Like many of the great games programmers from the 1980s, when open source software entrepreneur Freddy Mahhumane describes his background formal education doesn’t really play much of a part in it.
“I wasn’t good at much at school,” he says, “Except for computers and programming.”
Born in Mpumalanga, Mahhumane moved to Gauteng at the age of six and lived variously in Kempton Park and Thembisa while he was growing up. Sitting in front of a group of business hopefuls at the inaugural Startup Grind Johannesburg, he sounds almost embarrassed by the trappings of success.
“Yes, I have a German car parked outside,” he admits, “But you always need to look the part. I won’t invest in people who look like they are going to run off with my money.”
Today, Mahhumane is the owner of Open-Technik, a diverse company which is part traditional IT specialist, part digital agency and part ideas lab. The bread and butter side of the business is computer sales and web design, but it’s the stuff that goes on behind the scenes the Mahhumane is here to talk about.
“We come up with ideas and we take them to people,” Mahhumane says simply.
Those ideas don’t tend to be small thoughts either. Mahhumane lists Multichoice and FNB among his clients, and is currently working on an app which for sharing TV stored on a PVR box with other subscribers.
Where Mahhumane really differs from many South African entrepreneurs, however, is that he’s not afraid to admit to failure. Unlike Silicon Valley, where start-ups aren’t taken seriously unless they’re built on the back of doomed previous endeavours, the South African tech scene tends to be unforgiving of failure.
Mahhumane says that watching his first business, a CRM specialist, go under was heartbreaking.
“When you are an entrepreneur, your failure is public,” he says, “You cannot hide it. When you fail you cannot go to your room and hide it. You have failed your employees and the people around you. You have to take that and grow from it.”
His life lesson, however, is that you cannot succeed without giving something back. While his business itself was a failure, he’d learned from scratch the basics of business practice and began sharing them with others via a Facebook group he launched, Young Black Entrepreneurs.
Through this, he discovered a desperate need for professional services and advice around technology and contracting, and thus Open-Technik was born.
“People were asking me questions like ‘how do I register a business’,” he says, “And I would stay up all night writing answers.”
One key discovery was how much money he could save – and help others to save – by using open source software wherever possible, and ethos which is ingrained in his company. He manages to balance a belief in the sharing economy with strong feelings about protecting intellectual property and NDAs with clients – at least in the early stages of development.
“Everyone is a competitor,” he says, “If you don’t protect your ideas [through contract negotiations] you’ll lose them.”
Open-Technik is involved in CSI projects and Mahhumane says that he extends his belief in giving back to direct help for communities, but refreshingly he has no time for “tender-preneurs”.
“I will never pitch for a tender in my life,” he says, “Government is teaching us to be lazy. Which government department can you walk into and meet with the director without being connected?”
Despite his own background, though, Mahhumane says that he would never encourage others not to follow the path of formal education. Today’s workplace is just too competitive.
“Education is not the only route – hard work is,” he concludes, “If you get through varsity but don’t work hard, the person who is sat next to you will still beat you.”
Startup Grind Joburg is back again at JoziHub this evening. There’s still time to reserve a place and our own Brett Haggard is speaking. See you there!