The propeller head who built a R450-million company

Andre Fourie is not your average entrepreneur – he is a professor with a PhD in engineering, a tech inventor with over 50 patents, and a very successful businessman as the founder of Poynting.

To really understand Fourie and Poynting’s motto – Making Wireless Happen – you have to go back twenty years when he was a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

At the time he was doing a lot of antenna design as consultant, but he had a burning desire to see his designs turn into real-world products solving real-world problems.

Although Fourie did not have much money at the time, he had to fulfil this desire to build products and started Poynting Antennas in 2001.

Funding Poynting Antennas

Fourie funded Poynting Antennas through three finance sources:

  • An IDC loan of R1 million.
  • An Armscor Defence R&D Council (DRDC) grant for development of commercial products using defence “expertise”.
  • An IDC Special Programme for Industrial Innovation (SPII) grant for some novel product idea they had.

He recalled how tight finances were initially. “The IDC SPII grant is a 50/50 grant where we had to pay half of the R&D costs – we paid our half using the IDC loan,” he said.

“What is quite noteworthy is that we really maximally leveraged government support. As difficult as it was, I acknowledge that without such support the company could not have been launched.”

Growing Poynting

Fourie told MyBroadband that they made their first R1 million in revenue in the second year, but that the company was struggling for many years before turning a profit.

“It took almost 8 years to get to first profit. We were investing all we made back into research and development and lived ‘on the brink’ for quite some time,” said Fourie.

The biggest challenge when he started Poynting was coming to grips with the two most important business aspects – sales and finances.

“As engineers these are considered trivial and uninteresting, but we later realised that the engineering (for us) is easy,” Fourie said.

“Sales and finances are, however, monsters which will have you for breakfast if you do not get them under control.”

Fourie did get their sales and finances under control and build Poynting Antennas to over 150 employees and listed the company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in June 2008.

This was only the start, and as Poynting Holdings CEO he built the company from a R20 million market capitalisation in 2010 to R450 million in 2014.

Ditching the suit

While Fourie was a successful businessman and CEO, he decided to ditch his suit and analysts’ meetings to focus on his passion – building cool products.

In 2014 he exited Poynting Holdings by buying out Poynting Antennas in his personal capacity which continued as private company under his guidance.

This split allowed Poynting Antennas to design, manufacture and sell innovative antenna and wireless consumer products unhindered by the constraints of a listed company.

Fourie also started to lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand again, where he passes his knowledge to engineering students.

Poynting continues to make waves in the global antenna market and the company’s products regularly outperform their international competitors.


Andre Fourie’s tech and business choices

Andre-Fourie

It is easy to see from Fourie’s tech and business choices that is a techie at heart, where the desire to build great products comes first.

Why do you think Poynting succeeded where many other tech startups failed?

People like to attribute success on planning and failure on bad luck, but I think 60% of the reason for Poynting’s success was luck. It did, however, require effort, passion, dedication and persistence far beyond what the entrepreneurial team imagined at the outset to overcome the remaining 40%.

What would you say are the top skills that are needed to be a successful tech entrepreneur in South Africa?

I think you mainly need vision, “fearlessness”, belief, and persistence to start a business and stay motivated. This is necessary but entirely insufficient, so realise and admit that 90% of the skills you need to come from partners and employees.

So rapidly appoint people who know more than you in their areas and learn from them and support them. Remember that despite your inflated ego these people know more than you, so try refrain from telling them how to do their jobs.

What was your first ever business?

At age 15 I inherited a small amount – I think around R2000 – and used this to buy discarded Hi-Fi units and components at a weekly auction in Krugersdorp. I “fixed” these mainly by fiddling, since I had no actual electrical knowledge. I then advertised these in Star Classifieds and sold them.

What was your first job and what was your salary?

My first job as a WITS junior research officer and was paid around R1,500 per month. It would be equivalent to around R6000 per month now, which means it was little but livable.

How did you get into the tech field?

My passion was languages and science, and a clever career advisor pointed out that engineers end up earning more than writers or journalists.

What laptop do you use?

Samsung Core i7.

What smartphone do you use?

Samsung Galaxy S8.

What is the best gadget you have ever bought?

A radio-controlled helicopter – it is massive fun!

What is the worst gadget you have ever bought?

A radio-controlled helicopter. It breaks spectacularly when crashing, requires tons of time and effort fixing and to add injury to insult, the blades inflicted cuts requiring 29 stitches to repair.

What was your best-ever investment?

Raising, educating and providing interesting and stimulating experiences to 3 beautiful daughters aged 22, 20 and 19. Two of them are studying engineering and the middle one is a commercial pilot and trainer at a flight school.

What was your worst-ever investment?

A guesthouse in Houghton which failed, was rented out and turned into the first female brothel in Johannesburg by a bunch of thugs who didn’t pay rent and were difficult to evict.

What is the best business advice you have ever received?

Make the vision of the business exciting and not purely to make money – ours is “Making Wireless Happen”. That inspires all of us in the company much more than “making more money” and if we succeed I always believe financial success will follow.

It also means that I am not despondent when comparing against other businesses which make more money. We are entirely happy because we love what we do.

Now read: How Teraco was started, and how long it took to make its first R10 million

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The propeller head who built a R450-million company