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Entrepreneur Spotlight

Returnee Spotlight: Alan Knott-Craig Quit A Job In USA To Build The Largest Wireless Broadband Network In South Africa

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Alan Knott-Craig

Alan Knott-Craig, Founder, HeroTel [Photo credit: Mentordrive]

We are in the 21st century. Internet availability in the US and Europe continues to expand exponentially. However, Africa still remains underserved. Africa faces a roaming challenge of the inability to offer internet access to its workers, businesses, and students. Luckily, some entrepreneurs in the continent are developing innovative solutions to curb this challenge. Alan Knott-Craig is one of them. He is bridging the digital divide in South Africa by offering faster and affordable wireless internet to many South African communities.

Who is Alan Knott-Craig?

Alan Knott is a telecommunications entrepreneur and best-selling author from South Africa. He is the founder of HeroTel, a leading wireless broadband network provider in South Africa. His strategy revolves around creating a broader network by consolidating smaller wireless internet service providers. He also runs Project Isizwe, which deploys WiFi services to the country’s Tshwane area. Previously, Knott-Craig has run some of the famous telecom companies in South Africa like Cellfind.

Alan has published over nine books including a national bestseller, Don’t Panic: A Book by South Africans for South Africans. In 2009, the World Economic Forum named him ‘Young Global Leader’. Also, he featured in Choiseul Africa’s list of 100 young African leaders aged 40 and below from 2014 to 2016. Previously, Entrepreneur Magazine has listed Alan among the top eleven entrepreneurs transforming the African landscape.

Early Life

Alan Knott-Craig was born (in 1977) and raised in Pretoria, South Africa. He joined Glenstantia Primary School at age 6 and later on graduated from Glen High School in 1991. Then, he started teaching in a kindergarten that was run by his mother, a qualified teacher.

In 1996, Alan joined Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and graduated in 1999 with a BCom Honors in Accounting. He married in 2002, qualified as a Chartered Accountant (SA) the same year, and then traveled to the USA. He got a job at Deloitte USA and worked from their New York City office.

Motivation to Start Business

After working in the US for a short period, Alan Knott became discontented. He had always wanted to start his own business and work for his own money. His father held senior positions at Telcom SA, Vodacom, and Cell C. But he never relaxed at any time hoping to inherit his father’s wealth.

So, Knott-Craig quit his job at Deloitte USA and returned to South Africa in October 2003. He founded Cellfind, a mobile technology solutions company, and served as CEO until 2005. The following year, iBurst appointed him as CEO and he led this company to become one of the country’s biggest wireless broadband networks at the time.

Alan relocated to Stellenbosch in 2009 after his first daughter’s birth, leaving iBurst. Then, he founded World of Avatar in the subsequent year and acquired Mxit (in 2011), which was one of Africa’s largest social networks at the time. Alan Knott-Craig founded HeroTel, a successful broadband operator, in 2014 to offer affordable and faster internet to South Africans.

The idea behind HeroTel was not to build a new network. Rather, the company consolidated existing infrastructure. This telecom company has brought together 30 owner-operated wireless internet service providers from across South Africa. By uniting these businesses, HeroTel has brought a meaningful change in the way locals access the Internet. The company achieved this by building world-class wireless and fiber networks.

Challenges at Early Stages of Business

Infrastructure issues were the main challenge that Alan Knott encountered early in the business. In particular, Alan Knott-Craig faced the challenge of establishing a business in an environment with undeveloped telecom infrastructure. This challenge led the South African entrepreneur to come up with the idea of building a fiber cable network. With this network, HeroTel has managed to connect and work with businesses from different regions in South Africa.

Business Success and Possible Expansions

Today, HeroTel is the largest wireless broadband network in South Africa. This milestone makes the company a huge player in South Africa’s telecommunication industry. The company connects more than 95,000 business and home users to wireless Internet. Its connection spans 400 cities and towns. HeroTel aims to bring affordable and faster Internet to more people in the future. The ultimate goal is to offer low-cost and high-speed Internet access to underserved areas in South Africa.

5 Business Lessons from Alan Knott-Craig

Alan Knott-Craig, founder HeroTel

Alan Knott-Craig, South African Entrepreneur [Photo credit: Startup Grind Local]

1. Keep your expenses down

According to Alan, upcoming entrepreneurs should keep their living expenses down to realize progress. Financial stress has a negative impact on you. When it occurs, it denies you the ability to focus on the business you are establishing. For example, Knott-Craig discourages people from purchasing a car on debt. He encourages parents to expose their children to people with different socio-economic backgrounds. One way to do this, according to him, is to take children to a public school. This will prevent them from growing with a self-entitlement attitude.

2. Make partnerships and keep moving

The tech entrepreneur insists that in business, you should not do it all by yourself. He explains that finding a good partner, “…is like getting married. You might date a lot in trying to find a prospective partner without committing. Then you go stead for a long time in order to get to know the other party more. After this then you get married (into partnership).

He warms entrepreneurs to be careful not to get into wrong partnerships. He suggests that as a businessperson, you should have filter mechanisms that work for you. One proven mechanism is to make a partnership with an individual that possesses the skill set you need. For example, in marketing, look for someone who can sell your products very well.

3. Choose where to live wisely

Figure out things that give you energy and live in places where you will be able to draw that energy. Alan Knott-Craig argues that he does not need to live in Johannesburg even though a significant amount of South Africa’s GDP is made from there. In other words, that is where the money is. The modern world offers increased mobility and telecommunication abilities, and as an entrepreneur, you need to use geography to your advantage in order to minimize distractions.

Alan says that family is another important consideration when choosing the right place to live. Being available to your family particularly when they need you most gives you peace of mind and helps you to focus. Also, you will have their support in difficult times.

4. Get married while young

Alan Knott discourages entrepreneurs from waiting too long to get married. He says marrying as a young adult, “takes away so many potential distractions as you are now in a place of not needing to waste time on frivolous pursuits.” The telecom entrepreneur likens getting married to starting a business—you are not sure how the marriage will play out.

Nonetheless, you have to start and enjoy the journey. In business, your spouse helps you to stay grounded and learn a lot about yourself. In addition, your wife or husband will support you and help out with certain responsibilities. Alan also advises people to get married before making huge money. He argues that if you don’t do so, “it is easy to attract the wrong people who are only interested in what you have rather than in who you are.”

5. Be focused

Alan urges entrepreneurs to set clear goals and objectives and work towards achieving them. Being focused enables you to do more work and offer better quality. Besides, focusing on one task at a time relieves your mind from stress. You are more productive and happier when you have a less-stressed mind.

To become successful, Knott-Craig says that entrepreneurs need to create an environment that helps them to focus. This includes eliminating distractions or working away from them. Staying focused keeps you going and getting up when you stumble. It motivates you to develop yourself and have an attitude of perseverance.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has made online shopping, learning, and teleworking commonplace. It has led Africa to realize that Internet access is not a luxury. Alan Knott-Craig is one of the passionate African entrepreneurs determined to close the internet gap in the continent. Bringing Africa online requires sustained investment. But, do you think African governments are laying the right policies towards this realization? We would love to hear your opinion. In a TEDx speech, Alan explains how to be an entrepreneur. See the video below.

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