24 Jul Self Starters: Jens Herf | Founder of Shopstar
A home-grown solution to eCommerce in South Africa, Shopstar was founded by creative entrepreneur Jens Herf. The platform, which launched in August last year, was developed by a group of industry professionals in Cape Town to enable local creative businesses to easily set up shop online.
We spoke to Jens about how the idea for Shopstar originally came about, what the response to the start-up has been and how he plans to grow the platform going forward.
To start, please tell us a bit more about yourself and your background.
I was born in Durban. When I was 10 my family moved to Johannesburg. My father grew up in Holland and my mother in Germany, so I guess I am a bit of a mongrel. I finished my school in Johannesburg, did part of my studies in Berlin and have been living in Cape Town for the last 12 years. My sister is an artist and my mother a seamstress, so I was always surrounded by creativity. I guess that is where my passion for design comes from.
Growing up, was there ever any indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
No, to be honest I was not sure what I wanted to become. My brother gave me an old computer when I was 19. In essence I was a late bloomer. This is where my fascination for the web started. Whilst studying engineering in Berlin I did an internship at an advertising company and this sparked my interest in multimedia design. I returned to South Africa, and decided to do a multimedia degree and specialised in UI design. I knew I had finally found what I wanted to do.
What sparked the idea to build an eCommerce platform in South Africa?
After finishing my studies I joined a web development agency called Tinderbox for about 1 year. Tinderbox closed shop and the client I was working on asked if I would continue working with them in my own capacity. I agreed and so my journey in the development of cloud based software began. Our brief was to build an eLearning software. The software was a success, my first business venture not. But the bug had bitten. After a stint of feeling sorry for myself, I pulled myself together and started providing small businesses with fixed priced cost effective web development services. This model proved to be successful, I grew my client base and started employing people to help me. This service was eventually converted into a content management system called ice cream. Ice cream did its job, but was not exactly what I wanted to create. I knew that we could not base the future of the business on ice cream and needed to rebuild. I had spent some time in Germany and observed that most of the young creatives where engaging in eCommerce. I realised that there was nobody in South Africa who was tackling this head on. And so the idea of Shopstar was born.
Practically, how did you go about turning the idea into a reality? What was the greatest challenge in doing so?
Having a fair amount of previous experience in developing cloud based software, we knew that we needed to follow agile development methodologies and lean start-up principles. Right in the beginning I contacted Karin from Dear Rae to find out what her needs in terms of eCommerce would be. Within a short period of time, she agreed to work with us to develop the functionality Shopstar needed. We launched within 4 months with Dear Rae being our first shop. They actually did their first online sale that very day. Developing Shopstar was not so difficult, but ensuring that the business would survive the shift from its core offering to Shopstar was a challenge. Suddenly half of our team was concentrating on a new development. So far the risk has paid off. Let’s hope we continue to grow.
What are some of the highlights of the journey so far?
Shopstar has been an incredible journey. We have amazing young creative businesses on Shopstar and are watching them grow from strength to strength. We have formed partnerships with CCDI and DPD Laser. We have been featured in numerous publications including VentureBurn, MWEB, BizCommunity and CNBC Africa. We are a World Design Capital 2014 project. We were one of 3 startups to have received an offer for investment at SparkUp! Live. MBA students from UCT Graduate School of Business have just completed a 3 month report on us and we have just gone beyond 1000 registered shops.
Shopstar launched formally in August last year. Are you at all surprised by the response it has received?
At times I have been a little overwhelmed. I have also felt very blessed and fortunate, as most of the attention has come to us. We have had a very open and collaborative approach to building Shopstar and it is great to see that what we are doing is valued by so many.
Shopstar has just been named one of 8 Capetonian finalists in the international start-up competition, ‘Get in the Ring’. Could you tell us your thoughts on this?
Nervous and excited, there are some awesome start-ups who we will be competing against. I guess I’ll be watching some boxing movies this weekend. To be honest I am not sure what to expect. I will prepare and do my best. I do find it awesome that more and more of these events are coming to South Africa.
In what ways does Shopstar stand out from other similar platforms?
Most of our competitors are international, we are local. Our focus is to create eCommerce solutions for South African and African businesses. This gives us an edge in terms of building relationships and creating a local community around the brand.
How many people does the team behind Shopstar comprise of, and what are each of your individual roles?
We are a team of 5. I am in charge of UI design, marketing and general management. Shani van der Merwe is in charge of accounts and does a lot of the support work. Bettina Schuette manages our clients, newsletters, PR and our relationships. James Gareth Smith is our head developer, James also has journalism degree and sometimes helps out with copy writing. He works closely with Marco Prins who is also a developer and joined us at the beginning of the year. Most of the team has had more than 3 years of working together, which is great as we complement each other. I could not imagine having a better team around me.
What advice would you give to a local designer looking to start selling their wares online?
Browse shopstar.co.za and setup a shop. Just kidding (or not). Keep it simple. Do not spend a lot of money on developing an online shop, rather invest in good photography. Test your product and your site with friends and family. Don’t over engineer, clients are more forgiving than you think.
What is the most valuable thing you have learned throughout your career so far?
Patience and acceptance. Everything takes time, and nothing is the way you think it will be. Be in it for the long haul.
And finally, how do you plan to grow and develop Shopstar going forward?
Our objective is to continue developing Shopstar with a core group of clients and to grow organically. Although we do PPC and Social Media advertising, most of our clients come through word of mouth or from events that we host every 6 weeks. We are seeing more and more shops register in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. Once we feel that we have a solid foothold in South Africa we will venture into the rest of Africa. And we will continue having fun!