'There is no 9 to 5, no half-hearted efforts' - Nadir Khamissa
The entrepreneur of the week shares how he plans to impact billions through business, not charity
Name of company: Hello Group
Years in existence: 10 years
Position: Chief Executive Officer
Can you tell us a little bit about your company and what you do?
Hello Group is a business with a soul. Our goal is not simply to make money. We are here to leverage cutting-edge technology to create a better life for migrant and marginalised people.
Our mission is to break down barriers that exclude the majority of people from experiencing awesome products and services – barriers that include high cost, inaccessibility, and bad user experience.
We serve millions of customers every day through our telecoms, distribution, and financial services businesses.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background – personal, educational and professional?
I grew up in Pretoria and couldn’t wait to finish school so that I could start a business. I ended up studying Actuarial Science at the University of Pretoria because I realised that starting a business with zero capital was unrealistic.
In January 2000, I started working as a trader at an investment bank which was the best education anyone could ever ask for.
At the age of 26 I saved quite a bit of money and decided to quit the bank and bet it all on a new venture in the telecoms industry.
The story behind starting the business came from a late-night telephone conversation with my brother Ahmed Shaazim Khamissa. We questioned why it cost 5 pence/minute to call from London to South Africa, but 50 pence/minute to call from South Africa to London. We also noticed the long queues of foreign nationals at public pay phones across South Africa who paid exorbitant prices to make international phone calls.
My younger brother graduated from university and we started Telestream Communications and Telestream Communications UK in early 2005.
We acquired a telecom license from ICASA in South Africa and from Ofcom in the UK. We thereby started the business through establishing relationships with many of the world’s largest telecom operators in order to allow us to connect phone calls from our customers to theirs.
What were some of the obstacles you faced starting out, and how did you overcome them?
When we started 10 years ago, the telecom industry was just coming out of a monopolistic structure. We had to deal with all the challenges of being a pioneer in a new industry with a lack of clear regulation and zero service provider ecosystem.
We’ve had to fight off attacks by the giants in the industry (no names mentioned). Many of these attacks were extremely aggressive and anti-competitive.
One of these attacks almost shut us down – we lost 90% of our startup capital overnight (my entire life savings). That was probably the most significant inflection point in my business career. We had to dig deep and think hard. The game was not fair and we were losing badly – we needed to either quit or change the game.
I sold my car and put every last penny into the business. It was then that we created a simple innovation that changed the face of international calling in South Africa forever. We combined GSM, WASP Services and VoIP and went from zero to doing more business than we could handle. We couldn’t install servers fast enough and business was great.
There were a few more aggressive moves by gigantic competitors, but we survived them all. I am convinced that overcoming these obstacles has made us stronger – we’re not afraid of taking on big challenges and have solidified our business model in the tough times.
How many people does your company employ?
We employee just under 300 full-time employees and thousands of agents.
"My advice is to ensure that you are solving a customer's problem better than anyone else"
What is your overall vision for your business?
I see Hello Group as a catalyst for the deployment of cutting-edge technologies to benefit people at the base of the pyramid.
The technology landscape is shifting very quickly and our job is to remain ahead of that curve and capture every opportunity to create value for these people. Do this continuously and profits will follow.
People may laugh when they hear me say this, but my mission in life is to positively impact the lives of a billion people. I’m going to do this through business, not charity.
What do you think it takes to establish and run a successful business in South Africa?
Firstly, I believe the key to establishing a sustainable business anywhere is to focus on the customer and ensure that you are creating value for them. Business to me is not only about buying 10 and selling for 11. That may pay the bills today, but it's too fragile a model for the way the world is moving.
My advice is to ensure that you are solving a customer's problem better than anyone else, and it had better be a problem that your customer cares about and is willing to pay you to solve. Focus 100% of your energies on delivering this.
The second lesson is keep experimenting. Take risks but make sure that they’re small risks that won’t sink the ship.
You will make mistakes, but my experience is that each mistake has a lesson which seeds the next success. Call it school fees and you will learn more from your mistakes than any school can teach you.
Lastly, if you want to succeed, you need to obsess over your business. There is no 9 to 5, no half-hearted efforts. It takes blood, sweat, tears and guts to succeed as an entrepreneur. If you love being an entrepreneur and want it bad enough, this is the most fun you’ll ever have.
How did you finance your business, how difficult or easy was the process?
I worked for an investment bank for many years and saved as much as I could. This was the seed funding for our business.
When did you know that you were an entrepreneur?
The day I was born. As a kid, I would go to the shop with my late grandfather who used to sell watches and radios. I loved changing prices and seeing if I could sell more radios than the salesmen. I later started trading in electronics, jewellery and pretty much anything that I could.
Even when I started working at the bank, I was always trying new stuff and implementing systems. I think it’s in my blood.
"My job is to ensure that I create the environment, tools and ecosystem to give our teams the best chance of delivering"
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would say that I am a facilitative leader. I am very open to discussing any topic and I encourage vigorous debate.
No opinion is above challenge and I actively encourage people to challenge my own opinions. My job in this process is to get as many opinions on the table as possible and to encourage debate. In the end, we almost always come to an agreed decision based on the merits of each option. If we can’t, I propose a decision and lead all parties towards a mutually agreed path forward.
Once it’s agreed, everyone at the table owns it together and is accountable for taking it forward. My job is to ensure that I create the environment, tools and ecosystem to give our teams the best chance of delivering.
I have an amazing executive team and a very promising management layer underneath them. Their job is to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. I love encouraging the development of this brain trust.
What three pieces of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs starting out today?
- Create unique value for your customers. Think different, re-imagine the problem and find a unique solution that solves a real customer problem.
- Life is too short to do what everyone else is doing.
- Take calculated risks and make each experiment small. This is the best way to learn. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
- Work your butt off. There is no half way, you can't kind of succeed. If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur you need to put your heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into it.
What do you wish you had known starting out?
I wish I had known the first two points I mentioned above. My first product was a solution like many others which cost me 90% of my life savings and a lot of heartaches.
If I had known to focus on creating a differentiated solution that really creates value for customers, I would have saved myself a lot of hardship.
If I had known to experiment small and make small mistakes, maybe that 90% loss would have been smaller and I wouldn’t have had to sell my car. It’s a cool story to tell now, but it was anything but fun at the time.
And finally, do you believe in luck, hard work or both?
I believe in both luck and hard work plus smart work.