Tayo Akinyemi

Keeping the Magic Alive at Lapdesk: An Interview with Greg Durst, Managing Director of Endeavor Sout

new lapdesk logoAfter a longer-than-anticipated delay, I am pleased to bring you the third installment in the series of interviews about Lapdesk, an Endeavor company based in South Africa that provides portable desks to school children who need them, all 4.2 million to be exact.

If you?ll recall, I had a great conversation with Harvard Business School Professor Dan Isenberg back in February about what inspired him to write a case about Lapdesk (this is the first case that HBS MBAs encounter). After chatting Professor Isenberg, I probed Lapdesk founder Shane Immelman about the birth and evolution of the company. Now, after a number of near misses, I am happy to share the Lapdesk story from the perspective of Greg Durst, the Managing Director of Endeavor South Africa. How’s that for 360 degrees of coverage? Anderson Cooper, eat your heart out.So, let’s get to it.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:?
What made you select Lapdesk as an Endeavor company and Shane Immelman as an Endeavor entrepreneur?

Greg Durst, Managing Director, Endeavor South Africa:
Lapdesk has an innovative business model with powerful social applications. We particularly appreciate Shane’s belief that it is critical for the business to be profitable while preserving its social mission. The nuanced model should enable the company to maintain its value proposition and attract people with the right skill sets.

Shane is one of the more energetic and forceful personalities that we’ve encountered. He is passionate about Lapdesk and entrepreneurship as a tool for growing emerging markets. Ultimately, he wants to use Lapdesk as an entrepreneurship facilitator as he extends the Lapdesk model to other countries, Nigeria, for example.

Tayo Akinyemi, Nextbillion.net:
What areas of development did you identify for Lapdesk? What goals did Lapdesk set for itself?

Greg Durst, Managing Director, Endeavor South Africa:
The first goal that Endeavor set for Lapdesk was to understand who was buying Lapdesk’s services, (e.g. corporate social investment personnel, marketing teams, etc.) so that it could tailor the pitch to a specific audience. The Lapdesk pitch is probably better suited to a marketing audience than to one focused on corporate citizenship.

The second goal was to change the company’s pricing strategy in order to reflect a value (rather than cost) orientation. Lapdesk’s clients were initially resistant to this idea, not surprisingly.

Additionally, Lapdesk intends to expand geographically. For example, Shane was able to meet with business leaders in Brazil via the Endeavor network. In another instance, Endeavor introduced Shane to James Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank who was thoroughly impressed by the Lapdesk model and offered to make introductions in Nigeria on behalf of the company.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
How did Endeavor help Lapdesk to grow as a company and reach its goals? ??

Greg Durst, Managing Director, Endeavor South Africa:
The intervention was definitely company-specific. Lapdesk had a vision for itself but didn?t have a sense of how to get there. We helped them to think big and figure out the steps needed to reach their goals.

The Endeavor program also enabled Shane access to an eMBA(Endeavor’s eMBA program recruits MBA students to complete projects in strategy, operations, finance, etc. with an Endeavor company over the summer. Incidentally, Endeavor is the largest nonprofit recruiter at HBS). Lapdesk has also benefitted from the services of one of MIT’s G-Lab teams.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
Will Lapdesk reach a stage when it will “outgrow” the support of Endeavor? If so, how will you know when this happens?

Greg Durst, Managing Director, Endeavor South Africa:
Possibly. Endeavor companies complete a tailored, 18-month development program. However, we tend to say that “once an Endeavor entrepreneur, always an Endeavor entrepreneur”. We expect that Lapdesk will reach that stage eventually, although not many in the South African context have. We think it will be pretty apparent when Lapdesk has reached that level of maturity. At this point, it will achieve alumni status and receive less active support. Endeavor is happy to do anything it can to make that happen.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
To what extent do you think companies like Lapdesk impact the growth of complex economies like South Africa’s? What more can be done?

Greg Durst, Managing Director, Endeavor South Africa:
First of all, it’s hard to say that all Endeavor companies will be transformative companies, although we may find some during our search and selection process. It is also very difficult to say that we can change the rate of growth in South Africa or measure that change realistically. What we hope to do is affect the overall rate of change with regard to entrepreneurship and provide encouragement, inspiration, and role models to future entrepreneurs.

Endeavor also works with “entrepreneurial enablers” such as Technoserve and Junior Achievement . We see them as collaborators and support their initiatives. We also hope that their more mature companies come into the Endeavor fold. We believe that this type of investment will pay dividends as it drives more entrepreneurs through the pipeline.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
How have Endeavor South Africa’s strategic goals grown over time? What are its goals for the near future?

Greg Durst, Managing Director, Endeavor South Africa:
Endeavor South Africa was launched in 2003 and incorporated in 2004. Initially, the office had a “bring all” attitude toward entrepreneurs, but we have become more selective as we have matured. For the first couple of years, we just wanted to gain a foothold and attract reference customers. However, selectivity breeds higher impact, so over the next few years, we want to have companies that attract more customers and create more wealth and jobs.

Our vision is to become the gold standard for entrepreneurship. We want entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial community to view Endeavor companies as most likely to succeed. We want corporations to consider our entrepreneurs the best potential suppliers and partners. Endeavor is also serious about attracting, exciting and retaining great board members. For example, Horizon Equity, a private equity firm focused on middle market companies, and First National Bank (FNB) have signed on.

Endeavor South Africa also wants the board to include the most robust “who’s who” in the nonprofit world, for example Adrian Gore, the Chairman of Endeavor SA and founder of Discovery Health Limited, South Africa’s largest medical aid, providing health care for more than 218,000 companies and 1.8 million people.

Finally, Endeavor South Africa is focused on getting great staff and raising its overall level of professionalism. Endeavor entrepreneurs are on the frontier of corporate performance, so the staff should operate on that level as well. We want to hire people who are choosing between Goldman Sachs or McKinsey and Endeavor in order to leverage professional skills to generate great impact.

However, Endeavor’s real magic comes from the network–the venture corps comprised of 150 senior executives who volunteer their time, which is priceless. We want to continue to attract people to participate with Endeavor; and in fact we’ve grown the group by 50% over the last two years.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
Well, let’s hope that Endeavor keeps the magic alive. If the recent profile published in The Economist in July is any judge, they are doing just that.