18 July 2012

Styli Charalambous: Selling the idea

Styli Charalambous, Daily Maverick
In October 2009, Styli Charalambous and his team of seven launched the Daily Maverick; a digital “newspaper” that provides South Africans with daily news, insights, analysis and opinions. Charalambous’ abandoned a career in investment banking to embrace SA’s growing digital media industry – and it’s paying off!

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Yes, I spent most of my misguided holidays working for my dad, so I guess I never really had a choice but to get involved in ventures outside of the corporate world.

What were you doing before starting your business?
I trained as a chartered accountant at Deloitte in Johannesburg and then spent about four years in London, wandering the halls of investment banks. But my passion for South Africa and getting involved in start-ups brought me back. Thankfully!

What was your big dream for this venture?
It was really my editor, Branko Brkic’s dream that I got caught up in, but it’s something we’re both passionate about: changing the media landscape in South Africa and influencing the influencers with smart commentary and debate.

How does an entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Networking. The best leads come from introductions via people you know and trust. A lot of time you get unsolicited rubbish but, being in the media, it’s our job to know as many people as possible, which helps. I read a lot, and am lucky enough to have close friends who are very enterprising and broad thinking, so I bounce a lot of ideas off them and my editor, and I lean on each one for advice and guidance.

How do you figure out what makes you unique from everyone else in the market and how do you leverage that difference?
I don’t think you necessarily have to be unique in every respect. Sometimes, just doing something better, faster, more reliably than anyone else is good enough. I sometimes joke with my mates that in Africa, service is a unique selling point. Budding entrepreneurs think they need to reinvent the wheel to make it happen, but I can guarantee you that in SA, it's harder than you think. I’m pretty sure that if Mark Zuckerberg had started Facebook in South Africa, it would have been tossed on the scrapheap ages ago, or would have had to leave the country to make it work. South Africa is a tough, harsh environment for dreamers who live on the cutting edge, especially when it comes to technology. We’re a conservative nation with poor Internet penetration, so your lead time to meaningful traction is longer than it would be in developed countries, and even some African countries.

How did you come up with your pricing model?
It depends on the product/service and the industry you operate in. In media, and digital media especially, we have this conundrum where people expect everything in a digital format to be free, but it costs us a huge amount to produce. So pricing a digital media offering is tricky and your product has to be of the highest quality if you expect people to pay for it.

What was your most epic fail in the early days and how did you solve it?
Not understanding how the infant digital media industry operates, how small it is compared to traditional media and not dedicating enough resources to sales and marketing.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make in their first three years of business?
I’ve heard many people talk about this massive market (millions of people) and how they only need to capture “just 10%” of that to make gazilllions. Well, I have news, 10% is a massive number and very difficult and expensive to capture. Don’t kid yourself with your projections. The other thing that entrepreneurs fail to do is managing cash flow adequately; there's nothing scarier than having a payroll to sort out, two days to go and a bare bank account.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Passion. Without passion for what you do, you will break down and succumb to the pressure of being an entrepreneur. The other extreme is irrational passion, when an entrepreneur is flogging a dead horse or doesn’t exit because he is too emotionally attached to his venture. Sometimes you need to take a step back and make some hard, objective decisions.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
It depends on the scale of the venture, the bigger the scale the longer it will take. But if you’re going to leave the comfort of corporate, make sure it’s worth your while. As a rule of thumb, I’d say don’t expect any miracles in the first three years. It’s ok to abandon your dream, but only if you’ve given as much as you possibly could. Sometimes you can be too early (bleeding edge) especially in South Africa, where the timing just isn’t right and you end up hurting yourself and others. It’s the most difficult call to make when you get to that position because you’ve invested so much time and energy into it. You will have learnt so much and grown so much, which is why round two or three is usually where most entrepreneurs make it.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* This is going to be the hardest thing you have ever done, but the most rewarding!
* You will need more money than you think to become profitable.
* You will need more time than you think to become profitable.
* Sales! Sales! Sales! Sales! Everything else is just admin.
* No-one cares about your business as much as you do, so make sure you do everything you can to make things happen.

Get hold of Styli Charalambous at the Daily Maverick via email: styli@thedailymaverick.co.za or visit: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za, check out his LinkedIn profile: Styli Charalambous or follow him on Twitter: @stylichara.

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