August 21, 2013

Interview with Emile Langenhoven, Owner of SA Startup Coin It

Mike: You’re the founder of Coin It, a coin recycling business based in South Africa. Tell me a little about yourself and your business story to date?

Emile: Coin It Coin Exchange (Pty) Ltd was founded in 2012 by Willem Nieuwenhuis and I, the founding partners in the business.

I have an educational background in Information Technology. I studied at Athlone Technical College in Crawford, Cape Town (now College of Cape Town), pursuing Electrical Engineering studies and the Cisco Certified Network Associate certification. I then studied at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, attaining a National Diploma in Information Technology. In 2009, I became an entrepreneur, founding SA Kiosks cc., a precursor to Coin It!. After a couple of years of learning more about the industry, I was approached by Willem Nieuwenhuis, who proposed pooling our collective resources to create a bold new venture, and Coin It! was born.

Willem Nieuwenhuis resides in Kwa-Zulu Natal and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Optometry. He currently owns two Specsavers franchises, a Chicken Licken franchise, a medical centre, does commercial letting and owns a smallholding. Willem also has a commercial pilot’s license and does air charters for his company, Coastal Air. A successful and passionate entrepreneur, Willem identified the need to manage coins in the South African market and started doing research on the product. When he was ready to launch the business, he did a Google search for “Coin It” and found that the name had already been taken, as well as the idea. He contacted the company via their website and set up a meeting with me. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mike: What are your most important values in your business career?

Emile: I’ve always been driven to serve my community. I think it’s genetic. My grandfather and father served their communities as public officials. I’ve volunteered my time in various leadership roles and always felt a sense of duty to my community. In the same way, I feel a sense of duty to my customers and will always strive to do more than is expected of me, ethically and with integrity.

Mike: Can you describe a typical work day in the life of Emile?

Emile: Currently a typical working day is divided into admin and manufacturing. I spend half the day at the office doing whatever marketing, finance, sales or communications that needs to be done. I then spend the rest of the day at the factory where my machines are being manufactured, which is something I was extremely unprepared for and had to learn many hard lessons.

Mike: How do you manage to keep the balance between work and play with the crazy schedule that comes with being a startup founder?

Emile: This was difficult for me initially. For the first 2 years life was all about my business. I breathed, ate and dreamt my business. I had to consciously decide that I needed a distraction and found it in mountain biking and hiking. My wife had a huge part to play in this because she loves the outdoors, so we often go mountain biking or hiking together.

Mike: What would you say are the top three priorities in your business?

Emile: A quality product, great customer service and good communication internally and externally. I guess anybody can make a quality product, but without good customer service and communication, you don’t have a good business.

Mike: What sacrifices have you had to make, if any, to ensure business success?

Emile: There’s a lot of comfort in working a 9 to 5 job. Your life is very structured and you know how many days leave you have, when to go on holiday and when to get back to work. When you become an entrepreneur, it’s not as easy to plan ahead, especially in the beginning stages. For example, my wife recently went to Peru on a 3 week trip which we had spoken about for years. I had to make the decision not to join her and her group so that I could take care of my business. Sometimes these are the short term sacrifices an entrepreneur needs to make in favour of long term goals.

Mike: What is your most and least favourite thing about being in your position, honestly?

Emile: My most favourite thing is to build the systems within my business. I studied systems analysis and design and business analysis which are complementary subjects when building a business from the ground up. I take great pleasure in creating the systems and processes within the business and seeing the business develop from an idea.

My least favourite thing is the bureaucracy or the paperwork, as I’m sure many entrepreneurs will agree. The red tape government impose on small businesses to remain compliant is revolting (I use the word deliberately) and needs to be reduced.

Mike: What is your favourite way of celebrating business successes?

Emile: I would say getting together with friends and family and celebrating the victory. They understand more than anybody what challenges had to be overcome to obtain success and they provide support when times are hard.

Mike: What is the most difficult thing you have ever had to do in your business?

Emile: There isn’t a specific thing that I can call the most difficult. Being an entrepreneur, you run into various barriers and challenges which have varying degrees of difficulty. But if I were to choose, it would probably be the initial decision to buy a machine from Denmark just to test the market. I wasn’t sure whether the concept would actually work and took the risk of putting myself into debt and use a large part of my savings to prove that it would.

Mike: What do you think the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur in SA is?

Emile: Success is not achieved in a 2 hour Hollywood movie or in 350 pages of a book. Many people see this and believe that success as an entrepreneur can be achieved quickly. Even a tenderpreneur has to go through some ups and downs to land the fat contract (but that’s another story). What I’m trying to say is success is not achieved overnight. There is a lot of hard work, sacrifice and perseverance that’s required.

Mike: What is your best piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs?

Emile: From the start I’ve met and spoken to many people about my business. Most of them told me that it would not work. They couldn’t conceive the magnitude or envisage the future of my business the way I could. To quote Adam Savage of Mythbusters, “I rejected their reality and substituted it with my own”. You need to be stubborn that way about anything you are passionate about, otherwise it isn’t worth doing.

One last thing…I’ve created and use the following axiom: When everybody is looking left…look up. Be original and unpredictable.

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