When your technology is ahead of its time, do the next BIG thing
Forty-one year old Michelle Dickens, MD of TPN, is a household name. She launched her registered credit bureau in 2000, specialising in understanding tenant behaviour and rental payment behaviour. Starting from scratch back then, today the company has 12,000 clients and looks after 90% of SA’s residential rental agents, the majority of the listed property funds and thousands of private landlords with portfolios ranging in size of between one and 15,000 tenants. With a team of 21 people, TPN has very strong IT expertise, which enables it to engage and support all its clients.
How did you come up with the idea for the business?
From the tender age of 12 I realised I wanted my own business, something to do with my fiercely independent personality. So, although I studied BCompt and tried out a six-month stint doing my articles at a small accounting and auditing firm, I found the work very stifling. I started working as a rental agent and became frustrated with delinquent tenants who refused to pay, damaged my landlords’ properties or absconded overnight and saw first-hand the financial impact this had on many small-scale landlords.
I felt the whole industry could benefit from a central database where rental agents could share the profile of delinquent tenants; but it took another six months to wrap my head around the actual business plan.
I realised I needed software, and was very fortunate to present my business plan to my current partner who immediately saw the opportunity and offered to provide the seed capital and initial software to start the business.
What major obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?
Initially we were selling a concept. We had developed the software for estate agents to load their delinquent tenants but because we did not have any clients the database was unpopulated. Most estate agents we spoke to initially wanted to know “who else is participating”. It took five months to sign the first client, and one week to sign the second client. We hired data capturers to physically sit on site at the estate agent’s office and capture tenant lease information directly from the hard copy lease agreements to populate the database. Today we have created electronic import files from property management and accounting systems which are downloaded and delivered to TPN via email at the touch of a button.
Our technology was a little ahead of its time. We built a web-based database meaning internet access was necessary to do business with us. Back in 2000 many estate agents did not have access to the internet and we considered selling modems to get them connected. Instead of selling hardware we decided to bridge the technology gap by creating an SMS enquiry which would automatically communicate with the tenant database, send a summary tenant report back to the estate agent’s cell phone and fax the full version of the report all without any human intervention
Changes in legislation, namely promulgation of the National Credit Act in 2005, meant that the categories of information we held, specifically tenant default information, fell under the definition of credit bureau information. This meant the length of time we held tenant delinquent information on was reduced to two years’ worth of history. So we expanded our database to include rental payment profile information. But this meant that we had to collect information from every TPN client every month on every single tenant they rented to. It was vital that we create electronic import of data from property management and accounting systems to upload the data to TPN. Many small estate agents and landlords did not have access to property management systems (and specifically did not want to pay for the use of such a system), so in 2008 we developed a free-to-use property management and tenant invoicing system – www.rentbook.co.za
How have you exceeded against the odds?
Not giving up; having a brilliant team; always listening and learning.
What advice do you have for people looking to start their own business?
Believe in yourself.
Really listen to criticism and make changes. We are never too old to change for the better.
I “gave” away 50% of the business to a capital partner but I never would have had the capital injection to start the business without them.
Who has been the most important mentor?
My mom and dad – my mom helped with all the cold calling in the beginning and kept me positive. My dad helped by being there to bounce business ideas off.
Are you mentoring anyone outside your business?
My two boys (three and four years old). Never too young to develop our young generation!
If you started today with what you know now would you do anything differently?
Finish my studies at varsity and not part-time, as I eventually ended up doing.
If you could replicate yourself, what else would you focus on achieving?
I would study everything – economics, law, MBA!