One of the most hotly debated topics in African innovation is South Africa’s claim to be the “Tech Capital” of the continent. Home to more than 490 startups and a combined US$1-billion (or R17.6-billion) in funding, South Africa is an undisputed leader on the continent. But in 2023, that reputation is slipping, as Nigeria takes the title of ‘Best Funded’ (US$2-billion) and as Egypt’s pool of startups crosses the 560-mark.
Regardless of South Africa’s status, startups play an important role in driving inclusive and sustainable development. They create jobs, stimulate new skills, attract investment, and most importantly, foster new ideas with the potential to make life better for both people and the planet. But all of this is at risk if startups are not given the support they need to build successful businesses (i.e. knowledge, skills, funding, and a market). However, this all starts with encouraging South Africans to innovate – and more importantly – helping them turn their ideas into quality offerings and scalable businesses.
Traditionally, these notions of entrepreneurship, product development and acceleration have been tackled as very separate issues. But two young and upcoming entrepreneurs are seeing things differently. As the Co-Founders of Specno, Daniel Novitzkas and Jacques Jordaan have created a one-stop-shop for South African innovation – a ‘venture builder’ where first-time entrepreneurs and established businesses alike can validate their ideas, build them into viable products, and get the help they need to take them to market.
But that’s not all. The 26-year-old co-founders have set themselves an ambitious target: By 2030, they aim to have helped 1-million people build tech-enabled businesses. Considering that in just four years, Specno has gone from a university side-hustle to one of South Africa’s top-rated design and development agencies with more than 40 employees, the pair is growing closer to that goal each day.
From school to scale
Specno’s story begins in 2018 at the University of Stellenbosch’s Business School. Daniel and Jacques were in their final year of postgraduate studies, when they were corralled into a group project during the Department of Business Management’s winter programme.
“I think it’s a fair point to say that everyone hates group projects in university,” says Daniel. “There’s always that tension and mistrust between partners, about who’s adding more value than the other. It can make for a pretty uninspiring experience – and it’s one that many founders battle with even when they’re long past university.”
Daniel continues, saying that: “This was my experience in highschool too, and even though I was a hard worker, I didn’t always get the best academic results. You had to spend more time convincing people you were up to the task, than actually focusing on the work, so group projects always felt like a strained and draining experience. But working with Jacques was totally different. He was the first person I felt like I could trust from the get-go. When I look back, I was lucky to find a co-founder so early on. It can take years for two people to click. We had it almost instantaneously – and we found it during a university group project, no less.”
Over the following weeks, Daniel and Jacques developed a close working relationship with a shared interest in several topics ranging from software development and space technology, to Silicon Valley. More importantly, they discovered that each had a distinct skillset that was perfectly complimented by the other.
“It’s our positive-sum game,” says Daniel. “Jacques has this incredible ability to understand and explain technical concepts, whereas I’m a better salesperson and can more easily translate these concepts to people with less technical know-how. Because of this, we were able to finish projects quickly, which also gave us time to learn other skills like software development and coding.”
It was not long before the duo had made a name for themselves amongst their lecturers as skilled software developers, and a few weeks later, their Head of Department introduced them to a local agri-tech startup, Skudu, that needed their help. It was the pair’s first client, and despite having very limited experience in product development, the two students-turned-entrepreneurs were eager to start working on the project.
As Jacques recalls: “We were very green behind the ears. We didn’t have the vast knowledge and experience that we have now – but we had a crazy work ethic and threw ourselves into the problem. We spent weeks working 16-hour days, trying out different solutions to see what worked.”
The duo’s diligence and ‘can-do’ attitude prevailed. Skudu was so impressed with the result, that Daniel and Jacques were offered a three-year contract and enough capital to start a business, which they would go on to call Specno.
In the four years since leaving university, Daniel and Jacques have taken Specno from a team of two, operating from a two-bedroom apartment in Central Stellenbosch, to one of the top-rated app-development and user-experience agencies in South Africa. With their head office in Century City, Cape Town, the company now employs 45 full-time staff; has serviced more than 100 clients from across South Africa, the Netherlands, United States, and UK; and despite the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has achieved a consistent annual growth rate of 230% year-on-year.
Foreign markets hold the key to local growth
With the business having cemented its reputation locally, Specno is now looking to international markets for its next phase of growth, and in 2022, expanded its reach into Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This was a major milestone for the founders, who see foreign markets as an important wealth-creator for South Africa’s tech-innovation ecosystem.
As Daniel explains: “The Dutch startup ecosystem is booming and on track to become one of the largest and most important globally. From a business development point of view, the market provides us with a gateway to attract bigger and more capital-intensive projects, while also affording us an opportunity to bring work from Europe back to South Africa. Beyond this, Amsterdam is also home to much larger startups who can give local scale-ups like ourselves insight into how to better plan for the future.”
To support their recent expansion, Specno is in the early stages of implementing a ‘Viking’ system, where team members are given equity in the company for expanding its footprint in key markets overseas. Before emigrating, staff undergo training to help them setup and run autonomous Specno-offices while ensuring consistency with the Specno brand.
Encouraging 1-million entrepreneurs
Specno’s international expansion also forms part of the company’s larger mission to drive innovation and sustainable development in South Africa and abroad.
“As we see it, the world is at a tipping point,” says Daniel. “Climate change, over-population, and resource scarcity pose significant threats to humanity, and it’s only through innovation and by exploring new approaches towards solving the world’s biggest challenges that we will find a way to prevent irreparable damage from happening.”
To this end, Specno has committed itself to encouraging 1-million people to build technology-enabled solutions by 2030. It does so by nurturing innovator communities like the ‘Founder’s Den’, a network to help early-stage and grassroots entrepreneurs build and scale tech-enabled businesses, with similar groupings for developers, designers, and product owners also underway.
“Instead of battling against the red-tape and bureaucracy at the top, we’re inspiring a bottom-up movement, one where people in local communities are encouraged to solve the issues that they’re confronted with on a daily basis,” says Jacques. “We want to help entrepreneurs flesh out and scale their idea, so that their solutions can then be used to help solve similar challenges in other communities.”
The duo want all South Africans – young and old, living locally and abroad – to consider entrepreneurship and innovation as not just viable career options, but as an important contributor to the future success of South Africa, the continent, and the world at large.
“The trick is to not overthink things,” concludes Jacques. “You don’t have to have a business plan all laid out – and you don’t need to have all the answers. All you need to start with is an idea.”
Specno is a leading design and development agency based in Cape Town, South Africa. Founded in 2018, we help startups, businesses and large enterprises validate, design and build their app ideas. In 2022, Specno was recognized as one of the top-rated app-development and user-experience agencies in South Africa.
For more information, discover Specno, the app development company.