Office hours with Alfie van der Zwan

A self-identified “recovering perfectionist”, Alfie van der Zwan is a New York based, South African born innovator and strategic advisor who works with Corporates and Start-ups on strategic and innovation based projects. He is a coach for the Redbull Amaphiko Academy launched this year in Baltimore and has been a coach on the previous Academy in South Africa.

Alfie scaled and ran the regional office of one of South Africa’s most successful social enterprises, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator where they placed 10,000 previously unemployed people in full-time jobs in 3 years. He also led the design and launch of the Venture Incubation Program for Cape Town Business School.

Most recently, Alfie has helped launch and run an online Fintech course for MIT which was attended by thousands of people in over 130 countries and was a catalyst for the creation of hundreds of business globally, and has just helped launch the Oxford Fintech Programme.

We spoke to Alfie to learn more about his career and his top advice for entrepreneurs looking to validate their ideas and grow their businesses.

Alfie van der Zwan
@ Alfie van der Zwan

How did you get into the social impact space?

After having spent a number of years working for a consulting firm early on in may career I was looking for work with more meaning. I connected with some former colleagues who’d started Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a social impact business that was addressing youth unemployment in South Africa. Harambee contracts with employers to fill their entry level vacancies and then finds young, unemployed people, puts them through a battery of skill and psychometric assessments, matches them to jobs for which there are the best fit, and then puts them through a work-readiness program and places them at the employer. The key was offering a business solution by reducing entry level staff turnover. Harambee Appealed to the employers head and business sense before their heart.

In three years, you scaled that business from 6 employees to 35. Do you have advice for entrepreneurs who are in the process of growing?

1. Provide fast and regular feedback.

When growing a business you can only grow as quickly as you know what is working and what isn’t. Constructive and actionable feedback is central to this. Making mistakes is okay but you want to manage them so they come with their learnings and solutions. Two books I recommend for this are Thanks for the Feedback and The Coaching Habit.

2. Be ready to iterate.

To the point above, you need to iterate to grow. Take a low resource approach to new ideas and products and test your assumptions, talk to your clients, and talk to your customers, understand their problems, needs, desires before you build what you THINK they want. I often quote the Lean Startup Methodology as a great approach to testing your assumptions.

How did you go from Harambee to running an incubator?

I was exploring the Cape Town start-up ecosystem and thought there was an opportunity to add a different kind of support for start-ups. I happened to meet with a friend who ran one of the divisions at the business school and she’d been having similar thoughts. While we wanted to focus on a wider audience, focusing on the people graduating from the business school and University was a good place to start. It was clear that [people were graduating] with MBAs and had a desire to start a business, but there was no real support [for them]. We adopted the lean start-up methodology ourselves and treated the incubator as a start-up. We tested our assumptions and iterated as quickly as we could.

How did you make the incubator different from others that were out there?

A lot of other incubators and accelerators tend to take some sort of stake or equity. Because ours was part of the business school and we were in the fortunate position to have a corporate sponsor, we were able to offer a program that didn’t require that. I think this creates a very different environment were we could focus on what was best for the entrepreneur and their business, rather than what was best for us. It was also more of a community than an individual environment.

I know mentorship played a part in your program.

A key component of the program was having a great network of mentors. There are so many people who’ve gone through the journey before. The lessons they’ve learned are no doubt applicable and having that support and conversation is so valuable. [It’s better to] learn from others’ mistakes rather than your own if they can be avoided! There were so many lightbulb moments that saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and energy, just by having these conversations with those who have walked the path before you.

I imagine that everyone in the incubator is incredibly passionate about what they do and by being so close to it, how do they test their assumptions?

It will vary from business to business. Essentially what you want to do is take your product or idea to who the customer would be and see if they will buy it and get their feedback on it when they say yes or no. The most important thing is having a paying customer in the end. I recently heard Bill Aulet (Entrepreneur and Professor at MIT) speak and he says that the single necessary and sufficient condition for a business is a paying customer. Every entrepreneur needs to find their paying customer.

Here are two example you can use before you have a physical product to sell:

1. A/B testing.

Set up a very simple webpage and take whatever small budget you have and put up Facebook ads. If you want to sell a pair of shoes, you can put up three different ads and emphasize different features and look at the click through rates. This is really helpful market data and Facebook gives you it all.

2. Take whatever you’re selling and walk the streets to find customers.

Using the shoe example, ask people going into shoe stores: “What do you think of this? How much would you pay for it? What do you like/not like?” People tend to be more receptive to you asking for feedback than when you’re actually trying to sell it. If you are a B2B business, contact your potential customers and pitch your product or service to them as if you had an actual product to sell and gather feedback. When they tell you that they would buy it, take their details – their your first customers when you develop the product!

Graduate School of Business Venture Incubator
@ Graduate School of Business

How do you make sure not to lead them to the answer you want?

Remove your bias and realize that it is in your best interest that they are honest! You don’t want them to tell you what you want to hear, you want to hear what they really think! Ask for feedback from people you trust. You have to be aware of yourself which is a hard thing, if not impossible. When you do something, collect the data and review it in order to iterate.

How do you isolate variables so you know what didn’t work?

You have a first identify the different variables, and then test them. Like with the shoes, you could develop different Facebook ads that test colors, features or price point. Put together different combinations of the features and variables. Maybe you notice that one particular ad is getting a better click rate than others, so test different variations of that concept. You’ve got to hone in and test it. Be structured in how you do that and collect the data through a spreadsheet and database.

It requires quite a bit of humility to admit when your idea isn’t working.

Assume that you don’t know it all. That opens up a lot more opportunity to learning than if you assume you have the answers. I look for people who are open to feedback because I find that they grow the fastest. With any kind of incubation program like Amaphiko, it was a key requirement to find people who were coachable. At some point in our lives, we all struggle with feedback, especially if you’ve put your life savings or a whole lot of time into something. Coaching and good feedback can make or break your idea/start up business.

How do you know when to fight through or pack it in?

You can argue that the greatest innovators refused to pack it in like Steve Jobs, they were so dogged in their determination to make it work. [But] I think those are more outliers. It comes back to analyzing what you’re learning, listening to it, and then balancing and weighing all the options. There’s no sort of formula to it. There’s no straightforward answer. This is where mentorship comes in to collect other perspectives. Remember, that many of the ideas that make it are very different than the original ideas the founders had! There is great book called Getting to Plan B that basically says that your first idea is wrong and the sooner you get to your second idea the better as that one is closer to what is right.

What makes a good mentor?

I think a good mentor is someone who doesn’t believe they have all the answers too! They act as a mirror and a filter, they are there to share their experience but not tell you what you should do. I see mentorship as a critical component of life, regardless of what you’re doing. If you want to avoid making mistakes other people have made, it’s essential. The mentorship and coaching I’ve done at Amaphiko is an important way that I’ve been able to share my learnings.

What’s next for you?

I’m launching a fintech course at Oxford to help people learn, grow and form businesses in this space. After five months in New York, I’m finally in the place of exploring what’s happening here and excited to get involved in new projects and businesses. High performance learning, coaching and development in organizations is where my passion lies, and helping execute ideas, projects and business objectives in a meaningful and successful way!

Related project
Dream Big Career Expos
Dream Big Career Expos

Dream Big Career Expos is a platform for learners to be exposed to variety of opportunities after high school.