At 26 years old, entrepreneur Tobie van Zyl is CEO of moneysmart, one of the emerging online personal financial management platforms in South Africa. It is a platform that provides an innovative approach to organising financial data, and enables users to take control of their finances in achieving their goals. After entering the online financial market in 2008, Tobie has rapidly worked his way up to become one of the youngest entrepreneurs in the financial sector to go independent in the country.
Tobie told BandwidthBlog how it all began.
Tell us about your first business experience?
Whilst I was in school in a little town called Worcester back in 2000, there was a big demand for heavy metal music, something that I was and still am very passionate about. I saw this as my first business opportunity. I had all the latest records and shared them with my friends at school. I carried around a portable tape player and at break times I provided kids on the terrain with some hard and loud tunes. The platteland had no exposure to this kind of music. I was fortunate enough to have access to Google in my bedroom. I would google where to find heavy metal music and eventually came across a site called Silent Screams. Back then it was run by female Bass player Jen Rooms from a Hard Core band in Cape Town called Neshama. I worked in my parents garden, washed the cars to get some money to buy the records from her. She had all the latest unheard bands, it was perfect to introduce it to the rock ‘n roll kids at school. So eventually I got orders and started selling CD’s then T-Shirt and Belt Buckles.
What lead you to settle in Cape Town?
I grew so fond of music that it got me to start playing the guitar, but there was one problem – it was Worcester, no one has ever played in a band and at school everyone was pretty much into rugby whilst I was into skateboarding. I met with a kid around the block and got him into guitar playing, he is now my best friend and is one of the most successful up ‘n coming internet markers in the country – Dawie Bester. I took over on vocals and became a singer. I told my father I was going to become either a bad ass rock star or a producer of a big ass rock band like Tool, Guns ‘n Roses or Motley Crue. My father said he would not pay for me to study music if I wanted to become like one of the guys in the posters I had on my bedroom wall. He wanted me to take over his Financial Services Practice but, since my band members graduated from high school and needed to go study we all had to move to Cape Town, so obviously I rebelled and left the town in pursuit of this rock star life.
How did you make the transition from music to finance?
Once I moved to Cape Town I no longer sold other bands, but instead created my own. Music was my greatest passion, I wanted to live it every second of my life. I got my first band going called Antipathy, we were the beez knees and played the majority of the largest Rock concerts in SA, released an album, made some money by organising our own shows which basically became like a full time thing until I was about 21.
I moved to Cape Town to make a name for myself and my band on the local scene. Pursuing a career in music is hard work and takes up most of the time you have. I was very dedicated to my band and the management of it and was therefore very involved in all areas including finances, touring, bookings etc. Although I did not have any other ‘running’ business at the same time, I kind of knew that I was destined for something bigger. So Financial Services become my Rock ‘n Roll. I became very passionate about the subject of money and how it influences people’s lives. I knew I had a purpose to serve and quit the band to go work in the industry full time.
From where did you gain your financial knowledge – Did you study at University?
No I didn’t study a degree after school. I started working at Old Mutual at age 21. Old Mutual was a great stepping stone for me, the guys working with me back then were much older and taught me a lot about the business. But it still wasn’t enough to make it in the new generation. People wanted variety, access to information and they wanted it with speed and simplicity, no matter how hard I tried convincing them there are other opportunities out there, they still just wanted to stick to their old ways. As fun as it was, I had to leave. The corporate environment left me with very little room for innovation and I knew there were better ways to capture the new generation consumer. I also wanted to make something of myself and I knew if I was dedicated enough I would find my own way up. I have always had a great intuition in regards to financial management. My father was a huge influence on me. As a young kid, he taught me that business was all about relationships and the goal of a financial advisor is to walk the path with the client, delivering on your clients goals and ensuring that they be financially sound and taken care of in their old days.
What was it specifically that lead you into the financial market in 2008?
On the sideline I had a small music production company called “Seed Entertainment”. I owned some music equipment, a stage and a website which didn’t last long but was fun at the time. Then I got a Vox Telecom re-seller contract and recruited guys underneath me to sell VOIP and bandwidth subscriptions. I actually still receive some passive income from that. A few of my friends needed some advice to get their businesses going so I helped them in my spare time as well. But I was very much focused on my Online Financial Advisory business.
The world was shifting, ADSL came into the country, the industry was moving towards web based systems as opposed to desktop solutions. 20 Twenty bank launched and was a huge innovation for the South African market, there were only about 500 000 people online. The FSE (Financial Services Exchange) was established and served as the very first portal to aggregate a customer’s financial information .
As the times moved on, I started seeing my father giving financial advice to younger people whom all started questioning the system. I knew what their needs were and it struck me back then at age 23 – I’ve got an opportunity to solve this problem. They wanted to have access to the financial information via the internet but the industry held back for a long time. Financial Services always had an agenda, and that is to put a intermediary between you and your financial needs to push sales and not service. My father was very services orientated, he wanted the best for his customers and knew that providing good service results in customer retention and sales.
Tell us about where moneysmart began?
In order to educate myself in the business world I studied the philosophy of Robert Kiyosaki (author of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”) which has made a huge impact on my life and my clients. I was totally committed to changing people’s belief’s about money, shifting the importance of financial IQ to my clients. I eventually had my own operation, I had contracts with the major Life Insurance and Investment Companies, including Sanlam, Liberty Life, Momentum, Old Mutual and many others. But I had a bigger vision and a problem , how do I reach a larger audience? My Friend Dawie (Ex Guitar player in the band) was getting into web development but also soon realized that there is a market out there, not by building websites, but by building businesses from websites. Dawie helped me understand the power of the Web and built my first website for me. Ryno van Niekerk, our moneysmart innovation officer and designer, designed my first website interface. Both guys are still my best of friends and we do business together to this day.
My online approach to financial advice became the first step to building a real business. I had clients from all over SA and I made a handsome sum of money. But still, clients could not see what their investment portfolios were doing if they didn’t contact me. They had little knowledge about putting a budget together and had no clue why insurance was important. Moneysmart was a discovery out of frustration by the industry’s lack of facilitating next generation business mediums like the internet, adapting a tone and communication language to simplify complex economic and financial terms and yet still sold insurance by fighting a TV commercial with a coffin being sunk into a grave. The real thing is, all these insurance and investment vehicles are what the rich use to protect their wealth and create more of it and the best thing about it is, you don’t need to be rich to be doing the same. You just need to start somewhere. That’s why I started moneysmart.
How did you meet Zulfiq and what was it about him that made him the ideal business partner?
It’s funny how the world works. Zulfiq and I met by referral from the Private Equity industry. We were worlds apart but yet had so much in common. Zulfiq started his business Liquid Thought at the age of 21, technology information systems, web based businesses and other ventures and went on building a couple of successful companies and participated in a lot of Entrepreneurial ventures at a very young age. What’s really funny is, we even dated the same Girl. I was so excited to meet him, so I gave him a call and we met up.
Zulfiq gave me my first business lesson on the day we met – attention to detail, I had spelling and grammar mistakes all over my business plan and it was way too long. He kept on sending me back to the drawing board. Zulfiq and I have walked the path together for over 3 years. Zulfiq was my mentor at first and then became my business partner. He taught me so much more of the business world, and stood by my side every step of the way. I had someone I could aspire to, someone that really saw the best in me and helped me become the best that I can be. Zulfiq was responsible for crystalising the moneysmart vision, develop the execution strategy and put together our pitch decks and proposal. So after brain storming, working around the clock from Mondays to Sundays, Zulfiq called me out of the blue and said, “Bro, I think we are ready. Start compiling an investor hit list” and so the real journey began.
It was 2009. There was a recession all over the world and we thought we were going to raise a couple of bar overnight. Back then there was no other business in SA to benchmark ourselves and the concept was way above most investors’ heads. We pitched to over 35 Investors, although they all showed enthusiasm and liked the idea, non were confident to invest at that time. We eventually came to meet a very astute and probably one of the coolest Entrepreneurs in SA – Mr Douglas Reed, Founder and CEO of VOX TELECOMS. We met with this great gentleman, who had so much energy and really wanted us to get this company going. He made a couple of calls and off we went to Stellenbosch. There we met our Investor. In June 2010, we got our first round of funding.
What is the ultimate goal for moneysmart?
I see moneysmart becoming the country’s leading personal finance management platform as well as a pioneer in securing the knowledge economy. I want moneysmart to be integrated into the social lives of users to empower them with our services, tools, education and products to elevate their financial intelligence and give them confidence to make their own financial planning and purchasing decisions. Of course, there is also Global Domination.
Are there any other developments in the works for moneysmart?
At this stage we are having a great time working with the Banks – they are really stepping up to meet their customers’ needs on our platform and soon, we will be building innovative solutions together. Our customers are having a ball helping us to innovate and enhance our service for them. I must say, having your customers do all the specification work makes you think who the innovators really are, but people are so involved and willing to contribute and having an army of customers really helps speed up our development.
Having a dialogue with your customers is a blessing – you know you are working towards their and your own success. We are also finalising our structure on our mobile and tablet applications and setting up workshops to teach people about money, using our tools to advance their lives and in general make the world a great place.
We are launching our first above the line Go To Market campaign called The Dream Theatre which is a full on digital experience with mind blowing technology in the first quarter of this year still. 2012 is going to be a massive year for us and another proud chapter in my life.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my journey and the moneysmart vision with you.
To sign-up with moneysmart click here.