Johan Nel is the South African CEO and founder of Umuntu Media, Africa’s leading online publishing platform. The name of the company, “Umuntu” means people in Ndebele. The company runs local content portals across Africa through its i-Portals and Mimiboard innovation. They currently have presence in about 17 African countries including Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, Rwanda and Tanzania.
In this edition of the unusual entrepreneur interviews, Johan shares with us his unusual story and how far he’s come on his mission of delivering relevant local content on world class platforms across Africa.
How Unusual Is Johan Nel?
Recently, Johan was in Milan as one of the 6 South Africans selected to represent the country at the U-START BLOOM Global showcase Event in Milan, Italy – an event that puts dynamic entrepreneurs worldwide in touch with investors most focused on innovative, high growth and impact-driven projects.
Johan developed the concept for Umuntu using his experience as a marketing and new media specialist. His most recent invention, Mimiboard was awarded “Best innovator Award” at the Nokia and World Bank Innovation Summit.
In his words, “Mimiboard brought 763,000 visitors to our network in the first month. Google were so impressed they popped over for a case study!”
Take it away Johan!
Interview Questions Part One
ENTREPRENEURSHIP: Awakening the Spirit of business
1. Can you please tell us a little about yourself and your business? What do you do?, how do you do it?, why do you do it and who do you do it for?
I am a media and marketing man. I have been in the media and digital industry my entire career. I worked for Naspers (Media24) straight after University. I always had a passion for driving change, pushing the envelope and questioning the norm. This inherent drive to make a difference made me decide to leave my great career, sell my house and start on the entrepreneurial journey.
I set out with a huge vision; I want to change the way that local content is consumed and created in Africa. Umuntu Media was born.
2. How would you describe your entrepreneurial journey into the world of business? Where there any key incidents or life changing events that inspired your decision to become an entrepreneur?
Interesting question to really sit and think back. As far as I can remember back to my childhood I always knew that I am here with a purpose. I always dreamt of success and doing something that makes a difference. (Strange thoughts for a child, but I just embraced this and dreamt a lot) My parents also played a big role. My dad (now passed away) gave me the nickname in Afrikaans – Johan maak n plan – which means Johan, the idea man.
Then you just take the leap! I remember the anxiety of writing my letter of resignation, the fear to sell my house and the uncertainty to tell the family I am now a technology entrepreneur!
3. When you started out in business, what specific idea, purpose or vision was your key driving force?
It was the experience of being in the media industry, the passion for Africa and the innovation that technology can bring. All of these combined helps you to identify opportunities. I really echo what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Outliers. The 10, 000 hour rule. You need lots of experience and exposure in a certain field to really spot the opportunities/be great.
4. What is your take on the general notion that entrepreneurs should build a business around what they naturally love to do?
This fits in perfectly with the above question. You need to be passionate, interested and super knowledgeable about an industry. With that comes the love for what you do. If you can’t find the passion and drive about your chosen industry, I struggle to see how you will be successful.
5. What is your personal life mission as an entrepreneur? That is; what contributions do you want to make with your life or what would you like to be remembered for as an entrepreneur through the businesses you create when you die?
Wow, big question. We are now 7 billion people on earth. If we all contribute more than we consume then we are building a great planet for all future generations. The future of the human race relies on us. We can’t say that someone else will take care of it, or that it’s not up to me. I just want to add my part to building a great world. I believe that technology, media and access to local and relevant content is my current contribution. In future I would like to add my name to sustainable energy, food production and transport.
6. What would you describe as the purpose of entrepreneurship? That is; what role do entrepreneurs play in the world?
Entrepreneurs are the backbone of any society. We are the disruptors, we create future wealth, future commerce, we build new industries, we innovate and move the world forward.
Interview Questions Part Two
STRATEGY: The unusual execution of business best practices
7. How do you identify business opportunities and what metrics do you use to measure their viability?
As mentioned before I see myself as the idea man. That is great, but I also need to surround myself with a great team. I always employ people that are smarter than I am. It’s about finding that balance between ideas, the commercial value of that idea and then having the support of a team than will analyze, shoot down or execute.
8. Do you have mentors, business coach or external consultants that you work closely with to grow yourself and your business? If yes, to what extent would you describe their impact on your business? If no, are there any particular reasons?
Yes, most definitely. This is critical. As mentioned above the team is amazing and every day I learn something new. I also receive very valuable insight/mentorship from our investors (eVA Fund). I have also met amazing mentors through my career and I stay in touch with them, ask them for advice and learn from them. (Cameron Hulett, Jacques Van Niekerk, Dr Iqbal Surve, Samuel Mensah)
I am also part of the Endeavor entrepreneurial process. Here you get access to worldwide mentors, insights into the company and strategic advice.
9. How do you strategically use your time as an entrepreneur? What key activities would you recommend entrepreneurs use their time for?
This takes up majority of your life; it is so integrated into one’s life that there is no split between work and life. I found it critical to balance family time and exercise with the long workdays.
10. How do you generate profitable customers for your business? What unusual approaches do you adopt for marketing your products/services?
We run the company according to the Lean Startup methodology. This means that we launch soon, tests uptake in the market, adapt quickly and constantly speak to our target market. This helps us to build and launch products that the market wants and its helps us launch products on acceptable price points.
11. Many entrepreneurs complain about not succeeding in business due to lack of adequate funding, what is your take on this matter and how do you cope with funding issues in your business?
The VC ecosystem in Africa is still in its infancy if you compare it to the US. We really need to bootstrap when we build companies. I believe that you need strategic VC partners when building not to only fund, but also to help you grow the company.
12. When starting out a new business, who are the likely possible partners or professional service providers you would recommend every entrepreneur work with?
This is all dependent on your industry. In our case, because we are in the media space we partnered with other leading media companies, technology providers, operators, developers, VC’s and Google.
13. The pricing of products/services is always an issue for entrepreneurs, what unusual approach do you take when it comes to pricing?
This is so true. Again building on the Lean Startup methodology we test, talk and engage with the market constantly. This means that you get reactions on price points, get real insights and adjust accordingly.
Interview Questions Part Three
MISCELLANEOUS: Resourceful Recommendations, tools, books, and ideas for entrepreneurs
14. Since you became an entrepreneur – someone who solves problems for people profitably; what has been your most outstanding accomplishments in the context of business?
Reaching 30million impressions per month on our technology!
15. What would you describe as your major setbacks and what lessons did you pick from them?
We’ve had one or two bets on Round B funding which took longer than we anticipated. This puts a startup under cash flow pressure if you focus too heavily on those funding rounds. We’ve learned how to run leaner and focus more on profitability so that we don’t need to worry heavily about next round funding.
16. Where there any particular questions you expected me to ask that is beneficial to entrepreneurs and I didn’t? Kindly share with us such questions and their relevant answers here.
Nope, great set of questions.
Johan has shared a lot in this interview, but just in case, he missed out something, what more would you like to know about the unusual Johan Nel?
You can ask him further questions below in the comment section and I will be sure that you will get an answer directly from him.
Also, what did you learn from this unusual entrepreneur? What lessons, what business philosophy of his strike you the most?
Johan has shared his unusual story with you, now is time to hear from you. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say!