Alexandria Procter (@alexprocter101) is the last person you would ever describe as timid. When the bureaucracy at her college in South Africa failed to address a massive student housing crisis, Alex taught took things into her own hands, learned to code, and created a startup to help. In this episode, Alex and I talk about the personality traits and the economic realities that drive people to take risks and solve problems. We attempt to answer the question, "What do founders in the developing world have that founders elsewhere do not, and vice versa?" Alex also shares the incredible story behind how her startup, DigsConnect, has grown to find over 70,000 beds for students in just two years.
What's up everybody. This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How did they make decisions, both of their companies and in their personal lives? And what exactly makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from these examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses.
Today I am in beautiful South Africa in Cape Town, sitting across from the lovely Alex Procter, the founder of Digs. Alex, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much Courtland. I'm so excited to be chatting with you.
I'm excited to be here. South Africa is...
It’s amazing. It's a great place. It's also a very confusing place, too, for an American to come. There are so many different groups that live here in different situations.
I mean, we have 11 national languages. It's like the Star Fleet.
That's too many.
Our road signs are hella confusing, I’ll tell you that. It's like, "Oh my gosh. Which one do I pick?"
I don't know what the right number of national languages is, but 11 is a definitely too many.
One turn with take you to this beautiful, beachy, up market area and the other turn off will take you to like, Okay so you don't want to end up off the dock. It's like one or two. There's no in between.
I'm succeeding. I haven't been murdered yet. Today is my last day so I think I'll make it out alive.
Cross those fingers.
Tell us a little bit about Digs. What is it, exactly?
So Digs or DigsConnect is Africa's largest student accommodation marketplace. Essentially, we sort of call ourselves the Airbnb of student housing, which perhaps I shouldn't say on an American based podcast because people might actually have an issue with that. But in South Africa, no one has really caused concern yet.
Basically, what we do is we are a marketplace that just connects landlords and students. You know, in South Africa we have a bunch of universities, a bunch of private colleges, about 2. 3 million students in total. But only a tiny amount of those students are housed by the actual university.
It's about 5%. Most students are either living at home or need to find their own housing. Before DigsConnect started, there was no place to go. It was really antiquated. There were posters on walls, there were stickers up at the university library saying, “Spare room in my house,” my flat, whatever it is.
Just so you know, Digs is a South African term for a student commune, a house or my digs, whatever. There’s no place to go. There’s maybe like Facebook groups or people would chat each other or a friend of a friend would know a place, but there's no actual go-to place. And it was getting worse and worse every year. People were like, “We cannot find a place to stay.”
And taking South Africa’s history into account, where we’ve tried to acknowledge the infrastructure doesn’t support the entire population to go to university. So there’s been an influx of Austrians go to university but not the infrastructure to support that. Definitely not the housing to support that. So students are now being supported by government to go to university, to break these poverty cycles, to get an education, but they have no place to go stay.
They’d arrive on campus and literally be homeless. Students would arrive and be sleeping in theaters, be sleeping in the library, with nowhere to go. There were these huge protests happening every year. I don't know if you heard about the Fees Must Fall movement.
There was this massive protest a few years ago called Fees Must Fall. All the students around South Africa were literally protesting on campus. They went to parliament. They were doing petitions. The one thing that happened around that was called Shackville. A shack is a slum, a township, like a slum.These students came onto campus, UCT, the University of Cape Town, and they built a shack saying, “This is what we’re being reduced to as students because there’s no housing.”
The media picked up on this and went absolutely mad and announced at the time that there was not enough student housing. Around the same time as this, I was in my undergrad at UCT. I was quite involved in student politics and student governance. I ended up being elected onto the student representative council, which is the highest student governance body at the university.
Interestingly enough, my portfolio was student housing. All these students that couldn’t find a place to stay would come to me and say, “How do I find a place to stay?” But on the other side, I had landlords calling in, saying that we have these student properties and they’re vacant.”Will you find students?”
Or you also have these big property companies here in South Africa that have thousands of beds, have all these empty rooms, they have vacancies. Where are the students? So from both sides, you have this demand, students looking for a place to stay, parents looking for a place for their kids, and then you had the landlords, the property companies saying, “Where are the students? How can we fill these beds up?”
You had the colleges, the universities that were completely overloaded with students demanding a place to stay but not knowing where to send them and there’s just no real solution. This was happening up until recently. Before DigsConnect started in 2017 this was still happening where people would do a paper-based system.
I was sitting in my little SRC office at UCT. I had on my SRC computer literally an Excel spreadsheet. I had a list of all the students who were coming to me saying, “I need to find a place to stay.” I had a list of all the landlords calling and saying, “We have beds,” and I was matching them up manually, being “Here you go. Here you go.”
I was studying biology at the time because I wanted to become Tomb Raider. I was like, “That’s cool. I want to be Tomb Raider, man.” So I thought if I study biology and worked for National Geographic, I could be Tomb Raider. It made sense in my mind.
You were young.
I bombed student politics. Sitting there and I’d done a year of com-sci, really basic, Python, a little bit of Java scripts. I knew basically how to string a website together. What I couldn’t’ learn from my class you can learn online easily, like Kahn Academy, UniMe, those kind of things.
Exactly. There’s a ton of resources.
Honestly, it’s amazing. So over a weekend I was like, “What if I just built a basic website? A really basic – I just took this data base of properties and sent students there just to solve my problem I was facing. It was never like, “Oh, I’m going to start a company,” or “I’m this entrepreneur,” or “I want to be in business.”
I was just like, “Let me just solve my problem and build this website.” So literally over a weekend I built a two-page website. The one page was you could list property – you could find a property so you’d scroll through your list. The other page was you could add a property, and that was literally it.
I put it up over a weekend. I called it DigsConnect because Digs is the African word for a student house and then connect because you’re connecting each other. It sounds cool. I remember sitting in the SRC meeting and I was briefing everyone else in the meeting.
I was like, “Guys, I’m going to build a website called DigsConnect.” But because I speak quite fast, they were like, “Dicks Connect? Are you sure we want to push this Dicks Connect agenda?”
South Africa’s premiere gay dating website.
It’s like a sexual awareness. Like, hell, I mean, I was like, “No, guys. DigsConnect.” By then some guy had drawn a picture of two dicks touching. He was like, “This has to be the logo for Dicks.” We recently, about two weeks ago, we bought dicksconnect. com as part of a marketing ploy.
This is what happens when you start a startup in college.
We called it DicksConnect, but DigsConnect and put the website up. I sent students there. I told landlords to go list there and by and large forgot about it. I’d check it every now and again, but I was still doing my qualification, still studying.
Then I remember sitting in lecture and I was looking at my Google analytics, and being like, “Wow, check our traffic. This is insane. Who are these people going on our platform?” Then we started getting organic listings that aren’t in Cape Town. I was like, “These are other people that I haven’t spoken to just going on this website and creating listings. This is insane.”
We started getting more and more traffic, more and more students, and then the closest town to us, Stellenbosch, where there’s another big university there, starting listing from Stellenbosch and students from there were going on. And I was like, “This is hectic.”
Then we got phone calls from guys in Joburg and Advatorium (ph) and Pretoria in Gauteng. The market there is three times bigger than the market here on the Western cape. So that was a huge bump in our growth. I was like, “That’s insane.”
And then one day I got a phone call from this guy and he’s like, “Oh, I love it on DigsConnect and I have 4,000 student beds and I’m going to list them on your platform.” And we were like, “Wow, that’s crazy.” He was listing from a place in Potchefstroom. Potchefstroom is a tiny little town almost in the middle of nowhere, but they have a huge university there. They say it’s about 7,500 students. It’s the University of the North West. Massive.
We were like, “Holy shit. This happening.” And more and more we’re spiking this traffic and it was exploding. And then I ended up dropping out and being like, “Let’s make this a real business.” We merged the company. My two co-founders, they jumped aboard. That’s Greg and Brendan. We rebuilt the entire platform, because I did the original platform and I’m a dreadful developer, self-taught. Half the screen was reading how to do it, the other half is doing it.
I was terrible. It was hideous. But they rebuilt the whole thing. I built in Java and React and ended up hosting on Google Cloud because they gave us a ton of free credits. Anytime we run out of credits we’d email them and like, “Hey, guys want to give us more free credits?” They’re like, “Yeah, sure.” We’re like, “Thanks.”
We built the whole platform and then it’s just been insane ever since then. We’ve just been growing like crazy. We now list about 70,000 beds on our platform. We launched the first version of the website in January 2018, almost exactly two years ago. We now list about 70,000 beds on our platform in about 17 locations across South Africa, basically every university we’ve got a presence.
A big milestone we reached was last year in March we decided to fundraise. The first time we had a few offers coming through but it was my and my co-founder, our first rodeo. I was starting a company and going over the process of building a company that we these guys approach us.
They said, “Can we invest in your company?” We said, “No. We’re not keen, we’re not keen, we’re not keen.” Then we started getting a bit too much interest from people that were probably going to start competing with us. And we were like, “Look, we’ve got this incredible opportunity.
No one’s really doing anything in this space yet. There seems to be a lot of demand here. If we don’t take this seriously and give this company the resources it needs, there’s a chance that someone will overtake us or we’ll fuck it up and lose a lot of clients. So let’s get serious. Let’s hire a proper team.”
There were three of us then. Let’s hire a proper Dig team, do some real marketing here. Let’s get some real operational support here. Let’s use all the tools, Salesforce or whatever it needs to make this thing work.”
So we decide to go to market, start fundraising. We put together our pitch deck, the whole process. I realized that most of the work, when it comes to fundraising, is actually in the preparation. I think if you prepare really well, you get pitch proper, you do your numbers properly.
You need to get your projections right, your budget, your forecast, everything is properly done. We got financial help because we didn’t have financial backups. We got a guy who was an auditor from Deloitte in London. He joined our team and made sure all our financials made sense. We then pitched to a few guys and it was incredible.
Right off the bat we got some incredible offers from some really big players in South Africa. We had almost closed the deal and we had terms on the table. We were going to fly to Joburg to close the deal there. Then the morning we were supposed fly out we got a call from these guys saying, “Hey, do you want to come pitch to us?”
We were like, “Well, fine. We’re very busy, but fine. We’ll come through.” So we walked in and met with these guys and it was love at first sight. There was this chemistry straight away. We just sat down and we just clicked straight away. There was the same vision of the company, the same outlook, the same approach to what the company was going to be, the future of the company.
We were completely on the same page. It was just incredible. After an hour we were like, “This is perfect.” We were exactly the company they were looking to invest in. They were exactly the kind of investors we wanted. They would guide us. They would open doors for us. They would be mentors for us.
They’ll have the financial support for us but also give us the space to be entrepreneurs. They trusted our vision. They trusted what we wanted to build. They were like, “Please don’t go to Joburg. Let’s just call our guys down here.
They called their partners across. We then pitched to the entire group of them and within a week they had a term sheet on the table. We went into legals after that and closed the deal, I would say, by a month later. So in about five weeks we turned around from an initial chat to a deal. It’s been almost a year now with them and it has been extraordinary. They’ve been amazing.
How much money did you raise?
We raised $12 million rand in our seed round.
$12 million rand, that’s just under a million dollars.
$800,000 or $900,000. 00.
It’s the biggest seed round in South Africa to date.
You’re like the leading South African startup, basically, which is pretty cool.
I wouldn’t say that but other people have said that. It’s been said about us.
Well I will say it again. The thing that stood out to me in that story is the nature of the problem that you were solving, that in South Africa you have a massive influx of a new students. Maybe their parents and their grandparents had never gotten an education before.
Colleges just weren’t ready for this decent of so many students. So people were literally going to college and they were homeless and they couldn’t sleep anywhere. And along comes DigsConnect and you’re suddenly connecting these students with places to live. Why had nobody done that before you, if the problem was so drastic and it was so pressing and so obvious?
I’m going to give this a practical answer and a philosophical answer to this. I guess I’ll start with the philosophical one. I think that maybe a lot of South Africans don’t’ feel, I want to say almost the audacity to solve problems, or don’t feel like the capability to solve problems.
I think that a lot of South Africans look around at all the things that are wrong in our country, and there’s a lot. We have a crazy crime. We have rolling blackouts and we have crazy inequality. There’s insane poverty. I think a lot of people feel powerless to make changes. I think especially, the issues affecting students, students are young.
You know, you’re 18, 19, 20 years old and maybe you don’t feel capable of making these changes. Maybe you don’t feel like you can do it. If you look at a problem you feel overwhelmed by it, instead of breaking it down into steps.
I don’t want to say it’s a cultural thing, but the way our education system works, not only in South Africa but across the world is you’re told to sit down and put your hand up if you’ve got a question or listen to what the teacher says or ask permission.
We’re not told to stand up and take control and take the lead and figure it out and solve the problem. That’s one of my biggest gripes with the education system is that it doesn’t make leaders. It makes followers.
Maybe in South Africa it’s that issue where we just don’t solve the problems that we have, and so people are just complaining or we wait for someone else to do it for us. Someone else will fix it, or the power structures that be. You know, where “It’s the universities or the government or the big players.
How can this happen? They’ll fix it for us,” instead of realizing that the power to change the world rests with you as an individual, with your tenacity and with your conviction to believe that you can change it. And you can make solutions that not only solves your problem but the problems of people around you and affirm that you can make something that fixes the problems that humanity is facing, that our planet is facing.
Something I want to do with my life personally is how can I inspire South Africans, especially women and underprivileged South African women living in quite desperate situations, to see that she actually can change her circumstances. It’s completely on you to lift yourself up. You don’t have to wait for our incompetent government to give around, because they won’t get around to it, quite frankly.
You don’t have to wait for other people, like big business, because generally big business is motivated by profits. It’s cool. I think a millennial businesses especially, young entrepreneurs, have this social justice mission with what they do which is super cool. But at the end of the day I think people just don’t feel that are capable of making the solution to it.
And I know a practical thing is I think South Africa’s quite behind in terms of tech. The thing of just building a platform, which is sort of natural, perhaps, in America or the UK or in Europe. Just build tech solutions. Build an app for it. It’s almost a joke how common it is, “Build an app for that,” whereas here it’s not that common.
I’d say that in my last two years of being a tech entrepreneur, I probably know every single tech startup in the country. Not because I’m super well-natured, but because there aren’t a lot of us. Over the course of a year or so, a couple of months even, you can meet every single tech entrepreneur in the country on a first-name basis. You do dinner, poker nights, that kind of stuff. There aren’t a lot of us. Tech isn’t widespread here.
I got the feeling at the Indie Hackers meetup last night that everybody knew each other. It was a huge percentage of the startups were there.
Yeah, like, “Hey, Nick. Hey, Mike. How are you doing?”
And you’ve all known each other for a long time.
Like you all went to college together seven years ago and it’s all very tight-knit.
We’ve all known each other for a while. So there aren’t a lot of us, so I think another of the issues is that people didn’t think they could build a solution and they didn’t know how to build the solution. I think that’s fair enough. When I started, I didn’t know how to do it or what to do for any of that. Everything I’ve learned I’ve learned for the first time every time.
Raising funding was the first when I learned how to do a pitch deck, how to do the kinds of cash flow. Every day I’m learning how to manage a team, how to be a good leader. Every day I’m learning how to return a profit. I learned how to do sales the first time while doing sales. It’s like an audacity. You have this word in South Africa, “scom.” (ph) It means have no shame. It’s like, “I have no scom.”
You have to be shameless.
You have to be shameless, exactly. You have to just not really care about things going wrong. Maybe that’s another thing now that I think about it, is that there’s no safety net in South Africa, really. In richer countries, there’s a safety net in that if something goes wrong in your life, you probably won’t end up on the streets.
You probably have family that is fairly well-established. They have jobs. They’ve got a good home. They’ve got insurance. You probably have social security. You probably have insurance. You probably have a big tax base, where your government can look after you. That is not the case in South Africa. If you fuck up here, the consequences are extremely serious.
You will be on the street. There’s a minority of people in this country that have money, that have got that safety net. But for a lot of South Africans, they come from very, very desperate situations. You spoke about it earlier. A lot of people would say for the first time in their family, a huge family, they’ll be going to university.
Most people haven’t even finished matricular or higher education. So now you’re taking people from really poor backgrounds who come from villages or townships, who are now having to take loans from the government or from business to get an education, the stakes are just so high. I think the nature of risk of starting a company, it just doesn’t weigh out how much people could lose.
It’s like the conversation we had earlier off the podcast about what people want. I think most people just want to reach a level of stability here. South Africa’s so fascinating because there’s such a huge spread of not super-wealthy but pretty wealthy people to people that are extremely desperate here, and everything in between that.
People just want to live a good, stable life here. They want to be able to have a solid brick house with four walls around. They want to make sure their kids are going to a school where there’s not 80 kids in the class but it’s a normal size. They want to have good books coming through.
They want to live with a stable government that isn’t in-fighting all the time and there’s not corruption stories in the front pages of the newspaper every single day.
There’s not bribery happening all the time. They want to be able to go to the hospital and see a competent doctor and not wait in line for days and get even more sick in those dodgy hospitals. I think that most people just want to have a good life. I think that providing solutions there is still quite a new mentality.
Yes. In America, we’ve got the so-called American dream, which I think was much stronger when I was a kid. I remember in the 90s everybody feeling like, “I can be the next Bill Gates.” You mention that the educational system here produces followers, not leaders.
But it feels the same in the United States. Education is like, get on this track. Get this degree, et cetera, et cetera, but our media broadcasts these business leaders as heroes. Bill Gates is a hero. Elon Musk. from South Africa, everyone knows who he is in America.
It inspires people to start things, and we don’t have the same lack of encouragement that exists here, where you don’t have a safety net or you don’t necessarily have the infrastructure. For example, I don't know what it’s called but, like, the power goes out.
It’s called load shedding.
Yes. Load shedding.
It’s rolling blackouts.
Exactly. So at this time of day, this week, every month, the power is going to be out. If you want to code, sorry, you can’t. You want to go get a sandwich from the shop, sorry, their kitchen is down.
It’s insane. It’s honestly insane. Our government is so incompetent to the extent that we have scheduled blackouts across our country where it is costing our economy billions of rands because businesses can’t operate. Just for ourselves, we’re a tiny little example. We’re a team of 13 people and a two-year old company.
But we’re an internet-based company so when the power goes out, our internet goes out. So sure, we could maybe hotspot off our phones for a while but then because there’s so many power outages the battery power that backups the cell phone towers, those go out and that connection cuts out.
After four hours, our laptops, the power runs out there. We’re still paying everyone to be in the office. Our clients, our users are still expecting to be able to access things, but they can’t. It’s insane. On the other hand, too, I’m like a die-hard optimist. I feel like all these problems make us better.
It makes us so resilient where we are constantly having to take these hits. We have to adjust, we have to hustle, we have to re-evaluate. We have to make a plan, every day we have to make a plan. If something goes wrong and if you figure it out and get better for it, I think as an entrepreneur that’s the most exciting thing.
That’s one of the best tests you can have is when things go wrong, how can you not – oh, no, things have gone wrong. Maybe just patch it, but rather how can I use this as a learning lesson to make something even better, to make it a 10X experience because something went so bad. And use it as an opportunity to just rise above. That’s what it does.
The kind of businesses we need to be having, those kind of entrepreneurs like Kamaitachi (ph) are world class. Just because we’re dealing with things no one else dealt with. For example, my dad’s a doctor. What he sees is a lot of med students from Scandinavia, will come to South Africa and in two weeks they will see more cases here than they would see in like –.
You spend a Friday night in one of our government hospitals you will see everything short of a war zone. The experience you get is out of this world but it does get hella frustrating when you are trying to build a company.
Not only are entrepreneurs and businesspeople in this country, not only are we making a profit, we are developing this country. The future of this continent, Africa, depends on the entrepreneurs. We are developing this place. I think you can compare development with freedom. I’m quoting from a book I was reading called, “Development is Freedom”.
It’s by Amartya Sen, I think. It’s brilliant. It’s really, really good. It’s formed a lot of my opinions on economics and development economics. If you look at a lack of development as unfree individuals it’s so crucial that we allow people to develop, to build products, to build services, to build infrastructure and build a wall through that, through making a profit or whatever it is.
That development allows changes for people. We were saying earlier how mobile banking apps have literally lifted the GDP of some countries in Africa like Kenya, just because now people are allowed to transact where they never could before. The government is never going to get around to it. I’ll tell you right now, firsthand experience, any government in Africa is will never come close to providing the kind of infrastructure and services and social upliftment that a tech startup will.
We enable people to interact. Just a small thing like DigsConnect is doing. We are allowing students to find a home. This story I heard the other day was, this kid from Zimbabwe is in his third year at university in Africa and every year he is – it is such a disaster because I couldn’t get a visa to come study in South Africa until I had proof of accommodation.
But I couldn’t get proof of accommodation because I was in Zimbabwe. So I couldn’t find a place to stay. I didn’t know where to go before. You go on these dodgy, free listing website but then there’s a bunch of scammers. It’s like your guy’s version of Craigslist.
You go on these dodgy websites and he’s like, “I pay a deposit on this dodgy website. I’ll probably get scammed but at least then I have a lease which I could give to the government to get my visa. I’ll still arrive late and miss my first couple of lectures.” It’s really tough coming from a different country. I’m coming from the backwoods and I’m trying to get this education.
It educates a generation of young Africans to become active citizens in the economy. We can’t even help them get an education. It’s ridiculous. He messaged me the other day and with DigsConnect, you have no idea how much this has helped me now. I can find a place to stay in two days on DigsConnect.
I paid the deposit. It’s a legit place. I know it’s a good quality. I know it’s going to be safe there. I know it’s right by university because you can look on the map and all the other features we have on our website and our app. Booked, paid, done. Got my visa the first time in my entire undergrad. I’m going to get to university on time.
I get so emotional. I know I’m supposed to be this cold, strategic businessperson and I get so emotional when I read these stories. The government is failing these people but just me and a couple of other crazy students, we built this website to solve a problem and it’s changing people’s lives. It’s changing the way education is being experienced. That’s just one story.
There are so many startups that are doing the most incredible things across insurance, across health, across so many different areas. We’re really making the world a better place, shaping humanity and I think it’s so inspiring and so exciting. The government needs to get out of our way or increase the supports for tech entrepreneurs.
I live in the Bay Area and there’s so many startups that don’t do anything nearly that impactful. It’s a cliché at this point, the latest thing out of Silicon Valley is always going to be some meaningless app to get you more addicted to something. Coming here, talking to all the founders at the Meetup last night, all of you were together and wanted your company to improve the infrastructure and the quality of life and the country.
You want to actually have an impact on people here. On one hand, it’s very depressing to see just how stark some of the problems are here but also, as an entrepreneur, it gives you the ability to have a crazy impact. You went from zero to what? Zero to 70-80,000 listings on your website in not that many years? That’s a sign that you’re serving a very unmet need and people care passionately about it.
I always say, if you’re an entrepreneur, Africa is the land of opportunity. Google and the really big companies in America are so focused on the potential Africa is going to be with so many hundreds of millions of people that are coming into the online marketplace.
They are people that want to transact, they want to buy. These are consumers. They are going to start taking part in our international economy. It’s such an exciting place to build a company, to whet your teeth, in a way. And to build infrastructure, because there’s such a lack of infrastructure. Hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure and ancillary services.
There’s so much opportunity. A lot of my friends who went to expensive schools here are leaving the country. They are like, “It’s too bad here, it’s too dangerous. There’s not a lot of opportunity. I want to go to…” a lot of them are living in London right now. I say like half of London is ex-South African. Or they’re going to Australia. They’re leaving.
Like I left with Jonah Lee (ph). It’s boring. It’s already so developed. There’s an entrepreneur on every corner. Build stuff. He had so much competition. Everything’s been done. So what can you do? You do like a meaningless app that does – who even cares? Something lame. Whereas here, because the problems are so intense and vast and the scope is so big and it affects to many people, you can literally, just being in your early 20s, with a couple of friends, build something that will impact hundreds of thousands of people in a deeply meaningful way.
I think in terms of the big stuff, the meaning of life stuff, what do you need every day? It is so gratifying. It is so meaningful that what you’re doing and the code you’re writing or the content you create or whatever it is, is affecting people in such a profound way. It’s tough but living out here and trying to operate in these conditions but it is so exciting.
I think in terms of a meaningful life and an exciting life there is no place I’d rather be than building a company in South Africa.
Tell me about these early day when you weren’t treating this like the mission for your life? It was just a cool project you threw together, an Excel spreadsheet and a website that you built. Where were all these people coming from? And when did you decide, “Hey, this shouldn’t just be a side project. This is something that should be my mission.”
It happened in steps. There wasn’t an “ah-hah” moment. That’s it. Just call me jet phaser (ph). Small things would happen every now and again that would nudge me in that direction. I remember the first people we had were landlords who were calling me, SRC, saying, “Hey, I heard you’re the SRC person this year. Here’s my room details.”
They call me and I say, “Oh, wow, I just built a really basic website as part of the SRC thing. You can just create your listing on this link here.”
So this is you as part of the student government? Your mandate was helping with student housing? You have predecessors who presumably also got these calls from landlords? They never made a website.
Did they have an Excel Spreadsheet?
They had no Excel spreadsheet. I think they would do calls or email. The university – how do I say this nicely? Is bureaucratic. If you want to try to introduce innovation, it has to go through 100 bodies for approval first.
And everyone is going to say no. And you can fight noes and I love fighting a no. Some will say no to me and I’m like, “Yes.” Because I can fight you to change your mind. And you can fight the whole way to the top. A lot of people get over it after the first no. It’s no’s the whole way.
You were getting noes. You were trying to build this website and the university was like, “No, you can’t.”
I went to the university and I was like, “What do you think about this thing where we build into the university’s website? On your domain we would have this link where it would be your student housing portal. We can digitalize the whole process. I pitched the whole thing to them. I met with the committees, the housing committees, the deputy vice chancellors, all the right people in the right structures, secretaries, secretary, P. A.
Everybody in this big, monolithic, bureaucratic systems. Email after email after email, meetings and basically everyone just said, “No.” They’re like, “We don’t need it. We have this nice post on the wall.”
We like our students homeless.
Yeah, exactly. Like, what about the poster? Do you see? There’s a great poster. Look at our nice list we have here. Like a paper list. Some universities who haven’t worked with us yet are still giving out paper lists to their students. They’re standing queues around the building.
And we’re like, “That is insane. All those students are sitting there on their phones. Surely you should reach them on their phones. With an app.” They’re on their phones but, no, the universities want to give out their paper lists. Basically they are these big bureaucratic systems and I think that my predecessors in the role I was in were facing the noes and didn’t have the lack of scom (ph) that I had to be like, “Fine, then. If you don’t want to do it, I’ll do it myself.”
That’s always been a thing in my life. People say no to me and I’m like, “Well, I don’t need you. Whatever. I’ll do it anyways. You suck.” I’ll just do it myself.” And no matter how much it cost me, just because of the “fuck you” attitude I sometimes get where people dog me and say I can’t do it, just to prove them wrong no matter how much it physically costs me, the pain, the agony, the sleepless nights, the social rejection, I will do it to prove a point.
And sometimes it hasn’t always been in my benefit. It’s back bite several times. I think it was like that. I was like, “Fine, then. I’ll do it. It can’t be that hard to build a website.” Honestly, it wasn’t. A WordPress website, you can do that in a few hours. A WIX website. It’s free. It’s not hard. You don’t need endless resources. I was on a Shed server, like a local server company for like 50 rand a month. That’s like $2 or something.
It’s nothing, it’s fine and it’s not hard to do. I just did it and it got out there. The students were that were going on the site – I was a student and my friends are students. I posted on Facebook, “Ha-ha. Look at my website, guys.” Everyone is like, “What the heck.”
It’s actually so funny because my friends had a cool place to stay. So really small traffic, like one or two people going on. But being SRC helped a lot because I had status then. I wasn’t like a random student. I’d been elected in by student votes. Also, because I was an SRC I was known at the university and I’m pretty loud.
I’d walk into lecture theaters and be like, “Guys, we have a very important issue we’re talking about right now, designated smoking zones on campus.” I was like that person everyone hated, who was so annoying.
Everybody knew what you were saying.
It was like, “Oh, god, it’s her again.” I campaign about something. Slagging an optic, cross sex social media platforms. When I wasn’t tweeting about my disdain for the government, I was tweeting about this silly website that I built. That’s how it started. It worked for someone.
Someone was like, “Oh, my gosh. I found someone on there.” There was another page that was, “Find a Digsmate”. A Digsmate is like a roommate. People found roommates on there and that was actually really cool because the university experience is more than just about education. It’s about the social experience. Who are you studying with?
The friends you have, the memories you make. It’s “Are we sitting up at 2:00 in the morning and drinking beers in our dorm room and talking about the meaning of life?” It’s like, “Oh, my gosh. We’ve got an exam in four hours. We’ve got to cram right now.” It’s staying together, it’s the hustle together and that kind of community experience is what we want to bring into the DigsConnect experience.
Especially in South Africa, there’s a word, “Ubuntu”, which means act togetherness. It’s really key in our national identity culture. This togetherness was so important for us, especially for student who live off campus, who felt excluded from the university experience, to make them feel they are still a part of the community.
It started working. Students were finding roommates, making friends. Landlords are finding tenants on the website. Especially for a landlord, look at them. It’s only these big property companies who had tens of thousands of beds and they owned by bigger, international companies. It’s hundred of billions of dollars of revenue. They’re fine.
A lot of our landlords are just ordinary South Africans. They’re middle class Africans, they’ve saved up their whole lives, they’ve bought an investment property, like a two bedroom flat or a four bedroom house in a student area like Rondebosch or Braamfontein and they want to fill it up.
They are not wealthy, they can’t take a few months with no tenants because they can’t afford that. They have to pay off their mortgages, they have to pay off the raise in taxes. South Africans are taxed extremely heavily and get pretty much nothing in return for it. Just another jab at the government there. They have to pay insurance and security companies and they have bills piling up. They’ve got kids they have to pay for. They’re working insane hours.
They can’t afford to have vacancies. For them it’s really real. They have to get tenants in there. All these South Africans are coming to us, saying, “We’ve got to find tenants. We’ve got these nice properties.” These are good people. They are not like these crazy, predatory, parasitic capitalist that want to bleed the country out.
They’re good, normal, middle class South Africans that are participating in our economy, buying property, and just want to fill those dreams up. They put their property on DigsConnect and they fill them up. They’re like, “This is super cool.” They’ll tell their friends who bought investment properties, “You should try out putting your place on DigsConnect.”
We just started pairing people up. It worked. I think it’s, learning more the about the lingo you use in startups and stuff but it’s when a user activate, I think is a term. When does it work? When does someone go on DigsConnect and they’re like, “Holy shit, this works.” And if you’re a student it’s like, “I love this works. This is worth coming back.” That’s what started.
It was really organic growth in the beginning. It was working out for us. Then when my co-founder, Greg, joined. I could talk about Greg for hours. He is just the coolest, most incredible, most amazing person in the whole fucking world. I love him so much.
Did he join up before you dropped out of school?
He did, he did, actually. He is incredible at marketing. He’s a marketing, branding genius. Another reason why we work so well together. We were on SRC together and we ran the Student’s Housing together. So we knew we worked really well together.
We’d worked together for a while before and his boyfriend is actually also a friend of mine from high school. So, he joined up. He is really good at things I’m really bad at. I’m good at big picture stuff and crazy ideas. I’m really bad at operations. I put a focus on times, I get bored if I do the same thing all the time. Greg is a machine at operations.
He structures everything, has plans. That guy just takes an Excel spreadsheet and he’s like, “Okay, this is the timeline that we’re going to achieve these ROIs, these are the numbers we’re going to get.” He’s like, boom, boom, boom. And he’s like get it done. Brendan comes along and he can build the stuff.
So the three of us are this really strong team. I think this is such a big part of how it actually worked, how the company succeeded because with such a strong profiling team and our skills are so complementary. We perfectly fit together in terms of what we can offer each other. I can come up with these crazy ideas. I go out there and I make things happen.
I do the sales, I speak to people, I get really excited. Greg can take these things and actually make it happen, instead of them just being ideas, he can make an actual plan. Ok, this is how we’re going to make this actually work. Then Brendan comes along and says, “Hey, cool, well I can build this.” Brendan is this insane developer who can – he built the entire platform in a month or something like that.
When he gets into his code, he does not sleep. He’s insane. The two of them came aboard. We were just seeing organic growth. Greg’s like, “No, we need to grow big. We need to grow wild. We need to get everyone’s attention now.” What makes the marketplace work is when there’s liquidity. You have to have enough buyers for sellers. For us, we have to have enough beds for students.
Because we’re in seven different cities, it’s always tricky balancing the ratio in each place. We have teams. We have landlord teams, we have student teams. Then, say, for example in Johannesburg, you’re servicing two main universities, Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg, and then a bunch of private colleges.
There’s a few main student areas like Braamfontein, Doornfontein, Rosebank. We look at those areas and say, “How many beds have you had and what’s our student traffic?” and balance those out. If we find that we’re really lacking one number we have to a remarketing push to balance it out. We found that in Cape Town we’re still lacking a lot of landlords because a lot of properties was being built and the marketplace was fat with beds but not enough students at one point.
So we were like, “Ok, how do you get a lot of students on the platform? It’s marketing.” This is our first time figuring out marketing. We could put posters up on campus. We could give out flyers on campus. That sounds so lame. That’s what boring companies do. I mean, who gives out posters? What the hell? We could do online advertising but everyone hates online ads.
Now me do them but when we started out we needed to start with a splash. We can’t do something lame. This is before we had any money. We were still students, just recently dropped out. We had no cash at the time. I was living in a bachelor pad and I put a drywall up down the middle. Borrowed money, put a drywall up.
Raised it in half an hour on DigsConnect so I could make money to feed myself at the time. We were scraping together ten rands here and there. Greg was like, “What if we just took 10 thousand rands in 10 rand notes and stapled them to our flyers and we just threw them out in a crowd at the university?” We were like, “What? That is insane. Let’s do it.” We had to call several banks.
Banks don’t carry that much cash on them anymore. We had to call several banks and get this huge bag of money, walking through the streets of Cape Town, really dodgy with a bag of money. We tried to hide it so it didn’t look – but like, nondescript. I mean, we had a paper bag with a dollar sign on the front. I told them, “You know we’re not just going to get to campus and throw the money out.
We need like how to be in a pack roll. Greg, in his classic Greg style planned the whole thing out, literally like a battle plan. He had – the documents came out again, the spreadsheets came out and we had the whole thing planned down to the minute. It was a three day build up. We got all the Instagram influencers on board, all the student influencers. We had photographers, we had drone footage of the day, we had the media involved.
You told everybody you were going to throw cash into the crowd?
We told everybody, “Ten thousand rand is going to be dropped on UTC’s campus.” Get excited, you know. Everyone was buzzing. Students were just going mad. They were Instagramming, Tweeting about it. We had really cool graphics and posters about it. We were just getting word out there and leaking stories to the news the whole time.
In order to do build up, on the day before, we did a mini-drop. We dropped two thousand rand at the food court. That got people hyped. We also had the photographers there. I’ll show you some of the photos. If you go on Instagram, you’ll see them. You should see the photographs of the day. It was insane. The day before we start dropping minots (ph). People knew it was legit. Everyone else was talking about, “Oh, my gosh. I got a hundred on the campus, I got two hundred on the campus today.”
This is a lot of money for a student. You think from their perspective, you can buy a sandwich on campus for 20 rand. So we were dropping ten thousand rand. People were just like, “I’ll take it.”
This money is attached to like an ad for DigsConnect?
Our flyers, yes.
A flyer, ok.
So we designed a flyer that said, “Thank you, UTC, this is for you.” Our tagline advised, “Send Digs pics.” The whole DicksConnect thing. It raises eyebrows sometimes. We had a bit of a backlash. But it was fine.
This is what you can do when you’re marketing to college students. If you were selling to bankers, I’m not sure that would work.
Actually, for bankers it probably would work. Let’s be serious. It probably would work with bankers. For students we had flyers that said, “Send dick pics.” Digs Pics. I’m sorry. Send Digs pics with our flyers and win ten rand. In the morning we wake up. It’s like 8:00 a. m. and the university is panicking now.
It’s been on the national news that we’re going to drop money. Everyone’s like freaking out. They’re tweeting us, “Please, what’s going on? We got to know.” We weren’t ridiculous about it. We hired private security to mix into the crowd. I guess it was a riot. We had permits and standby. The whole thing was legit.
We started doing stories on Instagram. We had the main Instagram influencers, they call it, “UCT Just Kidding” it’s a meme page but everyone follows them. We start dropping hints. It’s happening at 12:00. Everyone was online, just messaging us. The hype was insane. Everyone was walking around campus trying to look for us.
We had our DigsConnect t-shirts on but we were wearing hoodies over it so they couldn’t see us. Where’s Digs? Where’s DigsConnect? We started up at the food court so there’s a lot of stairs and concrete and stuff. We planned the route very carefully. It was me, Brendan and Greg and the crew of these meme guys following us, livestreaming the whole thing.
It was supposed to run from the food court down to the main plaza, called Jameson Plaza. If you look at pictures of UTC it’s the main, big building with the columns and stuff, like Greco-Roman architecture. So we start at the food courts and we take our hoodies off and like, almost immediately this scream goes up. It’s like, “They’re here!” And we’re just like, “Oh, shit.”
I’m the smallest between the team of Greg, Brendan, and I. Everyone is gunning for me, right? I’m holding this stack of cash in my hands. I panic. We had a massive plan of the whole route. I’m like, “Fuck this.” I throw up a couple hundred rand.
People start scrambling, like rugby tackling. I don't know if rugby sports are really big in the states. But like rugby tackle. I was like pushing the lead out. I was sustained bolting my way through that campus like it was nobody’s business.
You just caused chaos on campus.
It was. I’ll show you the video. This is insane.
I’m sure the school loved you.
I start running down the stairs. There’s just like about 100 people running after me. I was running for my life at this point. It’s like pure terror, throwing out money as I go. I come around the corner, I find the library to Jameson Plaza, expecting there to be maybe 100 people there. I come out there. This roar erupts.
There’s about 4,000 people waiting for me on the campus. I’m alone now because Greg and Brendan are coming around the other side, like the main stage going up. So everyone doesn’t see them, they only see me. This entire crowd turns around and starts sprinting straight at me. The fear I felt in my heart at that moment.
I just threw the money up in the air, dropped down, crouch and crawl between people’s legs. At that moment Greg and Brendan come around the corner and they start throwing their money out. The crows then spins around and starts running for them. It was just like – it was crazy. The cool thing is it wasn’t bad. No one actually got hurt.
How many people died during this? That’s what I want to know.
Nothing bad happened because we had security guys there in the crowd to make sure there’s no actual fights. Everyone was having fun. It was really positive. There was no mob action. It was just really good. People were just fine, really fine.
This solved your student shortage on the website?
Yes, our traffic that day was insane. Not only was it the traffic from the students themselves go on, like, “What is DigsConnect?” They heard about us. Our brand awareness was huge. Since that day we’ve owned UTC. The UTC market, the Cape Town market belongs to us because of that marketing campaign.
Not only that, we got national news. We got international news because of that. We were invited to talk at marketing events, like guerrilla marketing. Not only had we done this campaign but we had hired photographers because we knew the photographs would be amazing. We got these beautiful shots of Jameson Hall and the DigsConnect flyers going everywhere. Beautiful images. We planned the whole thing out, of course, so.
How much did this cost you? This sounds like an expensive event, not to mention the money you’re giving away, but security.
One thing I’m extremely talented at is being stingy. It’s one of my great gifts in life, is how can I save a buck here and there? I think it’s why my bases like me so much. So it’s like, “The thing cost 22 rand.” It’s like, “How dare you? You’ll pay two, two rand.” So not that much.
So obviously, ten thousand rand was ten thousand rand. Security we got from the university. We’re like, “We need your security guards because it’s going to be, like. It’s for your own benefit. You don’t want students to be in a fight.” So they covered that. We had the university health professionals there are paramedics, so they covered that.
Photographers cost us – we got student photographers. We didn’t hire amazing National Geographic photographers. We got guys that were studying photography. They were stoked to have a couple hundred bucks. So honestly, not more than 12 thousand rand.
To give people an idea of what this is, South African rand is about a 14/1 conversion rate with the U. S. dollar. So ten thousand rand is like $700. Not that much money to the average American listener. It’s crazy that an entire college goes crazy for that.
Literally. At UTC, especially. I think it’s called the world’s university. It’s the best university in Africa. It is the premiere university on the continent.
$700 gets everybody in a frenzy.
It belongs to DigsConnect.
I’ve noticed how far a dollar can get you in Cape Town. You can rent a five bedroom, cliffside, beach-facing villa for $150 a night here. It’s crazy. A lot of the founders I talked to at the Indie Hackers Meetup last night were taking advantage of this by starting companies where their customers are based somewhere in the western world and they can save a ton of money and they don’t need that much profit to live a comfortable life as a founder in Africa.
Your situation is different. You’re targeting local customers. You’re not necessarily taking advantage of the fact you can reach a global audience because it’s a very local business. What was your business model and how were you able to eventually able to pull yourself up from having to live in a makeshift house and rent half of it just to pay your bills?
We were trying to make money and the solution actually came to us from our users. We had built this free platform as a couple of students. We were like, “This is cool. It solves a problem,” but none of us had studied business. We were just going along with life.
During our busy season – now is our busy season between November to February because our university starts in February. So everyone looks for a place to stay between November to January and it’s really busy. A landlord would go on the platform and list like at 8:00 a. m. and by 4:00 p. m. they’re on page ten.
They’ll call us and they’ll say, “What the heck? How can we be on page one?” We’re like, “Oh, sorry, you can’t. It’s just really busy right now.” One guy is like, “Can I pay you to be on page one?” And we’re like, “That’s a cool idea. How much would you pay us to be on page one?” He’s like, “I don't know. What do you think?”
And we’re like, “Um, 50 bucks.” And the guy’s like, “Ok.” We’re like, “Ok, no wait. 100 rand.” He was like, “Ok.” We’re like, “No, wait, wait. 200 rand.” Eventually we got to a fair amount of money because we’d built things so valuable that people wanted to pay for that. That’s what the core business is. It’s like you solve someone’s problem and how much someone wanted to pay for that problem to be solved for them. That’s what we learned very early on.
People literally wanted to pay us because we solved a problem for them, helped them find tenants. Then we started getting serious about the business model, looking at what were, compared to estate agents. Every time they placed someone what is their commission? What kind of structure? Other listing platforms, what are they charging?
How much was a lease worth to a landlord? When you deduct things they have to pay, like all the expenses, what is left? What is a fair price for that lead generation fee? We’ve been formalizing that in a way. Instead of paying – everyone pays for the front page. That doesn't necessarily ensure success.
Same thing we talked about last night, how do you align your monetization with your actual value add as a company? Our value add is like a signed lease, a placement. If a student is moving to a property because everyone’s winning then. The student has won.
They’ve found a place to stay. They’re stoked. The landlord’s winning. They found a tenant. They’re getting rent. They’re pretty happy. So that moment, that’s a main KPI.
That’s when it should be paid for.
Absolutely. That’s when we should be charging. So that’s when we do charge now. We do a placement fee on that. We’re able to work on that. This is all brand new. We’re still figuring it out. Every day we figure out new things. We only rolled that out last year in September with a pilot group of landlords.
We had a couple thousand landlords. We piloted with 20 and it’s been insanely successful. We’ve had thousands of applications for those few landlords. We’re going to be rolling it out to everyone this year. It’s part of our 20/20 plan. People have to pay then.
It’s our saying, you will pay for this value. I spend a fortune on coffee every day because I get a lot of value out of it. The value is there. We help people fill their beds, we help students have a place to stay and that’s when we charge.
That’s such an important point. If you provide something of value for people, they’ll pay for it. It’s one of those things where people talk about, for example, “Should I start a B2B or B2C business?” Should I sell to other businesses or should I sell to other consumers?” I think the stereotype is that it’s really hard to sell to consumers.
Especially students because they don’t have any money. It’s so much harder to get them to pay for things. But the reality is that there are things that consumers pay a lot of money for. Housing is at the top of that list. People pay a lot of money for housing because it’s an extremely necessary thing in life. Education is right up there.
Food, as you mentioned, coffee, you’ll pay a lot for. The fact that you’re actually solving, not a trivial, fake problem. You’re not helping people do something they would never do, you’re helping people solve one of the basic necessities of life.
Living, housing. It’s like a human right, so.
Exactly. Of course you can charge for it, or you can charge commission basically or a percentage of this match making that you’re doing and build a profitable business.
Absolutely. We add value for landlords. Especially in the big companies, you have thousands of beds. If you look at how much an empty bed costs them. That lease fee, the lease is worth anything between 40,000 rand to 120,000 rand. You start multiplying those leases, even if you have five, six, seven empty beds it adds up to a lot of money for them.
So to spend a couple thousand rand to fill up those beds is worth it not only in terms of the tangible things, like, “I’m filling a bed. I’m getting a rental.” But just like, vacancies look bad. Say you’re a property company, you own a few buildings. You want to go to the bank to get a loan to get another one. They’re going to say, “What’s your vacancy rate?”
If you have a vacancy rate that’s pretty high that’s not attractive to loan money to you then. You’re failing as an operator. So we’ve streamlined everything. We have this extreme focus at DigsConnect. We will fill your beds with students. It’s been really important for us to be super focused. I think it’s so tempting as a solo founder, especially young solo founders and first timers to be like, “Look at all these cool ideas. We’re going to do it all.”
Sometimes I’ll be lying in bed at 2:00 in the morning with these crazy ideas and there’s this one totally out there idea. I’ll call my co-founders and wake them up be like, “Guys, best idea ever. Ice cream for students.” Totally out there. They’re like, “What? No.” I had this incredible mentor. He’s built three companies already.
He picked me out of the swamps of early entrepreneurship days and he’s been like invaluable to me. I couldn’t run this without him. He always says, when I call him, I’m like, “Phillip, I’ve got this crazy idea.” He’s like, “No, I don’t want to hear about it. You focus. You need to fill beds. That’s what you do. You fill beds. You’re student accommodations. I don’t want to hear about anything else until you get that right. Until every single student in this country that is looking for student accommodations, about 1. 2 million students, until the vast proportion of those are being serviced by your platform, don’t even look at anything else.”
Extreme focus. Because every time you’re thinking or working on something else that isn’t your core value add, you’re taking time away from fixing another thing. The chance of succeeding is directly proportional to how much time you’re putting into that one thing you’re doing. If you want to be a runner, you’ve got to run. If you’re not running and you’re playing chess or something then like, what the fuck? Run.
What are your goals at this point? You’ve raised money. You’ve built out a team of how many people?
There’s 13 of us.
Thirteen of you in this wonderful office. You’re trying to focus. There’s 1. 2 million students in South Africa who need housing. Where do you go from here? How big of a company do you want to build and why?
The plan is right now, we’re in the heat of our season. We have every day this month has been better than the last day. January is our craziest month. It’s just insane right now. Everyone wants a place to stay. So we just need to survive January. We need to make sure we’re not dropping the ball, we’re placing the students and we’re monetizing.
So this is when we make all our money now is in January. So lock down this month, do a good job, make sure all the students have a place to stay. By about mid- to end of February then things will have died off completely. Students are staying in their place for a year. We live our lives from February to February. So after that our plan is to just enroll automatization to all our users.
We had a small sub-section, so roll out to everyone. Make sure that’s working. There’s a few options we’re looking at. We’re quite excited because we have a student eco-system. There are so many ancillary services to education that students require that we can add through DigsConnect.
Look at all the ways students transacting, from textbooks to transport, tutoring, financial services, loans. There’s all these ways you can work with students and support the educational experience. We can expand to property more. We’ve got one foot in property and one foot in ed-tech, so we could do more prop-tech stuff.
That’s really exciting. Especially in Africa properties are really exciting. Or we could keep what we have now and just go international. There’s a lot of students in the world. A lot of places, a lot of first world countries are too scared to trade.
If you’ve built a business in the states or the U. K. and you’re used to building a company in an established economy with a stable government, going somewhere perhaps like India or Argentina or somewhere it’s still developing it might be tough. Whereas, we thrive doing things in tough conditions. So maybe it’s expanding to a place that doesn’t have competition yet.
There’s a few things we’re looking at.
There’s a lot of options.
Love options. Honestly, we have looked at two property. We have out big strategy meeting at the end of our season. So once we’ve gone through the season, we just like learning everything we can now, focusing on our core KPI which is placing students, learning from that and then adjusting from there.
I know you haven’t had this meeting yet but how do you even think about evaluating which of those options you’re going to choose? Because to some degree you have to consider your goals as a founder, what you want to do personally, what will make you happy, what you like working on, the impact you want to have, how big your business can get, which one is more lucrative, which of these options, which of these factors resonates with you the most?
I don't know, I think that entrepreneurship was a mistake for me. It just happened. I never planned on doing this, wanted to be this. Somehow, I fell into this. It was the most serendipitous event because I fucking love it. It is so cool. It’s such a cool, exciting, meaningful, kickass way to spend life, building companies.
Working on building companies and especially in South Africa and across Africa. I want to keep doing this. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. Even though I think it’s exciting and lucrative to look at first world countries but adding services and building companies in developing places where they need it more, especially across Africa, is such a great challenge.
It’s such a cool thing to do, to wake up and face a really hard situation and be like, “How do you a company or how do you build this infrastructure in a place like the DRC?” Or in Ethiopia or whatever and facing those challenges and figuring it out and having a huge impact. I think that’s really cool and DigsConnect is a cool company. We have a strong student brand, we have an awesome user base.
The ripple effects we have with that is so exciting. Just for example, one of the towns we work is called Grahamstown, it’s a little town in the eastern Cape and there’s a university called Rhodes University. It’s a great university. The town itself is quite poor. The province, a province is like a state, it’s quite poor.
With DigsConnect, for example, we’ve gone there, we’ve gone to local homeowners, normal South Africans that have a spare apartment and they’ve listed their place on DigsConnect. Students that have funding from their parents or from a bank or from the government are going there, spending money now and staying this rent.
And now we’ve seen, learning that the landlord is making money, these local South Africans but also these ancillary services are picking up now. There’s cafes popping up to feed the students and beauty salons and art galleries. Suddenly there’s this wave of entrepreneurship that has been picked up and built on the back of what DigsConnect is doing.
And this is so fucking cool if we can do this across a bunch of economies, around all these university towns, these college towns, where you bring people together. You literally bring people together, they learn to transact economically off our service. This is super cool. If we could just keep taking this out to the world, I don’t see anything I’d want to do other than this.
We had a few offers like, “We want to buy the company.” It’s way too soon, though. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d just start another company. Maybe like a space company. I’m loving this, I couldn’t imagine anything else.
Digs is one of the coolest companies you could possibly run. You get to do all kinds of immature marketing campaigns.
Our tagline is “Send Digs Pics”, come on. That’s cool.
A lot of people listening live in places where it’s not super developed, where there aren’t a lot of investors, there aren’t a lot of people building tech businesses and they want to have an impact. Maybe they have some of the same fears that people in South Africa might have.
They don’t have a good fallback plan. They don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to do something well. What’s your biggest tip to Indie Hackers in that situation for how they can get started and build something impactful?
I think the first thing is the belief in yourself. You have to believe that you are capable of fixing the problem. You are capable of providing the solution. There’s no special formula, like you have to be born with it. The great unshop in years (ph) it was like some secret they have that makes them capable and you not capable.
Everybody is capable of building the company, fixing the problem, providing the solution, just playing that role in society. It’s the absolute belief that you can do it. And that has to go really deep inside you and stick with you because people are going to say no to you a thousand times. When we first started, I was cold-calling landlords all the time, saying, “Hey, please list your property on DigsConnect.” And they’d be like, “No, where’d you get my number from, you freak?” I’m like, “Sorry, ok, bye.” People are going to say no to you so often. People are going to say you’re crazy or they’re going to shame you. You’re going to fuck up.
I’ve gone to pitch to big property companies and our website crashed in the middle of the pitch. A hundred people watching it. That’s totally embarrassing. You have to keep pushing through that. If you know that it’s a real problem you want to solve, it’s a real business opportunity, it’s a real thing there that people are struggling with this one thing.
They hate it and they will pay you to fix the problem for them. You’re going to build this company, you’re going to build this product, the solution or whatever it is. Build it, just do it. If you haven’t got the means to devote all your time to it, that’s totally fine. I was studying part-time when I started – I was studying full-time when I started on DigsConnect.
So you can still be working full-time and still build things on the side. At the end of the day it does come down to a bit of sacrifice. There’s only so many hours you have in your day as a human being and you have to allocate those. So one thing that sucks, is I’ve had to cut a lot of social time for myself. My relationships all started to fail, one after the other because I’m spending my evenings at the office and getting home at like 10:00 every night.
My weekends, I’m working. I’m so obsessed with this company I choose this company every single time over everything else. My friendships have suffered because of it. My friends don’t see me for months at a time because this is what I do. I don’t go to parties because I want to work. Sacrifice, you know.
My health has suffered sometimes because I have been drinking a lot of coffee or stress smoking. I can’t exercise every day anymore. I used to love running and stuff. Now I have to squeeze exercise in whenever I can. You don’t sleep as well. Your stress level – I started getting psoriasis, which is a stress related skin rash like eczema because of it.
It’s like this do or die attitude. You will do this no matter what it takes. No matter how many times people say no to you or you mess up or things go wrong or you suffer for it or it doesn't make sense or you want to give up or you’re tired you’re like, “You will do this. You will take one step at a time.” It is one step at a time.
My friend has this quote: How to eat an elephant. One bite at a time. You just have to go at it. The first version of DigsConnect was a two page website built on WIX or something. Whatever. What’s the most basic iteration that you can do that provides value? Do that and just start and go and go and go. Do not ever give up. You will get it wrong, absolutely.
But if you keep going, you’ll eventually get it right and that’s all you need is one time getting it right. I read this thing the other day about Pablo Picasso, apparently, he produced 50,000 art works in his time and of those only 100 are considered to be masterpieces. Those odds are insane. Most of his work is trash, right?
But every now and again he really hit the nail on the head. And that’s with everything. Like the Edison story about the lightbulbs and stuff. Don’t give up. People are like if they have one tummy ache and they’re like, “Oh, ok. I’m going to stop.” I’m like, “No, come on.” There’s this phrase Greg and I will say to each other if we start whining, “Eat a spoon of smids (ph) and hob the fuck up.”
Like, just don’t give up, keep going at it. You will get it right. Unless if your market it really changes. For example, tomorrow all the universities decide that we’re going to build a million residences overnight. That’s the end of our company. Then you give up because it’s going to stop working. There’s an actual reason why.
I’m going to come up with a ridiculous business. You want to make silk gloves to eat ice cream with because ice cream always melts in your hands. No one’s going to buy that product. It’s a shitty product.
If you’re making ice cream gloves, you probably should give up.
But short of that, figure it out. And the good bit is always, if you’re facing the problem and other people are facing the problem --. The other night I remember I have – in South Africa you get pre-paid water. You get pre-paid electricity and pre-paid water. I never knew this was a thing but the newest thing is pre-paid water.
So it’s 11:00 at night and I’m in the shower, washing my hair and my water cuts off. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” I’m looking around the water meter thing and it’s like, “You’re out of water meter credits.” I’m like, “That is so bizarre but I can surely buy it online.” Because you can buy electricity on your banking app.
So I log into my banking app and there’s no way to buy water credits. So I Google this and I’m looking online. There has to be a way for me to buy water online because these credits and there’s no info online. So I’m like, “What the hell?” I look at this company’s website and read through the things and you can only buy from a Pick and Pay, which is like a grocery chain.
A grocery chain here, it’s cool. They’re normally everywhere but now it’s 11:00 at night and they’re all going to be closed. I’m like, “What the hell?” I’m looking online and there’s a 24-hour mini pick and pay pretty close by in Sequence (ph), pretty close by, a 20 minute drive. Ok, let me shampoo my hair, towel on. Let me just go to Pick and Pay or whatever.
Get in my car, drive there. I get there. They’re like, “Sorry, because of the load shedding the machine has been down. You can’t buy water credits until tomorrow.” I was like, “Are you? No-o-o-o.” Rage. But there’s like nothing I could do. No one could help me. I literally would’ve paid any amount just to have a shower at that point in my apartment. It’s all I wanted.
I could’ve jumped to my gym and showered but I just wanted to be in my apartment. If there’s any amount of money I would’ve paid it. If an entrepreneur had said, “Here’s the way you can do it.” That’s a very niche situation. Everyone loves to complain. What do you complain about all the time that you hate? Solve their problem, figure it out, replicate it, sell it to the people. You have a business.
Believe in yourself, don’t give up, and solve your own problems. Great advice. Thanks so much, Alexandria, for coming on the show. I think DigsConnect is a super cool business. Hopefully listeners learned something and were inspired. Can you tell them where they can go to learn more about what you’re up to at DigsConnect and follow along with your story?
You can find us on our website, it’s just DigsConnect. com. That’s D-I-G-S-connect. com. You can follow us on Twitter, DigsConnect Instagram, DigsConnect Facebook, DigsConnect, you can Whatsapp us if you want. We love chatting with people on Whatsapp, literally. I can’t sleep at night, I go on to Whatsapp and like, “Hey guys,” to our users. Any and every social media platform, you can find us there.
All right, thanks again, Alex.
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