Twenty-one-year-old South African duo Zander Matthee and Brandon Bate are born entrepreneurs. Always on the lookout for a gap in the market and lucrative opportunities, they use their creative mindsets and business acumen to make the world a more streamlined and efficient place.
Recently, they struck another bout of ingenuity when they conceptualised the innovative Merge app. Ultimately a “tinder for businesses”, Merge allows investors and entrepreneurs to discover and connect with one another, allowing funding availability and new business opportunities to coincide on one platform. Merge aims to open up the start-up landscape to a wider sector of society and stimulate the growth of SMEs to propel South Africa’s economy – particularly in today’s tough times.
With remote working and living the new normal way of doing things, this app ensures that business growth and networking opportunities don’t have to come to a complete halt.
Fast Company SA chatted to Zander and Brandon to learn more about the app:
Can you take us through the process of developing the concept for Merge app. How did the idea come about?
We’ve always been excited to do our own things from a very young age. Following the norm has never been something that has interested either one of us. It’s one of the many things we have in common, and allowed us to form a very strong friendship, even before we started Merge together. In grade 11 we began talking about different business ideas that we would pursue together. We did this for some time, coming up with ideas like a cloud storage that shares media with friends, and an app-based platform that allows people to digitally store coins received, into your bank account. Which allows you to grow the cumulative value of your coins without the hassle of keeping the physical Item.
So, coming up with ideas has never been a problem for us. When you ask people how you came up with your business idea, I’m sure most people would say that they “studied the market” and brainstormed a solution. However with us it was a bit different, to put it simply, we just came up with it. We knew we were onto something very special once we started to look into it, and immediately set off on what would turn out to be an epic journey. We went from referral to referral with top industry leaders, taking in all the advice we could and implementing it to our idea. We knew it was only a matter of time before somebody believed in our vision and would back us.
The first person to do so was Chris Peters, an entrepreneur himself. The meeting didn’t take longer than 15 minutes before we struck a deal, to make us market ready in exchange for equity in the business. This was a very exciting time, but had some unforeseen challenges that we would learn from. To cut a long story short, our development team had very little experience in developing a platform, so what was meant to be a 3 month project turned into 11 months. Eventually when we launched the app and it gained a lot of attention in the space. So much so that we had a couple of potential investors that were keen to get involved in our business.
Jason Levin, an angel investor had come on-board, and with him, a change in development team. We had a couple of “friendly fire” meetings where we met with more experts to see how we could further improve the platform, and began to redevelop the platform. We relaunched at the end of 2019 – and haven’t looked back since.
What are some of the standout features of the app?
There are so many to mention but a few that really make the app special include:
- Super fast onboarding
- Personalised feed
- Filtering system to expand or refine your feed to suit the user’s needs.
- Profile pictures
- Cover photos
- Media to add to your venture profile
- Audio pitch
- Virtual confidentiality agreement between users
- Digital signature
- Instant private messaging
- Upload documents eg: Business plan, Excel, PPT etc
- Mail system to keep users informed
- Campaign hosting for corporates, VC’s and Incubators to get involved
- Social profiles, so users can upload text, images and videos to their profiles of day to day activities or accomplishments.
Is this the app’s final form? Are there any other features coming up that we should keep an eye out for.
Definitely, there are a few in the pipeline:
- Video Chat: Users will be able to do video calls in The Boardroom
- Share profile: Users can share their profile to other social media’s to draw more attention to it
- Document accessing: To assist users, we will provide them with templates of SHA’s, MOU’s and term sheets. which can be downloaded on the platform.
- Feedback: Investors will be able to provide once off private feedback on a entrepreneurs venture, which entrepreneurs will in turn use to improve their profiles.
- In-app purchases: Merge has a variety of in-app purchases: Gold, silver and bronze profiles which can improve your chance of finding investment or provide you with premium features to improve your overall experience of the platform. Almost like a more layered Linkedin premium type of profile.
- In app transactions: Investors will be able to set up debit orders and facilitate transactions through the platform if they wish to invest into a venture.
- The Academy: This is a feature on the platform where users will be able to access content that will educate them in the industries of their choosing. This is one of the pillars that will encourage users to stay more engaged on the platform, and will have a direct benefit to them for doing so. The content that they will access will come from various sources, including industry leaders, established startups and investor testimonials and corporates, which includes sponsored content. This leads brands to pay in order to sponsor categories or specific learning material within the Merge Academy.
- Think Tanks: Progressive companies are constantly looking to innovate and problem solve in order to grow. The Merge Think Tanks will allow them to pose a challenge’ to our entrepreneurs where they are encouraged to solve the problem at hand. So let our entrepreneur community solve your real world problems and bypass the hackathon.
- IP Bank: Once Merge has generated enough revenue, we plan to open up a fund that will assist entrepreneurs in the idea phase, to get to the prototype phase. This will drastically improve their chances of securing a large funding round. Entrepreneurs will have the chance to apply from within the platform itself, and enter their ideas. From there, only two will be chosen to receive the $5000. We plan to utilize our own resources as well as that of Unicorn’s (our new investors) to develop the idea into a functional prototype. In exchange for this, Merge will receive a 5% equity stake in the company. This has the potential to produce massive long term returns and broadens the Merge influence across the globe.
Merge is essentially like an incubator platform, in that it helps startups find their feet and get up and running. Do you think you’ll expand the platform in the future, beyond just an app?
Definitely, I mean it would only make sense to explore that opportunity, seeing that we’re aiming to be an integral player in the ecosystem. We have the resources, network and tools to really make a difference in the space, and would need to be involved in different areas to really create the impact we desire. We have a couple of things in mind that we are busy working on, but will only implement further down the line. I think it’s best to first focus on getting the platform to a place where it’s providing the maximum value it can before we start expanding and using our resources in other areas.
Are there any particular success stories/news regarding the app that you are particularly proud of?
Yes! We recently closed a $100 000 + funding round from a Nigerian based Venture Capital firm. They are exactly what we have been working towards, and could rapidly propel us towards our ambitious goals. If I am not mistaken, at 21 years old it might be the highest startup valuation for somebody our age in South Africa so far, so that’s a pretty exciting achievement. More than that though, we’re really proud of what our platform has achieved in its short lifespan. We’ve connected over 190 different entrepreneurs with investors – giving both of them access to opportunities they never had before. I feel that it’s a step in the right direction.
What is your ultimate goal/vision for the Merge platform?
To change the game. To create equal access to opportunities. To connect entrepreneurs and investors from around the world and reshape economies as we do so.