Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|July 6, 2022|14 Minutes|In Billionaire Today

Billionaire Today

“They just went down the toilet.” How the tech wreck flushed away an entrepreneur's fortune

This is a tech tale of trials, triumphs, boom, bust and multi-million-dollar misfortune  enough to turn  the blood cold in the veins of  even the bravest entrepreneur.African-born-and-bred Gour Lentell has written his name as a tech entrepreneur from the continents tech breeding ground of Cape Town to Sydney and London. He mucked out cows in Switzerland and pulled pints in London on his way to a tech fortune of $65 million. This is Part One, of  two parts,  looking at  the career of Lentell -an entrepreneur  disrupting WhatsApp in South Africa.  

In the 1980s Gour Lentell was a nomadic farm labourer mucking out the cows in cold Switzerland worrying about how he was going to pay off his credit card debts. Less than 20 years later he sat at the head of a  negotiating table in New York selling his first venture as an entrepreneur for a cool $65 million -wealth that was to evaporate before his eyes.

What a life for Lentell. If he were a bluesman in the Mississippi Delta, you would say he had milage – deep experience on the road less travelled. Milage, they say, makes a good bluesman great.

For Lentell’s grey hairs are rare in the tech space, peopled by Young Turks in Africa. They have seen a lot of life, success and adversity in more than sixty years.

It all began with a flight from Zimbabwe, where was born and had been schooled at Churchill Boys High in Harare, to London at the end of the 1970s.

“I arrived in London with a new rucksack, a new sleeping bag, all my possessions and £300 – that’s all my parents could afford and foreign currency restrictions made it difficult anyway and made my way in life,” he tells Billionaire Tomorrow from  Cape Town more than 40 years on.

“I had an uncle and his wife and I stayed with them for two months. I tried to get into University and got offered a place, but that was at the time when Maggie Thatcher got into power and foreign student fees went through the roof and we had no capacity to pay anything. Although I was a British citizen I was not classified as a home student – I had to live there for three years and pay taxes.”

As a working taxpayer In London, he trained as an accountant, but realised after a year that was not what he wanted to do with his life. He worked pulling pints in a pub in Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill and painting and decorating before he heard there was work on a farm in Switzerland.

“I was a farm labourer cleaning up cow shit and chicken shit, throwing things around and feeding cows and working on the land. I was on the bottom rung I was a labourer. I was working without a Visa so the farm people hid me away and didn’t want me to go many places. I was paying off debts that I had so I was happy to work, earn money, be fed and pay off my credit card. None of them spoke English so I had to learn Swiss-German,” he says.

“ I had a good three years of labouring work and forever appreciate the lesson and life wisdoms I got from that. When I said to the people in Switzerland I wanted to leave and travel and thinking about going to university they were astonished…They saw me as a farm labourer “

Lentell flew back to study at Lancaster University where he earned an honours degree in Operational Research, and a management science degree in mathematics, statistics and computer science.

“It was computers that really got me interested.”

Following graduation, it was back to farm labouring for a few months, bringing in the harvest in Hertfordshire, to pay off more debt.

As the 1980s built up steam Lentell got a job at Price Waterhouse consulting.

“It was growing and everybody was doing MBAs and it was all happy days for the big consulting firms.

Price Waterhouse helped Lentell emigrate to Sydney, Australia. In Sydney, he moved to Oracle consulting where he spent four years.

“Then along came the internet in the mid-90s and I decided that was really what I wanted to do – Oracle were talking about it, but not doing anything about it. So, in 1996, I went to OzEmail the first Australian tech stock ever to list on the NASDAQ

The chairman was Malcolm Turnbull- the future Prime Minister of Australia. He was an accomplished lawyer who defended former MI5 operative Peter Wright in his efforts to publish the book  Spycatcher, in 1987, in Australia where it had been banned.

Lentell says he learned a lot from Turnbull and from being in the heart of Australia’s largest internet company.

Even though the internet was still working on painfully slow dial-up connections, it was growing in power faster than a Sydney summer storm.

“In June ‘98 we were riding into the peak of the dot com boom. It was a wonderful time to be around – it was amazing actually. We started this ad serving technology company leveraging the experience we had at OzEmail,” he says.

The Sydney-based company was called Sabela Media.

“We were two men and a dog with 100,000 dollars each invested in the business.”

By January 2000, just a year and a half from its founding, the company was thriving with 50 staff in Australia, Canada, the US, London and Paris.

“We grew we got the third co-founder in, put  some money in, we raised two million dollars from a private family office in Japan expanded to the US and UK.”

In late 1999, Sabela Media was about to carry out a venture capital round for $14 million.  “It was mad dot com days. You could put dot com on anything. You could put dot com on a tea cup and you could get funding. It was a mad time, but it was a wonderful time. We were two men and a dog in a little serviced office in Sydney and a year later, or so, I was meeting bankers on Wall Street who were competing to raise money for us. I had never been to New York or Wall Street and it was bizarre in a way. It was wonderful- it was such a huge experience in a short space of time; it opened my eyes to the world of business, banking, venture capital, growing  businesses, travelling the world doing this crazy dot com stuff.”

Success had seen the corporate vultures circle overhead. At the turn of the century, digital giant DoubleClick – a company bought by Google for $3.1 billion in 2008 – was looming large over the fortunes of Sabela Media.

DoubleClick started off by suing Sabela Media for patent infringement.

“They sued us on Friday and then met us in New York on Monday and offered to acquire us. The patent lawsuit was to stop the VC round because then they wouldn’t be able to get their hands on us and taught us a lesson about how business works in America, which I have always remembered. The DoubleClick guys were nice guys. We learned what it takes when you play on the football field in America, everyone plays within the rules but people will run into you and smash you!” says Lentell

“There were no hard feelings or emotional resentment or whatever it was just a tactic to achieve their objective to acquire us.”

“At the eleventh hour this other company came in and we had to run two negotiations in parallel and over the weekend we closed the deal. DoubleClick was offering us $38 million, trying to squeeze us …We closed the deal over the weekend and told DoubleClick on Monday: ‘Sorry, we have sold the company!’”

“The other company came along and offered us $ 65 million – 95 per cent of it in their stock and the rest in cash. Of course, in the middle of the dot com boom, we were all sheep and we were all convinced the price of that stock was going to increase because that was what was happening in the cot com world.”

The other company was 24/7 Media. The deal was covered by the New York Times.

“I flew back to Sydney after that deal in New York, prior to the dot com crash starts. I got up one morning and the value of my shares had increased by a million dollars. You kind of get up in the morning; go and have a piss, look at the computer, you are worth a million more dollars and make a cup of tea and carry on with life,” he laughed.

“I bought myself a new car- a fancy Mercedes – which was one of the dumbest decisions I ever made because. When I bought it, I didn’t care what it cost, but that was a waste of money.”

The shiny, waste-of-money, Mercedes turned out to be a harbinger of doom.

“We took all of the shares and of course, the dot com crash started happening in March and April  2000. During 2001, those shares declined 99 per cent. Of course, we held on because everyone assumed it was going to go up two or three times in value. Then the tech wreck happened and the shares we were paid declined by 99 per cent.”

So was Lentell left empty handed?

“Pretty much. We managed to get something out before that happened. The hardest thing is to sell shares that you thought were once worth this much and going to be double; then they are worth half and a third and 25 per cent. There is human psychology that hangs on then they are going to come back – but they just went down the toilet…. I got a cheque for a few hundred thousand dollars as part of the 5 per cent in cash.”

Through no fault of his own, Lentell saw a multi-million-dollar fortune slip through his fingers. It was a catastrophe that no one could have foreseen that could have spelt the end for many a sturdy entrepreneur.

Yet, 20 years on, Lentell is taking on an even bigger challenge, with a pile of risk;-the disrupting of a world giant WhatsApp.