It wasn’t one of those spark moments says founder and CEO of Open Charge, Phebeon Vera. The idea had been there for a while. But what set the ball rolling, rather, was a moment that most would regard as a pretty unlucky.
“I was in Century City and my battery died while I was waiting for an Uber. I didn’t have any cash with me and I had to go downstairs to a garage by KFC and I asked people to give me a lift to Parklands. A lot of people didn’t believe that it was just my battery. I was stuck there until one taxi driver said, OK, I’ll take you but you must pay me 300 bucks. I said OK, I’ll do it and luckily enough I had cash at home. That’s when I started pushing. I had had the idea already but that’s when I decided to leave everything else and focus on developing Open Charge.”
As unlucky as Phebeon’s position might have seemed on that day, for him it was all the luck he needed to set in motion the development of Open Charge, a wireless charging pad that transforms everyday surfaces into smart wireless charging spots. With Open Charge, customers are able to charge their devices by simply placing them on the table where they are seated while they eat or drink or work.
“The idea started in 2016. Originally, I wanted to do power banks because at that time wireless charging was not popular. There were a few phones that had it but not the major brands. We started doing the development of the wireless charger in 2017. We completed the development in 2018. We got our first client, MTN, at the beginning of this year.”
Originally from Zim, Phebeon moved to Cape Town in 1997 to study electrical engineering at UCT. It was in his third year that he co-founded his first company, Amai Technologies, with his brother. Amai Technologies focused on speech compression.
“Our first client was Microsoft for Xbox. This voice compression allowed people to play Xbox online while having conversations in real time. We worked with Sony for Playstation and also did development for Viacom.”
This was all while completing his third year. In 2002, he moved to Boston to join the company fulltime. Later he returned to Cape Town to open Amai Technologies
South Africa and ran the company until 2007. During that time, he partnered with UCT to bring students into their research and development office in Cape Town to work on Speech Compression. The company was later acquired by a business in Boston.
After that he started two more companies before founding Open Source. One entailed outdoor advertising which he simply says ‘didn’t go well’ and another called Connect Me which he said just didn’t fly.
“It was painful but was it was OK. We put a lot of effort into it. For Connect Me, Linked-In had launched exactly the same product. We were targeting the same market but they had the numbers already because it was a business product.”
When asked about his entrepreneurship spirit and how he garnered it he modestly replied:
“I haven’t applied for a job since I left UCT. It is start-ups that I have been involved in, the creation. I don’t believe it was a plan. It just happened. I didn’t wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to do this’. In my third year, I had a brother who was already in the US and he was working with voice compression. That company was bought by AT&T and it left a gap for the voice compression and we spoke about it and then we started the company. Ever since, the plan was that Amai was going to be bought and it was. I never thought of looking for a job, something else came up and I followed that and it didn’t work out.”
Following on the disappointment of those two companies, luck would again knock on Phebeon’s door. But this time, Phebeon had almost ensured that this would be the case through the time he had spent on the research and development of Open Charge in 2016.
At the time there were three companies competing in the race for wireless charging protocol for phones. Nobody knew which one would was going to be the mainstream. So, instead of waiting to find out which one it would be, Phebeon spent his time integrating all three technologies into one platform. Although by the time of the announcement he had only worked on two out of the three, luck would have it that the chosen one was in fact one that he had worked on.
Pheoben’s story shows us the importance of never giving up and that what might appear like a bad situation, like being stuck with no phone battery or cash, can turn into a positive. Although things might not always turn out the way we expect them, it’s important to keep trying because just around the corner a new opportunity is waiting.