As many of us can testify, the course of our professional careers is determined – to a large extent – by our personal networks and mentors that we meet along the way. Indeed, business coaches and recruitment experts continually harp on the importance of “networking”. On an organisational level, networking and connecting with the right people are just as crucial for success – if not even more so. For South African technology start-ups and entrepreneurs, the “right people” are predominantly located overseas at innovation hubs such as the famed Silicon Valley in the US. Yet for most local entrepreneurs, accessing potential funders and mentors in international markets is close to impossible. This is where Sable (South African Business Link to Experts), a new global network soon to launch in SA, is hoping to fill the gap. Founded by three South Africans and based in Silicon Valley, the Sable Accelerator is structured as an international partnership group (LLC) and aims to provide a supportive ecosystem for local entrepreneurs, venture start-ups and academic institutions. By tapping into the expertise and experience of its high profile members, Sable says it will help to commercialise innovations, promote and protect intellectual property, fund new business concepts and finance growth into global markets.
According to Sable co-founder Donovan Neale-May, who’s based in Silicon Valley, one of the biggest challenges facing local start-ups is scaling their business models to access and serve international markets.
“Many local start-ups do very well within South Africa, and are good at building a domestic footprint,” says Neale-May. “Where they struggle the most is in taking the leap to more competitive global markets, and expanding into other parts of the world.”
Expansion often requires partnering with investors and established institutions in these international markets, and as Neale-May explains, this is where local start-ups need support.
“Most US investors don’t know much about SA, and are cagey about investing in companies that are based outside of the US,” he says. “This is why we seek to help SA start-ups establish a presence there.”
Neale-May cited the example of Clickatell, a successful mobile messaging company that was initially based in Belville, Cape Town. To get the necessary investment from US venture-capital firms to fund its growth, the company had to relocate its headquarters to Silicon Valley, where it subsequently received substantial funding from Sequoia Capital.
“We’re building an ecosystem to help incubate and accelerate the growth of SA companies outside of the local market, because they eventually hit a wall,” adds Neale-May.
Through its website, which is set to go live in August, Sable will connect local individuals and companies with a large online membership group of high profile mentors, business leaders, board members and potential investors. Neale-May says the website will be “content rich” and will use a cloud-based platform to aggregate and host LinkedIn profiles, areas of knowledge and expertise, live engagement and networking, and interactive chat rooms.
Neale-May has established a core consulting team of influential South African expatriates, many of whom hold senior positions at multinational companies, consulting and professional service firms; venture capital and private equity funds; as well as research and academic institutions (including Stanford University in Palo Alto, California).
Sable is also looking to partner with local government departments, banks, venture capitalists and professional service firms, among others. Neale-May says that he has approached National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, receiving “positive feedback” from them regarding future collaboration.
“I hope the Government sees value in what we’re doing,” adds Neale-May, “as we’re leading what could have been a Government-driven project. We have an untapped, under-utilised pool of innovation in SA, and these are assets that the country can really take advantage of.”