PROFILE

As the dot-com bubble burst, Eastern Cape lad Vinny Lingham took a big risk on a fresh idea. Now he sits at the helm of a global information technology business. By Lloyd Coutts

Vinny, Vidi, Vici
(I came, I saw, I conquered)
I
t’s Saturday afternoon in East London and the fast-food outlet is crammed with customers at monthend. The kid behind the counter looks too young to be running the show. His voice hasn’t even broken yet and already he’s taking food orders, serving customers their takeaways and giving them change faster than they can say chips, please. Fast forward 20 years and Vinny Lingham is no longer the smalltown boy putting in long hours in the family business. Instead he’s the very picture of a 21st-century CEO, moving effortlessly from power suits in boardrooms to jeans and T-shirts back at his offices in San Francisco and Cape Town.
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PROFILE

“Never pay or receive a bribe. True businesses are built on blood, sweat and tears.”

A

t 31, Lingham is an internationallyacclaimed information technology entrepreneur, and the CEO of Yola, a free web-development service that he founded in 2007, which is now based in the United States. He’s lost none of his small-town charm, but these days he combines it with the ability to convince people to follow his inventive ideas. It’s this perfect mix of easy-going coastal boy with deal-clincher that’s seen him winning the 2006 Top Young Entrepreneur in Africa award for his search-engine marketing company, Clicks2Customers. He’s also been acclaimed by the World Economic Forum for his contribution to the commercial development of the internet, and he serves on a variety of international boards. But it’s the recognition from economic development agency Endeavor Global that has earned him the coolest accolade on the planet: they’ve identified him as a “high-impact entrepreneur”. This kind of praise seems only fitting for a man who grew up in the certain
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knowledge that he would be successful one day. “I think I just always believed that I could,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. “I knew I was smart, and from the time I was young my mom always told me two things: one, knowledge is power, and two, the sky is the limit. Those two mantras always kept me going.” And he traces it all back to working in his parents’ small takeaway business. “I worked there from the age of eight until I was 18, and developed many elementary business skills, which my peers didn’t get. I was a born entrepreneur and started a business when I was six years old, buying packs of Thundercat stickers, opening them up and selling them individually,” he says with a knowing smile. “Over the years I’ve tried many ideas – some worked, most didn’t, but success is about learning how to constantly fail until you succeed.” Vinny is full of these kinds of homegrown mantras, and has built his empire on the back of very clear

business principles and, you guessed it, a keen interest in computer games. This guy was a geek before it was cool, and was given his first computer in Standard 5 (Grade 7). “Once I got that computer from my dad, I spent hours on it, mostly playing games. But after a while I began tinkering with software and eventually using the internet. I also spent far too much of my break times messing about with old school machines, programming relics like the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. In fact, I spent so much time on computers that my grades began to drop and I only scored 69 per cent in matric.” But where he lost on his grades, he gained in his love for computers, and at 18 he went to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Information Systems (B.Com (IS)) at the University of Cape Town. “Until I moved to Cape Town I didn’t realise just how small East London was. It was like the world suddenly opened up to me. I didn’t finish my third year due to funding problems, but after that

PROFILE

What Lingham would do with...
R1 000 Spend it on education. R10 000 Again, more education. R100 000 My bond (or any other debt). R1 000 000 I’m always bullish on young dynamic technology companies (less than seven years old).
“But there’s more to it than performance. To succeed, I believe you need a strong level of integrity and character. Never pay or receive a bribe. True businesses are built with blood, sweat and tears. You can’t fear failure, and you probably will fail. You just need to be able to get up and start again,” he says. With that kind of attitude, it seems little can get in his way.

Above, the high flyer: Vinny Lingham and Al Gore, ex-vice president of the USA. Left, the family man: with his wife (and business partner) Charlene, and their baby boy.

I studied through Unisa where I got an honours degree.” All the while he was cooking up whacky business ideas, few of which made it out of the gate, and another long list of ideas that simply failed. “My first business after high school was a band management company – I managed a rock band called Inside Venus. I used to arrange gigs and got bands such as Springbok Nude Girls to play at these events, and I used the internet to promote the events using chatrooms. This was back in 1998, so internet marketing has been a passion of mine for a long time.” It was only in 2003 that Lingham finally got it right, founding searchengine marketing software and services provider, Clicks2Customers. “I started that business by selling my townhouse and making about R100 000. Myself and three partners built the company out of my bedroom.” The company was formed as the dotcom bubble was bursting and internet pessimism was running high. But Clicks2Customers provided a muchneeded service of directing audiences to the products and services of websites and getting customers to spend. It was an unqualified success, and soon the holding company, incuBeta, had offices

“Success is learning how to fail until you succeed”

in Cape Town, the United States and the United Kingdom. There was an added bonus. One of his partners, Charlene Troskie, whom he had originally met online, became his wife in 2005. “Charlene has been with me for 10 years and has seen all the ups and downs – she’s been one of the core reasons for my success,” he says, adding that they now have a six-month-old baby boy called Kavin. “Having a son makes it all that more important for me to focus on my business and to create financial independence for my family, especially in tough economic times. Being an entrepreneur is a 24/7 job – but how efficiently you spend your time often makes the difference.” After an 80-hour week, his home life is all about relaxing. Lingham enjoys a good game of golf and still plays computer games like Warcraft and Call of Duty. His other toys include a BMW M3 Convertible in Cape Town and an Audi Q7 in San Francisco. What does he do on a day-to-day basis in San Francisco? “CEO-type stuff. I run a 65-person organisation and every day is different. Our office environments are very relaxed. I’m a jeans and T-shirt type of guy but it’s a high-performance environment and we expect everyone to pull their weight equally.” He says that succeeding in the South African and US business environment demands that everyone performs with very high energy.

5 MISTAKES
Vinny Lingham built up his multi-million-dollar business through trial and error. Learn from the things he got wrong so you can get them right.

I won’t make again

PHOTOGRAPHY SUPPLIED BY VINNY LINGHAM

1. Not managing cash flow carefully. Cash flow can make or break your business, regardless of profitability. 2. Hiring the wrong people because we needed the position filled urgently and we were desperate. 3. Not firing those people fast enough! 4. Not focusing on my core business and getting distracted by other opportunities. 5. Expanding my business too quickly, and without diligent planning.
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