Justin Drennan started WantItAll in 2006 when he saw a gap in the local market for a place where people can easily purchase goods from the United States.
Since its humble beginnings six years ago the business has grown to become one of the largest eCommerce sites in South Africa, and is also powering Makro’s online marketplace.
We caught up with Justin to find out where it all started, and what is behind WantItAll’s success:
When and why did you start Wantitall?
We started the business in mid 2006. The initial site was a simple e-commerce site with a few products which people could not find locally. In late 2007 we changed the website which made it possible to offer over 10 million products to local consumers.
Where did you get money to start Wantitall?
We were profitable from the start. Having said that, when you start a business you always underpay and overwork yourself. After 2 years of operations we were able to pay market related salaries, while still investing money into the business.
What were your biggest challenges in the early days of the company?
The biggest challenge was not knowing how to start and run a business. This was not restricted to online retail, but rather business in general. All the founding members come from an IT background, and as a programmer you are not exposed to the ‘real world’ of business. We were not well connected, and we struggled to find advice from individuals who understand business. Once we found partners we could rely on, the business went from strength to strength.
Which skills do you think helped you the most in building the company in its early days?
I look at others running online businesses, and I see a consistent challenge many businesses fail to overcome. The IT requirements which, by its very nature, are a big component of an online business seem to be a major stumbling block. IT skills need to be part of your key competency, which if you outsource, means you don’t have IT as a differentiator.
We’ve used IT time and time again in our business – to help improve business processes, scale the business and reduce costs. Without a strong understanding of systems and business processes, we’d have a big problem.
What is your current role in the company?
I’m one of the founding members of the business, and my role is CEO.
Which skills have you developed through the years to help you in your current role?
- Effective staff management
- Allowing others to take charge and run with projects
- Understanding the business aspects of online retail
How large is your company now (employment and revenue)?
We generate over R40 million in revenue and employ 27 people at market related salaries.
What advice do you have for new young entrepreneurs in the technology sector?
See your business as a long term play. You are not going to get rich overnight. Listen to the advice from people who have done this before – they have been successful in the past for a reason.
Also don’t get blinded by what you see in Silicon Valley. Billion Rand valuations are not the norm in South Africa. You should never forget that South Africa is a very small market.
What can government and the private sector do to boost tech entrepreneurship in South Africa?
At WantItAll we are very big on staff empowerment. A large portion of our staff used to be domestic workers, and it is great to see these individuals owning cars, buying houses, and learning the computer skills necessary to further themselves in life and business.
It would be great if government would give more support to further increase the skills base, and allow us to compete on a global scale.
One of the biggest issues we have is finding competent programmers. Government needs to assist in skills development in the IT and programming fields. The global economy is moving to a knowledge based economy, and we don’t want to be left behind.