Marc Sternberg is the founder and managing director of Spark ATM Systems, an independent deployer of automatic teller machines (ATMs) in South Africa. The company, which was started in 2005, installs and maintains in-store ATMs for some of South Africa’s most well-known businesses.
Sternberg’s entrepreneurial success has not gone unnoticed as he was recently announced the co-winner of the Business Person – Entrepreneur Award at the 2012 Absa Jewish Achiever Awards. The award follows his 2011 recognition as the Sanlam/Business Partners 2011 Overall Entrepreneur of the Year. How we made it in Africa’s Kate Douglas found a moment in his busy schedule to ask him what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
What was the inspiration for starting Spark ATM Systems?
My wife and I were living in Sydney, Australia from 2003 to 2005. We had taken up a work opportunity and had a lot of friends living there and we kind of wanted to spread our wings. Anyway, towards the end of our stay we decided that, when we wanted to start a family, we would definitely come back to South Africa. On a trip back here [to South Africa] I needed cash and had to walk and drive around to find an ATM. In Australia ATMs were prolific. So at that point it was really a light-bulb moment and I thought here is a great opportunity to look at this business model which I could see was underserviced in South Africa.
What is your competitive advantage?
I think we play in a market that is typically the bank’s domain and the banks don’t really deal with off-premise ATMs (i.e. non-bank branch ATMs) as a core offering of theirs. Therefore, typically the service that was received in the market by retailers, shop keepers (you know, our customer base) was not great. Ever since the beginning of Spark ATM Systems we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that the service that we deliver – across the whole country – beats any of our merchants’ wildest expectations and I think that has been our biggest selling-point to date.
What is the most important reason for your success?
Determination – just not giving up and keeping focused. We wouldn’t have even started this business if we weren’t determined. It continues every day, you have issues and challenges that come at you that need to be dealt with and determination I would say is the number one quality that you need in order to be successful.
What do you consider success as an entrepreneur?
Financial independence, freedom in regards to time – like the ability to spend my time with my family – and that work/life balance. But success is something that you never really obtain because the goals keep moving and the challenges keep growing. Today’s issues and challenges are different to what they were last year, and I’m sure they’ll be different again next year. It keeps evolving and I don’t think you ever arrive. I don’t think you ever sit on your backside and think “well this is it”. I just don’t imagine ever getting to that point in my whole life. There are just new challenges all the time.
How have your entrepreneurial motivations changed since you first started Spark ATM Systems?
I think that in the beginning it’s all about getting started, paying the bills, getting on your own two feet, and becoming a viable business. Then you move into a stage where you are making a little bit of money so you can afford to do things like hiring people, and then gradually I think it becomes more about time, and the best utilisation of it. Time is a very limited resource. Eight hours a day doesn’t cut it; 10 or 14 hours a day doesn’t cut it. You can add another two days to the week and it wouldn’t be enough. So it’s all about the best utilisation of time and resources. We have a lot of different opportunities that come to us and we are exploring them. The key decision for us is what to do and where to throw resources, people and money, both in South Africa (with new services and value-adds within our customer base) and with expansion into the rest of Africa.
Is there any popular entrepreneur advice that you disagree with?
The one thing that I completely disagree with is when people say that the market is saturated. In almost any market I believe there is a way to do things smarter, better, more efficiently and with better service than whoever is currently in the market. We all admit to getting less than the best customer service in many spheres of the products that we consume. So why is there not space for another competitor? I believe there are huge opportunities for new entrants into almost every market in the country. So the one thing I would tell budding entrepreneurs to discount and ignore is when people say “no, you are mad entering that space, it’s totally saturated”.
If you could give one piece of advice to all potential entrepreneurs out there, what would it be?
Get the main focus right. Your core offering has to be spot on. Then you can start with bells and whistles and complementary products and partnerships and relationships. A lot of people get bored with the core product very quickly and they start diversifying or start adding stuff on because they think it’s critical to the success of the core product. Meanwhile you should stick to your bread and butter. If you are a pen supplier, make sure your pens are the best pens out there before you start with all the different product lines and fancy packaging.
What was the one thing you wish you knew before starting your business?
Had I known how much longer it would take to become just viable, never mind successful, I would have gone into this a lot more realistically. When I started this business I thought it would break even in like 12 months, meanwhile realistically it was closer to 36 months. It took three times longer than we planned. During that second and third year before we were profitable, when my expectations had been passed, I thought we were behind the clock. Whereas initially I think we were completely unrealistic about how long it would take. So I think entrepreneurs who start a business should take the worst case scenario on how long they think it will take to become viable, and then triple it, and they will have a more realistic picture of how long it will take to get to that point when they can start reaping the rewards. It also helps you manage those initial stresses. Thinking “I’m not meant to be there yet” is a much easier mind frame to operate with than “I’m behind, why is it taking so long”.
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