Manuel Koser, co-founder & MD of Silvertree Internet Holdings. Picture: Hetty Zantman/Financial Mail
Manuel Koser, co-founder & MD of Silvertree Internet Holdings. Picture: Hetty Zantman/Financial Mail

When Manuel Koser landed a job with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Munich in 2007, he thought he’d made it.

"When I started working, no-one wanted to go into start-ups," he says. "For me, BCG was the best job I could get."

But Koser was shocked when a friend turned down the same job to instead become one of the early "mavericks" of Berlin’s tech start-up scene. The friend’s first attempt failed, but his second resulted in a €10bn company.

Koser, who founded some of Africa’s most successful online businesses after moving from Germany to Cape Town in 2011, says he sees similarities between SA now and Berlin in 2007.

"There were not a lot of jobs there then, and people began starting things on their own," he says.

"I see that slowly starting here — more and more very smart, dedicated and hard-working people are saying they’ll do their own thing."

Koser, the cofounder and MD of Cape Town-based Silvertree Internet Holdings, is scouring SA in search of entrepreneurs who are getting it right, looking to enlarge the company’s portfolio. He has already invested in pioneering local start-ups Ucook, PriceCheck, Cybercellar and Faithful to Nature.

Silvertree expects to grow its annual revenues to more than $300m by 2023 and says it will consider listing on the JSE then.

Koser would certainly know what to look for. He also cofounded online fashion platform Zando, as well as Jumia — the Nigeria-based e-commerce group that’s now backed by MTN and Goldman Sachs and is referred to by The Wall Street Journal as the Amazon of Africa.

A year after Koser moved to SA he and his partners received funding from Rocket Internet, a Berlin-based tech incubator, and Zando and Jumia both rocketed.

But as they grew, the founders’ shareholdings were diluted by capital raises. As their grip on the companies slipped a little, Koser’s eyes wandered elsewhere. "We saw lots of opportunity in starting businesses with entrepreneurs, or helping them to [reach] scale in the consumer internet space," he says.

In 2013, he and his co-founders launched Silvertree.

As is the case with many start-ups, "the first two years we had only our own capital; we didn’t pay ourselves salaries".

The investment vehicle has since received backing from family offices and high net worth individuals, but management still owns the lion’s share.

Though Silvertree competes for assets with the likes of Naspers, private equity firms and wealthy individuals, Koser says the company has the edge because of "having been there" and because it can offer operational support and long-term capital.

As SA’s nascent tech start-up space lifts off the ground and the market sees success stories, investors will warm to the segment and it will become easier to obtain capital, Koser says. He believes the market will also get a boost when there are more accomplished mentors around.

"If you start a business now in Berlin, Paris, London or San Francisco, there will be someone smarter and harder-working than you who is starting the same business. There will be someone with a better network, more capital or more experience, and there will be someone with all of those advantages.

"Here it’s a little more difficult to raise money, the route to market is harder and not that many people are ready for it — but on the flip side, we don’t have competition."

Based on "encouraging signs" that SA’s start-up ecosystem is gaining traction and indications that more people are giving up corporate life to grind it out alone, Koser says: "There’s no question in my mind that SA will have a huge uptick [of entrepreneurs] over the next 10 to 30 years."

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