Philip Johnston found his sweet spot for building an empire of eCommerce brands. His startup has already raised $46M and is growing fast. His venture, Opontia has attracted funding from top-tier investors like Venture Souq, Wiktor Namysl, STV, and Salman Butt.
In this episode, you will learn:
- The process of buying and scaling companies
- How to refer brands to Opontia and earn
- How to get a valuation of your own company
- Philip’s top advice for others considering entrepreneurship
For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
The Ultimate Guide To Pitch Decks
Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400 million (see it here).
Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
About Philip Johnston:
Philip Johnston is the Co-Founder & Co-CEO at Opontia. Philip is an entrepreneurial finance expert who is passionate about building the next-generation e-commerce consumer conglomerate in the Middle East & Africa.
Prior to starting Opontia, Philip spent two years at McKinsey, Dubai working on e-commerce strategy, private equity, and post-merger integration. Before this, he spent two years doing venture capital investing across Southern Africa, and five years in banking split between London, New York, and Singapore.
Philip holds an MPA in Economics and Government from Harvard University, an MBA in Finance from The Wharton School, an MA in Mathematical Finance from Columbia University, and is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Charterholder.
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Connect with Philip Johnston:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
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Alejandro: Alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the deal maker show. So I’m excited about the founder that we have today. We’re gonna be learning quite a bit and also racing money very very quickly. So I guess without far do let’s welcome our guest today Philip Johnston: welcome to the show.
Philip Johnston: Hey Ajandro Thanks so much for having me.
Alejandro: So originally born out of the U K So how was life growing up, give us a walkthrough memory lane.
Philip Johnston: Yeah, so I was born in the Uk and then almost immediately moved to South Africa so my father was a diplomat so he was posted in in cape town in South Africa towards the end of the Apartheid. So if he had a fascinating career issue so he was basically there to help the. British government fund black entrepreneurs who had you know? Basically I mean he it was at the end of the apartheid. Basically so we left in like 92 I think which is when Nes Mandela was released from prison. So a crazy time to be there and I’ve since been back and and seen the changes. And but yeah, then I moved back to Uk when I was about 6 and then was in in Uk scores in the countryside in a village in surre called elted for most of my childhood and then ah yeah, and then went to notting in front of god in the uk to study maths.
Alejandro: So how how do you develop that law for math where is math coming from.
Philip Johnston: I Developed a love for math because it was the only thing that didn’t require lots of memorization. So I absolutely hated French for example because you had to just sit there and memorize stuff math I found like easy to be honest, um I Never really had to study.
Philip Johnston: And I could just show I’m not you know, like trying to like that was literally the reason I got into it is because of pure laziness. Um, and then then developed to to be honest, develop then a passion for it because ah you know once you start seeing the beauty in it and the um. That’s the word the elegance of of of the language of Mathematics. It starts to become super ah, intriguing and and pose you in? yeah.
Alejandro: So would you say that that was maybe like a natural path then into banking and.
Philip Johnston: Ah, not really because I’d always I’d always thought as a teenager in particular that anybody that goes into finance is a boring loser. Um and the only people that did maths who people who did mastercards finance who did stats and I was very clear in university that I was going to do pure math. Because I thought that people who did stats were too stupid to do pure math. Um, in hindsight I wish I’d done more stats. But no I really? um my my ambition wasn’t at all to go into finance I wanted to be an officer in the british army actually so I did in the us they called it ratc and the u could they call it u o tc so I did a um. Bunch of training during during university and it was paid by the british british army to train throughout Miami university and then did the selection for sandhurst was almost went to sandhurst. Um, but then I didn’t internship with Goulburn Sachs almost by act by accident in technology and I thought that was. Like software engineering I didn’t realize it was so you know heavily finance focused um and then basically I was like well I could and I spent time on the trading floor at Garman Sachson I realized okay this this is actually super cool and interesting. These people are you know everyone has 10 screens. They’re yelling and screaming. You know. $10000000000 a day was being traded by the guy that I was shadowing and I just thought okay that’s like super interesting. Um maybe I’ll do that for a year or 2 and then I can do the army thing after um, so and I realized I wasn’t gonna get a job in trading coming from math and notting because they’re quite like snooty about. Where they recruit from and stuff so that’s when I decided to do my masters. So.
Alejandro: So in this case I mean you’ve you’ve been in in in our other block I mean you’ve done banking. You’ve done venture capital you’ve done consulting I think that you’ve done like the 3 areas that you know typically I find entrepreneurs that they’ve done either like perhaps.
Philip Johnston: Okay.
Alejandro: Only one of those 3 and I think that that gives them a really good background to understand how to tackle problems and how to build and scale a business so in your case I mean what do you think that each one of those 3 different segments gave you or or armed you with in order to really be a good operator later than the line.
Philip Johnston: Yeah, so the the type of finance I was doing I spent 5 years doing like high frequencyqu algo trading which to be perfectly. Honest is not particularly transferable to almost anything else unless you’re like hardcore into the software engineering side of things and then you can use your. Low-latency programming skills which I wasn’t really I was more into the like you know we we would write quite dirty research code for the algos. But I wasn’t really implementing. Um Algos and ah but I was more on the sort of managing the Algos trading side of things. Um. So that it was to be honest, not transferable at all. But then between venture capital and consulting venture capital is reasonably transferable because you learn a lot of about what types of businesses are successful. Like for example, knowing that you need a big tam to get funded. Is just something that you intuitively know after doing vc um and then but I would say by far the most useful skill set is the consulting skill set and as you mentioned it’s because you you know you you learn how to break down problems. You learn how to communicate you should learn how to communicate. Um, you learn how to yeah, you know like just in general problem solving skills I think is the main thing you learn from consulting. Yeah.
Alejandro: And what about from ah venture capital on the pattern recognition side. So.
Philip Johnston: yeah as well and yeah I think that’s ah I think that ties a bit back with the tam thing. So you start to realize over time that ideas with a low tan don get funded. So then then you then you I would say also. Trading helps somewhere in patent recognition. So um I did mention immediately after undergrad then I did a masters in mathematical finance went to Columbia University in New York for that. Um, and that was a lot about time series analysis and that was like Hardco statistics and that does give you some training in patent recognition and how. But these spot trends I guess essentially.
Alejandro: And I mean you you did Columbia then you did a Harvard. You know you’ve also done a stinta in sayad I mean it’s incredible. You’ve been in the best university so how how do you think that that has allowed you to really build networks that you can later on leverage.
Philip Johnston: Um, um I wouldn’t say there’s a massively tangible um benefit from the network that there definitely is a huge huge advantage from from the network I don’t think it’s like it’s never like. Got me a job for example or um, got me funding but what it does do I think there’s a few advantages number 1 is um I usually have some friend in connection with somebody. So if I’m pitching to a Vc. Ah, you know there’s like one degree of separation so they can on my Linkedin will usually have 30 Ah friends overlap and they can then background check me through all these friends in the network. So that’s helpful, but it’s very rare I pitched to somebody that I was in business school with for example, um, or but the other thing that’s I think good about having a network of people who are generally like extremely ambitious and. Well placed to or yeah like you know so so like for example, I have 1 friend who um, founded a unicorn 2 years after graduating from Wharton um, and seeing this do it’s found a unicorn made me. Think well. But and I found a unicor if this guy could found you inor but I can found unicorn. Um I think that is quite a powerful um like motivator I also coincidentally have ah have an identical twin brother who has an almost identsical background and crip path.
Alejandro: I I.
Philip Johnston: You know, same universities same consulting banking this types of things and he’s founded this exact same company that I founded in Southeast Asia called una brands and so now it’s like a race to see who can who can get to unicorn first between me and my 2 brother so a similar effect from the.
Alejandro: So I think and and in your guys’s case I mean in the in in your particular case I mean you did the the masters in Warton and and typically when you go to warton and you see other folks you.
Philip Johnston: Um, the networks They had a business school.
Alejandro: Perhaps you know like have they do like the final project. Maybe it’s like building the business plan of a company or whatever that is why why you know seeing all these you know classmates that were going at it and and and starting their own companies. Why didn’t you choose that path and and you decided to continue incorporate.
Philip Johnston: Um, yeah.
Alejandro: We Mckinsey.
Philip Johnston: Yeah, it’s a good question and I did think about it when I was at when I was ah in doing member. Um I think I was so it goes back to pattern recognition. So I spend an enormous amount of time reading the Wikipedia buyers of Unicorn founders. Um. And it just kept coming up and up again and again all these mc ex mckinseye people which founded unicorns and then I started googling you know which companies produced the most unicorn founders and so by far the highest number is Google but by far the highest number per employee is mckinsey and I was like I was just thinking about it like well. It could be correlation not causation but it also could be causation so I’d rather for the for the sake of 2 years I’d rather go to mckinsey find out if it is correlation or causation and then found and it turns out to be honest that the network was extremely helpful for fundraising. Um, and the skills that you get do actually I think prepare for entrepreneurship pretty well. So I think there’s an element.
Alejandro: So then ah a bunia in this case Ofonti I mean how how did it come to you I mean what was that process of of the idea popping up and and you thinking about it and then you saying hey you know what I think maybe this has legs. Maybe I should give my notice.
Philip Johnston: So I had been um I’ve been reading about this like the end of 2020 I’d actually been staffed on a project in Mckinsey for um, all of the ecommerce all of the big retailers in the Middle East immediately wanted to move into ecommerce because of covid and. Was no footfall in their stores anymore. So we created this like mckinsey e-commerce war room which was like very rapidly assessing the ability for retailers to move online. Um, and throughout that I’d read this article in the ft which had basically ah was saying thracia and all these other big. Ecommerce aggregators in the us were raising tons of cash and were becoming very profitable quickly and and then I was in touch with or or got in touch with a Vc fund in Berlin and they were actually looking to fund the model anyway. So they basically I spoke to the first time I spoke to them. Was the only vc I really spoke to the first time I spoke to them was on a Friday they said um, take we don’t know if there’s a market for this in the middle east so take the weekend put together a market sizing do a deck do a model. Um, we’ll have a call on Monday and if we like it then we back then we’ll back it so I did everything had a mad scramble over the weekend. Um, and they and then pitch it to them on Monday and they they backed it. Um, and then they were like well you need an ecommerce person because you know the finance side of things but you never run ecommerce brands. Um, and so they put me in touch with my co-founder Manfred and then a week later I’d resigned from Mckinsey we had secured funding from 3 more vcs and we were you know we were off to the races.
Alejandro: That’s incredible. So literally you when you gave your notice you knew that you had funding coming. That’s pretty amazing.
Philip Johnston: Yeah, yeah, and if $4,000,000 for a seed round which in the Middle East is or 3 9 three point six million dollars for a week long fundraise on an idea is like pretty upset battle. But yeah.
Alejandro: Yeah, a hundred percent and and I was just going to ask you.
Philip Johnston: All the all these partners I would say all this the main the main partner of the Vc fund is x makinsey and so and they generally back xmakinse people. So that’s where I would say that then became extremely helpful.
Alejandro: I You know kidding. So for the people that are listening to really get it. What is the business model of Opontia How how do you guys make money. Okay.
Philip Johnston: Business model bunier is to buy and grow ecommerce brands. Um, so we realize basically there’s a funding gap in the Middle East where entrepreneurs have they you know lots of people create these ecommerce brands. So I don’t mean platforms like Amazon and noon I mean um maybe they import kitchenware from china they’ve put a bit of a. Brand on it. So I might call it fills pots and pans and then you start selling it through ecommerce channels so either on your own website or through Marketplaces like Amazon um, and you know maybe you’re doing um a hundred thousand dollars a month in profit. Um, and you you’ve now built this thing to a point where it’s. Gala any further, you’d need to do a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t really want to have to do like optimizing warehousing and sourcing and logistics and automating your pricing payperclick advertising and all this like annoying things that founders and people who brand creators don’t necessarily love doing so what we do is. We buy their brand outright and then we scale as fast as possible using all of our capabilities which is all of this ecommerce stuff. You know logistics sourcing pricing branding and then we give the founder some share in that growth in profit over the following couple of years. So so it’s a very attractive proposition to many founders. Um, and and we are you know we’re a very seller friendly firm so we try and a common change to the terms to fit the needs of the sellers or the brand founders.
Alejandro: And going back to the lasting point that you were alluded to me and on the on the funding side. How much capital have you guys raised today.
Philip Johnston: $46,000,000 including including it’s $25,000,000 debt facility. So in December we raised $70000000 seventeen million dollars series a of equity and then in in February we closed a $25000000 debt facility
Alejandro: So got it and then.
Alejandro: And what what is that process like of what what? what is that process like of of of really finding those companies and I mean what? what? what are the sweet spot of companies and and what how do you build because typically the.
Philip Johnston: And we use the debt to make acquisitions.
Alejandro: Acquisition process is painful. It’s all about the integration. So how how do you guys? go about thinking about that integration plugging it in and and then you know having those companies under your umbrella in a way that is efficient and effective.
Philip Johnston: Yeah I mean so in terms of how we find brands. So. It’s a very pretty manual process. So we start with 500000 leads and then we have team of people and freelancers and others that go through these leads essentially to identify potential fits. Then we have a team of bd people who call them and you know find out if they’re interested in selling and negotiate with them and then once we’ve bought them then then it comes to the integration side of things. Um, and so it’s really about trying to standardize everything as much as possible. So we don’t have. 1 warehouse per brand we try and have central a centralized warehouse for each brand this is where you know we’ve hired a bunch of people from the platforms like Amazon to build out our operations and in a brand management infrastructure. So the founder always leaves. Basically yeah.
Alejandro: And out of all places and and out of all places. Why did you start the business there in in Africa I mean what’s what why you know I mean you were very familiar with the us market and all of that stuff. so so why? why why were there.
Philip Johnston: So.
Philip Johnston: Well.
Philip Johnston: Um, well I wasn’t that familiar with the us market to be honest so I was based in Dubai was when I was Mckinsey was based in Dubai um, and so yeah, and so we just we just founded it where where my co-founder and I were living to be honest, um so the biggest.
Alejandro: Middle East yeah
Philip Johnston: Ecommerce markets in central and Eastern Europe Middle Eastern Africa are Poland turkey saudi ue and we’ve now expanded we have officers in Warsaw istanbul riad and Dubai um, and so yeah, it’s it’s but it’s a function of we don’t want to do western europe like Germany France u k because there’s. 50000000 ecommerce aggregators trying to do the same thing. Um, our edge is to have an extremely strong operational ground game in each of the countries that we operate in and that’s what makes it difficult for competitors to come in because they haven’t built the operational infrastructure to be able to plug their brands in here. Um.
Alejandro: And in terms of the of the culture right? when you’re like buying all these different companies I mean obviously you want to have maybe the founder you know to stick around or the key employees to to help with integration I Guess how do you go about the culture so that you’re able to.
Philip Johnston: So that’s that’s really a name and gamer.
Philip Johnston: Yeah, so far that hasn’t been an issue because all of the brands we’ve bought have just been 1 founder or maybe 2 founders and they leave you know they’re looking for an exit so they’re looking to maybe create a new brand or do something else.
Alejandro: Not have like a spaghetti mix of a culture.
Philip Johnston: And so when we take over the brand. You know they stay as ah as a consultant for a couple of months um and they help us with the integration. But after that we’re running the brand fully from end to end. So so far we haven’t had to do that deal with that as we grow. Um, that. Will definitely be something to consider is how we do this cultural integration because we may buy brands that for example, have 10 employees and then we would need to integrate them culturally as well.
Alejandro: And in terms of size I mean anything that you can share with us. You know number of employees or anything to give the folks that are listening. You know a scope of of the operation of apontia.
Philip Johnston: Yep, so we started just over a year ago when now as I mentioned in the 4 countries. We’ve got 80 employees we brought. We’ve brought 8 brands 3 of which were last month to which coming next month um add 2 more will come next month um and yeah it’s just about buying and scaling as fast as possible now.
Alejandro: And in terms of the of the future and and you know when you when you grow and you scale I mean it’s It’s all about having a proper vision in place. So let’s say if you were to go to sleep tonight and and you wake up in a world where the vision of Apon has fully realized what does that world look like.
Philip Johnston: That world looks like a ah house of of brands that people in our regions. Love and so we are massively heavily focused on the whole you know on the the focus on the customer part of this story so we invest heavily. Um in customer service teams. We have ah extremely strong product development and brand management teams who are really trying to you know they go through every review and find out what the people not like about this product. How can we change it for the better. Um, and so and then you know just to have as broader impacts as we can within our regions. So. We’re we’re looking to expand within the not too distant future to the rest of eastern europe so particularly Romania czech republic maybe to the nordics starting with Sweden Denmark also then in our regions Pakistan Egypt Nigeria and then South Africa and Kenya would be the next markets. But it’s really about the focus on the customers. Interaction with apontier brands. We’re trying to create like kind of pontier standard which really elevates ecommerce in in the Middle East and and ah in Europe.
Alejandro: And when you’re dealing with them with not so developed countries right? like like you were mentioning there in Africa what are the typical challenges that that you encounter as part of the operations.
Philip Johnston: Yeah I mean ah a big challenge in any developing economy is last mile delivery and payments with last mile delivery. So it’s it’s a ton of cash from delivery and no address in most places so you’re really. You know there’s there’s innovative solutions like what 3 words and a few others and but though I say those are the 2 common challenges across most developing countries is last month delivery and payment on delivery.
Alejandro: And and you were alluding to really being able to listen to the customer be able to see what’s what’s what’s working. What’s not working I think any in this case, what really comes to mind is there’s 1 word that keeps popping up for me out of the conversation that is listening.
Philip Johnston: Ah.
Alejandro: How how important you know? would you say listening is you know whether you apply to customers to investors or to also employees and.
Philip Johnston: I’m glad you I’m glad you picked up on that because that’s definitely one of our core. Um, you know, principles and values when when we’re thinking about brand management and and growing brands is listening to customers. Um, and that comes through our customer customer service. So we have you know 10 people on phones. It comes through the reviews and 1 of the the most beautiful thing about ecommerce is if somebody hates a product you’re going to know about it immediately. It’s not like traditional retail or you you might not ever find out if customer hates the product. Um, and that’s but it’s extremely valuable information. You know if you’re willing to. Really listen and act then it’s extremely valuable information because it means we can make a better product serve our customers better Basically so yeah, um, customers are the most important people to listen to fight by far um, of course you know super important to listen to our employees and.
Alejandro: And in in in this case, you know 1 thing that that I wanted to ask you is as you are now thinking about you know the the future you know the the you know seeing where we’re coming from and being able to reflect to I mean how do you think that perhaps covid you know has.
Philip Johnston: And also to our investors.
Alejandro: Has changed for for the good or I mean I would say it’s for the good. Not for the bad the way that people really are engaging nowadays with ecommerce and the way that e-commerce is perceived in the society that we live in.
Philip Johnston: Yeah I mean it obviously massively accelerated the advent of Ecommerce. You know being used by all demographics in society for example, um I think you know it was the case that ecommerce was used by young people. Now. It’s all demographics in society very heavily heavy ecommerce users I think what surprised a lot of people is there was this big bump up. Um you know in the start of Twenty Twenty and I think everybody was expecting. Okay, this is the the covid bump and the the multiples of people were paying for businesses. But price in the covid bump that was going to revert and then it just didn’t revert the covid bump stayed up so people carried on just buying as much stuff as they were as they were buying pre you know, ah noing back to their precovid levels of ecommerce use. They just stayed buying stuff on ecommerce and then that’s still trending upwards. So it’s it’s definitely hugely accelerated the advent of ecommerce.
Alejandro: I and on that and that note too I mean what kind of trends have you seen on the on the advertising side because obviously for ecommerce businesses. It’s all about distribution and really nailing it on the customer acquisition side and. And now we’ve seen like multiple changes being introduced now on ios with with the way that people are able to advertise you know and and use Facebook or Instagram and on their phones and things like that. So so what kind of trends are you seeing do on the on the advertising side of things.
Philip Johnston: Yeah mean the marketing is the biggest piece for us to crack when it comes to buying dc brands like direct tocon consumer so own website brands. Um, and it’s it’ a struggle to be behind sometimes and. But I think one of the biggest trends in in Saudi in particular is the use of of influences I mean everywhere but particularly in Saudi the use of influences is like way ahead of of other places and they yeah they’re all all using snapchat rather than Instagram and Tiktok actually no slightly tiktok. Um. So yeah, I’d say that is a trend that will continue as well as you know, live streaming and particularly you’ve seen from China that live streaming can be massive and I think places like saudis right? prove to be massive.
Alejandro: Very cool now imagine that I put you into a time machine and I bring you back in time you know, maybe like a right at that moment where you were in mckin cn and kind of like giving some thought about starting something over your own if you had that opportunity of having a sit down. You know next to that younger Philip and giving that younger Philip 1 piece of advice before launching opponte in this case, why would that be and why given what you know now.
Philip Johnston: That is a great question.
Philip Johnston: I mean I would I would 100% tell myself to do it I don’t regret a single second of it. Um I mean we made some probably strategic mistakes in the early days um yeah the like you know we picked the wrong partners and the wrong vendors and these types of things and maybe we could have gone into Poland Faster and um, but I don’t think any of it is like catastrophic and you know you couldn’t really have known without it I don’t know is I think I would just say so. Buckling because it’s gonna be a ah wild ride because here and it it is ah is a absolutely insane wild ride I do recommend it to anybody.
Alejandro: Ah, this stuff now for the people that are listening here Philip what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi. So.
Philip Johnston: Um, I’m quite active on Linkedin so anybody who wants to message me on Linkedin feel free.
Alejandro: I amazing well Philip. Thank you so much for being on the dealmakerr show today.
Philip Johnston: Thank you so much for having me on a hundred great.
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