Godwin Gabriel has always had the gift of the gab. At 17, he closed the biggest deal in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, supplying food and beverages to a five-star luxury hotel overlooking the picturesque Indian Ocean.
As he recalls, it all happened in a flash: one minute he was a youngster looking for extra income and the next, he was sat across a table, suited and booted, having lunch with the food and beverages manager of the hotel and her team with only $55 in his pocket.
“I was scared I could not afford the bill. When the bill came, it was literally 55bucks. I remember sweating and I was literally getting ready to prepare to wash dishes, but it all worked out in the end and I got the deal,” he says of that meeting.
Then came the hard part. With no money to pay suppliers, Gabriel had to rely on his gab yet again to get the trust of suppliers to deliver on credit. His natural flair for business made his parents uneasy; fearing he would not return to school, they shipped him off to the United States (US) in an attempt to get him back to his books, but it was too late: Gabriel had already caught the entrepreneurial bug.
For the next three decades, that gift of the gab combined with grit, self-confidence, and perseverance would serve Gabriel well, driving him beyond personal and professional setbacks to create a business that would compete with giants like Uber and Lyft.
Gabriel is the founder of Moovn, an app that seeks to capture a piece of the billion-dollar ride-sharing market and that he hopes will eventually dethrone Uber, which, over the past few years, has experienced significant challenges. The company suffered several scandals and allegations which led to the #deleteuber campaign and the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. In South Africa, Uber drivers have had several clashes with taxi drivers, some deadly, prompting the company to hire private security forces to protect them.
Despite these woes, Uber still has an imposing 74% of the ride-sharing market with operations in over 633 countries and a valuation of $72 billion. Regardless, Gabriel remains unperturbed.
“We are in our own lane, and before the end of the year, we will be a complete threat to them. They are studying us, and they know who we are. We know this because in the search words or key words on Google, when someone types in Moovn, you get an Uber or Lyft ad and it is something that is in their metadata. So they must have put our company’s name in their metadata,” says Gabriel.
He believes the key to any ride-sharing service’s success is taking care of its drivers. To avoid the mistakes made by other ride-sharing apps, he has redesigned his app’s user experience to empathize with the driver, a trick he learned in his early days in the hospitality business.
Gabriel’s journey has been a natural evolution marred by a series of ill-timed events. Like the time he came close to fulfilling his childhood dream.
“When I was younger I dreamed of being a pilot; I was actually hired by American Airlines to become a junior in their flight-training program. Everything was lined up to make that dream happen but just before I reported to the job, 9/11 happened and that was a wrap. I went back into a different industry and never returned.”
Then there was the time he was working as an asset manager. Gabriel had spent a significant amount of time building his expertise in the hospitality industry, acquiring an enviable clientele that included Marriott and Starwood hotels. But just when it seemed like the world was Gabriel’s oyster, disaster struck.
“It was a very strong area for me, but it wasn’t until 2010 when the aftermath of the economic recession was really felt and a lot of these real estate portfolios went belly-up. It was a really tumultuous time in terms of most industries and I found myself constantly working long hours and getting burned out. So, by the time the last assets were taken off my hands, I wanted to change my career,” says Gabriel.
The US subprime mortgage crisis that sparked a nationwide banking emergency left most of Gabriel’s portfolios in receivership. Portfolios previously worth billions of dollars were now being sold for about $100 million, and with that, it was time for Gabriel to yet again look for a new industry and start all over again. But luckily, he had stumbled on an idea to provide a cab service to the guests of the hotels he managed.
“Back in 2006, I started a luxury car hire business with a chauffeur in Seattle for business executives, because I had already made access to these hotels. It was a little side hustle that turned into a big deal. I went from a couple of cars to 15 to 20 cars, and I had to outsource a large volume of demand to independent operators.”
“It was one of those things that I was always interested in, so when Uber came, and they were doing what we did back in the day with technology, I said to my partner what if we had that technology when we were doing our business back then?”
For Gabriel, an MBA from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business would prove instrumental in helping him to spot the potential of technology.
“Towards the end of my course, we did a consulting bid for Microsoft for an education software for two of the largest economies in the world, India and China, and I led that project. I was exposed to technology and I thought this was amazing. I had no tech background and never worked for a tech company before. I was just amazed at the margins and I thought this is the industry for me,” says Gabriel.
And that was how he began to look for opportunities in the tech space. He initially approached several developers to build an app for him, but getting people to buy into his vision proved difficult. So instead of giving up, he decided to build it himself. Hours of YouTube videos and discussions in chatrooms later, Gabriel developed a working prototype which he used to test the viability of his idea.
“We had the clientele; we had the relationships; and we had the drivers and so I sent out a little survey to some of them and the clients I had and asked ‘what if I created something like this, would you be interested?’ The response was overwhelming. At around the same time, It was also at the time that some of the drivers were complaining about being mistreated by some of these larger platforms, about not being able to earn a decent living and working long hours.”
That was when Gabriel decided that he would go the B2B route instead of chasing the consumer market that Uber was already dominant in. In addition to being the mastermind behind Moovn as well as its chief executive, Gabriel sees himself as an activist fighting to give the forgotten driver a voice.
Moovn differentiates itself by taking a 15% commission per ride instead of the 25% or more its competitors take. The rationale: if you take good care of your drivers, they will take good care of your customers.
Gabriel began by targeting hotel partners who wanted to book rides for their guests, which helped to drive revenue and get the platform to where it is today. Another way Moovn set itself apart is through a strategic alliance with Vodacom in Africa, which helped offset the operational costs of launching the app. Lastly, there is Gabriel’s personal touch which he uses to recruit his drivers.
“I was in the airport parking with my laptop recruiting drivers, and sometimes I have lunch with our ambassadors too. So being able to connect with people and speak to them and find solutions to their issues is where I get most of my juice. You get to hear things firsthand. This is where we fly, and we are different from other platforms. We don’t have to wait to hear via email but hear it firsthand and that helps us. Whether it is via improvement in the app or improvement in our processes, it is easy to make decisions right there and then without the hierarchy.”
The company already has a presence in nine states in North America with the planned addition of three more states, and an employee count of 150 people across its various divisions. The company has also expanded into Africa with a presence in Tanzania, Johannesburg and Nairobi. It is also present in Dubai.
The ride-sharing market has been plagued in recent years by several challenges, mostly from local taxi drivers who meet the invasion of technology with animosity, often leading to violent clashes in some African countries. Gabriel, however, believes it’s a matter of negotiation.
“One of the things I often say is that taxi cabs have long existed in most countries. Taxis cannot fulfill the public demand on their own, however, and they depend on the informal sector to offset some of this demand.,” he says.
And with that, the old gift of the gab has managed to successfully bridge the gap between the two parties.
Next up, the Herculean task of getting the world Moovn.
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers
South African artist Conor McCreedy on creating what could be the world’s most expensive sneakers.
A literally stumbled upon a business opportunity.
The renowned South African artist, who only paints in blue,was one day at work in his studio, in a 600-year-old, four-storeyed building in Zurich, when he accidentally spilled some of the monochromatic pigment on to his white sneakers.
Who knew it would lead to a designer line of expensive sneakers.
The artist, resident in Switzerland since 2014, now sells the limited edition sneakers for $3,000 a pair.
What helped that day was that the painting accident was shortly before a meeting with an art collector.
“This art dealer wanted some work for a private collection.I couldn’t get time to put my shoes on, so I went in my sneakers, and this guy just loved them… He opened up to me and said he likes the idea. ‘Try and take it further’, he said to me,” says McCreedy to FORBES AFRICA, on the phone from Switzerland.
After spending four months finalizing the collaboration with an established shoe company, Ludwig Reiter, the concept sprung to life.
A regular pair of their white sneakers sells for $685, but with a splash of McCreedy, it costs almost five times more.
“A lot of people can put paint on sneakers. We are not reinventing the world but putting the McCreedy blue on to a sneaker. It has a value chain,” he says.
Even before its launch mid-November, nine of the 200 limited edition sneakers had been sold to collectors from around the world.
“I love when people say that the splash looks like a kid’s.I actually like that, it has taken me 30 years to create that splash, that is a great story,” says McCreedy.
He adds the handcrafted sneaker will not only appeal to art lovers who are looking to collect, but even corporate titans and banking CEOs,and the uber-chic would want to wear it at cultural festivals.
In Switzerland, ultra-networth and high-networth-individuals are his customers.
“The beautiful part is that the sneakers are backed by my art, and compared to the art, they are relatively cheap,” says McCreedy.
The tranquillity and stability the artist associates with the color blue led to the creation of his own pigment known as ‘McCreedy blue’.
McCreedy has used it to create most of his paintings since 2011.
But building a career through art requires more than just mixing color on canvas.
“Art is always considered a luxury; don’t let anyone fool you when they say it is not luxurious. People don’t just buy art, it is a luxury creation… If Picasso was alive today, he would probably have his own app,” he says.
His art inspired him to create products, from candles to a coffee blend on sale on the ground floor of his studio.
The space is curated so it’s an alluring odyssey for customers.
White walls are adorned with original McCreedy blue paintings, showcasing the artist’s work for prospective buyers, collectors and dealers.
The ‘Essence of McCreedy blue’ forms part of the luxurious elements the artist wants to reinstate in the art world.
It took the artist three years in Zurich, one of the global centers for banking and finance, to convert an old bank building into an atelier and studio. “It’s showing how people view the world through the eyes of an artist. It is about being part of the journey and the experience. It is about feeling what luxury is like,” he says.
Staying true to his African roots, McCreedy draws inspiration from Botswana, Nigeria and South Africa, which he expresses through abstract images.
“I love African and South African art. It is really stimulating for me and as a growing artist, I like to collect whatever I can afford. One day, I will create my own museum and show what I have from different parts of the world,” says McCreedy. Open to exploring more markets, McCreedy wishes to collaborate with African artists. He would not have it any other way.
The world may present the artist with greater opportunities,but it cannot compete with the culture and the spirit of ubuntu [humanity]found in his country of birth, he explains.
“I miss good South African beer, I miss sitting on a Land Rover with no shirt on, drinking a beer. I miss the weather and the locals.”
But wherever McCreedy goes, he ensures his prized pair of sneakers is never too far away.
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