How have your studies equipped you in the opening up of your business?
I studied Business Science at Rhodes University. I don’t think that helped in terms of running a .com, but it did help get my foot in the door to jobs that eventually led to running my own company. One priceless piece of advice my dad gave me was: “study a business degree – you’re going to cock around and booze all the time anyhow, so you might as well leave with a piece of paper that can get you hired!”
Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
I think so. I’ve tried to start a Chess Café coffee shop (fail), shoot an independent movie (fail), become a famous rockstar (Mann Friday…verdict pending), create an ad company (fail), start a location company for the film industry (fail), create a prepaid call-card to get around international call restrictions from Zimbabwe (fail). It comes down to two things entirely – passion and willingness to give it a try.
Tell me about your business. What is your role?
Mukuru.com enables South Africans and Zimbabweans abroad to send money home instantly, using their credit or debit card. Instead of trudging to the nearest Western Union in the rain, you can do it from the comfort of your digs in Earlsfield for a fraction of the cost.
Mukuru has grown rapidly and you’ll soon be providing services to Kenya, Zambia and Malawi. Did you expect this level of success when you started up the company?
I’ve always had a very big vision for the company. We began by enabling Zimbos abroad to buy much needed petrol and diesel for their relatives back home. They would log on, buy 60 litres, and a text message would be sent to the dusty streets of Harare instructing the lucky recipient to go and collect the fuel. We started at a time when it was impossible to get fuel in Zim so it was real right-place-right-time stuff, and we grew from a couple of hundred customers in the first month to over 10,000 in four months. Any company experiencing that sort of surge does get filled with a healthy self-belief – it was also a true testimony to the power of the internet.
The tone of your business and website is very informal. Is this a tool you use to make it user-friendly and accessible?
Definitely. I truly believe nothing has to be formal. I remember driving past a funeral home in downtown Harare which read “Johnson Moyo Funeral Home, The Last Ones to Let You Down” and thinking “damn, that’s good – why does the funeral business have to be so bloody grey? If anyone needs an injection of humour it’s them; big-up to Johnson Moyo!”
What is the most important lesson you have learnt about business?
I operate in a partnership; my business buddy Brian is an old friend, in fact we went to kindergarten together! I think knowing where my talents end and his begins is an important lesson – you can’t do everything, you have to be able to say “I’m awful at this part, who can I rely on that’s better?”
Do you feel there are more opportunities in London for people starting a business or career than there are in South Africa?
I am an African optimist; if you are good at what you do and you have conviction, then I do believe Africa has a huge amount of opportunity, Zimbabwe in particular. There is a level of meritocracy that does not exist in London – if you’re good at the job, then you’re in, whereas I feel in the Big Smoke you have to climb ladders, one rung at a time until you’re ‘accepted’ and will be taken seriously. I would vote it’s better to pour your soul and strength into Africa; it may take longer to make it work, but it’ll happen in a place that you consider home, and that’s a priceless result.
Do you have any plans of returning to South Africa to carry on conducting business there?
Most definitely. I am lucky enough to spend a large part of the time in and around Africa growing the business. We are able to conduct a portion of our business in SA – the support side mostly – but we will always have to have our financial home in London because this is where our customers are, and you don’t want to put too much distance between the two.
Was it difficult to establish yourself as a Southern African in a UK market?
Not at all. There was a wealth of Southern Africans in the UK that need support structures and services to help their loved ones back home. I would say the most important lesson learnt is to have a great relationship with your UK bank – if you get that relationship right and you invest in it, it will make all the difference to your company’s ‘heart-rate’ in the long-run.
Rob Burrell is the co-founder and managing director at Mukuru.com. He graduated from Rhodes University in South Africa with a Bachelor of Business Science Degree, and is a part of the band Mann Friday.
My Definition Of Success | Seeing a dream or vision realised, and embraced by someone else as something they really value.
I Am Driven By | Deploying something, whether business or art, that enhances livelihoods, and is adopted by a bunch of people.
My Highlights | I think when Mann Friday was signed by V2 Records, it really felt like a milestone in my musical career. My loyalty has always teetered between the band and the company (Mukuru), with one always enabling the other. I also think Mukuru’s millionth transaction was a milestone, something that let us know we’d built something truly cool.
The Difference Between good And Great | Being fanatical about the outcome and excited in your heart about how you reach it. People don’t pull all-nighters because they need to – they do it because they would far rather be awake and working on an outcome, than asleep.
My Key Talent |
I think the relaying of ideas into architecture has been critical to our success. When everyone’s around
a table discussing stuff I get a picture in my head as to how that looks in a system, plugged into a database, and eventually touching a user via a bunch of channels. I would say architectural instinct in the wake of Internet technology has been a great blessing.
How Is this Talent Nurtured | Do some development. I didn’t study much raw coding, but there’s a ton of video’s and online tutorials that can get you going, you need to write lines of code and get some time at the coalface. Once you’ve begun building your own stuff, it gets addictive, and you begin to understand how systems plug together.
Do Business Analysis | Of all the modules at Rhodes Uni (I did the Business Science track), the BA modules, approaches, methodologies were the most important. In fact, bunk every other lecture and go surfing, except the BA ones! I’m not a fan of all the documentation that went along with it, but the ability to listen to developers in one ear, and business dudes in the other is a great tool.
Read Read Read | Not too much on geek methodologies, but more about the crazy stuff that geeks are up to. I typically use the Flipboard App on my iPad and read most nights about the latest startups and tech news.
Get out! | True-ass geeks are a tricky breed, they speak in fax-tones, struggle to hold your gaze, and wear Dungeons&Dragons t-shirts (always!). Do not become a true-ass geek. Go out, listen to music, go to gigs, festivals, ask Patsy for her phone-number, fall in love, fall out of love, hate Patsy, write bad ballads about Patsy, and have fun with other people. When you get into the market-place, you need to be able to build a business by interacting, and having fun with peeps.
A Key Driver | I would say that addiction to mission has been a key driver. For a long period I was a workaholic, and I’m not saying it’s always a good thing. But you need to be addicted to what you’re building – I’m trying to stay away from the word ‘passion’ – but it’s difficult.
Join A Rock Band | And give out free CDs to people that visit your business. It will disarm them, and if (heaven forbid) they like your music, they’ll always answer your emails first when their inbox is flooded!
Partner-Up | I know this is not true of everybody, but I have enjoyed a very fruitful partnership with a buddy from kindergarten. Where I’m a whacky, “let’s do everything” kinda guy, he is a more balanced/stayed geezer. It’s healthy to be able to share your successes and failures with a colleague.
Mentor-Up | My brother-in-law is possibly my biggest mentor. It’s important to have a shoulder to cry on when it comes to the big decisions.
Alter-up | My faith has played quite a big role in the last five years. After a long stretch the wilderness (rock’n’roll + London = wilderness) I joined an awesome church, did the whole small-group weekly home group stuff, and began sharing my anxieties from work. I understand this isn’t for everyone, but my faith, and the support it brought, was a major component.
I’m Currently Looking To Improve | My work-life balance, after a decade of revving it too hard. Every entrepreneur will burn the candle at both ends, but I think (watch this space) that once your service/vision has taken hold, you need to look out for your health, your family etc.
How I Use My Mind | This is my weakest area, and one that I’m trying to strengthen by looking at Mindfulness. But I’m too early into it to have anything worthwhile to add. All I can say is that my mind is currently awash with a zillion ideas, and while I think this is healthy for a phase – I feel it’s unsustainable, and that some techniques (exercise included) are needed to keep the beast calmer!
Lessons I Have Learnt |
Have another passion – for me is was Mann Friday, a folk-rock band that’s still
going after 13 years, and something that drew me closer to other artists into a space where lines-of-code, or sales forcasts didn’t exist. This is truly critical.
How I Deal With Doubt | I touched on this earlier with faith. For me it’s a large component.
Performing At My Peak | In the beginning I used to. I will confess that now we have the luxury of hiring other dudes who are at their peak J
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | Rich Dad, Poor Dad (important read, so you don’t wake up with a massive mortgage, massive car and not-so-massive ladder-climbing income). Flipboard on iPad, the Technology feed.
Dreams And Ambitions | I’m interested in selling music at a grass-roots level in Africa. We’re looking at that currently. I would like to play Brixton Academy one day. We’ve already played Shepherd’s Bush Empire…but I’m not done yet J
The Best Advice I’ve Received | My dad told me to do a business degree at Uni even though I was desperate to do film. He said there’d be enough time to join a bunch of clubs, start a film society, and fool around in my spare time. He was right. I wanted to be in a band, or be a film director – I’ve realised that your business can create the environment, funding and introductions to let you fulfill your artistic passions at the same time.
On Inspiring Others | Mukuru prides itself on being a cool place to work. We’ve had almost zero churn since we started. I think opening up the excitement of what you’re building, and having colleagues realise they are part of that journey is key.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | I would like to build Mukuru into a household name for African remittances. I’d like for that platform to be far-reaching, totally instant, and as cheap as possible to send as little as possible.
Watch Mann Friday’s music video One Window in Paris:)