Finding a job remains a daunting prospect for thousands of young graduates in the country; and as more and more businesses downsize, as labour becomes automated and even outsourced, the prospects for unemployed youth become even less.
For many, the idea of even starting a business while in university is inconceivable, given the intense workload of academics as it is. Despite such adversity, you still have your “scholarpreneurs” who are out there hustling and grinding to turn their ideas into reality.
A scholarpreneur is a breed of student that our education system and institutions need to breed – one who is self-reliant and financial savvy. Being a scholarpreneur is a mindset, one that understands that there is no freedom without financial freedom, and no true knowledge without financial intelligence. Here follows a profile of such a student who has taken the leap of faith to chase a cause big enough to keep him awake at night and still given enough energy to work at it during the day.
Scholarpreneur: Paul Ontong
Date of birth: 8 July 1994
Academic pursuit: Bachelor of Business Science (Finance) (Graduating 2017) at the University of Cape Town.
Current business: O-Link (Pty.) Ltd. (www.o-link.co.za)
Getting to Know Paul
Paul attended the prestigious St Johns College in Houghton Johannesburg since Grade 4. During his first year of high-school, he was an avid motocross racer and although his grades were always good, he devoted most of his time to motocross. In 2009, his Grade 9 year, a good friend to him and his brother, passed away while racing motocross. His parents decided that the sport was too dangerous and they gave it up. Following that, he became far more involved at school and aside from partaking in numerous sports and extra murals. He was also able to achieve his Junior Protea Colours in Wushu (Martial Arts) and represented South Africa at the Wushu Fighting Championship in Macau in 2012, where he was placed 10th in his weight category. While at St Johns, a teacher ran an Aviation (Radio Control Airplane) society and through this society Paul fell in love with building and flying radio-control planes. He then developed a science project based on solar and peddle powered flight, which won him and his partner a Silver Medal at the National Eskom Science Expo. At that stage, his airplane hobby had become a passion and he contemplated whether he wanted to study finance and start his own business, or become an aeronautical engineer. The latter, however, dissipated because of limited offering in South African universities and therefore opted for finance. Beyond all of this, Paul became 1 of the 11 senior prefects at St Johns College as Head of Hill house. He was awarded academic colours, played first team for three sports and completed over 150 hours of community service. This reinforced his self-belief that he indeed did possess the qualities of a leader and furthermore, the qualities that would one day enable him to run a big company.
We all have people who we look up to for one reason or another. Who are Paul’s role models? He identified certain figures whom he sees as being disruptors and change makers, including: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, John Zimmer, Adrian Gore, Brian Joffe, Sam Walton, Warren Buffett, Simon Sinek, Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Robin Sharma, amongst others. Amongst all those role models, however, there is one who stands as a hero to Paul: his father. Having the father (and mother) that he did, he and his siblings where brought up in an environment that inspired them to think big and instilled a work ethic that would do Paul well in his life.
Paul’s father is an entrepreneur, and coming from a very poor background, he wanted better for his children. Furthermore, his father has no tertiary education but he developed his skills by reading extensively about other businesses and other businessmen. He is also extremely driven. He started his journey in small informal retail outlets straight after matric and by the age of 27, he was running a cash and carry business which was doing in excess of R100 million a year. In 2009 he sold the majority of his Company (which at the time, consisted of 4 stores) to Massmart. Paul describes his father as entrepreneurial by nature and he says that his father often tells him and his brothers that there is money on the streets, but only those willing to make sacrifices, work hard and be innovative can reap its rewards. When he was younger, Paul’s father would encourage him to read rigorously to develop himself and learn how others achieved their dreams. Paul’s father also brought him along to work regularly – visiting stores in and around Soweto, Newtown, Johannesburg Central, etc. Through that experience as a young boy and from that young age, Paul knew he wanted to run a big company and change people’s lives.
Paul’s father started another company called Botle Buhle Brands. This is a direct-selling company, with an active sales force of approximately 12 000 people, that is making a positive difference in people’s lives. Paul has his hands full as he concurrently works in this business and as well as getting his own venture, O-Link, off the ground. Aside from the above, Paul sees himself as a dynamic individual who wants to create and innovate. He considers himself an outlier because he has never enjoyed following the crowd and it is for that reason he never pursued a corporate job after completing his studies at UCT.
Business ventures prior to O-Link
Prior to O-Link, Paul had done a fair amount of trading – applying a margin and then selling, the latest toys / accessories. All this trading was done in partnership with his younger brother, Sydney Ontong (21, studying in Stellenbosch). The two would always make sure they were up to date with the latest trends amongst their friend groups from a toys / accessories perspective so that they could attempt to find ways to benefit from trading. Throughout their school years, they sold tazo’s, playing cards, squigies, and phone covers. At school, the duo also hosted a few playing cards and marbles tournaments, where there was a buy in price and a prize for the winners. Unfortunately, they never made good money through the tournaments and at that age realized it was easier to make money trading products as opposed to facilitating a type of service. To delve deeper into the trading, it worked as follows: Once he and his brother had identified a trend, they would attempt to identify the cheapest supplier (which in most cases were the China Markets), then buy bulk of the product they could find and then sell it at a premium. They did this in a very unstructured way but made good money considering their age.
In 2014, Sydney travelled to China with their father and they came across tempered glass screen covers before they were even known in South Africa. Sydney was then able to source a supplier for the tempered glass as well as for phone covers and power banks, and with his father’s guidance and assistance, Paul and Sydney could import stock directly from China. Paul put together a spreadsheet and worked on pricing. They created an online catalogue and sold product through Facebook and word of mouth. This little company was called Ontonic Accessories. Initially the Ontong brothers had great sales but the rest of the market very quickly picked up on the tempered glass trend and bigger corporations were beating Ontonic on price. After slowing sales, they decided to end that venture.
All about O-Link
The purpose of O-Link and Paul’s “why” for the start-up is to reshape youth part-time employment.
Paul always wanted to start his own business and in as much as Ontonic Accessories was a small business, he didn’t see a future in it. After reading about Uber and the rise of on-demand apps towards the end of 2014, he often thought about how the Uber model could be used in other industries. He came up with a few initial ideas of how to use that model in other industries but none seemed to be both unique or game-changing. One day, after discussing part-time jobs and the difficulties of securing good part-time jobs with his flat mates, he had a lightbulb moment. He realized that there was a disconnect between students and employers and was determined to using an Uber-like model to address this problem.
In 2015, Paul decided that his idea, which at the time was referred to as “Stomble”, needed to be validated; so, what better way than to enter a pitching contest?! In applying to pitch at Launch Lab (www.launchlab.co.za), he was told he needed a partner, so one of his best friends, Owen Newton-Hill joined the venture. Their initial pitch was well received but they were competing against income generating companies and got kicked out in the first round.
They then decided to join the UCT Upstarts program, initiated by the Vice-Chancellor in 2015. This program was great and it assisted them a great deal in adding a degree of structure to O-Link. However, Paul decided that O-Link should pull out of Upstarts because one of the program requirements was to showcase your idea on a crowdsourcing platform, and that had him feeling uncomfortable doing so. They felt that their idea was a country-first and were not prepared to let a big company pay its own developers to build a platform from their idea. It sounds overly cautious; however, one company did put their idea on this platform and had the experience of someone else copying their idea. Whether it was directly through the online crowdfunding platform, a pitching event or coincidence – Paul is unsure, but in hindsight, he is glad they didn’t take that risk.
Once Paul and Owen felt that that they had ironed out their idea, they began developing their business case. They did this by developing a front-end app that they demoed to restaurants, promotions companies, schools etc. and received great feedback. It was at this stage that they began looking for quotes to develop the website and app, as neither two are coders. Initially they didn’t receive a single quote of less than R500 000 and some of the quotes fell just short of R1 000 000. O-Link was stuck and the two weren’t sure how to move forward. Eventually, through Paul’s father’s network, they came across a small IT company – who agreed to do the development at a fee far cheaper than those they had received. The downside to this was that they had one developer working on the project and it has taken him a year to get O-Link to a fully operating system.
As of today, they have hosted a successful Soft Launch, and their web and mobile platform, as well as their app are 99% complete. This means that O-Link will be launching this year, something that Paul is very excited about.
Aside from the above, what has really driven O-Link over the last 15 months, is the fact that Paul believes O-Link can indirectly assist in addressing the struggles many students have in being able to afford tertiary education. He believes O-Link can assist by providing students with an efficient platform that will allow them to find jobs, earn an income and pay for their studies.
The research he and his team has conducted reveals that approximately 20% of the students enrolled in South African Tertiary Institutions work part-time jobs, whereas over 70% of students in the USA work part-time jobs. Obviously the context is different as there are more jobs available for students in the USA, but O-Link wants to raise that percentage in South Africa and play its part in ensuring that the people who have worked hard to qualify to pursue a tertiary education, are not prevented from doing so due to financial constraints.
Of course, every business has its share of challenges. According to Paul, the biggest challenge O-Link faces relates to the chicken and egg story: “Which database comes first, our employer database or our student database.” Much of the reason as to why it has taken him and his team so long to go live, aside from the development timeline, is due to the fact that they are going to have to juggle the number of employers they will have posting jobs and the number of students they will have applying for jobs. Currently, building their database to accommodate for both sides has been a challenge. Aside from that, getting employers to see the immediate benefit of using O-Link is sometimes difficult as they don’t always understand the technology or are unwilling to learn how to use a platform like O-Link in order to find part-time staff. All in all, ensuring that there are enough students in relation to jobs and enough jobs in relation to students will be an ongoing challenge for O-Link. The challenges identified above are internal, they can be dealt with. The biggest challenges businesses face in today’s world tend to be out of their control. When I asked Paul if there was anything proprietary about O-Link – whether it be the algorithms used or anything about its systems, he said unfortunately there wasn’t. If O-Link succeeds, this will prove to be a problem for him and his team as it opens the threat of big players in recruitment agency replicating their offering.
With all the challenges his start-up faces, Paul is optimistic that O-Link will grow to be a big player in the recruitment agency space. He is driven by the cause of reshaping the way youth connect with employers and making a difference in people’s lives through innovative thinking. Technology, such personal air travel, Cognitive A.I., Bit Coin, and electric and solar powered flight, fascinate him and he firmly believes that there is plenty of space for disruption in those industries…much that we could witness the Jetson’s cartoon become reality. He has his own mantra that he lives by:
“There are billions of stars in the sky, but only ONE shines as bright as the sun. Become a Sun in your life.”