Define your elevator pitch. If you can’t explain and sell your idea/business in a few sentences, it’s too complicated. Strip away the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. Spend time to craft your elevator pitch. Agonise over it. Because one day, when you only have 10 seconds with someone who can impact your business forever, you want to ensure every second counts.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joy Des Fountain, co-founder and co-CEO of myFanPark. Since 2003, she has held high-ranking financial and accounting positions with several local and international companies. In 2019, she left the corporate world to establish myFanPark which recently merged with Starsona to become the leading global celebrity engagement platform with a footprint across Africa, Europe, North America, and the Indian subcontinent.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I studied accounting, spent four years in auditing, and followed that up with twelve years in the corporate world holding financial roles for large global institutions. I was unfulfilled and frustrated. Entrepreneurship has always been in my blood and I’ve had a number of side hustles along the way, including one of South Africa’s first cold press juice companies as well as an expense management tracking application which was my first introduction into tech.
We started myFanpark for a number of reasons (which I’ll get to below), but ultimately with the goal of building a business that made people happy through real and authentic connections. I often refer to a happiness equation which is: success = happiness = smiles — frowns. That’s how I got to where I am today and I’m reminded, even through some of the more challenging times on this entrepreneurship journey, that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Probably the most unexpected and interesting story is how a small barber shop in Lisbon Portugal changed our lives forever.
One of my co-founders, Wouter Lombard, was heading on a summer vacation to Lisbon. He made mention of this to his barber in Cape Town, South Africa, who immediately said that “the coolest barber shop in the world” was indeed in Lisbon and he would so appreciate Wouter visiting the iconic Figaro’s on his behalf, even if it was just to take a picture. One day, strolling through the streets, unplanned and quite by accident, Wouter walked past Figaro’s! Inside, he was greeted by the owner and when Wouter expressed to him that a barber in Cape Town was one of his biggest fans, he agreed to record a shout-out video to Wouter’s barber. It had such an incredible impact, as Wouter’s barber explained that it was truly the best gift he had ever received and will cherish it forever.
This interaction sparked an idea. Wouter shared his experience with me and said “Joy, there is an opportunity for people to connect with those they look up to in a far more real and authentic way. Let’s start a business that connects people with personalised video messages and grow the interactions from there.”
I’m grateful to Wouter that a simple conversation in a barber shop on a trip to Portugal not only sparked a career change, but planted the seed that myFanPark grew from.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well I’m not sure it’s a mistake, but on top of running myFanPark and leaving my corporate job in March 2019, I gave birth to my third child in April. As anyone who has run a startup knows, there is no downtime and that rings true to being a parent as well.
One afternoon in June I had a really important pitch. My baby was 2 months old. I was still nursing her and was working from my home office. My husband was travelling, but I couldn’t and didn’t want to postpone this particular meeting. So I managed expectations with my two older kids, did a ‘silent’ obstacle course for them in the garden, put myself on the trampoline with baby on my chest, positioning the phone in such a way that the people on the other side could only see my head and not the fact that I was nursing an infant with two other young kids running around me and I pitched our business. My adage was if they couldn’t see the madness, it didn’t exist. Fortunately, the pitch went really well, but it was a critical learning for me and one that I try to live by today being an entrepreneur, mom and wife: to be where my feet are.
I don’t have to try and do it all or be it all to everyone, at the same time. There’s time to be a mom, wife and homemaker and then there is time to be a CEO. I now focus my time where it needs to be, so that I can give and be my very best to that particular audience, at the time it needs me.
When I’m working, be the best businesswoman, boss and colleague I can be, When I’m in mom mode, be present with my kids — play, laugh and have fun. When I’m with my husband, give him my undivided attention. It’s far more fulfilling that way.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
One of my most challenging times when we started myFanPark was the the reliance on some external service providers whose lack of accountability, correct skillset, and care for the task at hand had the ability to significantly impact our business. At no stage however did I want to give up, as we knew we were building something far too rewarding to consider throwing in the towel for. What I will absolutely acknowledge however is the value that co-founders bring in difficult times. When one is down, the others can motivate and help see glimpses of light in what feels like a dark tunnel.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
After many years being bound to an office, startup life introduced me to a new phenomenon: coffee shop culture. It was during an impromptu meeting with a Springbok Rugby Legend, Schalk Burger, that we were introduced to a man by the name of Iain Banner.
One of Iain’s many accolades is that he co-Founded and as CEO developed the Laureus World Sports Awards and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in 1999. The Laureus World Sports Awards is an annual award ceremony honouring individuals and teams from the world of sports along with sporting achievements throughout the year. Laureus Sport for Good has reached and helped change the lives of almost 6 million children and young people. Today, Laureus currently supports more than 200 programmes in over 40 countries that use the power of sport to transform lives.
On understanding what myFanpark’s vision is, Iain immediately understood how this business has the ability to scale and through key partnerships in multiple markets, can impact the lives of fans and those they admire in the most positive manner.
Since that interaction, Iain has taken on the role of a Board Member of myFanPark and continues to be a key advisor to the team. Iain’s role in working with me to unlock key relationships and strategise around regional implementation has been invaluable. What I appreciate most is that he is willing to do the hard stuff. I refer to the quote “Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Even though Iain works on the business and not in the business, I really appreciate the fact that he is prepared to get into the overalls with us when it is required.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘You are exactly where you’re meant to be.’
It’s so easy to get caught up obsessing over where one’s business needs to be in 12, 24, 36 months and be pulled into the competitive landscape in a fast moving world and wish yourself out of your current situation.
A key learning for me has been to understand that through the good but more importantly, through the challenging times, there are key learnings to be taken, many of which provide tools as we progress into the next cycle in our business or more broadly in our life.
During some of my really tough times in this startup journey, where I’ve been grappling with why we are dealing with certain challenges, I’ve had this overwhelming sense that these challenges are preparing me for far greater opportunities which not only gives me the strength to keep pushing through, but also the excitement to see what I’m being prepared for.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Fans have limited access to their favourite celebrities and heroes. “Engagements” on the celebrity social platforms (e.g. social media likes & follows) are never personal in nature and do not satisfy the need for fans to truly “connect” with their favourite celebrities. Only a lucky few might get an autograph, or a meet and greet, or perhaps a selfie with their hero.
As such, celebrities are often bombarded with requests from fans to engage with them, or even worse, their personal space and privacy is invaded by die-hard fans who would give anything to get close to them.
myFanPark’s goal is to reimagine how fans connect with those they admire by enabling the famous and influential to uplift, inspire, and delight their fans with unique, personalized interactions.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have incredible and hugely inspiring talent on our platform, who in a safe environment, where their privacy is protected, have the ability to offer a number of different personalised engagement offerings to their fanbase. From the ability to sell signed merchandise, to social media interactions, q&a sessions, live video calls, personalised videos and even the ability to tailor their own experiences that they would like to offer . But more importantly, to create authentic experiences that connect them with fans around the world.
A hugely popular Springbok Rugby player by the name of Faf de Klerk is on myFanPark. Faf was part of the squad that won the Rugby World Cup in November 2020. He is often the shortest player on the rugby field but has a tenacity and hunger to be the best that ultimately makes his height irrelevant (and this in a professional sport where it’s often about how big and strong you are).
Faf receives many orders on myFanPark, but one stands out for me. It’s an order he received in June this year. It was in Japanese and Faf offers interactions in English and Afrikaans (a South African local language). So we went on to google translate and the following was translated:
She ended it in English with ‘you are the life saver of me and my son.’
I couldn’t help but be overcome with emotion and equally, tremendous gratitude that this phenomenal lady had the ability to connect through language barriers, to receive a personalised interaction with someone, who unbeknownst to him, has had such an important impact on her. This interaction is why we do what we do and when things get tough and difficult, we often remind ourselves of that message we had to google translate.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am so excited with what we have planned for 2021!
Not only will we be unlocking key markets as we continue to expand our global footprint, with a focus on remaining locally relevant and impactful, but our product team is working on some pretty remarkable things. All of this helps fans connect with those they look up to in a real, authentic, positive and fun way.
We recently received this message on Instagram from a person who has been following myFanPark’s progress: “The essence of what it means to be human is to engage with fellow humans. To reach out. To congratulate when doing well. To console when things go wrong. To uplift when it’s needed. I’ve always believed that the right words from the right person at the right time can literally make all the difference. myFanPark provides the platform to do all the above.”
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I find the current status quo frustrating but equally I see it as a massive opportunity. Change will not happen organically. We have the ability to drive change. This comes through more women being prepared to step out, take the leap, back themselves, and deliver results. This is not a sprint and it doesn’t have to be at the cost of someone else. I come from a country with enormous imbalances as a result of our history. We have the ability to sit on the sidelines, complain and get caught up in the disappointment of the situation, or step out and in a collaborative manner work for change.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Gosh, I could go on for a very long time about this. I’ll never forget in my very first job, I was called into my manager’s office. He was standing behind his desk and he pulled his glasses down and said to me, “Joy, you must know, the only reason you are going to make a success in business is because of your big t*&s and blonde hair.” This was 18 years ago and it still sits with me today. Since that time, I have often found myself overcompensating to prove my capabilities.
Having had the privilege of working with a lot of women in my career, not only in the tech space but in general, I find that we often do that, feel this underlying need to overcompensate to prove that we are smart, capable, committed, or hard working and it should not have to be like that.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Be brave. Surround yourself with people who challenge your approach, way of thinking, and strategy.
When you started your business, perhaps you saw a clever gap in the market. But times change. Consumers change. Today, ask yourself, is there a still market in the gap you previously identified? If not, be brave. Reassess. Take a step back and in doing so, you can hopefully move forward.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Start with hiring the right people and be clear about who you are looking for. Those who are self motivated, self-driven and ambitious. So ask yourself, how do you screen and test for that when you interview, beyond an interview or assessment of a CV? Look beyond a job spec and track record, and uncover what those individuals achieved on their own. You’ll soon scratch beneath the surface to see evidence of what and how they are driven.
A company can only add so many carrots to motivate teams, but in the end, if the people themselves are not self starters, ambitious and driven, your carrots will only get you so far.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
One of our first mistakes was thinking we have to show what our product is; to explain how it works and how customers can utilise it.
We missed the mark, as we neglected to communicate the impact of what our product does.
Our platform is rooted in the idea of creating happiness. The moment we started bringing that to life in communication, we created an immediate emotional hook that got audiences interested, because they could relate to it.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Put the customer first. Not your business: Understand their point of view. As much time as you put into understanding every nuance of your business, know your customer first because they form the basis of your business.
- Be available and approachable: The best thing that happened to us, was starting out without the bells and whistles of modern technology. We were hands on. We were personally phoning and messaging customers and celebrities. It meant we spoke to them personally, heard their feedback first hand and learned from every interaction. Had we started with a fully automated product (or even a “customer service team”), we would have created a barrier between us and the customer and in doing so, missed out on critical learnings.
- Fess up, apologise and make good: You are going to make mistakes. Admit it. Take ownership and let your customer feel (not read) your sincere apology. There’s nothing worse than a frustrated customer made to feel like the fool, just because “they did not understand your product” or “missed the T&C’s you so clearly stipulated on your website”. Pick up the phone. Tell them who you are and listen.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
- Surprise and delight! The age old trick to give them the unexpected, so they don’t get bored, or hear the same sales pitch, wrapped in a different wrapping paper. Find new ways to engage. Find new offerings. Reinvent what you do and what you offer them. Ultimately you might not need to change your business, but rather, change what you mean to them.
- Remain relevant. The world changes. People change. Consumer behaviour changes. So you have to evolve, adapt and remain relevant. When you are relevant, you’ll always have a reason to exist and a reason for customers to return.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Do it because you love it, with your head and heart. Not because you want to make money. The money will follow and will be a result of your success. But it will be a lot harder to achieve success, if you are doing it for the money. I would far rather wake up every day knowing I spent my time doing what I love. The journey is probably more important than the end goal, else you might never reach it and be miserable trying to get there.
- Know your customer — let them be the hero and the rest will fall into place. Obsess about them and craft your solution and business around their needs.
- Protect your yes. When you start out and get people excited about what you do, you will find that people naturally gravitate towards you and your idea. You want to protect who you say “yes” too. Especially early on — when you are searching for that opportunity, investment, network or even a chance at luck. Think twice before you say yes.
- Define your elevator pitch. If you can’t explain and sell your idea/business in a few sentences, it’s too complicated. Strip away the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. Spend time to craft your elevator pitch. Agonise over it. Because one day, when you only have 10 seconds with someone who can impact your business forever, you want to ensure every second counts.
- Build your runway before you build your airport: When you start out, all you want to do is build your business (ie your airport). The reality is, without money, you won’t have a business and building your airport will take time. So work hard to secure a runway, that will allow you to deliver against the financial obligations of the immediate future. This does not necessarily mean raising money, but it does mean knowing how you are going to pay for things because as much as we would like it to, money does not grow on trees.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, other than to get people of influence to join myFanPark of course, where they can uplift and inspire their audiences.
I’m going to speak to an idea that Wouter shared with me. I know he won’t mind me sharing it in our pursuit to create a world where we are more connected. When we connect, we can impact each other and with impact, we can change lives for the better.
Take for example orphanages and old age homes. Separate entities. Separate buildings. Unrelated.
We fundamentally believe both will be a far happier and more loved, inspiring place if and when we can connect the two. One building. One roof. Just imagine — we’ll have the wisdom and the experience of the wise (with ample time and love to give, to those who certainly will appreciate it), whilst on the other hand, a burst of energy from the young to hopefully in return keep the older and wiser young at heart (and maybe even sign a few up to TikTok no doubt!).
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Sara Blakely, the Founder of Spanx (I mean do I even need to explain who she is). I’m a total fan of hers. I have followed her for what feels like a decade. Her approach to her business, her marriage, her children, there is so much that I have been able to relate to and I appreciate her willingness to offer a glimpse into her life. Her obsession with product and customer centricity is something that I believe so many can take learnings from.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!