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The Smile That Says I Survived

Stafford Masie left his dream job at Google to try save his crumbling marriage. It didn’t work. Out of the rubble, came fortune.

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Stafford Masie brought Google to South Africa and paid a hefty price. With 20 years in IT, Masie worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. And if ever you want insight into his tenacity, you have to go back to Bloemfontein in the 1990s.

“When I came back to South Africa, I worked at Telkom as a network analyst. I then became an instructor; they sent me to Cape Town and Durban to do a training course and then they sent me to Bloemfontein. It was a five-day course; I was prepared to do it and then these white guys walked in, asked if I was the instructor and walked out. They refused to be taught by someone of color. I was confused and angry; I didn’t know what to do. A lady came to me and said ‘look this is the situation, we are dealing with it, please go back to your hotel’. So I went back to my hotel distraught. I remember calling my dad and he said ‘You have to choose between two paths, you could be the victim or you could go back in there tomorrow morning and make sure you are the best of the best,’” says Masie.

“I went back in and today some of those guys are my best friends.”

By 2006, Masie had traveled and lived abroad, and held one of the top positions at his then company Novell SA. His success, however, kept him away from his wife and children. Just when Masie thought it was time to rekindle his relationship with his family, he was given the biggest opportunity in his career – Google SA. Stafford did it all; he developed Google Search, Maps, Street View and he hired staff.

It was three years too many for his family and his personal life ‘hit the wall’. Masie was forced to leave Google SA to spend time with his crumbling family.

“I left Google reluctantly, I left Google negatively, I left Google unwillingly, I was hoping to salvage a marriage and spend time with my children again,” says Masie.

But it was too little, too late. His marriage ended.

“I got lost over all the years of giving so much to my career. I lost family and a marriage.”

Masie, the husband, lost, but Masie, the entrepreneur, was determined to win. He threw himself into his work. Masie sent shockwaves through the payment space, creating Payment Pebble, a device that turns your smartphone or tablet into a mobile card machine to receive credit or debit card payments on the go. It was a world first through his founding company, Thumbzup, founded in 2010.

“I have the greatest team, that’s what I have. So whatever anyone else is building out there, I don’t care. I’m not building a product to compete, I am building a team to be sustainable,” says Masie.

The idea of Payment Pebble came to Masie in an unexpected way that he will never forget. While waiting to see a mayor in the Gauteng province, a woman with a baby strapped to her back with a towel was rushed into the mayor’s office in tears. Stafford asked the receptionist what was going on, she explained that the council had turned off the woman’s utilities because she hadn’t made payments. The woman had the money, but wasn’t able to make the payments because she had just given birth to twins and fell ill during childbirth. With no lights or water in the middle of winter, one of the twins died.

Masie knew he had to do something.

“The Payment Pebble wasn’t a technological thing; my love for IT is personified by this. IT can solve that woman’s problem. That guy could have showed up at her house, if he had a payment pebble, he could have accepted her card payment and there could have been a full reconciliation of payment. He would have left and not switched off the lights and the child would be alive today,” says Masie.

“The Payment Pebble is a good example of African innovation solving African problems, it’s a great product,” says Mark Walker, the Regional Director for Africa at the Industrial Development Corporation.

Stafford took his idea to the banks.

“We spoke to all the banks and we realized that all the banks wanted a product. What we liked about Absa was that they wanted a partnership,” says Masie.

Four years later, the Payment Pebble is the largest mobile point of sale in Africa and is launching in one of the largest financial institutes in Australia and Latin America.

Masie believes his leadership style is the reason for his success as an entrepreneur.

“First of all, I am not a boss. I think I am more a leader, someone who is in the trenches shooting with the soldiers. Even though I may be a higher rank, I am in there with them. It is the only way I can be,” says Masie.

Lydia Paledi, an office manager at Novell SA, worked under Masie during his time at the company and has high praise for the entrepreneur.

“He was the best boss I’ve ever had and I wish he could come back.”

Despite his success, Masie dwells on his mistakes. He admits that he thinks of quitting at least once a day.

“It’s a constant battle with yourself; when you invent something, it’s nice to see it on billboards. When you pass Melrose Arch there is this massive billboard, when you look on the TV, it’s on CNN. It’s an incredible feeling but it’s short lived. You are always looking for the next big thing,”

he says.

Masie’s dream was to become a rescue helicopter pilot. Even though that didn’t happen, he is settled with his Payment Pebble and his microlight and six-seater Jabiru planes that he flies privately.

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