Interviews Tech

Stafford Masie: modern maverick

Stafford Masie is sitting on a stage, the last in a long row of panellists at a technology conference. It’s finally his turn to speak, but his microphone’s broken – because he’s dismantled it.

“I hadn’t seen one of those lapel mics before and I completely ripped it apart just to see what it looked like inside,” he grins. “So many people just utilise technology and they don’t understand the power of what’s in their hands.”

That power, believes the man who established Google in South Africa, should be harnessed to transform – not just simplify – lives.

“My start-ups are not driven by a technology vision or focus, they have to have a human effect,” emphasises the businessman, with all the passion of a motivational speaker.

So, after witnessing a limbless toddler crawling on the floor – “it broke my heart and I decided to do something” – he invested in a prosthetic robotics project.

“Our vision is we want to put you in a position where you look at your normal arm and you’d actually remove it and replace it with one of our arms because it would be better,” the technology futurist reveals of the company that’s due to be unveiled shortly.

A similar balance of innovation and empathy underpins his most recent success story, the world-first Payment Pebble Keypad, engineered and produced at his company, Thumbzup. Plug it into any mobile device and you can accept debit or credit card payments on the spot.

“I was sitting in a mayor’s office at a government department in Johannesburg and in walked a lady who was completely traumatically in tears,” he remembers. “She had a baby on her back and I discovered later that she’d given birth to twins and was injured during childbirth, so she couldn’t go and pay her utility bill.

“They sent someone out to switch off her utilities because she had not paid – she had money, she had a credit card, but they couldn’t accept the payment, so they cut her off, and she lost one of her twins because of exposure that winter.

“When I heard that, I decided to build a company to solve that problem.”

That importance of contributing to the greater good can be traced back to his youth. As a 16-year-old, Stafford was sent to Israel and exposed to a world beyond what he’d seen growing up in a strict Eldorado Park home where morality and ethics were the order of the day.

“What I came back with was the realisation that there’s so much that can be done in this world,” he recalls of the time he returned to South Africa and began a journey that would take him from Telkom – where a racist incident showed him “not to become the victim but to become the victor” – to Dimension Data, Novell, and ultimately Google – where he learned how to recruit the best (“I choose insane passion, perpetual positivity, intermingled with integrity over any level of competency.”)

Those lessons fuel the man he is today, with six start-ups on the boil as a successful inventive – rather than innovative – entrepreneur.

“An innovative entrepreneur takes what’s there, optimises it, and builds a company. So, for example, an entrepreneur that goes and builds a mobile app development company – he’s built the company but he doesn’t own the network, he doesn’t own the phone, he doesn’t own the operating system. He hasn’t really made anything but he’s leveraging assets that exist,” he explains.

An inventive entrepreneur, on the other hand, creates something from nothing – something that people haven’t figured out they even want in the first place.

“You have an idea, you have a concept and there’s no case study, there’s no data, there’s no reference site anywhere – all you have is your passion, you have this notion that this can make a difference, and you want to build it,” he offers.

But it’s a road less travelled that’s not for everyone.

“Inventive entrepreneurs are people that are born. It’s a calling. It’s something that you know you are, so you accept the 99% failure rate that comes with it. Generally inventive entrepreneurs are people that are mavericks in their thinking – they love failure, because failure gives you data, it tells you what is possible and what’s not possible. Because if you’re inventing, you need that data,” he says with the authority of hard-won personal experience.

“I’ve had start-ups that have failed, I’ve had ideas that didn’t go anywhere,” the angel investor admits freely. “I think the most relevant form of failure at hand is probably the Pebble and take a look at what it is today. The failure became quite a positive, but the first couple of years were an absolute catastrophe. I swapped engineering teams three times. I spent so much money, I was proven wrong so many times, but I still came at it,” he reveals.

Failure turned to success, thanks to the correct team (“If you work with people with the right attitude and approach, you can literally do anything”) and an approach to life summed up by Theodore Roosevelt: “The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly… who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Stafford elaborates: “I would rather be the guy that lies on the battlefield done but I tried. I think there are so many of us that simply give up and we live mediocre lives.

“I speak to university students often and I always tell them: ‘Don’t just work on stuff, work on stuff that matters. Don’t just do things, do great things.’ And the richness of life comes from doing things that matter. Like Steve Jobs said in ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish’, the only way to do great things is to ensure that whatever you’re doing is what you love.

“If you’re passionate about stuff and you’re doing stuff you feel makes a tangible difference, then you lose sight of the aspect that people call ‘busy’ and I just think you get on with it. It’s like my dad used to say: you find a job that you love and you don’t work a day in your life.”

But with only 24 hours in each of those days, something’s got to give. And it did.

“The demise of my marriage was due to my work-life balance,” reveals the father of two. “That’s where success has its sacrifices. I think a lot of people don’t recognise or realise that. I’ve paid a very heavy price in my personal life, for the successes that I’ve attained, and I’m not proud of them, but it’s par for the course.

“Sometimes you almost have to be the martyr, you have to realise that making a tangible difference on a global scale comes with great personal sacrifice.”

Understandably then most of his spare time is for his daughters, although the man who dreamed of becoming a rescue helicopter pilot somehow also manages to squeeze in flying microlights and single prop aircraft, scuba diving, and snow skiing – activities that leave him alone with his thoughts.

“These things give me clarity of mind and perspective. I realise that I’m actually nothing – no matter what I build, no matter what I do, no matter what I think of myself or of my accomplishments, they’re actually nothing in the broader scheme of things.”

For a man who’s already touched so many lives, Stafford Masie is selling himself very short.

  • This article originally appeared in Man, the men’s lifestyle magazine of the Foschini group. (Image: David Swart/HSMimages)

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