03 September 2012

Patrick Lawson: Be nimble to keep up with change

Patrick Lawson, Mobiflock
Patrick Lawson, CEO of Mobiflock is a serial digital entrepreneur who’s as happy playing in the business space as he is developing new uses for cutting-edge technologies that service the needs of digital natives. He’s the man behind mobile messaging service Clickatell, but most recently, Lawson and his team has launched Mobiflock, a new system that keeps us, and more specifically, our children safe when using their smartphones.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Straight out of school I started a desktop publishing business. It was the early 1990s and I realised that my computer had far superior graphics capabilities compared to what else was in the market at the time. This I think was the start of me seeing technology, realising it could be a game-changer and then identifying business opportunities based on that. I then went on to build a website for Pam Golding, which became the first to sell a house – sight unseen – in the southern hemisphere. Next up was Clickatell, the mobile messaging company, where we realised that there was a need to aggregate SMS messaging channels in order to offer SMS as an application to person business tool. With Mobiflock, I took a look at my children and realised they’d soon want their own cellphones – and probably smartphones. There are so many obvious benefits to them having smartphones, but at the time there was no way to keep them safe from inappropriate content, dangerous people, and their own lack of understanding of consequences – which is part and parcel of growing up.

What were you doing before starting your business?
From the get-go, the thought of studying and following a corporate path was just not for me. Early stage startups are far more exciting. For instance, when Clickatell started becoming a successful, operational focussed company, I realised it was time to move on.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
Fortunately my experience with Clickatell stood me in good stead here. And absolutely, as tedious as it might appear to be when all you want to do is hit the ground running, you need to do the legwork and research to really define the opportunity you see, make sure your good idea has legs, and that the numbers stack up. If you do this at the outset, there are fewer nasty surprises down the road. We also spent a lot of time on designing the product for growth and working out what our brand is going to stand for.

What was your start up capital and where did you work from?
We bootstrapped as far as possible, but once we reached proof of concept stage, we received investment from friends and family. This was followed by an additional private funding round to get us to commercial launch on Android, BlackBerry and Nokia Symbian devices. We’re currently looking for additional investment in order to maximise this global opportunity.

What was your big dream for this venture?
Stage one was to keep children safe on their smartphones – allowing them to have all the benefits of a connected digital device, but to stay safe. Simultaneously we’d be educating parents who are feeling a little bit out of their depth raising their digital natives. Ultimately however we want to offer security products and services for every mobile phone and tablet user, including businesses and individuals.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
In our case, our business is both online and global, so online is how customers find us. In South Africa, however, we have been extremely well-received by stakeholders in this space, and we’ve been having face-to-face meetings with them to demo Mobiflock and to recruit them as brand ambassadors. We also intend for each and every of our customers to become our brand ambassadors, recommending the service to other parents in their network. Strategic partnerships, such as those with handset manufacturers or mobile operators take time, so one simply needs to work away at these.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
Listen to your customers. Have faith in your own vision. Fail frequently and often. And keep nimble in order to adapt quickly to a changing market – which is a constant in the mobile space! – and the feedback from your customers.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
Do your market and customer research and work out what the market will bear. You need to take your costs into account and work out what profit you will earn to ensure a sustainable business. In Mobiflock’s case, we offer a cloud-based service, which means that for every additional customer we get our costs don’t ramp up as they would with a bricks and mortar business. This means we can easily grow the business exponentially without risking a massive rise in costs.

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
Not predicting how quickly the mobile landscape would shift, and choosing as our first operating system to develop for something that was very quickly eclipsed by other operating systems. Having said that, the effort wasn’t entirely wasted as we learnt a lot in a very stable environment which made rolling out Mobiflock to other operating systems very quick.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Remind yourself of your original vision and have faith in that. Make sure you celebrate your successes along the way, even though you know you still have a long journey ahead of you.

Did you have a mentor?
I don’t believe in a single mentor; rather surround yourself with a group of people you can turn to for advice and different perspectives.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
Three years seems to be the time most companies get sufficient traction and momentum to be a viable concern with critical mass, market acceptance, an established product and healthy revenues.

Is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
Dreams are like ideas, they’re a dime a dozen – it’s acting on them that matters. And the reality is that you may need to modify your dreams when reality bites in the shape of children to feed.

Which three character traits do all entrepreneurs possess?
A “glass half-full” mentality. Tenacity. And the ability to identify an opportunity, build a vision, and then communicate this to your founder team, your staff, your customers and the market at large.

Do you believe in internships for your business?
Yes, it’s a good way of paying it forward and also grooming potential future employees. To apply, especially if you are a developer, email jobs@mobiflock.com

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* It doesn’t get any easier While it was tough raising funding a decade ago, it’s become 10 times tougher since then, which means it takes up even more of your time, energy and focus as an entrepreneur.
* Don’t plan for funding Rather plan to not get funded at all, rather to build a solid, sustainable business that can stand on its own two feet.
* Dance to your own tune Don’t be put off if you don’t tick the current “funding flavour of the month” check boxes. As long as you have done your homework, identified a distinct market need and proven your concept, of course.
* Focus Stay focussed on your business goals and specifically on getting that first rand of revenue through the door. Having said that, keep nimble so you don’t miss out on new developments in the market.
* Get involved One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed comparing getting Mobiflock out of the starting blocks with launching Clickatell just over a decade ago is the opportunities we’ve had thanks to the nascent entrepreneurial community developing in Cape Town and South Africa.

To get in touch with Patrick Lawson from Mobiflock, email: patrick@mobiflock.com, visit: www.mobiflock.com, on Facebook, on Twitter: @mobiflock and @patricklawson, and on LinkedIn

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