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What it takes to make it as a start-up in SA

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While South African start-ups have the talent and drive to operate and compete in the global market, the failure rate of start-ups within their first year is truly staggering. The fundamental question therefore remains, what does it actually take to make it, asks DANIEL SCHWARTZKOPFF of DataProphet.

Daniel Schwartzkopff – Commercial Director and Co-Founder of Cape Town-based start-up and machine learning specialists, DataProphet – refers to the 2016 report, ‘The Small, Medium and Micro Enterprise Sector of South Africa’. Commissioned by the Small Enterprise Development Agency, the report highlights the growing concern related to risks that threaten the existence of SMMEs.

“This threat is supported by multiple reports and statements by leadership such as that of South African Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, who in 2013 noted that five out of seven new small businesses started in South Africa fail within their first year.”

“The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) also found that the survival rate for start-ups is low and that opportunities for entrepreneurial activity appear to be at their lowest in developing countries.”

Schwartzkopff, who was just 19 years old when he first became involved in the establishing successful start-ups, notes there are a number of local and international hurdles entrepreneurs need to be prepared for on their journey.

His biggest piece of advice is to have a defined goal and a revenue strategy from day one.

“While selling the potential of your dream may open a door or two, having solid figures and a realistic plan to back it up will get you far further.”

He says, “Luckily, age is not as much of a barrier as it once was. There were times when young founders and directors would be quickly overlooked for their more experienced counterparts.”

“There has been a really positive shift in this regard, especially in the international start-up environment, where successful young business owners and entrepreneurs are recognised as being on top of their game and able to hold their own in a room full of clients or investors – sometimes double their age.”

If you have your sights set on entering the international playing field, Schwartzkopff – who spends part of his time in the US working with DataProphet’s Silicon Valley-based clientele – emphasises that the most difficult thing really is to get your foot in the door.

“Taking your start-up to a global level means that you have to make connections and get new clients from a region which may be completely new to you.”

“This is one of the hardest things you can do considering that this requires a permanent presence and a clear strategy of how to compete with existing competition who have already made a name for themselves – this takes time and can definitely not be rushed.”

“In addition, you need strong planning and networking skills as well as the ability to sell yourself, your business and the innovation which you are able to offer,” he says.

DataProphet, which was founded in 2013, recently entered into an investment partnership with one of the country’s top global investment and private equity groups – Yellowwoods Capital Holdings.

Schwartzkopff notes that, “Not only is this investment testament to the team’s hard work but it still allows us the freedom to do what we do best.”

He explains that while local tech start-ups are “up there” with the best in the world, it is difficult to find a potential investor and even more difficult to find the right one. “Spending a bit more time and effort to ensure the right fit however, is definitely worth it.”

“A priority for many upcoming start-ups, securing investment is often a source of frustration and worry. The landscape is limited in South Africa and it is easy to be tempted to accept your first offer,” Schwartzkopff explains.

He advises that entrepreneurs spend some time talking to others who have been in the same position and set out a clear vision of what is needed from an investor including their level of involvement in the day-to-day running of the business and their cultural fit with the organisation.

“Do your investors share your vision? Do they understand your business and your brand? Cultural fit should be a major deciding factor when considering an investor,” he says.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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