How a rugby great is now getting dirty in the SA startup trenches

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Mike Sharman’s mind goes back to October 2019. “Bryan and I had dinner with one of South Africa’s most highly-rated VCs. He planted a seed: ‘(Bryan + 𝑥) x scale = y’.”

To explain quickly, “Bryan” is Bryan Habana, widely regarded as one of the greatest rugby players of all time, and part of the South Africa team that won the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

At that tournament, Habana’s eight tries equalled the single-tournament record set by Jonah Lomu in 1999, and he was named the 2007 IRB Player of the Year. During the 2015 World Cup, he equalled Lomu’s career record of 15 tries in World Cups. He is second place among all time test try scorers, with a total of 67.

Now retired, Habana has taken a relatively unusual post-rugby route, by getting involved in South Africa’s tech startup scene. This isn’t wholly unheard of – a former Springboks captain, Bob Skinstad, is a partner at VC firm Knife Capital – but what is unique about Habana is that he is not heading up a VC firm, or employed as a glorified marketing tool. 

Rather, he is getting his hands dirty and helping to build startups from the ground up, with MatchKit, a DIY website builder that enables athletes or their agents to showcase their sporting pedigree and sponsors, and fintech startup Paymenow, which allows employees responsible early access to their wages.

Sharman, Habana’s co-founder at MatchKit, picks up the story.

“Bryan and I went to school together so we’ve known each other since we were 14. We kept in touch during his professional rugby career and started having formal conversations about a business partnership six months prior to his retirement,” he said.

The result was Retroactive – a sports digital marketing agency and sister to Retroviral, the digital marketing agency Sharman started in 2010. And after the Rugby World Cup 2019, they saw a gap for MatchKit.

“Bryan acts as a chief relationship officer, his personal brand is invaluable to add credibility to our startup’s focus, and he is personally invested in player mental and financial fitness – especially when we engage with athletes at their career peak or twilight,” Sharman said.

Here’s the man himself on why MatchKit is something he is passionate about.

“Having been a professional sportsman and seeing the value and reward that can be created from creating a marketable brand, being involved in MatchKit was extremely intriguing and exciting,” Habana said. 

“I was really baffled how not one of our Rugby World Cup winning Springboks in 2019 didn’t have their own dot com website or domains, and this triggered the need to combine my expertise from being a professional athlete and working with Mike and Ben’s incredible expertise from a marketing and “fan” perspective.”

Habana actually started, but never finished, a BSc IT degree at Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), and says tech has always been an active interest of his.

“It has always intrigued me. I wasn’t sure exactly what I would be doing post-rugby, I am really fortunate to be playing in the entrepreneurial and fintech space,” he said.

Which brings us to Paymenow, where Habana is head of business development and sales. He explains why the concept is so important, and what value he brings to the team.

“I found the Early Wage Access model to be extremely intriguing due to its disruptive nature while breaking the disconnect between a monthly salary and those living day-to-day. Being able to be a part of a fintech company that is addressing this disconnect but also doing it in a socially responsible way was certainly something that drew me to the sector,” said Habana.

“With Paymenow being somewhat disruptive with regards to the microlending and payday lending environment but also with us being associated with the Catalyst Fund, which is a global NGO whose mandate is financial inclusion, associating myself with Paymenow brings a level of credibility because of my own humanitarian and philanthropic work as well as being able to tap into my network.”

The company’s immediate plans are South Africa-focused, but once it has gained enough momentum in South Africa Habana said Paymenow has continental and even global plans. MatchKit, meanwhile, is working towards a funding round. Global expansion and securing capital may be a far cry from the rugby field, but Habana says there are in fact many similarities between playing rugby and running startups. 

“I think that the main similarity that I experienced is the team work element. Certain individuals bring their strengths to the environment for the startup to be able to succeed. That team work coupled with sacrifice, determination and hard work has been extremely key,” he said.

But does he see himself joining former teammate Skinstad on the other side of the table in future, investing in businesses rather than launching or running them?

“I am really enjoying the rigours, thrill and problem-solving environment that is entrepreneurship and I see myself dedicated to the current entities that I am involved in,” Habana said.

“I am not quite sure if I see myself moving into investing in the near future, but if MatchKit reaches the potential we think that it can and truly becomes a unicorn, I would certainly look into investing into the startup realm.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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