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February 07, 2013
SABLE's Entreprenuer of the Week: Devin De Vries
SABLE's David Kitley spoke with Devin de Vries about his navigation of the South Africa start-up topography in his four years at the helm of an innovative transport solution that hopes to optimize urban travel management and commuter travel planning. De Vries shares his thoughts on bootstrapping, mentorship and venture capital.
Allow me to introduce WhereIsMyTransport and FindMyWay, two innovative solutions designed to address regional and passenger modal planning in South Africa. The intended benefit is simple: to optimize travel routes and improve a commuter's ultimate need of timely travel convenience.
WhereIsMyTransport is a complete transport solution; from tracking to payroll and from scheduling to time-tabling, it's all there in an easy-to-use platform for any city or transport manager to incorporate. FindMyWay's focus is the converse as its goal is to bring transport decision-making information to commuters' fingertips—moving people from A to B as quickly and easily as possible with real-time information accessible via mobile app, web or SMS.
These two modal solution platforms were dreamt up by Devin de Vries and Chris King in their final year of IT Honors at the University of Cape Town, where they were tasked with the challenge of solving a real-world problem with a software-developed solution.
De Vries comments with hindsight on the initiation of their transport journey, "We were naïve about our solution. We thought that all the data was out there, and it was simply about packaging it. How wrong were we." Following the discovery that their proposed solution to the City of Cape Town would mean rolling up their sleeves and developing a bottom-up system, de Vries and King made the decision to grit their teeth and develop an ERP system. The envisioned system would be scalable across the country and would incorporate all modes of transport, providing an African solution to an African problem using African skills. And that's exactly what they have done.
Four years after conception and finally achieving their first year of breaking even—positioned in the heart of Cape Town with a team that has grown to six highly talented software engineers and self-taught marketers—WhereIsMyTransport and FindMyWay are outputs of an end-to-end transport application and years of hard work.
It hasn't always been start-up optimism, eclectic lifestyles and bottle-popping celebrations. De Vries chuckles and remarks on their journey, " When last did you sell your car to buy a new computer? Or worse, I had my bed on Gumtree." These moments epitomize the guts required for the glory of succeeding as a start-up, not only in Africa, but also within the global context.
What has sustained them is their personal and combined spirit of succeeding. "Through bootstrapping and navigating the harsh start-up landscape that characterizes South Africa, this is where the joy has come from—off of our own efforts and not the coattails of others," de Vries comments.
While the team has accumulated wisdom only possible through travelling unchartered territory, they did seek help in the form of a mentor. "It is critical to have someone objective in your corner—someone who can provide unbiased views on business decisions and people within the company's circle," de Vries says. "My nickname is 'Smiley,' as even in chaos I am optimistic and looking at the silver lining, but I am also naïve in who I may surround myself with and my willingness to help others. I have learned that in success and entrepreneurship, you need to be aware that people are attracted to this for selfish reasons, and if you are the holder of that wisdom, you need to be selective on how and to whom you release information as they may have differing interests."
With their growth strategy setting national dominance as a key milestone, de Vries and his team sought assistance from Venture Capital companies to help unlock these opportunities. "There is a lot of opportunity for investor support to improve. Financing and venture capital shops are trying to de-risk investment to the point where we wonder why they are even advertising their services in the space," he says. "[Forming a] start-up is a risk; we are bootstrapping to the point of sleeping on floorboards. Start-ups, in general, need financial institutions to take risks, too. How else is the development of new industry and the creation of job-generating businesses enabled?"
All this being said, following their penetration of turbulence and plateauing above the initial storms, de Vries looks toward the horizon at the journey they still have to travel. "I would not wish to be doing anything else; we are having fun, and that's the most importing thing," he says.
Recent enhancements in the business have included initiatives to reduce operational risks, formalize project management processes and the simplification of old code. The most significant development, though, has been the decision to shift the personal storage of data to a cloud-based model managed by Microsoft, a strategic partner and service provider that offers protection against redundancy risk.
If you want to know more, visit their website at www.whereismytransport.com or www.findmyway.mobi. Or even better, if you're in Cape Town, cast your car keys to the side and use public transport for a day using their app. You may be pleasantly surprised by the new way of exploring your own city. Coming soon to Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Devin de Vries is an outgoing person who is passionate about software, start-ups and being involved within the tech industry. He can be described as a serial entrepreneur by nature and nurture, beginning businesses from the tender age of 16 and having been spurred on by both his parents, who are passionate about entrepreneurship. Devin de Vries is now the co-founder and CEO of WhereIsMyTransport, a company born from a project that he led during his Honors Information Systems year (2007) at UCT. Since then, the project went on to win the Microsoft Imagine Cup Nationals and later attended the 2008 International Imagine Cup Finals in Paris. De Vries and his team returned with numerous awards, the most prestigious of which was the opportunity to present the project in Silicon Valley during 2009. The company now resides in Cape Town, South Africa, where it seeks to be instrumental in building the transport infrastructure required to take public transport services to the level expected of international destinations.