Today, we’re talking to a somewhat unsung hero in the SA tech scene. Steven Cohen is the founder of Softline Pastel, the company behind the ubiquitous accounting and ERP software. Steven talks to Ideate about his challenges in building the company, entrepreneurship in SA, his expansion plans and some advice for budding tech entrepreneurs in Africa.
Steven, thank you for talking to us today. You’re a rare breed in South Africa. You’ve managed to build up a public facing software brand solely made in SA, and one that is one of the most recognised in the SA business world. How has the journey been?
As with all things, building a business has come with amazing highs but also some really challenging times. Overall it’s a learning process, and to learn, you need to recognise that you didn’t know everything in the first place! The most profound aspect of this journey has been the wonderful people from different walks of life, with whom I have made contact along the way. Whenever the pressure gets too much I remind myself of this, and of how fortunate I am.
Do you classify yourself as primarily a business man or do you see yourself as a techie first, entrepreneur second?
I like to classify myself as a chartered accountant by training, entrepreneur by nature and techie at heart. I’m also a bit of an academic – I love history, learning about new things and teaching my people about what’s going on in the world, even when it’s unrelated to the business. My main interests are software and not only business software, but video editing programs, music and chess. For some reason, I’m not big on computer games – although I loved the Call of Duty series until it got too fancy! Playing guitar is a big passion of mine and I’m a bit of a collector. I also don’t drive a car and have only used a motorcycle as my form of transport since 1997.
How is Pastel making the transition to cloud computing? Has the evolution been a tricky one?
There is absolutely no denying that cloud is the way of the future. At Pastel we embraced it very early on, launching our first cloud-based program, Pastel My Business Online, in 2010. We are also about to launch Pastel MyMoney, a personal finance application which lives in the cloud. At the moment our development team is also looking at web-based versions of Pastel’s desktop programs as well as taking their relevant functionality to iPhones and Samsung android devices.
The evolution in terms of programming hasn’t been tricky at all. In fact, it’s given us the opportunity to rewrite programs from scratch without any of the legacy clutter, so we’ve used our 20-plus years of experience to create products that are more user-friendly, intuitive and fun to use. The trick is to convince users – particularly our slightly older clients – that the cloud is a safe and secure place to operate. There are still many customers who are suspicious of the internet.
Are you excited or despondent about the technology entrepreneur scene in SA?
There really is an entrepreneurial spirit in South Africa and people are coming up with great ideas all the time – across all disciplines. But unfortunately most of these ideas just don’t get to progress because there isn’t a support system to help young entrepreneurs, particularly in terms of funding. In the tech space it is difficult to get software to market. I have come across entrepreneurs with great technological innovations but they hit a dead-end when it comes to exposing it to the consumer. Although the internet may seem like the obvious way to do this it’s not that simple. So, there is a lot of great software that never finds success because of a lack of funds to market it properly.
My advice: Do stuff that you love but also that’s relevant. Think about what will really make a difference in the lives of the consumer. And always consider and plan how the product will be marketed after its completion.
Finally, what is Pastel’s international footprint? – Is Pastel an international brand yet, and what are the plans for expansion?
We are part of the Sage Group Plc which is a London listed technology company so we do have an upward global reach. But the Pastel brand is also very well represented globally with our products available in over 50 countries across Africa, Australia and Europe.
Brilliant stuff Steven. Congrats on your achievements to date and good luck with your expansion plans. We wish you all the best!