23rd February 2024 6:58 am
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“You don’t have a business until you have a paying customer” – MIT team’s advice for SA startups

Being at the helm of a technology start-up can be very daunting at the best of times, and if you have no previous experience in the matter, you need all the help that you can get. Who better to ask for advice than the birthplace of the modern startup, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)?

And as luck would have it, a team from that very institution have been in Joburg for the last couple of months, specifically to impart their knowledge.

htxt.africa had a chance to sit down with MIT Global Startup Labs South Africa‘s Entrepreneurship Lead Bryan Hernandez and Entrepreneurship Co-Lead Kai Zau during their recent visit to Johannesburg, to find out exactly the aim of the program is.

Just tap on one of the questions below to open up the Q&A. We’d love to hear your feedback on whether or not this formatting works – it’s something we’re trying specifically for readers on mobile phones.

[symple_accordion title=”Simply put, why did you come to South Africa and why are you here?”]


We came to run the MIT Global Startup Labs’ South African instalment, and the purpose of that is two-fold. The first is to give MIT student and Alumni an opportunity to teach entrepreneurship in technology development. The second half of that is to promote leadership in technology development.

So you have the two parties, and we are on the instructor side of that. So because of the flip seasons, the length of the program was a bit abbreviated so we ran six weeks from 23rd June to 2nd August, and took primarily engineering students all the way from nothing virtually nothing about entrepreneurship, all the way through to building their first products and contact their first customers, building viable businesses out of that, and then pitching the work that they have done to panel of judges, investors, and members of the start-up community – which happened on 2nd August.

It’s similar to Shark Tank but less Hollywood. In Shark Tank you have people coming in with already-trading businesses, whereas our missions was to take people from zero to one. It’s giving them an understanding of the skills and activities that are required to launch your own venture, and the two sides of the being customer and product development. So a good outcome for our program, are people with customers line up and also connections to other mentors, incubators and accelerators in the community.


[symple_accordion title=”Where does one start when planning a tech start-up?”]


You don’t have a business until you have a paying customer. Before that you might have an app, you might have a core sense of technology, but how sustainable that is, is entirely dependent on finding someone who can build value.

Our program was very focussed on solving that problem first, helping people find and test whether there is a market first and then try to build the technology of the business around that. The first two weeks of the program actually had all of the participants call up various markets and potential customers to find out what their problems are, what you currently use, what are you paying for existing services – basically trying to figure out if there is an opportunity.


[symple_accordion title=”What do you need to grow and innovate a technology business?”]

An analogy I use to describe building a business, is that you are just trying to put together the airplane as you are falling off the cliff – you don’t need a functional tail or rudder at first, you just need to get your wings out. Then afterwards you realise that there are some other pieces that might be handy before you run out of time. So it’s this race against time to get all the resources online on a business that you have identified. As for what it takes, I think a lot of the materials, content and knowledge are already online – like great online courses and videos.

And a lot of the technologies are open-source and the cost of doing it is really just a WiFi connection to a computer, so the difficulty now is figuring out the right markets to attack – the opportunities that you can build a customer base around. What starts a tech business is not what scales a tech business.  Everything can be on fire as long as you have a paying customer and you are a real business. You might not be an elegant business or a business that is currently organised in a way that can scale, but you are trading. That is the critical threshold not most people can never get past.

[symple_accordion title=”What are some of the ideas that stood out for you at Wits?”]


The team that was the crowd-favourite at our demo day was a company specifically building a USSD medical diagnosis platform for the mining industry – and that is a very uniquely South African kind of company. The majority of our program, especially since we had the six-week constraint, focussed on B2B solutions within the South African space. So we had a company trying to roll out a mobile solution for the taxi companies, we had a way for business that are using and accepting mobile money to co-locate their five or six accounts to one place. So a lot of them are built around problems that are unique to the South African ecosystem.

It’s very interesting, as the type of businesses that you can start fairly quickly, there is actually very little innovation that is happening. I know it is going to sound controversial, but they are off-the-shelf components. For instance with the mining company, all the elements of the technology stack and all the elements on the knowledge already exist – you just have to go find it and connect them together. Most people who are uninitiated in technology development think that it is about investing a new widget.


[symple_accordion title=”Where do you see South Africa’s potential when it comes to developing technology solutions?”]


You have access to Africa – that is a big market, and your tech development is above any other country in Africa. So if you do have one advantage over all the other technology development centres in the world, it is that you understand this continent better than anybody. Feature phone penetration is high across the continent, as smartphones happen and as internet connectivity improves, you guys are at ground zero.

The population in Africa is going to double within the next 35 years or so – that is your advantage. A lot of people are trying to figure out how to grow the eco system, so that a person who comes directly with a degree doesn’t go working for a bank. There is a lot of great progress being made. It’s really exciting to see where this community is heading.


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