Stay focused, have vision and build a good team, says business MD

Founded in 2007, SureSwipe is a debit and credit card machine payment systems provider that has since grown to include over 3,500 clients in South Africa. The company, which is a division of business solutions firm Tradebridge, focuses specifically on South African SMEs.

Paul Kent

Paul Kent

SureSwipe’s managing director, Paul Kent, is a finalist for the 2013 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award. How we made it in Africa asks Kent a bit about the lessons he has learnt in business during his work at SureSwipe.

Tell us about the inspiration behind starting SureSwipe.

SureSwipe was started as an add-on product at our sister company Healthbridge. As private medical aid benefits reduced in South Africa, it became more and more important for doctors to accept different forms of payment and thus SureSwipe was started. In the early days we provided credit card machines exclusively to doctors, but in 2008 it became apparent that we had a role to play in other segments and SureSwipe was founded as a division of Tradebridge focusing on the underserviced and overcharged South African SMMEs.

We really enjoy positioning ourselves as the underdog and taking on the big banks. Once we had built trust we were well accepted in the market, although it wasn’t easy. And we have great stories to share, especially from our sales representatives – from clients asking us to do their filing to one of our sales representatives being arrested. When a policeman heard our sales representative discussing credit card machines with a business owner the policeman was convinced that it was a scam and arrested our sales representative. Fortunately it was cleared up immediately and the business owner is still a client today.

How did you finance your business?

Fortunately SureSwipe is a division of Tradebridge which provided the funding. Although we had a big brother, we were very conscious about how we spent every cent and, in order to maintain a variable cost structure, started with a philosophy of outsourcing non-core competencies. The core of our business is sales and client service, and initially to limit large capital expenditure costs we outsourced our infrastructure requirements. This model has worked well, and although used less and less as we grow, we still outsource components to industry experts.

What has been the best decision you’ve made for SureSwipe?

The best decision we made was to focus on South African SMMEs. This market segment was underserviced and overcharged by the big banks. This gap created an opportunity for us to offer a competitive product with unmatched personalised service. Before we entered the market it took up to 30 days for a small business owner to get a credit card machine installed and more than seven days for a technician to be onsite if repairs were needed.

We set the benchmark for service and now the industry standard is 10 days for installation and next day repair. This has made a huge impact to businesses who risk losing customers because facilities aren’t available. Our aim is to install new machines within two days and resolve onsite repairs within four hours.

What is the greatest challenge your business faces?

We operate in a very competitive environment and challenging the big banks on price and service is difficult to sustain in the long term. While it will be difficult for them to match our service, pricing is becoming more and more competitive.

In order to continuously offer value to our clients and differentiate ourselves from the competition, our offer now includes products such as prepaid vouchers, gift cards and closed loop loyalty programmes. These products offer immense value to business owners by providing retailers with much needed customer information and ultimately increasing [our clients’] sales. This integrated offer gives us a unique position in the market.

How have you marketed your business?

Dealing with people’s money takes trust and the best way to build trust is through word of mouth. Referrals from our existing clients have been our greatest promoter and approximately 30% of new business is a direct result of a client referral.

Do you have a favourite metaphor to describe entrepreneurship?

I love the metaphor “eat big fish”, from a great book I read about challenging big brands with small budgets.

If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

We all make mistakes so I’m not sure what I would do differently as our mistakes define us as much as our successes. But the few key areas that have helped me are:

Focus: don’t try and do everything. Understand your core strengths and build the business around these areas. Understand the different roles you play within the business and build an organisation that can survive and thrive without you.

Vision: have a clear vision for the future and build a team that understands and is aligned to your vision.

Team: I can’t stress the importance of a good team. It’s not easy, but try to find the best people. Employ and develop people with a great attitude who are passionate about your vision. I’ve been very fortunate to work with great people; people who challenge me, [offset] my weaknesses, and are always passionate about delivering to our purpose.

What is the best business advice you’ve received?

Fortunately I have had great role models and mentors but something I read in a Donald Trump autobiography always remained with me, mostly because I disagreed with his advice. He said something along the lines of “hire the best people but trust no-one”. Personally, I believe that you should hire great people, provide them with a vision and give them the freedom to do great things.