Nic Haralambous is one scary, sock-wearing dude. Maybe scariest sock-wearing dude you’ll ever meet. And it has nothing to do with how he looks. Nic is scary because Nic is an executioner. The kind that founds a startup in January and makes it successful enough to sell by August.

But before we get into that story, this is in fact Nic’s second successful startup exit. In 2010, Nic and Vincent Maher co-founded Motribe, a mobile social network builder. Two years of work saw Motribe release successful apps like JudgeMe and MxPx, as well as quarterback some high value B2B plays, like becoming host to brand-centric platforms like Guiness VIP.

vincent and Nic

It was in fact Motribe’s success in B2B that earned them the interest, and at last acquisition by Mxit toward the end of 2012, in a deal that was hailed as critical validation of South Africa’s Silicon Cape era of startups. The numbers remain shrouded in mystery, but it was stated to be a profitable transaction for the founders, and one assumes enough to make their investors happy with the outcome.

“The proof of this pudding is in the selling”, Nic said of the sale, shortly after the deal was announced. He would later go on to share what he learned building a mobile startup in Africa, an earnest, concise, and on the whole very on point series of blog posts that is highly recommended reading.

With his first real startup success in hand, the question was what Nic would do next. While Vincent elected to stay on at Mxit, Nic expressed the desire to take it easy in a blog post celebrating the acquisition. Later, he would go on record to say he wasn’t quite ready to settle down yet and stuff about big ideas that needed chasing. The next big idea, as it turned out, was just around the corner.

The next big idea was selling socks.

NicSocks

Even as the ink on the Motribe deal was drying, Nic had already begun to draw on his famous penchant for colourful socks to provide inspiration for his next venture — the eponymously named NicSocks, a subscription service that delivers limited edition hipster socks, designed by Nic, to fellow “sockaholics” around the world. The strange tech-to-socks move earned him another flurry of press, and I imagine, quite a few sales.

Nic still sells socks to this day, and even seems to have found himself a Nigerian franchisee (or the Nigerian franchisee found him). But it has now been revealed that the sock front provided convenient cover, intended or not, for something much bigger than his fashion project. In the past eight months, Nic had again co-founded Forefront Africa, a mobile tech venture whose existence became (very) public knowledge only after its successful exit.

nic and tracy

The beginnings of Forefront Africa’s roller coaster ride take us back to  January 2013, when Nic joined forces with Tracy Langdon-Surkont whose shared working history with the South African entrepeneur, as well as a formidable career track record in mobile set the stage for the new alliance.

Forefront Africa was focused on “assisting companies in the mobile and communications sector with African expansion strategies, product management, internal and external social networking strategies, new product implementation and management”.

About being busy, no kidding. Building a mobile tech consulting business while flying around to speaking engagements (I met Nic for the first time earlier in the year at MWWA), selling socks, meeting FFA clients and doing what not that I don’t know is a neat juggling trick. Even more so, because it largely went unnoticed.

But flying under the radar was never going to hurt Nic’s business. In fact, for an accomplished Pr-meister like Nic who has no trouble getting himself into boardrooms or pressrooms, depending on the occasion, his activities seem to have been carefully calibrated to show up on just the radar of his specific targets — high value clients.

Whatever they were doing, they must have been kicking ass at it. Eventually, Imperial Holdings, whom they were doing some work for, decided to make Nic and Tracy’s startup the corner stone of their newly conceived mobile and telecoms strategy and consequently acquired them.

Although Nic won’t say for how much moola FFA’s papers changed hands (as you’ll see later on), the breath-taking speed with which the founding duo got their startup to go from scratch to sale made me reach out and ask Nic a few questions. I’ve elected to preserve the convos essence by reproducing it mostly as is.

***

how did you and Tracy do all of that in eight months? What exactly went into making FFA this successful in such a short time?

Nic: We weren’t trying to do anything amazing beforehand. Tracy and I set out to build a profitable business, providing top quality mobile services to amazing clients. We managed, through our network and years of experience, to bring those things together under the FFA banner. Our main goal was to become as profitable as possible as quickly as possible. Good businesses more often than not are profitable ones.

What were the details of the acquisition in definite terms? A figure would be great as well as the terms of the “acqui-hire”.

Nic: Unfortunately I’m unable to provide you with figures of the deal but I can state that this was by no means an acqui-hire. Tracy and I are in a partnership with Imperial with the aim of building a large and recognisable mobile company on the continent. We’ve ploughed resources into the business now to grow and really gain brand recognition in SA and other key African markets.

What informed the decision to exit so early in the life-cycle of your mobile strategy business? Or did FFA have an accelerated business cycle compared to a normal startup?

Nic: I think that it was a combination. Due to our focus on great product and profitability we were attractive as a partner. We decided to exit this early to build a larger and more prominent business and brand. We want to take on the continent and partnering with a fantastic organisation like Imperial Holdings helps us to do this.

What’s next?

Nic: We build. Tracy and I are focusing on the building a massive and recognised mobile brand on the continent for the indefinite future.

***

About it not being an acqui-hire, it’s a bit confusing seeing as Nic’s blogpost on the deal says Imperial “acquired a stake” in FFA, which is akin to an investment, while the official release’s headline reads “Imperial buys Forefront Africa”. But no matter. An exit is an exit is an exit.

One last thing about Nic. Just as he revels in his success, his failures are no one’s bastards. Previous busts, professional and entrepreneurial are listed on his blog like proud battle scars. As to what he’ll be doing next, he already said as much. When he isn’t trying to get Jay Z to wear his socks, Nic will be helping to steer Resolve Mobile, the new company born out of the Imperial transaction.

 

Who else wants to be like Nic when they grow up?

Images via Nic and FFA.

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