YM: After you completed matric in 2001, you landed the position of lead developer at Cubit Accounting. Was that a career move or seizing a job opportunity?
NS: Actually, I never completed matric. I dropped out half way through standard 9, having decided that there was nothing they could teach me further that could help me achieve my dreams. So I left. My first “real job”, out of school, was as a general assistant and techie for a small computer company in Lyndhurst, Joburg called “Cyber-Trek”. I took the initiative to re-program their web site as an e-commerce web site but, long before we could launch, the owner and I had a falling out. I’ve always really had a problem with authority. Since my days in school. I value it as it’s kept me out of dead-end jobs and inspired me to find jobs where my employer valued my input as an individual.
Back when I started with Cubit, it was actually called “ATP”. Advanced Tax Practitioners. Andre Coetzee, my boss, was running his business under his dad’s company. He taught me a lot about the real world. He was tough but I owe my tenacity and independence, in my work, to him. If there was a problem to be solved or a question answered, Andre insisted I teach myself using the internet as my only tool. I learned fast and now operate well under pressure as a result.
Was it a career move or simply seizing a job opportunity? Whew. Um both I think. A bunch of us from the local Linux mailing list (GLUG) were invited to Andre’s house to discuss a work opportunity. He told us about his vision to increase the size of the Linux pie in South Africa. He had huge dreams (and still does). I was very excited about it all and was one of the very few to start and the only one to stick around beyond a few months. I stayed there for 2 years but the pressure eventually became too much for me, so I left. But I insist that it was the job (and employer) that taught me the most about surviving in the real world.
YM: That is a remarkable story – I have noticed that successful entrepreneurs previously held down jobs where their highly individualistic nature and persistence came to the fore, they didn’t respond well to authority, took the initiative to the delight/irritation of their employer and valued their independence immensely. You had fantastic “training” for the real world.
NS: We need room to grow and we want people to at least try our ideas out. I probably would have never become an entrepreneur if I was given the opportunity to contribute something great to a company I worked for. In other words, if people listened to me a bit more, I would have stuck around. I think all entrepreneurs eventually quit though. You need that space to play in and very few companies in the world are prepared to give it to you. I think that’s why Google is so successful. They don’t just hire techies. Those guys are certifiable geniuses with a fire and desire to create something bigger than them. One of them left Google to create FriendFeed – you can’t stop that type of innovation. Embrace it or lose it!
YM: What motivated you to leave sheltered employment to start Maxiware?
NS: I’ve always wanted to run my own business. My mom helped me register Maxiware CC when I was just 16 years old and still in school. Back then I figured I was going to sell computer parts. I didn’t know much about web development but I definitely knew I wanted my own business. I had sold a few things to my peers and, once the entrepreneurial bug had bit, that was it for me. I knew that was my future.
Actually leaving the world of employment for the entrepreneurial world was a little less glamorous. At the time, I was working for a company that had created a pretty nifty CMS (Content Management System). Shortly after joining them, I became one of the lead developers on the system. It was very exciting as we were doing stuff no one else had done before. It was all Windows-based, though, so that part never excited me! After some time, I decided I could do better, so I started writing my own CMS system from scratch. I never used any of their original code, at all. It goes against my morals to do things like that. That didn’t matter, though. During the month that I’d handed in my notice, they found out I was going to compete with them and fired me on the spot. Not before taking my laptop hostage and formatting it entirely, though. It was heart-breaking and nerve-wrecking. They fired everyone, and then offered them their jobs back later.
So that was it. From that day on-wards, I was on my own. I had a single client under Maxiware that I gained through a friend, while I was still working for a boss. I carried on with that client and then started developing my business and marketing skills by being active in an online business forum that I subscribed to about 6 months before leaving employment. I think that helped me a lot. It’s tough in the business world – you need to understand that marketing is more important (or at least as important) as product! As a techie, you don’t know that straight away so I’ve seen a lot of people try and go the same route and fail miserably. Just because no one was there to teach them the business side of things!
YM: According to the statistics, 80% of entrepreneurs don’t make it in the first 5 years. Having completed 4 years and 4 months, what have you learnt on the entrepreneurial journey, that you wish somebody told you upfront?
NS: You’ve got to learn to market yourself. Find a bunch of people who NEED something and then offer them that thing at a good price. That doesn’t mean you need to be cheap – just well-priced. Being cheap doesn’t help you. It hurts you big time. If you can offer a product or service people need, to a bunch of people who really need it, at a price that makes sense to THEM (not you), then you have a business.
In the beginning, I was more about the product than the need. I would create something I thought was cool and then try and sell it to a bunch of people who actually couldn’t care less – they had other things to worry about. That doesn’t work too well.
YM: A techie that understands marketing, there are very few of them around! First class marketing can sell a third class product, not vice versea. Do you agree and how important is the product (e.g CMS), given that the layman often does not understand the technical side, and buys on the strength of marketing & price?
NS: I absolutely, 100% agree! I like to use Microsoft and their Windows product as an example. It’s not such a great product. Better products have been created in the past but never posed much of a threat to them simply because they weren’t well-marketed.
And now that they’re losing some market-share to Apple and Linux variants, it’s because of marketing more than anything else. Those 2 operating systems have always WORKED better but now they’re LOOKING better and their creators are spending more effort in letting the world know. Specifically, for Linux, I’m talking about the Ubuntu project and the effort that Canonical puts behind marketing it. They use guerilla marketing methods and it’s working incredibly well!
Back to CMSes, I use Drupal because it’s the best. But the most popular CMSes are WordPress and Joomla – because they’ve always focused on presentation and “marketing” rather than the technical side of things. So marketing is definitely the key!
YM: Your Linkedin Profile contains powerful recommendations, you are described as a ‘legend’, ‘expert’ and being “full of ideas and innovations”. How important are testimonials for building your career and business?
NS: A couple of good testimonials will get you far in life. I did a couple of big jobs in the beginning of my career and those testimonials from those clients helped me land other, big jobs. If a big client could call a previous big client of mine and get told how brilliant I am, by a real person, over the phone – the deal was mine. So I’d say it’s important but I don’t spend a lot of time getting them. I have a few good ones and that’s served me well for now.
At the end of the day, you don’t NEED testimonials. You just need proof. I’m established these days. I can send any client a list of 10-100 web sites I’ve done (depending on what he wants to see) and I’ll get the work because the proof is in the pudding. When you haven’t done any sites or you only have a handful to show, shining testimonials will get you the rest of the way there.
YM:Besides Maxiware, I know that you have other websites and business interests. What is the long term plan?
NS: The long-term plan changes each year. Originally, my plan was to develop Maxiware into a massive web-development company. I was going to develop jaw-dropping sites for the biggest companies in SA. But I’ve learned that the stress that goes along with that just doesn’t suit me. I like staying small. Staying small means I can take more time off, spend more time with my wife and, one day, my kids.
That’s it, actually. I started my business because I wanted to one day be able to spend time with my family. My dad has always worked non-stop. He was never at any of my award ceremonies or anything like that. We never played. I love him to bits and he taught me how to be a man but I decided when I was a teenager that I wanted to be there for my kids. To play with them, teach them stuff – just generally be an awesome dad. So everything else I do has to help me get that goal, otherwise I drop it!
So my new long-term plan is to build sites that are fun to build but that also make me money. I just recently sold FreeArticles. I built it up over 2 years and sold it about a month ago. This stuff is easy for me so I can easily make a lot more money than I’m making now and work a lot less.
So I’m wanting to develop my outsourcing skills and get people to build my ideas for me and then make money from the sites and then, eventually, sell the sites.
I love starting small businesses. I’ve got no shortage of ideas. My friend, Chris, and I have at least 10 sites that we’re busy with right now. Each has the potential to make us a few grand a month. That’s exciting stuff for me. I love it!
YM: You’ve raised a valuable, yet overlooked aspect of one’s career: work-life balance in future – you have changed track from the one entrepreneur/one website model to being a serial entrepreneur/flipping websites model. While I’m sure it is financially rewarding, isn’t that more time consuming and stressful from a work/life balance position?
NS: Hardly! Seeing as I already have the technical skills, I don’t need to put in extra effort into learning anything there. Whereas, with each client I take on to develop a web site, I have to learn about them, their business, their future goals, their monetisation model, and so on. I have to understand that all in order to deliver a great web site and, at the end of it all, I get paid once.
By focusing on my own interests, I have a lot more fun and have only myself to please. I make sure each skill I learn can be re-used for a future project, so my system gets faster, leaner & meaner.
And, the real bottom line: each mini-business I create sets up a passive income for me until I sell it. Passive income is gold. It means you don’t have to work to get paid this month. You could take the month off and still receive that cheque from Google! I love that. The money I make from flipping web sites is normally re-invested into another business or into Forex trading, so each time, I’m working less and less to make more and more money. I believe you have to make your money work for you – not you for your money. Set up systems, employ people, re-invest. Work on not in your business. That stuff is what counts so I’m definitely working less and less.
My wife loves it because, a number of years ago, when we first moved in together, and we were living in a little bachelor flat, she was so irritated because I was always working. Every day, every night every weekend! I was working. I told her, back then already, not to worry because I had a bigger plan in mind. “Soon”, I said, “I’ll be able to spend more time with you”. Now I spend weekends with her (instead of at my office) and we go to movies during the week sometimes. I’ve learned to stop working at 5pm – well actually I’m still learning that one!
The point is – the more I invest in something that’s mine – the cheques are made out to me – the more time I have to myself. Sometimes it comes at a sacrifice. Sometimes I make a lot less money doing what I want than doing what a client wants. Quite often actually. But I get a lot of time back in return. And time is more important to me than money, so I still feel great about it and keep at it.
YM: From your experience, where do entrepreneurs miss the mark when it comes to a website for their business?
NS: Wow – everywhere. Right from the start, they get their site made for the wrong reasons. A site should be selling something. Either it should sell your product or it should sell your company or sell a click. Your goal is to make money – most people miss the mark there. They have a site that says “we were founded in 19xx, and we make doodads, and you can contact us here”. No one cares. They want to know what problem you solve, for how much and how soon?
So they miss the mark right from the beginning. The next thing is that they focus on what THEY like instead of what their potential clients might like, so you end up with silly Flash animations, terrible colours and all sorts of useless stuff. I’m a web developer but the most important part of your site has nothing to do with programming – it’s got to do with its raison d’etre. Decide what it’s going to do for you, then develop it. And if it’s not selling something, you’ve failed. Convince people to do business with you.
YM:You have just saved readers a couple of thousand in wasted efforts. Do you assist clients figure out what they want their website to achieve or is this left up to them?
NS: I try! Some clients won’t listen. But for those who will, I give the best advice I can give and it usually shows up in their bottom line. Just recently (this month, in fact) I started consulting with SMEs on making money online. I charge my usual hourly rate and we sit in a coffee shop and I describe what works and what doesn’t work. My first client will hopefully be launching her first e-book this month. That’s exciting.
But the point I’m making is that most people don’t want to listen to me. I can’t explain it but they prefer the terrible colours and Flash animations and they’re convinced I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s like asking someone to build your house for you and then telling them to use gel for the bricks and water for the cement. It’s not going to work. It’s not at all rare for me to turn a stubborn client away. I won’t have my name attached to a terrible web site. If it’s not going to add something great to my portfolio, I’m not interested.
YM: What are the emerging trends in the local online space for 2010?
NS A lot of the wiser guys are gearing up for the increase in bandwidth. I was chatting to Gian, MD of Afrihost.com, last year some time and that’s what he was busy with. People don’t believe that we’ll see increased bandwidth but it’s happening right under our noses and, if you’re not prepared for it, you’re going to lose a lot of business to your competitor – who is! For small businesses, being ready just means having a GOOD web site. Go to http://www.google.co.za and search for “plumber kempton park” or “pool maintenance boksburg” or “palisade fence sandton”. If your company deals in those things and isn’t listed at all – you’ve got work to do. Search for your company like your client would search for you. No one types in “ABC Pool Supplies”. They don’t care who gives them what they need, as long as it’s done right and for a good price.
Now is the time to be setting up an online shop. No you won’t make money yet but just wait until people are coming online in their droves. You snooze, you lose! These people have had internet at work for years. They’re ready to buy in the comfort of their homes. They’re a bit scared but they’re ready to try. Help them out and you’ll lead your market!
YM: Do you have any projects under wraps, that you can briefly share with our readers?
NS: I’ve got a web site solution coming up, to prepare for all the 1000s of small business coming online who have zero web presence. It’s a one-page web site for R350. You get a page you can edit (even if you know nothing about the internet!), you get a domain, you get unlimited email forwarders and you pay R350 each year – no hidden costs. With that, you can start a small online business. I started the idea because I wanted to search online to find a pet shop close to where we live and it’s impossible. People locally just don’t have web sites. All I would need is to find a single web site, in my area, with an address and a telephone number, and maybe a little info about them, and I would have been there, spending my money. So I’m filling that gap. I want more people online! And I want them there yesterday.
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