Roberto CoelhoBy Roberto Coelho|April 29, 2021|13 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow
Work hard, it will pay off, not right away but it will pay off

South African grit, Italian style

Seventy years ago, an uneducated, penniless, immigrant stepped off a ship into an African country where no one understood him and few wanted to know him. Generations on his grandson Dino Talotti is a prosperous

tech-entrepreneur making money from education and a crowd.

The outgoing nature of Dino Talotti encompasses a well-groomed man driven by pure determination. He is deadly serious when it comes to burning the midnight oil, yet believes in a balanced and fulfilling life. His James Bondesque appearance and smooth-talk; born in Africa with a dash of Italian style, mask a resilient hustler fighting for success.

Talotti’s hopes are pinned on Varsity Vibe, a tech firm hoping to ride the wave of thousands of hard-up students seeking a discount when they shop.

The business that Talotti built runs energetically on the picturesque shores of Cape Town; home to three generations of his family. He spends the day jumping between meetings, ensuring customers are looked after and fighting fires. Running a tech firm from home was meant to be easier, they said. It’s not.

“Our goal is to remove the awkwardness of a student asking for a discount. We are the middleman for both sides to win.”

The signs show he is on course to dominate the market in South Africa after becoming Standard Bank’s exclusive Student App. Signing a deal with the largest bank in Africa, did not happen overnight. It was the fruit of 10 years of hard work.

This principle was instilled in him by his grandfather who came to South Africa with nothing. It is unusual for a young tech entrepreneur to discuss his grandfather, but not in the tight-knit Talotti family.

More than 70 years ago, grandpa Talotti beat a hasty and desperate retreat from a crumbling Italy in the hungry aftermath of World War 2. The young Talotti sought a new land of plenty far from his defeated and chaotic homeland. A huge risk that meant he had to leave his young wife and child behind.

Frightened and alone, he boarded a ship off the coast of Italy bound for an unknown land on the other side of the world. It was the third ship to leave in a fleet taking migrants from post war Italy to South Africa.

Scared and uncertain Talotti spent three months at sea nursing his broken spirit and dreaming of a better life for his family.

One morning, in 1947, the glorious sight of Table Mountain in the glinting sun loomed over the deck as the ship buffeted its way into Cape Town docks heralding a fresh start for the Talotti family.

Yet the struggle had just begun. Talotti had little education, couldn’t speak the language and had no money. Few in Cape Town had much time for his Italian immigrant who didn’t understand a word they were saying. Also, many South Africans died fighting Italians in North Africa and Italy and that memory was fresh meaning immigrants like Talotti were not very welcome.

Yet, Talotti didn’t give up and clutched at his roots for survival. Many Italian prisoners-of-war – who had built dams and roads – stayed on in South Africa after peace in 1945. To this day, there are an estimated 100,000 people of Italian descent in South Africa.

The new arrival Talotti sought out fellow Italians in Cape Town and through these contacts found a job as a construction worker.

“After he found a job, he sent a telegram back home. The telegram consisted only of three sentences, saying it was time for the rest of the family to come,” says his grandson with a smile more than 70 years on.

Talotti’s grandfather would help construct many landmark buildings in Cape Town. His life lent lessons of resilience and hard for future generations.

“Work hard, it will pay off, not right away, but it will pay off,” was the lesson Talotti learned from his grandfather.

There was another generation of hard work and sacrifice before the young Dino Talotti became the first person in his family to attend varsity. He graduated , in style, qualifying as a charted accountant (CA) at the University of Cape Town, a short drive from where his grandfather arrived, penniless and jobless, more than 70 years before. He found a job at KPMG in South Africa and was transferred to the United Kingdom where he worked for many years in London.

So where did a struggling start up in South Africa fit in with this golden path as a well- paid chartered accountant?

“Well, I had an idea in varsity, in 2006, for a service which allows a student to get discounts at different stores.”

Talotti knows the territory. He worked three jobs to put himself through varsity and discounts mattered to him. He counted the cents when he went shopping – he would always ask for a student discount. He became the talk of the campus for paying the lowest prices in town.

“I saw the disconnect between student and merchant. Students are shy to ask for a discount,” he says.

In varsity he asked his dad for a loan to take his idea to the next step.

“No, no, no but then yes.”

Straight to the point, like a true Italian – echoing the grandfather’s three-line telegram home – Talotti’s father replied directly, with trademark family brevity: “First become a CA, then you can start a business, not before.”

They proved wise words.

Talotti topped his qualification up with international experience. In 2011, he left his comfortable London job and like his grandfather headed for Cape Town in search of a brighter future. This time the dream was packed away on an Airbus A383, from Heathrow, instead of a passenger ship.

With savings from London, Talotti planned to bootstrap a tech firm.

“Every cost was lessened; the chairs were the cheapest, the clipboards were the cheapest. The account cards flew in from China and, yes, were the cheapest.”

With no budget for advertising, it was time to think. Starting at Orientation week he signed up as many students at the University of Cape Town as he could.

Then he teamed up with UCT rugby club, encouraging students to attend rugby games and signing them up. He claims he helped increase the crowds at rugby games.

Thinking out-of-the-box proved more colorful. He climbed into a tiger suit and handed out t-shirts to the crowds at rugby games.

In the first year, 10 000 students signed up, paying R150 (about $8) each in return for discounts at the shops.

Talotti believed idea was good, his resilience sound and he was out of the woods.

Wrong….

The UCT Rugby club and UCT head office had a difference of opinion over documents and no money was paid over to Talotti in 2011. Undeterred, Talotti honored the discounts in stores across Cape Town.

Six months went by with no income. He shipped himself back to London, worked for another year before returning to try again..

This time success was in the air. More students signed on and the word went out. Nevertheless, it was again a boot-strapping exercise. Talotti single handedly went around the stores of Cape Town to sign up partners for his program. As difficult as it was, large clients started to bite.

Today Varsity Vibe partners with more than 100 Merchants, from chicken takeaway Nando’s to gym Virgin Active and the new South African airline: Lift. He says merchants realized the value of the Varsity Vibe discount in the purchasing power of tens of thousands of students.

Now more than 175 000 students have signed up; the majority paying R200 (about $12 dollars) a year in return for discount deals. Talotti says the numbers are growing at between 5000 to 12000 students a month. His target is 20 000.

It sounds easy, but it wasn’t. The good ship Varsity Vibe ran aground many times.

The challenges began in 2016 in the aftermath of mass student protests across South Africa dubbed: “fees must fall.” In those desperate days, tear gas and violence paralyzed the country’s campuses amid widescale protest for free education; naturally the last thing in the minds of students was spending money, let alone signing up for discounts.

Varsity Vibe pivoted and hired students to recruit other students. The campus protests played out again in 2019.

The largest challenge would be named COVID 19 that saw the greatest global downturn since World War 2. There were no sign ups for months and the looming threat of shutting up shop.

In the turmoil, Talotti was glad to have taken his father’s advice that meant he had the letters CA(SA) behind his name.

True to his roots, he never gave up and worked harder; took a pay cut, and prayed.

Following the lifting of the total lockdown, June 2020 started to show growth. With the backing of Standard Bank and a new investor Talotti turned the ship around.

2021 is currently his most successful year, growth is soaring, he says.

“My long-term goal is to sign every student in South Africa.”

That is about four million students.

The dream seems grandiose, but who would bet against the Italian hustler with a tiger suit who looks like James Bond?

It’s been 10 wild years; Talotti’s advice for other entrepreneurs is…

“Consistent hard work and patience is the key for every journey, but always remember there is time for a party and a vibe.”

His says entrepreneurship journey is like a cruise ship. Perfect and gliding serenely on the outside, flailing away, like mad, on the inside to keep steaming forward.

And the name Varsity Vibe?

“The name was born after the rugby games; it was just a party. It was a vibe.”

And his father with the terse,stern, advice?

“He is extremely proud.”