UK-born and South Africa-raised, Mark Forrester is that rare thing – a successful local entrepreneur who has become an angel investor. Paying it forward, if you like.
Forrester is known for co-founding WooThemes, which later rebranded as WooCommerce and was sold to Automattic – makers of WordPress.com – in 2015. Since exiting the business in 2017, he has turned to investing.
“Through WooCommerce I’ve met and worked with many entrepreneurs and small businesses, equipping many with digital tools to transact and grow their businesses. After leaving Automattic I’ve therefore quite naturally gravitated to becoming an active early-stage investor and advisor to predominantly technology-based startups, my unique and juxtaposing founder-investor differential being that I have a background in, and preference towards, bootstrapping your business,” he told Disrupt Africa.
Forrester is an investor in the likes of IoT security and automation platform Sentian, mobile creativity app Over, community-based security solution Jonga, and online grocery delivery service Yebo Fresh, and says he likes companies to be at the MVP stage, showcasing initial customer traction and validating early sales.
“Not by initial design, but over time I have developed an interest in a couple of particular sectors,” he said. “I’ve doubled-down in these sectors due to learnings, networks and complementary opportunities identified through working with particular startups. Over time my interest in, and self-imposed obligation to, social impact investing has grown.”
The focus is heavily on local teams in the South African market, however, though he does have global aspirations for most of his investments. As an investor, Forrester tries to bring more than just money to the table.
“I like to play an active strategic role. As an evangelical bootstrapper I’m keen to share relevant learnings, whilst considerate of how different and fortunate our digital product/SaaS business model was,” he said.
“I’m also not opposed to getting my hands dirty. As a digital designer I’ve helped some of the startups design websites, app interfaces, manage WooCommerce stores, even craft marketing and brand materials.”
Creativity always tops capital, he said. Though there is much adversity and instability in South Africa, he said there is entrepreneurial opportunity within that, especially if you are an optimist.
“Copying trending ideas, apps, services and business models from America or Europe will still leave you with the problem of scale in a place like South Africa,” said Forrester.
“Catering for the underserved main markets of South Africa with nuanced Africa-centric, tech-enabling solutions provides me with excitement.”
Yet entrepreneurs need guidance. Too often, startups lack the resourcefulness to succeed, Forrester said.
“It’s often frustrating seeing many vanilla pitch decks defaulting to capital raises to make meaningful progress – willing to give away significant equity in seed rounds in the process. There’s an abundance of tools available at very little cost to help validate a business idea,” he said.
Companies also often don’t focus enough on distribution.
“Many are so fixated on their solution they don’t think enough about how they are going to seed it in to the market and find customers,” he said.
Entrepreneurs do not, however, receive the support they need from a South African government perspective, which Forrester said was a “big frustration” of his.
“We’ve seen the startup investment ecosystem grow and mature – with 12Js helping to incentivise private sector participation. But policymakers should certainly be more creative and encouraging of individuals starting businesses and supportive of SMEs looking to grow locally and beyond our borders. There should be substantial tax benefits for entrepreneurs willing to take substantial risk helping to grow our economy,” he said.
“Exchange controls are frighteningly archaic and concerningly restrictive. I’ve experienced and seen many international VCs excited about South African internet businesses with global growth opportunities but defaulting to offshoring IP and exporting revenues.”
For now, Forrester is taking a back seat and watching the scene develop.
“My capital is currently fully invested and I’m very protective of my time – being a heavily-invested family man. I plan to continue working closely with my existing portfolio. I hope to identify collaborative opportunities within. And maybe I’ll design some more websites…”