As South Africa’s rising inflation rate places pressure on consumers, a handful of apps have entered the market with the aim of attracting shoppers to stores with promotional deals and specials.
The latest is MiBRAND. Launched last week, the app acts as an easy-to-use directory for all brick-and-mortar businesses – from restaurants to retailers to night clubs – and allows users to easily locate the businesses. For example, if a consumer is looking to find a bookstore, a simple search will reveal those closest to them.
All businesses are listed for free, but those who want to promote specials or advertise additional information pay a fee. The app also allows users to get directions to stores and navigate malls, and could help business owners to measure foot traffic.
The app is currently only catering to businesses in Bedfordview (situated in Gauteng province), but there are plans to expand it to the rest of Africa within the next six months.
MiBRAND is the brainchild of Salvatore Barras (21) and Kyriakos Ioulianou (19) who, despite their age, have both had earlier successes with app development and entrepreneurship. How we made it in Africa speaks to the co-founders about getting the app to where it is today and the lessons they have learnt along the way.
How did you finance your start-up?
Barras: We basically started this in my garage as just the two of us. We were planning to ask our parents for some financing but the more we got into it, the more we realised [how large] the legal, development and advertising costs were. So we realised we had to approach an investor. We saw quite a few who didn’t give us a lot of time and I thought we should talk to someone who is in the same industry and involved in retail or shopping centres. So we contacted a local property developer who owns a few shopping malls and is busy developing one now, and he agreed to invest and is now one of our partners. And that is how we have managed to fund everything… At the moment [the investment] is sitting at over R1m (US$69,000) and we have access to funding for advertising, legal costs and whatever it is that we need.
What risks does your business face?
Barras: I think it was Mark Zuckerberg that said the biggest risk is taking no risks. This whole thing is a risk. We are in South Africa which is behind if you compare it to the US where the app-development industry is. The fact that we have undertaken this project and spent over six months working on it – that is in itself a risk. People aren’t really giving a lot of time to app development in South Africa. In the US there are tonnes of start-ups and in Silicon Valley there are five new ones being taken to market. So the whole thing is a risk of developing an app in South Africa. It is a risk of our time and obviously our investors have taken a risk with it.
I wouldn’t say competition is a risk. There are people doing similar things but no one has the exact formula. No one has done what we have set out to do.
Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment so far.
Ioulianou: We have just launched. The excitement has been building up to this.
Barras: And when we got our investor – that was the moment that I realised this was not going to just be a garage project. Our investor started talking to us about going national. We had both only worked on small projects before, so when someone starts telling you that they are going to take your project national – well, I think that was definitely my most exciting moment.
And also when we got the first glimpse of the working product and could actually use it. I realised it was more than just a shopping app and could actually change the way things have been done before.
What strategies have worked to ensure a successful business relationship?
Ioulianou: From the start it has been business first, friendship later. Yes, we are like parents raising a baby (the app), but we both have the baby’s best interest in mind. So every decision we make is based on that and we don’t let feelings or ego get involved. It is about what is best for the app so even if we do argue it doesn’t become personal. We argue our sides and come to an agreement or go to other partners to try make a decision.
We show each other that we are dedicated and share the same vision – I think that is the most important thing for a partnership.
What does it take to be innovative?
Barras: Everyone thinks that to be innovative you have to think outside of the box. But as soon as you do that, you will find there is another box and I think people sometimes get ridiculous with trying to pull something from nothing. Yet innovation doesn’t have to be like that. Facebook and Google have some of the most innovative software out there but they didn’t come from nowhere. There were already social networks and search engines. Innovation is not so much about what it is, but more about how it does something. So you do not have to reinvent the wheel to innovate. You can better something that is already there and make people’s lives easier.
If you could go back and do anything differently, what would it be?
Barras: We were going to different people hoping to hit the lottery and they would help us. But we have realised that in business no one is there to help you and no one has your best interest at heart – it is just business. So if I could go back I would have wasted less time speaking to different people about it and would not have relied on as many people as we did.
Success is the progressive realisation of a worthy goal or ideal and we were both looking all the time for people that would give that to us. But when we realised it was just the two of us, we then relied on ourselves to do it. So if I could go back I wouldn’t have relied on anyone else.
Ioulianou: Our confidence levels have improved from when we first started. In the beginning we were not sure we were completely capable of doing this. We just decided to start and see how far it goes, and back then we didn’t actually think we would get this far. So if I could go back I would give myself a bit more credit and confidence that I can do it so that we could plan ahead more. You would be surprised at how much the app has changed between May and July. We initially thought we would release in May but we kept delaying because we always thought we could make it better and get it as close to perfection as possible – even though in May we were happy with it. We didn’t realise how good we could get it and how fast we could grow. When we started I didn’t think we could make that happen, and I wish I knew it back then.
Many young entrepreneurs find that their youth often poses a challenge when it comes to winning investor and client trust. Any advice for other young entrepreneurs?
Barras: Look, every entrepreneur faces this, especially when they are young. But it all comes down to self-belief. If you walk into a boardroom and you do not believe that what you have is good, then others will sense it – kind of like how animals can sense fear. Its a sign of insecurity. You need to believe in your product so others can too. It’s like what Steve Jobs said about how the ones who are crazy enough to change the world are usually the ones who do… You have to be a little bit crazy to walk into a boardroom to try and change the way things have been done. But you have to have that attitude to believe that you can be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg – and it is that sort of confidence that will carry you through.
Ioulianou: The attitude of walking into a boardroom with the knowledge of what you can do and what you are capable of is important. And if the answer is a ‘no’… then try someone else.