Founders Spotlight:Arun Iyer (Co-Founder & CEO,Alpha Direct Insurtech)

Having started his first business venture at the tender age of 13,  it has always been clear that entrepreneurship was Arun's calling. From running successful businesses in the United States to coming back to Botswana and founding Alpha Direct which recently restructured into a technology company, Arun's journey is both a lesson and inspiration for any aspiring entrepreneur who wants to achieve the kind of longevity that he has had in business. In this interview, he takes through his entrepreneurship journey from the early days of selling cassette tapes in LobSec to running Alpha Direct Insurtech!

In your own words, tell us who Arun Iyer is

I am a kid that grew up in Lobatse in the ’80s and ’90s (one of the best times to be alive). My parents immigrated to Botswana in 1980, and I have spent virtually my entire life in Botswana. I am a lifelong entrepreneur and learner who is deeply committed to making the world a better place during my short time on this beautiful planet. I am a father to two amazing daughters who teach me about life every day. I am a dedicated son and brother who is committed to the well-being of my family. My life partner and soul mate is Kamya, and we’ve been married for 14 years now. The two of us view life as an unending adventure that we live out with our family, friends, the community and the world. Spirituality is the thread that binds me to my kin, keeps me grounded, and is something that I deeply believe in. 

Your entrepreneurship career spans over 20 years. Please briefly take us through it from the beginning in the late 90s up to now

I was fortunate to grow up in a family where entrepreneurship was not only encouraged and admired but was also viewed as the surefire way to have an impact at scale in our community and the world at large. So when I started a cassette tape business while at Lobsec in 1996 (Age 13), my parents admired that a kid would be driven enough to not play video games and rather sell music to his schoolmates and make money. I bought my first shares, Sechaba Brewery Holdings, in 1992 (Age 9) and that opened me up to the fascinating world of companies and investing. I read every annual report from cover to cover and gradually expanded my investing activities as I saved or earned more money. 

From around the age of 9, I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. In my younger days, I wanted to be an entrepreneur to make money. As I matured, I was less enamoured by money and more enamoured by the impact that we as entrepreneurs can have on the world around us and that became my motive. I also love seeing an idea become something real and tangible, and the energy that brings together people to work towards a common goal. 

When I was 14 and my brother Arjun was 12, he started coding in HTML, the language that powered web sites of the nascent internet. I saw the business potential, and we co-founded an internet company that built websites for companies in Botswana. We did well and had 4 employees before we completed our undergraduate degrees at UB and decided to pursue Master degrees in the US, so we sold the company in 2002. 

After finishing my ‘’formal’’ education, I decided to move to the US and acquired a small accounting firm in Fort Myers, Florida. I put down $22,500 and the seller financed the balance of the purchase price over 3 years (I was 20 at the time). I worked 18 hour days for the first 2 years to pay off the loan, but I subsequently went on to purchase 5 other firms in Florida and build a roughly $3M business with around 45 employees. We started an insurance intermediation and wealth management practice as well to supplement our practice. 

Around that time, my father passed away suddenly in Botswana, and I had to assume a lot of responsibilities. I tried shuttling back and forth for a couple of years, and manage both his business interests as well as my own, but the lack of focus coupled with the 2008 financial crisis meant that I was effectively running backwards. I decided to sell my US interests and move back to Botswana and focus on what I should do with the rest of my life. This was a tough time in my life because my identity was tied to the firm I had built in the US from scratch. And overnight I lost this identity.

I made two decisions at this time:

  1. Whatever I did for the rest of my life, I would not do for money, only for passion
  2. That if I stopped feeling passionate about something, I would no longer do it

I had always had a passion for insurance. My brain was just wired for the insurance business. It has all the elements that I love - numerical and statistical work, deal-making and strategic thinking, as well as massive scale and immense potential for disruption. Arjun (my brother) loved technology and had a passion for it, and was also pretty good with numbers. We decided to combine forces and then went about raising capital to execute on our common dream - an insurance business positioned as a market disruptor, with best-in-class technology and a defensible business model.

I would say that a lot of things went right for us, and continue to. My first technical director, Mr Chary, who is still a mentor to me and my team, I met through chance - a common acquaintance who I knew through my father’s charitable work. He didn’t need to agree to help me out, but he did, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without him. I also got backed by a US-based insurance entrepreneur and billionaire, Dr. Kiran Patel, who I just met randomly when Arjun and I walked into his office in Tampa Bay one day. His name added credibility to our dream. He also introduced me to John Adhia, the CEO of Avatar Insurance Group in the US, who is still a great friend and mentor to me. John also helped us with software, advice and support in raising capital when we needed it. 

I got backing and immense support from the Patel brothers of Motovac Group and Ram of Choppies, who also believed in my dream for some reason, the logic of which still defies me today. I like to chalk it up to the good deeds that my father did when he was alive, and that’s why my number one priority in life is to preserve and hopefully enhance his reputation in Botswana and beyond.     

What motivated you to pursue entrepreneurship instead of taking the corporate route?

One of my mentors (a guy called Chris Frederiksen in California), once told me that I would make the worst employee ever. I don’t take instructions very well, and I am fiercely independent in thought and deed. I also operate from my gut primarily and I am not a fan of long meetings or detailed financial forecasts. An employee in corporate can never dream of operating with the level of freedom and latitude with which I do. I value my freedom and the ability to dream big more than a comfortable corporate salary, and because I have never known what it feels like to have a nice steady salary and pay package, I don’t feel I am missing out on anything.

I suppose fundamentally, the difference between corporate workers and entrepreneurs is their perception of risk. In corporate, one is paid to ‘’not fail’’ rather than to succeed. I have failed many times, and so my perception of failure is simply that it is a learning experience. So now, I get paid to hit the ball out of the park, which is what I enjoy the most. My personality type is such that I get bored very easily, and so constant challenges are required to keep me engaged, energized and active. If I did work for a corporate I would probably be very depressed. Instead, I am a happy person despite all the challenges and existential crises I face on a daily basis.


Your first tech company was founded in 1998 when the internet was still a nascent invention. Please tell us more about the company and elaborate on your experiences running a tech company back then in a country like Botswana

Even though the internet was a nascent invention, as you correctly pointed out, those of us who were interested in it could see clearly how the internet would transform the lives of our entire generation. The positive energy created when the internet first went mainstream also catalysed us young kids to invent and be curious. We had no doubt that the internet would be the single most transformational technology of our generation, and we loved being pioneers in a new and upcoming field.

The internet also did one very important thing, it narrowed the gap between those with resources and those without. Two kids could now start a business in their garage without two nickels to rub together, and just their effort and vision. And they could compete against the stalwarts of business, who had capital, experience, and business acumen. It was a revolution led by nerds and geeks, and they were taking over the world. 

Being based in Botswana was a huge disadvantage back then. We had a massive infrastructure gap in this country, and our market was far behind in terms of mentality. Today that gap is down to almost zero, which is why we can found an Insurtech business out of Botswana and expand into the continent and the world. 

You also founded a Florida-based company in 2003 which grew to five offices across the state. Please tell us more about that and your experiences running a company in the US

In 2003 after completing my formal education, I was determined to leave Botswana and go to the US. The opportunities in Botswana, particularly in the fields I was interested in, were very limited, and I am someone who enjoys execution at scale, and Botswana offers absolutely no scale whatsoever with a population of 2.2 million people.

My father also felt that with our level of ambition, my brother and I should base ourselves in the US, and suggested that I buy an accounting firm since that was his background and therefore he could help and advise us as we went about building the firm. 

The US is an amazing place and the opportunities are endless. There is also a huge community of like-minded people who are building amazing things in the US. It was the perfect environment for the young and ambitious me. But I learnt that I had limited to no passion to run an accounting firm, and so I would say that no matter how hard I worked, I would never have reached my true potential in that business.

Nonetheless, I always worked hard and was dedicated to the task at hand. My freedom came when I decided to do something intrinsically scalable and highly disruptible, after the sale of my firm. 

Your other entrepreneurial venture was a company that had offices in the US (Florida) and India (Pune). How was it like being the Chairman and CEO of a company operating in such different environments? 

InsourcePro was an outsourcing business I started while still in the US that enjoyed very little success. I eventually sold it to my partners who still run it to this day. The most exciting part of that business was meeting with accountants across the US who wanted to make their practices more efficient. It gave me a different perspective on the accounting profession and the mentality that permeates the profession.

I have always been adept at functioning in cross and multi-cultural environments, and so there wasn’t much of a culture shock for me running a business on multiple continents.

From founding and running companies in the aforementioned countries, what are some valuable lessons about business and entrepreneurship you picked up from those experiences?

My experience mostly tells me that to be an entrepreneur, you need to be willing to take risks, and not be focused on your current state of affairs at any point in time. If you have a dream, you pursue that dream until it is absolutely not possible to achieve the dream.

I always believe that you either win or you learn. And while learning is painful, it is far more valuable than winning. 

I also think that one needs to be prepared to make a lot of sacrifices at every stage of building a business. Becoming the biggest or the best requires one to be willing to do absolutely anything to achieve their dream.

Coming back to Botswana, what inspired you to start Alpha Direct Insurance?

I always had a keen interest in insurance as a business, ever since I read Warren Buffet’s biography as a kid. I developed more interest in insurance when I acquired some shares in Botswana Insurance Holdings Limited as a teenager and studied their annual reports. 

So Alpha Direct was really a calling from within to say that I need to do this. This is exactly what I told my investors who backed me when I had nothing more than an idea. That this was my calling and that I would do it with or without them (although with them would make the journey easier and be more fun). 

In terms of the business model, my view is to always try to do things differently (and hopefully better) than the existing status quo. You have to add value to create value, so my focus has been to add value to customers’ lives.

This year, Alpha Direct launched Alpha Direct InsurTech. Please tell us more about that

So, I wouldn’t call this a ‘’launch’’ per se. We restructured our operating and governance model in order to reflect our transformation from an insurance company driven by technology to a technology company that develops insurance products based on customer needs. Because we started building our own proprietary technology in-house, we needed to raise venture capital to scale this technology. 

As a result of this need, at the holding company level, we reincorporated in Singapore and raised some cash from a couple of Venture Capital firms who finance technology ventures because they don’t know Botswana from a bar of soap and feel comfortable with investing in companies that are incorporated in more international jurisdictions. 

What was the motivation behind starting Alpha Direct InsurTech?

We were selected for and completed the Stanford Seed Transformation Program in 2018, which was sponsored by DeBeers Group. Stanford Seed, along with some interactions with our reinsurers Munich Re, and their innovation team, convinced us that we needed to evolve into a technology player that builds our own technology, and that there was an opportunity to leverage this technology to scale our offerings into the regional and continental (Africa-wide) market.

So, the transformation process had already started in 2019, and the establishment of our new holding company and governance overhaul was the final piece of implementation of this transformation plan. 

Alpha Direct InsurTech leverages 4IR technologies like Big Data and AI. In a country like Botswana where adoption of such technologies is still low and slow, what challenges you have faced in executing your business model?

The challenges are primarily around talent. We do not have a technology-driven culture in Botswana. So, even talented Batswana youth who have programming talent have very few opportunities to practically test out their skills and grow their abilities.

If I was to objectively look at Botswana as a regional destination for establishing a technology business like we have done, I would probably not choose Botswana as my first choice because of the above reason mainly, but I don’t look at this business purely from the angle of trying to make the most money that I can for shareholders. I also love Botswana, and my family owes a lot to this country for providing the fertile environment from which we operate, including political stability and a business-friendly approach. So it is due to this loyalty and sense of gratitude that I did and continue to invest in and grow our base in Botswana.

We are also trying to prove that service export can work from Botswana into the region and maybe the world at some point. That our talent base is competitive on a global level. I don’t know if it is or if it will ever be, but I am determined to give it a shot and putting my money, sweat and blood where my mind and heart are.

How have you been trying to overcome these challenges?

So recruiting young people straight out of the University system and training them is one aspect of how we have tried to address the critical skills shortage in STEM subjects in Botswana. We have also tried to work with institutions like the Botswana Innovation Hub and their partnership with the Microsoft App Factory program that intends to give the practical enterprise grade software development experience to our youth who already have some exposure to coding.

I wouldn’t say we have been super successful at this. But we will keep trying and not give up on our dream. 

Botswana has ambitions of being an active part of the 4IR. In your professional opinion, how best can the country accelerate the adoption of such technologies such as AI and Big Data in order to catch up with countries that have already made strides in 4IR adoption?

Botswana needs to stop talking and start doing. We are excellent at strategy and hopeless at execution. We housed our business at the Botswana Innovation Hub because I loved the strategic direction that the Hub was pushing us in as a country and the platform it provided for businesses like ours. This was despite my shareholders feeling that it was a bad move. Three years later, we have made virtually no progress in accomplishing the milestones and targets we set ourselves as a country to build out the Innovation Hub, and it is fast heading in the direction of becoming a white elephant if we don’t rapidly do something about it. In the meantime, we have expanded our business (Alpha Direct) into two more countries, Zambia and South Africa, acquired 26,000 new customers, increased our employment to 75 people, and raised over $2 Million (P20 Million) in fresh capital. 

We also need to place a lot more emphasis on STEM subjects at the school level. Our kids need to be learning to code and need to explore physics, chemistry and biology with competent teaching professionals from around the world. To build a next-generation, knowledge-based economy is going to take a determined, protracted and focused approach, and it won’t happen without the younger generation having the opportunities to study and practice their craft.  

Is there anything you would like to share with our readers regarding any upcoming projects involving Alpha Direct and/or Alpha Direct InsurTech?

Right now our focus is on executing our strategy in Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa, and raising $5 Million of capital to fuel our (hopefully) rapid expansion in these markets as well as perhaps one other large market in Africa. That is about all I wish to talk about right now. 

Lastly, from your over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship, what advice can you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to achieve the longevity and success that you have?

I would like to share a quote that my mentor and first investor (Dr Kiran Patel) told me. He said ‘’Do the right things for the right reasons, and the right results will follow’’. Oftentimes, young entrepreneurs look to start a business in order to finance a lifestyle. If you just want to be very successful financially, there are far easier ways to make quick money than being an entrepreneur. 

One needs to have a true and genuine passion for what they are doing to be the best. That passion gives us the willpower to get through the difficult times, dealing with difficult people and situations because we are focused not on the outcome but the process of building. It also makes hard work a lot easier, because we aren’t ‘’working’’ anymore, we are just having a great time doing what we love.

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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