From WooCommerce to Conversio: Meet this entrepreneur who took the CA(SA) route but quit to establish two multimillion businesses
- Hi, I’m Adii Pienaar, a techno entrepreneur who was born and bred in Cape Town, South Africa.
- Growing up, I had an entrepreneurial streak and loved working on independent projects.
- Previously, I decided to be a Chartered Accountant of South Africa but soon realized that it was too rigid for me.
- Fast forward, in my last year of graduation along with my co-founders, we launched WooThemes (later WooCommerce).
- About 13 months after our launch, we reached cumulative sales revenue of $1 million!
- Here’s my story of how a well-nigh CA was directed to entrepreneurship.
Choosing between CA(SA) and Entrepreneurship
The dream to be an entrepreneur was always part of my vision for the future. As a result, I worked on small entrepreneurial projects in high school. Having said that, none of them made real money or became a real business.
When it was time to decide on a career path, I realized that most senior executives in big corporations had the CA(SA) designation. In addition, I absolutely loved accounting in high school as it was the closest academic subject to real business and the CA(SA) pathway made a lot of sense.
So, after finishing high school, I went to pursue a BAcc at Stellenbosch University only to realise within the first couple of weeks that accounting felt too rigid and wasn’t going to work for me.
The very nature of accounting means there’s generally a perfect or absolute right or wrong answer (black on white; no grey areas). I prefer answers that are more contextual, open to interpretation and more creative.
I decided not to pursue CA but continued with my Accounting degree. I have to mention that I never really enjoyed my studies once I decided this career path was not for me.
What next now?
My first taste at Technopreneurship
Fast forward, 3 years later, I completed my studies, barely passing my final year since I spent so much time trying to kickstart new businesses.
In fact, it was during my final year in 2007, when Mark Forrester, Magnus Jepson, and I teamed up online to build a new business for WordPress – WooThemes (a platform to extend stock standard WordPress-powered websites via a range of innovative themes and plugins) before we eventually focused exclusively on WooCommerce.
Following my graduation, I took a corporate job in January that lasted only 6 weeks before I quit to work on WooCommerce full-time.
Honestly, the reason behind quitting my job was because I was earning more from my WooCommerce side project than from my corporate gig.
As an option, I did my Honours in Business Management intending to get a CIMA accreditation. (In case things did not work out, I could just continue my CIMA articles and find a really great corporate gig again!)
Our Tech Startups kept growing
We bootstrapped the business and funded growth from revenue. Our venture took off immediately and the business was profitable from day one.
We definitely didn’t set out a major business, but we continued doing good work and learned from our mistakes. This was until a point where it became sufficiently significant for us to realize that we had created something of true value.
We were always customer-focused and customer-led. Therefore, we focused on building products, delivering happiness to our clients, and then creating a visual and online brand that represented the product excellence and great customer experience.
About 13 months after our launch, we reached cumulative sales revenue of $1 million! This was not an easy target to meet, but perseverance and dedication pulled us through.
The Unanticipated Idea
After almost 7 years at the end of 2013, I left WooCommerce because I wanted to challenge myself again and see whether I can create another successful business.
In mid-2014, after reading an article about how email receipts are missed marketing opportunities, I literally stumbled upon the idea for Conversio (formerly known as Receiptful).
Before pivoting to focus on e-commerce brands, we started with a slightly different target customer for the audience. We focused on other Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses. Initially, the growth was really slow. In the first month, we sent 250 receipts and 1000 in the second month. With persistence and improvement of our product to existing customers, we were sending 100k receipts a day.
Fast forward, in late 2019 Conversion was acquired by Campaign Monitor (CM).
What failure taught me about Entrepreneurship
To be frank, I had several failures along the way.
After WooCommerce and before Conversio, I started working at a company called PublicBeta (some kind of entrepreneurial community, community of founders). I burnt out during that stint and had to write off about R2 million that I had invested in it.
We also got about halfway through the journey with Conversio when growth plateaued and we had a revenue reporting issue, which meant that we had to lay off two team members to save the business.
Unfortunately, we ended November 2017 with $7k in the bank. I didn’t pay myself that month and overheads were about 20 times that of a monthly average.
Whilst those are big timestamped tough challenges and experiences, there are many days that are tougher. The way to get through those is to:
- Remind oneself that I’m not my business and if the business fails and dies, I’ve still got another chance. So, I have to protect myself.
- Spend time with the people that matter most to you and have meaningful experiences with them. This is way more important than anything you can do in a business.
- And if you’re clear that what you’re doing in business is life profitable for you, make sure to show up and do the work. Even on the hardest days, persistence and consistency are key to long-term success.
Redirecting to Entrepreneurship from CA was it a risk?
It didn’t feel like a risk at the time and in hindsight, I also don’t believe it was a risk.
I ultimately made the jump to entrepreneurship when I had a bit of a nest egg saved up (due to the consulting work I did in my varsity years) and also jumped to another opportunity where I would immediately replace my professional/corporate salary.
One of those options would’ve been to just continue my CIMA articles and find a really great corporate gig again.
I’d say that the first thing I always try to keep in mind with any business or project that I undertake is to make sure it aligns with my personal values. If it doesn’t, then no amount of financial or commercial success will matter.
Beyond that, entrepreneurship is really about being customer-focused – solving a real problem for customers that they’re willing to pay you for creating a world-class experience for them.
Having branched out of the CA journey early in my career, I’d probably ask CA aspirants who wish to ride the start-up journey to know what they hope to achieve. Depending on what one’s desired outcome is, it may be much better for them to stay in their career path.
Being an entrepreneur is hard and risky but it’s very rewarding. However, I don’t think it’s the perfect path for everyone and it depends on where one would like to go.
I’m a much better tech entrepreneur today than I was about 15 years ago and you can be too.
Adii Pienaar helps ambitious e-commerce brands grow their brands profitably. His primary focus is email marketing, but he can help with branding, finance, team-building, operations too. Adii is also an author of “Life Profitability: The New Measure of Entrepreneurial Success”