How a PowerPoint presentation launched one of SA’s leading software companies

The birth of pilotfish digital

2001 saw the tail end of the dot com era. Economies across the globe were thriving and everyone wanted a dot com solution of one type or another. At the time, Adam Shapiro, co-founder of pilotfish digital, a leading SharePoint Solutions company, was managing the development team of a large software company based in Durban, South Africa. The demand for functional websites offering e-commerce functionality, which then was in its infancy, was massive, so were customized software solutions. If there was any time that one should launch their own tech startup, it was then.

Taking the gap, Shapiro and three of his colleagues decided to do just that. Their route to market quickly aligned and the team comprising of a designer, web developer, software developer and business developments lead, sat down to decide on a name. This was the easy part. One day during a lunch meeting at a restaurant in the Durban harbour, a pilot helicopter hovered overhead before making its way to an outgoing cargo vessel to collect a pilot. Liking the name ‘Pilot Software’ they quickly googled to check its availability. It was taken. But ‘pilotfish’ wasn’t and so the name stuck. Shapiro loved the symbolism of a small lean fish leading huge corporate sharks to IT bliss. And then as most startups go, funding almost brought their quick propulsion to a grinding halt.

They needed R40,000 to buy computers (and that was in 2001, imagine the costs today), rent office space and pay salaries. A plan was devised for three team members to head over to Dubai to fulfil a three-month contract to raise the capital they needed. And so with a name, and eventually an office, furniture and computers, all they needed were clients. The company offered to build high-end websites, provide custom development and SharePoint Intranets. But back then it was a lot more difficult to build websites, so most of their time was spent on web development. 

The demand was huge and kept growing at a radical pace. South Africa had only just dabbled in the world of digital but by 2001, if you were not online, you didn’t exist. Online shopping was still a new phenomenon and so the biggest trend in web development became e-commerce sites. They built websites for companies mostly in the clothing, accounting, transport and FMCG industries. They were also asked to build a site for a large political party who needed a website with an e-commerce component in order to receive donations. The challenge? It had to be translated and available in the 11 official languages of the country.

Enter a big fish, actually a whole aquarium

The catalyst that eventually positioned pilotfish as the go-to software development company was a contract they landed in late 2001. The client requested a PowerPoint presentation, an old school Microsoft based tool that was being replaced by advancements like Flash and Prezi.  

A CD presentation revealed an incredible set of water wonderland images for a project still in the planning phase: a new marine theme park, uShaka Marine World. The PowerPoint presentation would be used to present the idea to the Durban City Council and raise R750 million for its construction. A flurry of activity then ensued, from presentations, websites and corporate videos, as well as many on-site visits and even more late nights as the team agreed to the job. uShaka is now a major landmark and tourist attraction in Durban.

pilotfish went on to build uShaka’s website as well as producing their corporate video. The consortium running the project was made up of a number of high-profile companies which opened the doors to even more work. One of these was Tongaat Hulett, who still to this day are contracted to pilotfish for their services. Other longstanding clients include Unilever for which they’ve built and maintained the website and the Intranet for Unilever South Africa, Rainbow Chickens Limited, and the Deloitte Graduate Recruitment system, aptly named Swordfish.

Over the past 20 years, pilotfish has evolved. In 2004 they added SharePoint, a Microsoft Document Management solution, for which they are currently market leaders. Then in 2014, they saw a gap in the market for a cloud-based workflow solution and Autopilot was created. Autopilot runs on the Microsoft Azure platform and is a solution that enables companies to speed up the implementation and roll-out of electronic form and workflow solutions.

When asked if there is still place for the good old PowerPoint presentation in the workplace, Shapiro says that while it sometimes gets a bad rap due to the presenter and the content that is lacking, as a tool to get your foot in the door so you land your first client, absolutely.  

Shapiro has been a member of the Entrepreneurs Organization for 6 years and currently sits on the Cape Town Board. He is also the GSEA National Chair for South Africa. GSEA is a premier awards program for students who own or operate a business while attending college or university.

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