Philosophy begins at home - CNBC Africa

Philosophy begins at home


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Forbes Africa editor, Chris Bishop.

Sweet it is that a simple remedy can sometimes solve a complex problem.

The story was related to me by Colin Thornton, a young entrepreneur who has made a name for himself in the computer world in Johannesburg with a company called Dial-a-Nerd, an outfit that’s made a fortune from fixing computers for 17 years.

The birth of the company came shortly after the day when Thornton dropped out of Witwatersrand, a university in Johannesburg, at the age of 20. He says the lady on the desk at the university cut up his student card within seconds of him saying he wanted to drop out.

“There was no counselling,” laughs Thornton.

It was no laughing matter when Thornton got home. His father, an academic and an anthropologist, was furious.

“He told me I was off the medical aid and from now on I had to pay rent,” says Thornton.

It was a hammer blow, from one closest to him, for Thornton. It hurt like hell and he was angry at the time.

So, with necessity as the mother of invention, Thornton began his fledgling business from his father’s garage – for which he presumably also paid rent!

In the early days of the business, it was a learning curve for Thornton in the days when the population of Johannesburg was largely bamboozled by this new thing called the internet.

In those days, people didn’t really know what to do with the internet. Ronnie Apteker, the South African IT millionaire, once told me his customers used to ring him up and say the internet was broken and could he fix it. Often his new customers used to say they had no one to e-mail.

“Then send one to me, I used to say…and they did!” says Apteker with his famed salesman’s smile.

Thornton made his first money by helping families, with relatives who had relatives who had emigrated from South Africa, get on to e-mail so they could keep in touch. He also fixed thousands of computers for many who didn’t know a byte from a hole in the ground.

As times changed, Thornton was smart enough to change with them. The family and friends market dried up years ago. These days, your 11-year-old daughter can fix anything that goes wrong and also the computers are less prone to going wrong. So, he switched to the corporate market and continued to turn millions.

All of this because his dad didn’t commiserate, but instead demanded the rent.

“I was angry at the time. It was a bit of tough love, but now he is proud of me,” says Thornton.

I further asked him if he would do this to his own child and he said he would.