They realise that it’s about shifting the narrative of entrepreneurship toward one of hard work, failures and creating ecosystems. Paradoxically, they need to realise there may not be any direct return on investment for them as a sponsor, but that the social and country gains will far exceed take over a long-term period,” he said.

“This was never about me, but a way to bring value to the South African entrepreneurship ecosystem, especially in helping create more understanding of the emotional side of starting something new.” he said.

“I’ve already invested significant personal capital and time and know that initiatives like this can only succeed through partnerships. It’s not even a consideration that I am directly associated with this, more importantly is that its launched to help entrepreneurs,” Wing adds.

Featured image: HackR House founder Craig Wing (Supplied)

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