The journey so far: Brad Magrath, co-founder, Zoona

Brad Magrath

Brad Magrath is the co-founder and CEO of Zoona, a financial services company that offers money transfers and payment solutions. The company has operations in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique as well as support offices in South Africa.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

We started a business, disrupted the market, effectively created a whole new customer base and revenue opportunity and became the dominant market player and strongest consumer brand for a few years.

The challenge about proving something works is that then the bigger players are attracted in and can replicate, invest and take you on. We aggressively competed and maintained our leadership for a few years, but did not have deep enough pockets to win, and we were knocked off our perch with a bump – a big bump.

We had to totally re-invent ourselves and our business. We pivoted from a consumer business model to a B2B model. This required a massive change in culture, staff, cost, brand and a whole new way of doing business – including our previous competitors becoming our customers and suppliers. It was incredibly tough times that required humility, conviction, fortitude and resilience.

To pivot and come out the other side we had to focus on understanding and solving our new customers’ pain points, and then cutting all the legacy costs that did not support our new business. Pivots are tough but if you address the real issues and problems, and then communicate and commit to the change, it is a real win to come out the other side as a very different business, with new opportunities and challenges to address.

2. What business achievement are you most proud of?

Over the last 10 years, more than 4,000 entrepreneurs in Zambia and Malawi have earned over $300 million servicing our products to more than three million customers. Both markets have transformed over the last decade with massive uptakes in financial inclusion and digitalisation. This has been a massive effort by so many people, and we are humbled that we were able to play a part.

But something we are more proud of is that we are still standing and moving forward, and just as passionate about what we do. There have been ups and downs, but we have loved the ride, and still do.

3. Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

My brother and I are both intense creatives – we love solving big problems, in new innovative ways. Change and challenge is part of our DNA. When we started, we were creating a new industry, not just a new business – so nobody believed in us, so we had to fight for everything.

Even our internal culture was hugely combative with meetings loud and argumentative. We also had no data or proof points, so discussions were emotive and force of will often won the day. We had a small team and were in the trenches together. When I would get emotional, or dogmatic, even impossible, the team could go, “It’s just Brad, being Brad” and move on. We were a tight tribe.

As we started to grow from a small team of 8 to 250, our ecosystem changed from a tribe to a village to a city – and as a leader you cannot lead and manage a tribe the same way as a city. A city is way more complex. My strengths as a leader in a startup, became weaknesses as we scaled up. Early teammates were incredibly loyal and knew how to engage me, but newer staff found me distant, inconsistent, unpredictable and quite daunting, even intimidating.

The way we strived to solve this was getting clear on what in our culture was sacred and things we would not compromise on. Then I had to be honest with myself on how much I had to grow and evolve to become a leader that added value in this bigger company, and if I could not do that, then I would be part of the problem, and not the solution.

I made a big effort to understand myself better: where I was effective, where I was destructive, how I made good decisions and bad ones. I worked to create a working cadence where I could be a more approachable, consistent and be a more trustworthy leader that could steer a bigger ship safely.

A personal breakthrough was understanding I had to find time for myself to reflect. My primary instinct is to act and then only after acting, I think and feel. So the focus for me as a leader was to find time to reflect before I acted. That helps me make better decisions for the business and our team. I do not always get it right but I have evolved to be a more inclusive and supportive leader, rather than just a maverick entrepreneur running 100 miles an hour, all day.

4. What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

Hire fast to stay ahead of the growth curve. For entrepreneurs, cash is like oxygen, you only know how critical it is when you do not have it. Staff are a fixed cost, and fixed costs are the kryptonite of free cash flow.

When you are starting or scaling a business, future growth is hard, and not often realised to the value or within the timeframes you forecast. So front-loading any costs, especially people, is not smart.

Rather stay lean and mean. We do not have liquid capital instruments in Africa, so short term cash hits can be fatal for your business and letting people go is expensive and time-consuming. Hire slower and pragmatically and as much as possible outsource and contract short term while you prove your ability to generate consistent revenue over your costs.

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?

The first one is that when you take on investors and partners, it is not about how much money you get, or the valuation – it is absolutely about the quality and integrity of the person sitting across the table that matters most.

I have been incredibly fortunate with the people I have been on this journey with, from my brother to our two early partners, to our investors. Every single person has shown themselves to be exceptional people, in good and bad times. I will always be humbled and appreciative that I was so fortunate. Your business will thrive or die on the quality of the people you surround yourself with, not a term sheet or handshake.

The second one is to look after yourself – your health, your family. For me being an entrepreneur was to be both selfless and also selfish. I found myself being selfless for our business, but incredibly selfish in my focus on the business to the expense of so much else.

For years we just went full steam. I think I even wore it as a badge, but it took me to be in a hospital connected to a machine having a fully-fledged anxiety attack to appreciate how unbalanced I had got.

I have a wonderful wife, awesome kids and I had to re-calibrate and appreciate that the only way to get through this entrepreneur journey was to get balance and create time for myself and my loved ones. Doing this not only helped me get healthy but also be a better leader. No one performs at their best when you are exhausted and under pressure for long periods. So from day one, find time and space to look after your whole self, not just your business.