The Lapdesk Company: Shane Immelman

The Lapdesk Company: Shane Immelman

“It took about ten seconds for the light to come on,” says Shane Immelman about the first time he saw the original version of what would eventually become the Lapdesk – the unique product at the heart of The Lapdesk Company, of which Immelman is founder and CEO. It was a friend of his who originally came up with the idea for a portable ‘desk’ substitute that school children could place in their laps, providing them witha stable surface on which to write.

“This friend’s mother had a long career in education and she was aware of the enormous problem that existed in rural and under-resourced schools in South Africa where children had no desks. Together they came up with the concept but they had their own professional careers to follow and approached me with the idea, asking me whether I thought anything could be made of it,” explains Immelman.

Looking to make a change

As it happened, they’d come to the right person. Immelman, whose previous career in business had focused on product development, was looking to get involved in something different. “I had recently got my fingers burned in a previous business venture and that, together with a highly personal tragedy, had left me questioning what life was all about. These things were the catalyst that made me want to shift things. I wanted to do something more with my life than chase money – and that conversation was the starting point,” he explains.

A social entrepreneur is born

And so it was that Immelman began what was to be a life-changing journey that resulted in a unique social entrepreneurship business model. “We agreed that my friends would own the intellectual property rights and that I would own all commercial rights – that I would take the idea, invest in it and see how it could be developed further,” he explains. His idea was two-pronged – to develop a business and to address the pressing need for desks in underprivileged schools.“I believed then – and still do – that it is possible to make a profit and make a difference to society. That’s the basis for social entrepreneurship, and it’s a sound model through which everyone benefits. In fact I would go so far as tosay that I think the future of social development lies in social entrepreneurship,” he explains.

A unique model

The model is simple yet effective. The Lapdesk Company makes the Lapdesks and approaches corporates to sponsor their manufacture by advertising on the top of the desks. The Lapdesk Company then distributes the sponsored desks to needy schools. “Sponsoring companies can choose how many Lapdesks they want and where they want them distributed. Sometimes they distribute them to communities in the areas in which they operate, thus tying the project in with their marketing or corporate social investment programmes; alternatively they leave it to us to select a community in need, based on our field research,” explains Immelman.

The Lapdesk Company makes a pre-tax profit of around 8%, something for which Immelman initially attracted a degree of criticism. But as he explains, “This was never going to be a non-profit organisation – and we don’t pretend that it is. It’s a business that seeks to solve a social problem and make a moderate income at the same time. The money we make allows us to attract top talent, maintain and develop infrastructure and conduct the necessary research to develop a lasting product of the highest standard – and this means that the business is sustainable and therefore able to benefit more school children in the future.”

Creating connections

The model is particularly attractive to corporates because it provides them access to a powerful and patented branding platform and a chance to give back to the communities in which they operate.“When you think about it, spending money on Lapdesks makes far more sense than spending money putting your brand on a billboard in a community – and we’re cheaper by up to 300% than the next closest media type. Lapdesks help to provide children with a better education and this creates a real human connection between a brand and a community – far more so than an ordinary advert or advertising medium.

So the Lapdesks allow you to connect with parents of children, educators and to create a connection with the children themselves,” explains Immelman. And because the Lapdesks are portable and carried by children every day between home and school, they are also highly visible. He adds: “One of our requirements is that sponsoring company representatives are present at the handover of the Lapdesks to the beneficiary schools. The reason for this is that it allows companies to see where their investment is going, and it creates a connection between the company and the community which in many instances sparks a long-term relationship. Putting such people together creates a platform for companies to provide further assistance to schools, something which we see in many cases,and this helps to extend the benefit that Lapdesk seeks to provide.”

Getting endorsement

This last item was particularly important.“We knew that our sustainability and legitimacy rested to a large extent on securing the buy-in of the Department of Education (DoE) at the time. I knew that if I wanted to go into public schools distributing Lapdesks, the DoE would be critical to helping me gain access,” says Immelman, who achieved his goal in 2004 with the endorsement and approval of the DoE.

What he didn’t expect at the time was endorsement from another, equally powerful quarter. In August 2005, Archbishop Desmond Tutu became The Lapdesk Company’s patron. Seeing the potential that Lapdesks had to make a difference to needy children, Tutu expresses his support for what the company is doing in the following way: “I went to school where there were no desks. We sat on benches and when the teacher asked us to write, we knelt down on the floor and used the benches we had been sitting on as desks.

The Lapdesk fills a huge gap for our learners and educators. It formalises informal classrooms, gives dignity to learners and teachers and is a practical solution to a situation where there are few facilities and children have no surface on which to write.” Today Lapdesk is also officially endorsed and supported by the former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and by the Chair of the National Education Portfolio Committee, Professor Shepherd Mayatula. The company works in close collaboration with the National Youth Service, a special government initiative which contributes to the development of young South Africans, and is building global relationships with Unicef andRotary.

Pilot and growth stage

But before his product had gained such accolades, Immelman put it through a rigorous pilot phase and outbound campaign that took the best part of two years, but established a presence in the market and secured the first orders.“Initially we approached CSI departments in corporates and this was really challenging, because you are one of thousands asking them to invest. We coupled this with a great deal of outbound correspondence to CEOs, HR directors and marketing departments and we got quite a few responses from this.” One of these came from Anglo American’s media and corporate communications division, which placed the very first milestone order for 500 units. Orders from Cell C and Coca-Cola in Angola followed.

Product manufacture

At the same time, Immelman was piloting the manufacture of the product, eventually securing AAA customer prices from BASF for the base materials, thanks to the product’s social development focus.“Through trial and error we have produced a product of the highest standard, which is critical when you are manufacturing a product that children are going to use.” Each Lapdesk is built to last a lifetime and it’s also fully recyclable. The materials used from BASF carry CE-marking which means they meet the requirements of all relevant European Union Directives. “We use moulds that cost in the region of R350 000 and a particular, proprietary process that gives the desk additional strength so that it won’t shatter. The printing process is extremely expensive but incredibly durable as well, which is vitally important if we’re asking companies to sponsor Lapdesks with their branding.”

Growth milestones

With a sound business model, a unique and sustainable product offering and a strong marketing campaign in place, orders started rolling in. The Lapdesk Company has experienced annualised growth in excess of 60% since inception. The 2008 financial year turnover for all Lapdesk operations (Africa) is forecast at R62 million, representing an increase of more than 400% on the company’s 2007 turnover. Projected turnover for all operations for the 2009 financial year is R169 million. Clients include a vast and growing mix of blue-chip corporates, international agencies and NGOs.

In 2006, Immelman was selected as an Endeavor Entrepreneur. Endeavor is a US-based organisation that works with high impact entrepreneurs in emerging markets to help them grow their businesses and create jobs for economic upliftment. The partnership has proved a powerful catalyst for the development of important relationships between The Lapdesk Company and some of the world’s leading universities, including Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan School of Management and Stanford. The company periodically hosts MBA students from these schools for internship to help them better understand social enterprise in an African context.

Beyond our borders

South Africa has become the showcase for how Lapdesk can work, but Immelman wants to see the concept spread to benefit more children, particularly in Africa, where the company is now active in 19 countries. “But I’m not interested in owning a global empire – our goals are not to grow and expand simply to make more profit. When we launch in new territories we expend a great deal of time, energy and resources identifying the right person to lead the business – they need to be well-networked and financed in order to be effective, and have a passion for wanting to improve education in their respectiv ecountries. After that it’s simple: we supply them with a manual, the product and management support and let them get on with running the business. It’s not a franchise and there are no fees involved. The business becomes theirs.” he says.

His recently-awarded Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellowship from Oxford University and the African Leadership Institute provides him with access to young leaders across Africa, from which he can identify suitable business leaders. Combining this model with his Endeavor network and the company’s relationships with leading international business schools, Immelman plans to have established Lapdesk Territory Partners in 60 countries by 2011. “Keeping the company local, as opposed to running it from South Africa, means that Lapdesk can benefit from the local expertise, knowledge, language, contacts and services of the territory in which it is established. This facilitates a smoother process and faster delivery of Lapdesks to kids globally.” Through the Endeavor connection, Lapdesk was recently approached by a group of  Harvard MBA students who have formed a syndicate and are supplying Lapdesks to universities in the US. “They will sell them to students for double the price, so for every Lapdesk purchased, one is donated to a needy child.”  

Looking to the future

Immelman remains committed to rolling out Lapdesk’s vision, although he plans to hand over his role as CEO in the near future. “What I really want to concentrate on is international business development and ploughing the profits of the business into the development of new, synergistic products and services to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. 2009 will see us commence work in India, the sub-continent and various countries in Latin America, and we already have three new products waiting to be launched. There is so much that remains to be done.”

Research and development

The company’s stated aim locally is to eradicate classroom desk shortages affecting over four million South African school children by the year 2010. To date it has distributed just over half a million desks. But as Immelman points out, “Getting to the point we are at no whas taken an immense amount of foundation-building.” When he started conducting research, Immelman was appalled at the extent of the desk shortage problem. “I had no idea of the scale of it – we are addressing a global crisis in education. When I went to school, there were 25 children in aclass and 25 desks and each child received textbooks. Seeing how some children were expected to learn was a real wake-up call for me. It served as a real motivator to come up with a solution that would plug the problem.” In additionto assessing the scope of the problem, Immelman also conducted field research to identify nodes of greatest need as well as research into the potential sponsorship market, product materials and manufacturing, and the possibility of forging a relationship with the Department of Education.

Milestones

2002 Q4: Shane encounters the first draft concept of what will become the Lapdesk

2002 Q4 to 2004 Q2: Market research and product development phase, including pilots sponsored by BP and Deutsche Bank

2004 Q3: Secures official endorsement and support from Department of Education

2004 Q3: Commercial operation begins and outbound campaign starts

2004 Q4: First order from Anglo American for 500 units. Orders from Cell C and Coca-Cola follow in the same period

2005 Q3: Archbishop Desmond Tutu becomes patron of Lapdesk

2006 Q1: Secures AAA customer pricing from BASF

2006 Q2: 100 000 Lapdesks sold

2006 Q2: Lapdesk wins Proudly South African Home-Grown Award – New Company ofthe Year (SMME)

2006 Q3: Shane selected as Endeavor Entrepreneur

2007 Q2: Concludes three-year strategic partnership to 2010 with Media24 Group for The Lapdesk Company (South Africa)

2007 Q3: 1st Territory Partnership Agreement concluded

2007 Q4: Lapdesk wins Innovation Town iHero Grand Prix Award

2008 Q1: Shane selected as Schwabb Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2008 Finalist

2008 Q2: Shane appointed as ArchbishopDesmond Tutu Fellow in programme run by the African Leadership Institute & Oxford University

2008 Q3: 20th Territory Partnership Agreement concluded with Liberian partners

2008 Q3: 500 000 Lapdesks sold

Juliet Pitman

Juliet Pitman

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.