One of Gareth Knight’s earliest memories is of his uncle asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A game ranger,” he replied. Years later, reality bit the young zoology student. “Past students who had been a couple of years ahead of me at varsity were working on game farms and earning very little money. I was disillusioned.” At the time though, Knight had already developed his talent for IT and had been building websites for people at the university, using HTML and FrontPage. That’s where it all started.
Ups and downs
By 2003 he and some friends were in London together when the company they worked for was folded by the MD. They joined forces and started working out of the spare room in his flat. “It was all about new media. We did everything from e-newsletters to websites. At first it went well, but we were very inexperienced when it came to running a company. About six months into it, I became frustrated. It was clear that we did not have the same vision so we shut down the business and I lost two friends in the process.”
The experience left him feeling a little tender, so he went to work for a Cape Town-based company which had an office in London. While he was there, he realised he had learnt a few valuable lessons. “I knew by that stage how important it was to have a clear vision, and to work with people who share that vision and who have the same work ethic as you. I also learnt that time does not equal value. It’s not true that the more you work the more you are worth. Today it’s possible to create something of value in five minutes.”
In late 2005 he set out on his own again, starting a new business focused on Web 2.0. Once again, he started it in his spare room and managed to grow it to 12 people in 18 months. “Again, I made lots of mistakes. This time I was growing the business too fast. I should have held back on the growth and looked more carefully at the people I brought on board. Ultimately though, the company was brought down by a typical services business problem — we were not charging enough, yet we were still being squeezed to charge less.
By 2007, I knew it was time to move on.”
The big time
That was when he hit pay dirt. Through a combination of the right technology experience, and being in the right place at the right time, he raised seed funding from some big investors in London to build a family social network called Kindo. Within six months, thanks in part to an aggressive search engine campaign, Kindo had 400 000 users and localised versions were available in 17 languages in 220 countries. The growth rate was phenomenal, and Kindo was voted one of the top three most promising Internet companies in the UK in 2008. In August that year, it was acquired for a tidy sum by global family-oriented social network service and genealogy website, MyHeritage.
“We did it,” Knight says. “The opportunity was there, we grabbed it and we got an excellent return on investment.”
Next, he worked for MyHeritage for a year, travelling between Tel Aviv and London, and learning what it was like to manage people and build a company.
A new e-commerce model
By now a serial entrepreneur, Knight turned his attention to what was happening in e-commerce. With the Kindo deal behind him, he raised money from investors in London and South Africa and launched Technovated, an e-commerce company that rolls out online stores and is run by a team of people who have lots of experience in building and scaling web apps from inception to acquisition. What’s different about Technovate is that it’s not built on the affiliate model, in which an online merchant pays an affiliate in exchange for providing an ad and link to the merchant’s site, with each click through resulting in a small commission for the affiliate. Instead, Technovate owns the customer, the transaction and the cash. “We have rolled out several e-commerce stores in different categories and we own every conversion, which is where the business becomes profitable,” Knight adds.
Enabling innovative thinking
But enough about his day job. Knight is also the founder of Tech4Africa, a mobile, web and emerging technology conference now in its second year. In 2006, he went to the South by South West (SXSW) Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. Much lauded by South Africa’s own tech community, it has a strong following among web creators and entrepreneurs, and its focus on emerging technology has earned the festival a reputation as a breeding ground for new ideas and creative technologies.
“I got to know some really cool people there and I wanted to find a way to give South Africans exposure to their ideas. Last year, Tech4Africa brought in around 15 international speakers, not something that other conference organisers do in Africa. They were all well known pioneers in their fields. It’s critical to give South Africans the opportunity to hear what new thinking is happening out there. Without that type of input, the same thinking is perpetuated over and over again and innovation cannot happen.”
It cost Knight R2,5 million to host last year’s conference, but the response from delegates made it all worthwhile as far as he’s concerned. “Without a doubt, we set the bar very high. This is not your usual type of conference, all stiff and formal. At Tech4Africa you don’t have to wear a suit and you can sit on the floor if you like. You can also chat to the speakers. And there are no officious chairmen and plenary sessions in which people nod off from boredom.”
But why does a London-based entrepreneur want to host an annual tech conference in Johannesburg? “Ultimately I want to live in South Africa and invest in local businesses,” he says. “To do that, I have to help create an enabling environment with people who have the latest skills. Tech4Africa promotes the right kind of thinking and approach to foster entrepreneurship in the technology space. South Africans, and Africans in general, are far too traditional and conservative when it comes to starting their own ventures. There’s too much fear of failure. The fact is that most people have to take a few knocks to develop exciting new ideas and new businesses. It’s the only way you learn.”
In 2009 Gareth Knight was named one of “35 Men of Influence – 35 South Africans Under 35” by GQ magazine. In 2010 he was named one of South Africa’s “200 Young South Africans you have to take to lunch” by the Mail & Guardian newspaper.
True to his word, Knight is actively driving creative thinking at Tech4Africa through two initiatives.
The Tech4Africa Innovation Award, presented to a single winner, encourages innovation aimed at solving uniquely African problems, while also encouraging global thinking. The award recognises that innovation can be entrepreneurial, as well as intrapreneurial, and so is open to individuals and companies. The prize is for outstanding innovation, in any field of mobile, web or emerging technology. The company or person behind the innovation must be based in Africa and the innovation may already be in production.
Tech4Africa Ignite is aimed at giving start-ups great exposure in a once-a-year environment of investors, mentors, thought leaders, buyers, decision-makers, journalists, influencers and potential recruits. Start-up owners can present their product or demo to a technology community in Africa, with the aim of encouraging awareness and traction. The challenge is to craft a pitch compelling enough to get introductions to investors, users, customers, and for journalists to write about the product.
Player: Gareth Knight