MTN Scholar and Silicon Cape manager discusses opportunities for small businesses
Lianne Du Toit is one of the MTN Scholars doing big things in South Africa's digital industry. She talks to Brett Haggard about being part of Cape Town's tech community, Silicon Cape, gives advice to the youth and more – listen to the podcast or read the edited transcript below.
Brett: Let's start with Silicon Cape, what it is, how you fit into it etc.
Lianne: Silicon Cape started in 2009 by Justin Stanford and Vinny Lingham. It is an online tech community and we're trying to raise awareness around technology within the Western Cape. It's been an interesting journey; I started in 2010. It helped me with my business when I was starting out, it's got great resources on the site and is about trying to help small businesses not have to learn the lessons that others are learning, and trying to leapfrog that. It's a place where you can network, connect, find out what's happening in the community, and partake in the community. An entrepreneur's journey can be quite lonesome, so this a great way to find your tribe.
Brett: Tell us a bit about you and your background from an educational and entrepreneurial perspective.
Lianne: I was born and bred in Johannesburg, went to varsity in Stellenbosch (Cape Town) and then finished up at Unisa. I then did an internship at Ogilvy and loved everything about it. I then worked on the client side, and went on to Media24. I then decided to make the big leap and become an entrepreneur. I met a recruiter who was going to put me forward for a position and she said that I'd get the job and hate it, so I should rather start up a business with her. She bankrolled me and gave me a bit of capex, so I started the business and gave myself six months. I had my first client within a week and then came across Silicon Cape. I really bought into the value of what they were trying to do. It was so fortuitous at the time, because that's what I needed. I didn't have a network in Cape Town, and the people I met were just phenomenal in allowing me access to their networks and resources from governments and VCs to businesses. The opportunities I've got from Silicon Cape include being able to represent South Africa in start-up competitions, and judging start-up competitions. I've also been mentoring people who are going to change the world.
Brett: How important was your education in your career in order to get to where you are today?
Lianne: It's been critical; when I was little, education was paramount for my dad. I am now doing my masters in Inclusive Innovation which is a relatively new course at the UCT Graduate School of Business. You think you know everything but you really don't. Sitting in those lectures listening to case studies, you realize what awesome things people are doing but also how important it is to keep learning, experiencing and passing that knowledge on.
Brett: How did you become an MTN Scholar and how has it impacted your career?
I was looking at doing an MBA initially but my work commitments would never have allowed me to do that. I wanted to stay within the community and the masters in Philosophy is a modular programme, so there are four blocks, and then you get to write a dissertation and prototype at the end. What I really loved about it is that for this programme, you need to have a work in progress. By the time you leave, you need to have a business. I chatted with the alumni head and she encouraged me to look into the programme. I went to an info session and found that it was all about inclusivity and innovation, which I loved. Our class is very diverse, so you're getting a representation of what's happening out there which I think is vital in trying to understand and navigate this landscape. I am often at the MTN Solution Space for events and run events and hackathons here, so I thought I'd apply. I was overjoyed to be accepted, and now I'm at this juncture where I applied to specifically talk about hackathons.
Being part of the MTN Solution Space I've assisted with running their accelerator programme to bridge academia and start-ups. We've just completed our first pilot over three months whereby we took seven businesses from starting out to having an MVP and they are now presenting to judges. I'm also looking at doing entrepreneurial curriculum writing, and I've received the opportunity to speak more on that at Harvard in July. It's been crazy and exciting, but if you have a thirst for learning it also gives you an opportunity to put [ideas] into action. You're not just sitting in a classroom, you're able to test the models you learn about. Something I love about this space is that while you don't want to fail hard, there is space for manoeuvring and tweaking. We discuss whether we make it virtual and take it online, and how do we get engagement and give people access to this curriculum. We're very focussed on open source especially with creative commons – Venture Lab, which is our accelerator programme – is open to anyone. The more we give, the more we'll get back.
Brett: What advice do you have in terms of creating a start-up and getting it into this digital space?
Lianne: The first thing I would do, and it sounds like such a basic thing, but what are you assuming about your clients and do you even know who your clientele is? It's not just asking friends and family for advice, it's about getting outside the building and going up to people and asking what they want. Your mom is always going to love your idea but what you need to do is find out who your actual clientele is.
Try to expand your network – it's not always about what they can give you right now, it's about what you can give them. You'll find that when you are meeting and helping people, they will also help you. Other advice would include finding a mentor. Mentorship is critical, and doesn't have to be a formal thing. I meet so many people who want to give back to the youth and while I haven't seen a formalized way of doing this, part of our accelerator programme is about mentorship.
Also, think about your revenue model. You can make money by doing good. We are moving away from only hard currency and moving toward the social currency of 'what am I doing and what legacy am I leaving?'
The youth of today are so bold – they will ask why a thousand times and I love that. Working with the youth and in the hackathons I've found that education builds confidence. Confident people usually get things right because they believe in themselves. Surround yourself with people who have a shared vision and make sure you're on the same page. If you have a cofounder with a different vision than you, it's never going to work. The last thing is that you shouldn't think in years, think in decades. What are you going to do in the next 10 years and what can you do now to accelerate that process?