Work hard, dream big

I was recently interviewed for an article in an airline inflight magazine. Here’s the copy of the article which focusses on the trip that I went on to Silicon Valley.

hardworkimageMurray is an entrepreneurial and commercial thinker with a track record of growing innovative technology businesses. Murray holds a Ph.D in biomedical engineering and has four years of experience as a corporate financier.  He cofounded a business the develops polymer heart valve replacements, a digital agency and recently an influencer marketing platform.

Webfluential was started to address market demand for access to digital influencers and their audiences so that brands and consumers can interact on the web. The platform has grown globally, providing access to brands for over 10,000 influencers, with a combined digital audience of over 350 million people.

SA Cardiosynthetics is a venture business looking to develop and one day commercialise a polymer heart valve replacement designed for emerging market patients. Rheumatic Fever causes valve disease in over 500,000 people annually that goes untreated because no product is currently available. Murray and his surgeon co-founder are working on addressing this need.

1.     A unicorn is a start-up worth $1-billion or more. What is your take on the potential for African unicorns?

Africa contributes about 2.4% of the global GDP. So as a player on the global stage, any business starting in Africa will reach a ceiling in terms of its capabilities on our continent. However, there’s nothing stopping applicability of locally grown businesses expanding into countries outside of Africa, the key is being able to understand what the world needs, and address that need appropriately and at scale.

We’ve seen SAB recently in a trillion Rand deal, let alone a billion. Yet that business was founded 120 years ago. Reaching a billion dollar valuation for the sake of it shouldn’t be a goal, in my opinion. There are some great businesses that are worth a fraction of that but provide all the right experience to local entrepreneurs in learning about their product-market fit, working with technology and people and not worrying about valuation.

I think there’s potential to be an African unicorn in the next five years, but it either has to be as a result of funding rounds where investors are happy to pay  around R150m for 1% of a company or likely to show revenues in a year of R3bn.

2.     What do you think it takes for people to take the leap from being entrepreneurial to being fully-fledged entrepreneurs?

South Africans are inherently entrepreneurial at heart. The local market has it’s own dynamics and business people here are great at spotting opportunities and capitalising on these, but often more than likely from a corporate perspective. It’s rare that entrepreneurs, the people who are willing to burn their ships and invest every bit of their own money into their venture, take the leap and commit to a career as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is much harder work and far riskier than working for a corporate. My personal opinion is that we’ll see two sources of entrepreneurs, the first from the informal sector where unemployment necessitates such a move, and the second is where experienced businessmen leave their salaries and capitalise on opportunities that excite them and have some capital tucked away to tide them over.

Our ecosystem of angel investors, venture capitalists and established technology businesses needs a few more years to establish itself, and then I think we’ll see a lot more leaps of faith happening.

3.     You were one of 22 South African entrepreneurs sent by Investec and En-novate to Silicon Valley in the US. What were your 4 key takeaways from that experience?

Seeing and speaking to the entrepreneurs there – the daily challenges that they face and the small wins that they celebrate, their degree of ambition and the skills and grit of their teams, all make me believe that we as South Africans have what it takes to make brilliant businesses ourselves. So much content and hype exists around the “untouchable” Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but if we really got our minds focussed we’re not far behind them.

Something the entrepreneurs there take very seriously is the feedback from their customers on how they use their products. Empathy as a part of the creative product process is crucial to finding product-market fit. Assuming that your product will be adopted the world over without asking a lot of questions from the people who use it is a total misnomer.

So much effort is put into believing in their mission as entrepreneurs. People really believe that they can put a dent in the universe – even in their daily tasks and live and breathe their company mission. We met with Google Maps team – they are 100 people big spread across the whole world. But they’ve been able to do all of what maps offers (including the project of Streetview and public transport system integration) because each one of those 100 people believes that their work makes the world a better place.

They set 10X goals. Whether it’s user numbers, page views, revenue or profits, each company we spoke to had a target of what they were working on to scale 10 times within a year. Many have electronic dashboards in the office to track these, how they’re broken down into 1-week metrics and if they’re ahead or behind.

4.     Please speak about the opportunities afforded by the digital revolution and how technology is changing the business landscape, using Webfluential as an example of a success story.

If there’s a book to read that looks into the future and maps out the possibilities of the impact of technology, it’s The Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford. In it, he outlines how it’s more white-collared worker, than blue-collared, that should be concerned about the effect of technology.

Artificial Intelligence is going to be the biggest theme of our generation, and it will be used in all sorts of interesting ways that we haven’t even considered. I attended a talk by the head of IBM Watson, where he gave an example of the use of AI in cancer research. They’ve fed in all the literature on cancer as well as patient files from around the world, and the insights about early detection and treatment are just remarkable. Google also recently handed over the running of all its data centers from staff to Deep Mind, it’s AI engine. Within the first month, the technology saved 15% of the energy bill.

In our influencer marketplace called Webfluential, we’re excited about all the new earnings channels we’ve created for people and the commensurate value we’ve created for brands who now have an additional method to reach an audience. On our platform, we’ve been able to reduce the degrees of separation from micro-publisher or celebrity to a brand, and automate the performance tracking of digital content.

It’s great for us to see the medium of communication changing from a uni-directional “spray and pray” approach of television and radio to an intimate conversation on platforms you heard about less than a year ago (like Snapchat).

5.     How will the polymer heart valve you have designed be applicable to emerging markets? And do you see the 3D printer being useful in its replication?

Much of the innovation around heart valve disease happening in the 1960’s and 70’s and only really considered patients in the developed parts of the world who tended to be the elderly. Solutions required easy access to medication and the product only had to last or decade or so, outliving the patient. We now see valve disease in younger patients in the emerging parts of the world, and thus need to make a product that is biocompatible, has a very long fatigue life and not require ongoing medication. A real tall order, but we think we’re in with a shot.

From a production perspective, 3D printing is becoming very cheap and accessible. We worked with Boeing in Gloucester and their 3D lab, being able to print parts for us in metal and to very high tolerances. I definitely think 3D printing will be a big technology industry.

6.     At the beginning of each year you make stock market selections – how are your stock picks for 2016 faring?

Every year I try and take a stab at the playing out of the sectors where technological advances give companies a key advantage over the market with respect to their growth, and their competitors who are found on the back foot. This year my selection was the FAT GNNAT (Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google, Netflix, Nike, Apple and Tesla).

Facebook, Amazon, Google and Tesla have all made great headlines and delivered results ahead of market expectations, even during what has been some volatile times with Brexit, the oil price and the change in strength of the Dollar. Apple, Twitter and Netflix have found themselves in the growth doldrums, not growing as quickly as initially planned, or losing out to competitor offerings.

In the year to date, the S&P500 has appreciated 6.8% in US dollar terms, and my portfolio has grown by 7.2%, so not a bad result so far, although if after risk adjusted returns, the S&P would probably be the winner.

7.     You “like building incredible things” and were one of GQ’s best dressed men in 2014; you are an athlete, an inventor, an investment banker, a fly fisherman, a mountain bike enthusiast, a motivational speaker and mentor. Do you have any vices?

That’s very kind of you to mention the good, but I’m sure it’s perfectly balanced with a lot of vices! I think from a values and upbringing perspective, a key lesson that my folks taught me was that if you’re going to do something, do it well. There’s little reward in doing what you know you can do, so rather try and stretch yourself, and those around you a little. It’s uncomfortable, but through the process you expand as a human ever so slightly. The compound effect after years of diligence does pay some dividends.

I have weak points in wanting to take control of projects, and prioritising work over social engagements. This leads me to believe that I’m always right, which I certainly am not, and that socially I’m a bit awkward.

8.     If you were to advise anyone on starting up their own business, would you add anything to “work hard, dream big”?

Maintaining a great work ethic and chasing your dreams I think could be a reasonable motto for someone in their life; it’s certainly mine. People tend to get caught up in the human race, believing that they can only go Faster, Higher, Stronger, and sometimes take for granted that the challenge in work is the reward, not the financial or fame aspects that often come with it.

Through our lifetime, the disruptive effect of technology will rip apart normality as we know it. People will be replaced, companies will fall from grace, careers will become obsolete. If I had more advice to give, it would be being humble, because sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, and you’ll always need a favour or have reason to deliver on one.

 

 

 

 

 


You don’t know what you don’t know

Every day I’m reminded of the stark reality of how much I don’t know. I make it my mission in life to try and understand how things work, why they do what they do, but keep coming up short. It’s fortunate that I enjoy learning, so my lack of knowledge is satiated when I learn.

There’s something called the illusion of explanatory depth, where people believe that they know more than they actually do. People mistake their ability to recognize the logical operation of something with their ability to understand and explain it. Then there’s the things we don’t know until we discover them, the unknown unknowns. Donald Rumsfeld said, “reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

risk-taker

Running your own business has a lot of these two aspects, the belief in yourself that you know more than you actually do, and the stark reality of having to deal with unknown unknowns when they make themselves known. Through some very hard lessons, some of which I highlighted in my recent talk at Leaderex on failure, my reality is to focus my time and effort on the things I can influence. For those that I can’t, other people or services need to come into play.

A fitting example is King Price and the role that they play in business insurance. Last week we had the unfortunate incident of a staff member’s car being broken into, her laptop and other goods stolen, and for the days thereafter, lost all mental peace of mind and productivity while trying to get her life back in order. Having a professional business insurer on hand to assist in a scenario like this is well worth it. King Price is known best for its decreasing car insurance premiums and activity in the short term retail insurance space. It now plays a wider role in the business insurance arena.

Uncertainty Management theory was introduced by William B. Gudykunst to define how humans effectively communicate based on their balance of anxiety and uncertainty in social situations. The principle of a Black Swan event, a random and unexpected occurrence that deviated well beyond usual expectations, as things we should we aware might happen, but put the measures in place to ensure that if they do, the consequences are limited losses to us and our businesses.

As a friend once said when asked what advice he’d give to millenials today, “Experiment, learn and live, but make sure you suffer only small losses, and you’ll come out okay.”

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Talking about failure at Leaderex

Murray Legg Leaderex

Danny MacAskill skills

Having been to Gran Canaria a few years ago, this is the last thing I’d imagine someone would do.. on their bike.

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Hard Work has its Rewards

The last few weeks has provided an opportunity for me to spend time with young and aspirational people, more than I usually do. For the last few years, near the end of the year we’ve upped the number of interviews we do as some of the best of the South African youth come into the job market, having completed their courses or degrees and are looking at prospects.

Belief

Through early experiences interviewing student tutors for Penguin Tutoring, to interviews at Rand Merchant Bank, to now employing people for Webfluential, there’s a little something special that shines through in some of the youth that I’ve met. Irrespective of the degree that they’ve completed or the awards and recognition on their CV’s, sometimes you get to meet someone with absolute fire in their belly.

Most often, the common traits are that youngsters from a financially challenging upbringing but are smart and desperate to succeed, show potential beyond normal bounds. I wrote about the risk/reward dilemmas for young entrepreneurs earlier this year, where if you have no money to lose, the dedication to achieve a goal can be quite remarkable.

The story of Prof Leeuw is one such story – a young man having started his story in the village of Taung, and going to on become a globally recognized astrophysicist. The grit and drive to pursue a dream, if you’re willing to not yield to an excuse, is probable for just about anyone.

There are brands like Profmed that are also happy to acknowledge these commitments to a cause and offer medical aid cover to a select group of professionals with a four year degree. Follow this link to find out more:

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The Landscape Hunter – exhibition in Cape Town

If you’re in Cape Town, drive to Sea Point and check out Thomas Ferreira’s exhibition – a solo exhibition titled The Landscape Hunter. It’s a collection of some incredible images of landscape photography that he’s assembled from touring across the globe, including New Zealand, USA, Chile and South Africa.

The Landscape Hunter

The most appealing thing for me about the pictures is their expanse and with all the landscape they cover, give no clue that a human has ever been there to see it or spoil it. The 3m wide prints are wide enough to take up your entire field of vision, making you feel as though you’re actually in these places. I’ve bought a print of the Torres del Paine photo pictured above for my office.

Well done to Thomas! He tells me he’ll be coming to Johannesburg in late Jan/Feb too. In the meanwhile, check out his website here.

Landscape Hunter 2

 

Crowdsourcing innovation

When I worked as an investment banker, one of the insights that became clear to me very early on was that banks have transformed very quickly into technology businesses. What used to be an industry with relational managers and bank balance sheets offering very vanilla products has now become a very technology-centric industry with multiple touch points and very complex real time services served through technology.

The changes have happened, and continue to happen very quickly. With the business focusing on staying up to speed with the market and keeping it’s customers happy, it often doesn’t have the perspective or luxury to see the wood from the trees. Recently American Express has fallen on tough times for not maintaining it’s strategic relationship with Costco, for example. Add to the mix that banks often employ 10,000+ staff, which is great for momentum but severely limits their ability to be nimble and implement things quickly.

On the other side of the spectrum sits small business. Innovation and being fleet footed are almost synonymous. But scaling and operations are tough for small business. In April I wrote for Moneyweb on how the financial industry is throwing it’s hat in the innovation ring and seeing what comes of it. There is definitely a middle ground for the innovators and big business to work together if the incentives and engagement are well defined.

I was happy to see that Standard Bank has embraced this methodology in their Pathfinders Challenge that is currently underway. It’s an opportunity for techies, young professionals and entrepreneurs to pitch, demonstrate and commercialise an innovative banking solution and then get the support of Standard Bank to take it into the big leagues.

R500,000 of skin has been put in the game by Standard Bank in the form of cash, UX testing, rapid prototyping, technical support and mentorship for the winners of the Pathfinders Challenge. Winners will be flown out to the Standard Bank Incubator in Rosebank, where they will be accommodated for the duration of the execution. The competition launched on the 3rd of October and entries will close on the 6th of November at 23:59. It’s open to anybody with a solution that Standard Bank could benefit from. And likely the credibility and experience of going through a pitch process is just as valuable as the prize money.

You can read the Press Release here and follow the campaign socially on Facebook and Twitter.

The next commodity supercycle involves something we all already own

The commodity supercycle which started in the early 2000s, saw the prices of physical commodities such as food, metals, fuel and chemicals rise as demand from emerging markets outstripped demand. A slowing global economy has recently seen a rapid slide of commodity prices, having severe impacts on global economic markets, job security and emerging market currencies.

A commodity is defined by something of demand that is independent of differentiation, from the French word commodite – amenity or convenience. The next booming demand in the economy is going to be people’s attention.

Commodity-IndexesAs the workforce has evolved from the traditional “hands on” approach, more people today work with the management of information. If you’ve ever heard your boss say, “Why aren’t you at your computer?” that’s testament to the fact. Yet, information is abundant – about our lives, on social networks, other’s lives on news channels, and our professions, in all the Exabytes of data available through the internet.

But by harnessing the attention of an audience through engaging content, the flow of attention to something online will anticipate the subsequent flow of money. It’s a very important commodity for brands to understand and appreciate, both when they are receiving audience attention, and when they are not.

The online experience you have online is different to your colleagues. Your browsing history, behaviour on websites and the way you search for content creates a digital fingerprint, unique to you, that’s valuable to brands. If you’re not yet already aware of it, your attention is currently being sold. The banners you see, or rather, don’t see, are tailored just for you.

“Attention is the hard currency of cyberspace,” wrote Thomas Mandel and Gerard Van der Leun all those years back in their 1996 book Rules of the Net. We find ourselves in a time when engaging content fights for our attention, and where we choose to spend it, matters financially to the brands generating the content you enjoy and share.

Immediacy, personalisation and authenticity are three metrics that form the foundation of attracting attention and keeping it. Moving beyond the visual realm of display banners to rich content stimulating the senses and emotions is key to growing with the audiences maturing demands of the web.

It’s rather interesting how opportunity cost has now not just got a place in our careers and big decisions in life, but in the everyday minutes of time spent online. The gauntlet for brands has been set!

My love-hate relationship with entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is the poster-child of the economy – consensus appears to be that running your own business is the ultimate pinnacle of a career – full of fun and the secret to untold riches. That might be the truth for a very few entrepreneurs, but there’s also a dark, lonely and extremely challenging side to it.

So what’s my current mission? I co-founded an influencer marketing business and am commercialising a novel heart valve replacement. Two businesses in two totally different fields, so the question I’m always asked, is how are they related? Conventional wisdom says that your career and your skill-set needs to specialise over time, which I agree with. I’m specialising in running efficient technology businesses that are differentiated by their intellectual property, ability to scale, and importantly, by the people working on them. So that’s my answer to those that are in fact interested. Through these businesses, as well as previous forays into a tutoring marketplace application and a digital content business, I’ve come to learn more about my love-hate relationship with my career choice.

My love for entrepreneurship

Being different

Without a prior understanding of an industry, you tend to ask fundamental questions about it and challenge the way things are done in their current form.  Less than two years ago, I asked Kirsty Sharman “What is media?” with reference to paid media behind digital content. At Webfluential, we now are arguably running the fastest growing media business in Africa because we took a different approach to solving a market need. Looking at a business from first principles allows you really consider the value proposition of the competitors and allows you to see that most businesses have a “me-too” approach to operating.

Experimenting

lego-man-murrayAs a kid, a new box of Lego wasn’t just an opportunity to stick to the construction guide given. I’d always turn to the back page with the other variations of what the pieces could be used to assemble. Imagination and experimentation. Two things that your own business affords you that often need more haggling to get right in a corporate. If what you’re selling or doing isn’t mainstream, you have to try and learn with your own skills and money. In reality this translates into 99% perspiration, but it’s still very enlightening!

Learning to work with people

Having a vision for a business or product has to be articulated through a lot of communication and charisma to the team. I’ve come to learn that most people don’t realise their own potential, so it’s often a stretch target to achieve what you’re wanting, but because you’re their boss and they don’t want to admit that they’ve failed at an objective – I find that it’s a pretty rewarding dynamic.

My hate for entrepreneurship

Loneliness

A few weeks ago I went to a breakfast alumni event with ex colleagues from my stint in investment banking. The conversation points to the ultimate unspoken, competitive question – “is the risk you took leaving a high paying career paying off more handsomely than our decision to stay in banking?” As an entrepreneur, you can’t say that you’re down, not winning, losing the fight, or one step away from packing it in. Your team, your staff, and your support structure all need you to be positive and declare that you’re winning. Most of the time, you’re not, and it’s lonely because you can’t share that fact with too many people. Thank goodness for my wife!

experiments-entrepreneurshipThe peanut gallery

There are a lot of bullshit quasi-entrepreneurs out there. Swaths of people spending their lives being entrepreneur incubators, coaches, even studying post graduate degrees on how to be great entrepreneurs. Start-up events, due diligence conferences, advisory firms and talks given by people that have never run their own business and been so successful that they’re qualified to actually talk, advise or guide on the subject. They’re quick to pass comment on the state of entrepreneurship, who’s good and who’s not. Their insecurity about their own value offering in the industry is confirmed to me every day that goes by without one of them calling to say they’d like to meet up and discuss funding or advising me.

Frictional cost of operating

The frustration and time wasted on frictional issues in a small business will one day soon become so important to entrepreneurs that they will seriously consider the country they wish to found in before considering incorporating. Crime (our staff’s laptops being stolen out of their cars), taxes (I’ve not received a single benefit for creating more than 30 full time and countless part time jobs from the SA government), and very average service delivery from the industries that supply to us, all slow us down. I miss the cotton wool cocoon of corporate, where you didn’t really have to ever phone the ISP yourself, fix the magnetic lock on the office door at 1 o’clock at night or worry about who checked the VAT return.

With these things that I love and hate being daily experiences in my career as an entrepreneur, I have to think so carefully about where I choose to spend my time and effort in creating value. Every minute is an opportunity cost. Thus, my mandate for business ventures I’ll consider working on:

  • Doing things that are breathtakingly new and ambitious
  • Work with other founders who radically want to change an industry, or better, the world
  • Have an audacious vision of a business seeking enormous markets

The challenge is that if you apply these constraints to a nebulous business concept, very few people really understand what you’re actually trying to do. They don’t understand the risks because of all the unknowables. Most of the time, you’re not always in full understanding of what you’re doing, either, adding to the confusion. And then you want people to join your crusade, or risk their money on you…? We’ll chat about that another time.

 

What is Google Deep Dream?

Google-Deep-Dream-DogI didnt know until a few months ago that you could put an image into Google search and it will tell you what’s in the picture and find similar pictures for you. Patson, the man that makes us coffee at the office, told me how he’s found a spider at his house and wanted to know if he should kill it, so he took a picture and Google told him it was a rain spider. So he didn’t kill it.

Google Deep Dream is an extension of this search software. Instead of it looking to tell you what’s in the photo, it references your picture against its entire library and where is sees something looking like a particular object, will amplify it more and more into that picture. Very much like when you’re dreaming, not everything appears to be the way it should. The algorithm only runs on a static image, but if it one day could take in a video feed, I image the playback would be very trippy indeed!

Here are two photos I fed into the dream maker. Notice the weird creatures, the castle on the hill and the chap on the unicycle.

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You can go do your own here. Follow on Instagram here. And look at some of the best pictures here.