Wynand Geldenhuys was still at school when he sold his first computer programme. It was to the owner of a cell phone shop who wanted a computer-based repairs booking system, and Wynand, who fell in love with computer coding at 16, had no problem writing the programme.
At that stage he had no idea that his passion would lead him to become the owner of Africa’s biggest independent ecommerce software development company, Vectra, and earn him the Innovator of the Year Award at the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®competition.
But perhaps these achievements would not have surprised the young Wynand either. “I was always entrepreneurial. A pal and I were always busy with some scheme or other to make money,” he says.
Today the 33-year-old employs a team of more than 50, of which more than 40 are coders and software engineers. His Pretoria-based company, which he started a mere four years ago, is doing groundbreaking work in the custom building of ecommerce systems for South African corporates and increasingly those from the rest of the continent.
“When you say ecommerce, people think that it’s all about websites, but that is just the front of a whole logistical system that kicks in when an order is placed online,” says Wynand. Using open-source platforms such as Magento, Vectra specialises in the whole range of software necessary to integrate a company’s ecommerce website seamlessly with its enterprise management systems.
Innovations achieved so far by Vectra include a system called SmartSales which integrates a customer relationship management system with an ecommerce website, and a point-of-sale system that does away with traditional tills, allowing a shopfloor salesperson to order for, advise and conclude a sale with a customer on a hand-held device.
Vectra’s explosive growth over the past four years follows a decade in which Wynand slogged as an employee in various roles, quietly building a deep network in the software industry and the corporate clients whom they served, and also a sturdy reputation as an innovator.
His career started with a major disadvantage when his father died during his matric year, and the family resources had to go towards urgent surgery for his mother and the raising of his two sisters. There was simply no money for studies, and Wynand started working as a coder for a web hosting company straight after matric. Looking back on it, Wynand says not having the luxury of a few years of study was probably good for his career development. “It pressured me to be independent, to take control of things and to find solutions on my own.”
Wynand was constantly trying out new ideas and coding on the side. He even signed up a new client with a point-of-sale system he had designed, but when his employer rejected it as too non-core for their web-hosting business, he decided to leave. The shares that he was given in the company turned out to be fake, and he left with no financial reserves. But he did gain valuable experience, not only in coding, but also in working with people and clients.
His next move was to partner with a company to develop and sell his point-of-sale software, but the partnership did not work out, and Wynand, already known as a livewire in the industry, was recruited to work for the software giant SAP. There he cemented his reputation as an innovator by heading up their Innovation Lab where he got to experiment with all sorts of new ideas.
It was a great job and he did well at the company, says Wynand, but the corporate world was not for him. There are too many conflicting personal agendas and, ultimately, you have to work on other people’s ideas, whether you like it or not.
In 2017 he was contacted by an old client who wanted to appoint him as a software developer, but instead Wynand negotiated a two-year contract with him that would serve as the basis for building his own business. At last Wynand had free reign to implement his ideas and put his pent-up energy to use without having to cater for a boss or a partner, and Vectra grew phenomenally.
Wynand says the most difficult part of starting Vectra was a dilemma faced by many under-resourced start-ups: in order to win over clients, you must show substantial capabilities first in the form of products, infrastructure and team. To set this up, Wynand had to scrape together every resource he had in the early months without any guaranteed return.
An easier way around the dilemma would have been to find an investor or a partner, but he was mindful of his previous bad experiences with partners and decided to stick it out on his own.
It paid off well. Apart from Vectra’s extraordinary growth, Wynand was named the 2019 Innovator of the Year. “I never had to opportunity to study for a degree, and the award felt to me like a graduation of sorts,” he says. With its substantial track record in both retail software and ecommerce systems, Vectra is very well placed to continue its fast-paced growth. Compared to other regions of the world, African retailers, including those from South Africa, were until recently still largely wedded to bricks-and-mortar business. With the shock of Covid-19, and with the unstoppable march of technology, the demand for a local innovator to help them transition to ecommerce will remain high for many years to come.