On the Upnup with Tony Mallam

From media entrepreneur to venture capital advisor, the CA has always sought innovative ideas and challenges.

After qualifying as a CA in the 1980s, Tony Mallam briefly did compulsory army service but soon joined the SABC with a group of young CAs. “This resulted in my love for media and for radio specifically because I ended up working with the big radio stations,” he recalls. After a stint at Alexander Forbes as a “proper” financial director, he left to invest in a radio station.

“I kept drifting away from the true science of accounting,” he laughs. “I put together a consortium with well-known radio personality Kevin Savage and a number of other players and we bought a radio station in Cape Town called KFM.” It was to become a major player in the city’s radio landscape. Tony served as the station’s financial director and shareholder.

“This was my first stint of entrepreneurship – I had jumped out of the mainstream, joined this consortium, raised R65 million of capital and we ultimately sold the station for a multiple of that four years later.” Tony’s resulting passion for entrepreneurship and his earnings from the KFM sale led to multiple angel investment projects, where he fed money into start-ups with varying degrees of success. It was during this time that, together with its founder, he became the first investor in Clickatell, now a global leader in chat commerce worth billions of rands.

Tony also helped create Cape Venture Partners, an advisory firm to help entrepreneurs raise money especially in the tech industry. Then he jumped back into radio, putting together a consortium, raising finance and putting what is today known as Smile 90.4 FM on the map. He later ran a radio division for Times Media and then became a consulting finance director for the FD Centre, which offers part-time finance directors to entrepreneurial businesses. “I really enjoyed giving back and being in finance.”

Two years ago, his current company, UBU came knocking. “When I joined as head of their partnership division, they had built a fintech smartphone app that created a marketplace of consumers and merchants, linking SMEs and consumers together through a radio station. They brought me in to introduce the company to the radio stations in my network and create what we called white-label wallets. The radio stations would drive the listeners to use the wallet to buy goods at a particular set of merchants providing commission to the stations, cash back to the consumers and new business for the merchants.

Yet, timing proved to be their undoing. They launched in March 2020, the month that hard lockdown hit. “We slogged away at it for a long time but eventually decided to park that idea for a while. We did a complete pivot at the end of last year and began working on micro-savings and investment app Upnup.” Tony is now MD of UBU and is thrilled at how well Upnup has been received since its launch at the beginning of May this year.

“The idea is to instil a culture of debt reduction, savings, and micro-investment,” he says. “Consumers download our app, link it to their bank account and once a week we do what we call round-ups or add-ups on all of your transactions.” Here you choose to round up your expenditure to the nearest R10 or to add a minimum of R2 to every transaction you’ve done during the week. “You set your savings preferences and we then calculate that weekly amount through an algorithm, EFT that out of your account and put it into an investment in Bitcoin. Gradually we will add other investment vehicle options. Your funds are then not just sitting in a savings account where you’re actually losing money against inflation, you’re putting them to better use.”

“People are battling – by the time they get to the end of the month, they need to pay all their bills and there’s nothing left for savings,” he continues. “Rather, get into a routine of regularly putting money away and let us enable this for you with our app so that you set it and forget it. We’re creating an automatic savings tool.”

While he’s certainly followed an unconventional path, Tony says that a CA qualification is one of the best one can get in South Africa. “The combination of the academic environment and the three years of practical experience which also offers invaluable interpersonal skills development and exposure to multiple industries, is just one of the best business backgrounds you can get for anything you want to do down the line. As an entrepreneur, understanding the finances of any business is crucial.”

Reflecting on his varied professional path, Tony says he constantly needs to be challenged. “I can’t keep still. I love growing people, going into a new environment, getting things up and running, keeping shareholders and staff happy, and getting out there and meeting people. I’m 58 now and I don’t see myself stopping unless I fall over. I do these things for the love of it. I’m always seeking out new challenges and there’s always going to be something next out there.”