A father, musician, angel investor and the CEO and co-founder of Startupbootcamp AfriTech, George has always worn many hats.
Born in Oman, he finished school two years ahead of his peers, was invited to do work for the United Nations while completing his Master’s at Stanford University and has worked on Wall Street.
So, what brought him to SA? In short: football. He visited Mzansi in 2010 for the Fifa World Cup and pretty much never left. “A six-week holiday has turned into a nine-year adventure,” he laughs. After spending some time in Cape Town, he realised that it had all the right foundations to become a hotbed of innovation. “But in 2010, there was very little activity in the venture capital space, so I decided to start building the industry. It’s one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done – but I have no regrets.”
He spent the next year travelling across Africa learning what was needed to build entrepreneurship and innovation across the continent. “I started to understand how African entrepreneurs think: their daily struggles, their resource constraints, what works for them and what doesn’t,” he says. “For me, it was about building an ecosystem, not an empire.” He focused his efforts on working with large corporates, academia, investors and founders to create an environment that fostered success. “Building the venture capital industry in Africa isn’t only about money. You have to have access to resources, talent and, above all, markets.”
Fall in love with falling out of love
He advises start-up founders to fall out of love with their product. “Founders tend to be so in love with their products that they can lose perspective,” he says.
This, he adds, could prevent them from addressing their customers’ key pain points. “If you’re not solving a real need and you haven’t done the necessary market validation, it’s likely that you’ll miss the mark.”
Many founders, explains George, don’t even know who their customers are. Even if you have a product that successfully meets a need, unless you’re marketing it properly and to the right people, you could miss out on potential opportunities.
Securing capital when times are tough
Over the years, George has heard his fair share of pleas for funding and knows what does and doesn’t succeed. “Never pitch for funding if you don’t have demonstrable traction. You need to show that there’s a real need for your product in the market. The word ‘traction’ is like music to an investor’s ears,” he says. Society may glorify the “side hustle”, but if investors can see that you’re working on multiple things at the same time, they may assume that you aren’t properly focused on building your business. “This should be the sole thing you’re doing. Investors want to see that you’re willing to put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears because your business is something you truly believe in.”
In 2019 we’ve seen a surge within the fintech, edutech and healthcare tech industries, says George. And this will continue – especially in markets that haven’t yet been disrupted. The size of the opportunity in Africa is massive.
In 2017, there were 500 applications to join the Startupbootcamp programme. In 2018, it had just over 1 000 and in 2019, the figure rose to nearly 2 000. “This gives you a sense of the scale of things in Africa and illustrates the need for founders of innovative tech companies to partner with large corporates to scale their businesses.”
What’s his parting shot for founders seeking to create Africa’s next M-Pesa or Jumia? “Take an honest look at your product. If you wouldn’t buy what you’re selling, how can you expect your customers to?”
Over the course of his career, George has advised and invested in close to 40 of Africa’s top tech ventures. These include: Flutterwave: An online payment technology, Flutterwave provides the underlying solution that allows businesses to make and accept payments anywhere in Africa. HouseME: A digital platform that connects prospective tenants to landlords with full automation of the letting agency process and fair and transparent rental pricing – all for a fraction of traditional fees. RecoMed: SA’s largest and fastest-growing online and mobile-friendly healthcare booking platform that helps patients quickly find and make appointments with quality healthcare providers, 24/7, without any phone calls or paperwork.