OPENING your inbox and seeing an amazing deal for a restaurant in your area is a great way to start the day, says Aaron Toys, co-founder of social buying site Wicount.co.za.
The site was the first major go-to spot for social buying deals in the country and has become many a South African's first stop in the morning - after the coffee machine of course. Wicount.co.za uses the collective purchasing power of a group of consumers to negotiate better rates from goods and service providers.
Restaurant meals at a 50% discount or spa evenings at 60% discounts are especially popular.
According to the American-born Toys, the group has grown from making 10 to 20 sales per month to thousands in just over the last year.
Toys can easily be called a serial entrepreneur. The 31-year-old father of two says that if he hadn't done something about the idea he had for social buying, he would really have kicked himself. Toys is energetic and delivers machine-gun rhetoric.
He has the scars to show for his experience as an entrepreneur. His first failed business was a DVD hiring scheme similar to Netflix.com that worked through the post, called... well, it didn't make it that far. (Push Play is the local version.)
After joining the nine to five brigade at a software company specialising in freight forwarding, he went on to start a consulting firm called Prime-X (what a terrible name, he says). Eighteen months ago Toys and his partner Dan Palay launched Wicount.co.za.
Of course, the two researched the concept of social buying for a few months before the launch, and couldn't find any South African platform operating in that space. The two entrepreneurs scraped together the money they needed by borrowing from friends, taking out mortgages and maxing out credit cards.
"I just knew that I had to do something with this idea, otherwise I would regret it for the rest of my life."
Toys was educated in the United States, where he graduated from Brandeis University in 2002 before moving to South Africa to be with his wife.
"I have a knack for coming up with good business ideas and noticing opportunities; often they're very simple and straightforward," he says.
During the early days of Wicount.co.za, Toys and Palay made all the sales themselves. "Often small businesses can't spend a fortune on marketing. It is usually very difficult to convert advertising into feet through your door. Not so with Wicount."
In the last 18 months Wicount.co.za has exploded, with the offerings extending from only one city, Johannesburg, to Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban. The sales-heavy business employs about 17 people.
The group's first major coup was selling 1 500 Mangwanani Spa massage deals. It offers a variety of low-priced as well as expensive, higher-end deals.
"For example," Toys says, "One of our most recent deals was two nights at the Royal Kruger lodge; we saved over 100 people more than R 440 000!"
However, by the end of 2010 social buying was all over the internet and Toys faced stiff competition from US social buying giant Groupon, which entered the South African market with a bang and a big marketing budget.
This time, Toys will find a little more competition than from the various previous attempts by other local companies.
According to Toys, Groupon engaged with Wicount.co.za last year for a possible buyout and a smoother entry into the market. However, at the time Toys and Palay were intent on building the business rather than selling it off so soon after inception.
He says this kind of competition is good for the industry, as Groupon is helping them to increase awareness about social buying.
Toys says: "We see Wicount as going from strength to strength and cementing its position as the social buying leader in SA."
* This article was first published in Finweek.
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