The first question asked of recent graduates is, inevitably, “What do you really want to do?” SBE graduate Manuel Koser (BSc, International Business, 2007) says many graduates end up chasing positions that offer financial stability or ego validation—or simply that are considered the norm in the field—instead of chasing their true passions.
But Koser, founder of South Africa’s Silvertree Capital—a business builder and investor in the African market—admits identifying your passion is something that takes experience.
Koser spent his first few years after graduating from SBE working with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in a position that, while granting him the experience to understand what he truly wanted, was ultimately not it.
Having seen the success of digital businesses in Western markets, Koser ventured out of his professional comfort zone in 2011 to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavour in South Africa’s e-commerce industry. The end result was Zando, now a multimillion-dollar fashion retail business that is still growing. The success of Zando in South Africa led Koser to co-found Nigeria’s general merchandise retailer Jumia, which has recently begun rebranding its various properties under the Jumia brand name to become an even larger entity in the country.
Growth is life’s purpose
But even with the success of Zando and Jumia, Koser grew restless. He resigned from his position as managing director of Zando in March 2013; just a few months later, he founded Silvertree Capital. Zando was performing well, he says, so it was a somewhat surprising decision to some industry watchers. But, Koser recalls, the move was about growth—not of the company, but in Koser himself.
“It might be a bit philosophical, but what’s the purpose of life?” he asks. “For me, it’s growth. It’s growing on any facet. I want to be growing from what [I was] a second ago or a year ago.”
Through two successful start-ups, Koser found his passion: creating and nurturing businesses, and then starting all over again.
Learning to create
Even as a child, Koser loved building and creating; Legos and PlayMobil were a favourite plaything, he admits. But he also loved the thrill of competition. To combine these interests during his time at SBE, he participated in a number of case competitions, one of which, led by a presentation trainer who normally worked in theatre, taught him a lesson he’s carried throughout his career.
The trainer gave Koser a topic for a presentation and promptly sent him outside the room to prepare. When he returned, Koser says, he was thrown when he realised the trainer had “rearranged everything.”
“It was very fascinating,” he says animatedly, standing up. “The chairs were here,” he continues, moving the chair on which he was sitting to the centre of the room, “so you couldn’t stand. [The trainer] was sitting in the corner and another person was sitting there in that corner.”
Koser stands to the side of the chair. “He created the room in such an atmosphere that was so uncomfortable—just to make the point that if something is off, change it … So you can build an environment that is actually conducive to present something.” He returns the chair to its place and sits again.
“The point is—I love building things up. To create them. And then I’m also very happy to leave and let them run.”
Very similar and very different partners
A few months after Koser founded Silvertree Capital, a familiar face joined the team. Peter Allerstorfer, a former McKinsey consultant, and Koser have appeared side by side frequently in news surrounding their various ventures. Zando and Jumia were co-founded by the pair, and Allerstorfer is listed as a founding partner at Silvertree Capital.
This close partnership first developed when Koser informed a former BCG colleague that he wanted to “do something entrepreneurial,” but that he did not want to do it alone. With no operational or entrepreneurial experience, it was too overwhelming, he says. That colleague introduced him to Allerstorfer.
Koser and Allerstorfer met for dinner. After that meeting, they decided to step into entrepreneurship together for the first time with Zando. Then came Jumia and now, Silvertree Capital.
Koser says he and Allerstorfer are “very similar and very different at the same time,” but it’s necessary to balance strengths and weaknesses.
“You need this common platform, language to understand each other in terms of fundaments, ethics, in terms of work quality, et cetera,” Koser says. “That needs to be the same. And then personally, we’re very different. I’m super risk tolerant. He’s fairly the opposite. He’s more detail oriented than me.”
Finding happiness in human connections
And having a partner brings greater advantages than simply another set of eyes on the business. Working closely with people, sharing experiences and establishing deep connections is a key indicator of happiness, Koser says, citing the now-famous, 75-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Koser applies this outlook to not just his personal partnership with Allerstorfer, but with every team on which he works. The Silvertree Capital team—comprising Koser, Allerstorfer, Paul Cook and Andrew Whale—recently completed the Reiss Profile, a motivation assessment developed by American psychologist Dr Steven Reiss, to understand their individual motivations, grow together as a team and seek out deeper connections with one another.
These insights have helped Koser realise how important the concept of a team—much like a partnership—is to a business, whether it’s his own Silvertree Capital or a start-up in which he is investing. Everyone must feel equal, receiving the same incentives as other individuals within the organisation. The right incentives, a favourite topic for Koser, allow a business to become a “living organism that just grows over time, and is not set up for failure.”
“If you take that together,” he says, “with people that are diverse but have a common language and a common philosophy and setup in terms of what’s right or wrong, and then the right incentives, I think that’s the most powerful thing.”
Pursuing passion beyond work
Outside of the professional world, Koser is still looking to grow. He’s learned to fly an airplane. He’s climbed both Mount Kilimanjaro and later Mount Stanley—the former without any training, of course. Experience is, after all, one of his favourite ways to learn.
“Mount Kilimanjaro I did on my own,” he explains. “I went skiing with a friend … and I asked him, ‘What’s the coolest thing you ever did?’ He went through a list and said, ‘At the end of my HBS MBA, I hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro. I said, ‘Awesome!’ and I booked it that Saturday night. I met him on Sunday for dinner. Then he told me the real story: that his water froze and he thought he was dying. I said, ‘Thank you very much. My flight is for Monday morning.’ Monday morning I [bought] all the stuff. I had nothing. No training, nothing. Monday night I was there. Tuesday morning I ran up the mountain.
“Look, it’s an adventure. It’s a physical and mental competition with yourself.”
Perhaps many in Koser’s position at Zando would have stayed on, riding out the company’s growth to reap the benefits of the hard work he put in. Instead, Koser took on a greater challenge and started again from square one.
“It gives [me] a great sense of accomplishment because it’s so visible. You turn an idea into practice. The point I entered when I left [Zando] was to say, ‘Look, this was an exciting journey, but there are bigger fish to fry in my world.’”
Koser has found those bigger fish in Silvertree Capital, which shared plans in January to invest $10 million in African startups this year.
“We’ve started businesses with partners from scratch. We’ve invested in people that have had a business running a year, with businesses running 10 years. We’ve bought businesses and restructured them. Changed the management team. Put in new management. Changed the culture. Human interaction and psychology play a very big role in that. Incentives, team dynamics, business models. All these things—you see them in different phases, different industries, different characters.”
Koser smiles. “It’s kind of a real-life version of Lego, right?”
Manuel Koser resides in South Africa, but was visiting UM earlier this month to speak at SERVSIG 2016 about applying current research and business models to emerging markets. He is an SBE alumnus (BSc International Business, 2007).