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How An Accidental Entrepreneur Founded A R175 Million Business

Andrew Brand calls it his ‘art director MBA’. It’s the lessons he’s learnt building an advertising agency that cares more about customer supplier awards than glittering design awards. It’s the foundation of a 300-employee strong business with a turnover in excess of R175 million that was launched because Checkers was willing to give a two-man agency a chance to prove itself. And it’s how a business that was launched as the recession hit has not only survived, but thrived.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

  • Player: Andrew Brand
  • Company: 99c
  • What they do: Above and below-the-line advertising agency
  • Est: 2008
  • Turnover: R175 million
  • Visit: www.99c.co.za

In March 2008 Andrew Brand resigned as Head of Retail for the advertising agency he worked for. He also resigned from his position on the board. By May, he and his ex-boss, now business partner, Lewin de Villiers pitched for Checkers’ entire retail advertising portfolio.

They were a two-man team. They had no premises, equipment or employees. Their business didn’t even have a name. But they did have a track record, and a good working relationship with the Shoprite/Checkers group.

After a final meeting with Whitey Basson himself, the newly formed (and named) 99c officially had one client. But it was a big client. And it was time to get to work.

The accidental entrepreneur

There are many ways to enter the world of entrepreneurship. For some it’s a calling that starts in school or varsity. For others it’s a response to being virtually unemployable and not being able to listen to — or work for — a boss. Still others find their way into business ownership because of a burning passion to change an industry, society or even the world.

For Andrew Brand, the entrepreneurial journey was slightly different. Andrew liked being employed. He’s incredibly ambitious, as his years of cricket captain, rugby captain and head boy will attest to, but he was also very happy to climb the corporate ladder, which is exactly what he did.

Related: Talk About Been There Done That: From Advertising To The T-Shirt Business

He studied design, joined an agency at the bottom, and worked his way up from junior art director, to senior art director, to creative director on the retail side of the business.

He spent 13 fruitful years at a prominent Cape Town agency, and discovered a love for business, strategy, and the retail arm of advertising. It wasn’t glamorous, it didn’t win awards, but it did pay the bills, and it relied heavily on strategic thinking and planning, and a strong working relationship with clients. For Andrew, it was the bedrock of a successful agency’s strategic focus.

“Advertising campaigns are typically ten-month contracts that focus on how glamorous a campaign can be,” he says. “How can we get Matt Damon onto a glacier in Finland to showcase a new pair of Nikes?

“That’s supposedly advertising. It wins awards. It looks incredible. But great retail advertising is about making sure clients make money. It’s fast paced, it’s immediate and it’s highly strategic. You can’t dwell for long, because when you place your campaign in this week’s Sunday Star, you need to be tapping into what people care about on the ground, in that moment. And you’ll see the results of your advertising by that Monday. Turnaround time is everything. It’s fast and efficient, and it relies on excellent client/agency communications. I found my place in retail.”

It was Lewin de Villiers, executive creative director at the agency, Andrew’s mentor and one of his current business partners, who first pulled him into the retail arm of the business, recognising that Andrew would enjoy the nature of retail advertising. He was right.

This still didn’t push Andrew into entrepreneurship though. He had an excellent relationship with his clients and loved what he did. The move to entrepreneurship would come later, once the agency was sold to a multinational media network and amalgamated with a Joburg-based agency.

Learn what you can from corporate

“We were the retail arm. The Joburg-based agency was award-winning. Together we covered all areas of advertising. I joined the board. Rob Berry and Lewin had a two-year earn out period. For a while, everything was great. At board level I learnt even more about the business of agencies beyond my own division’s budget. But once Rob and Lewin left, I also saw a side of agencies that I didn’t identify with.

“Within a few months I resigned. I realised that there was a major culture gap between the way I viewed business and client relationships compared to the rest of the agency. There was no way I could continue to work there. You can’t toe a line you don’t believe in.”

Related: The Quick and Dirty on Marketing, Advertising and Branding

And just like that, Andrew was unemployed. He still wasn’t thinking about entrepreneurship. In fact, his plan was to take some time off and consider his next move. And then the marketing manager of the Shoprite/Checkers group called Andrew and told him they were putting their business out to pitch. With Andrew no longer at the agency, they felt there was no continuity there. It was time to consider their options.

When opportunity knocks

“This incredible opportunity fell into my lap. I contacted Lewin and we decided to go for it. He didn’t need another business, but he enjoyed the challenge, and I could use the support and mentorship. We started putting our pitch together. There were four agencies that would be pitching for Checkers’ business. Our old agency was one of them.

“We knew we were in for a fight, and that we were the most under-resourced candidate by a long shot — but we also had two very important things going for us: We understood and respected retail, and we had a good working relationship with Checkers.”

Shining eyes and ‘one-cheeked playing’

Andrew Brand

The move revealed two gaping holes in Andrew’s ex-agency’s processes. First, Andrew didn’t have a restraint of trade in place. Second, and equally — if not more — damaging, was the fact that he was the retail division’s main contact for its key client. When he left, the customer had no-one they knew and trusted to work with. And so they put their business out to pitch.

The agency immediately tried to deal with the lack of a restraint of trade. “I received a legal letter trying to intimidate me. It was an oversight, but you can’t implement a restraint of trade retrospectively. I refused to be intimidated and instead took the letter to an attorney.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in life and business, it’s don’t take a knife to a gunfight. It was worth the investment — she consulted me, calmed me down, sent a response letter, and it was over. My rights were well looked after, and they couldn’t do anything. Too many small business owners allow themselves to be intimidated by bigger competitors simply because they don’t know their rights. I wasn’t going to be one of them.”

Develop valuable relationship

When the time came to pitch, Andrew and Lewin had a pre-existing relationship on their side, but none of the infrastructure that the other agencies had. As it turned out though, simply having had the business previously wasn’t enough for their former agency to move forward with Checkers.

Their key man was gone. Andrew and Lewin’s main competition for the business was instead an agency called Lowe Bull who had global network experience with Tesco’s and a good strategic understanding of retail.

So why did they get it? Why did Whitey Basson ultimately decide to take such a risky move and award the business to 99c, a brand-new agency that would have ten weeks to find suitable premises, purchase all the equipment they needed and hire 30 employees — at a minimum to start with?

Related: 7 Ways to Make Advertising a Sure Thing

Passion can be a differentiation

Andrew believes the answer is simple: Passion. “We had a client who wasn’t unimpressed with other agencies, but they did understand substance and not just glitter, and in us they saw substance.

“We’re passionate about what we do. I believe that skills can be taught; you can teach people retail. Everyone has a brain. But you need to trigger that passion.”

Andrew is a learner by nature. He loves reading and watching Ted Talks, and is influenced by greatness. “Benjamin Zander, musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, explains the nature of passion best. He calls it one-cheeked playing. When you can’t sit with both bum cheeks on the stool because you’re that excited by what you’re doing, you’re truly passionate and inspired by what you do. When people are engaged and passionate, they have shining eyes, and that’s what you need to be on the look-out for.

“We could never outspend or out-powerpoint other agencies, but our eyes shone more. When someone’s face lights up when they speak — when that level of passion is present, in that moment — clients can see it. Checkers recognised it in us, and we look for it in the people we hire. The rest can be taught.”

Shoprite/Checkers did hedge its bet though. Lowe Bull was hired as a contingency agency, in case 99c couldn’t deliver. The pressure was on. The client had a plan B, but Andrew and Lewin did not. Defeat wasn’t an option.

Pressure to perform

“I’ve been driven by excelling under pressure my entire life. It’s why I always wanted to be team captain; it’s why I love leadership roles. When the pressure is on you’re driven to perform, provided you’re working with the right people, you give them the support they need and you all have a shared passion. Anything is possible if you won’t accept defeat.”

By December Checkers cancelled its contingency contract with Lowe Bull. Over the past nine years, 99c has grown from the 30 people hired in those first few weeks to a business that employs 280 people, with over 30 vacancies currently needing to be filled.

Related: Advertising Legend, Ivan Moroke on the 5 Questions Your Marketing Strategy Absolutely Has to Answer

Checkers and Shoprite are both clients, as well as numerous other corporates and SMEs. Retail is still the foundation of the business, but services have expanded to cover a range of above and below the line offerings, including PR.

All because Andrew and his partners saw an opportunity, tackled it head on, and didn’t have a plan B. They were going to succeed or die trying.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

Remarkable stories about local entrepreneurs who built big businesses and well known brands up from humble beginnings.

Nadine Todd

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Lebo Gunguluza

Ryan Bacher

NetFlorist, SA’s largest online gifting company, was launched by accident

ryan-bacher

Ryan Bacher

“Our plan was to run the site for one day to prove that we could do it. And then we got R30 000 worth of orders. That was the equivalent of a whole month’s revenue at a flower shop.”

Ryan Bacher, Lawrence Brick and Jonathan Hackner; launched NetFlorist on Valentine’s day in 1999.

The founders of NetFlorist had no intention of starting an online floral and gifting company – they just wanted to prove to Makro that they could design and run an e-commerce site. But Valentine’s day came and went, and the ‘test’ site did unbelievably well, so they didn’t shut it off.

“What’s really crazy is that people were paying for us to provide a service. We had no stock and knew nothing about flowers. We just sent the orders to a flower shop in Sandton,” says Ryan Bacher.

How did they make it work? “We knew our best bet was to get the website out, hack it, and keep changing it. We would learn more from the site being out there in the market than we could ever learn in-house, trying to develop a perfect product. It was basically always a work in progress.”

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From Silicon Valley To SA: How Online Marketplace for Developers OfferZen Was Born

OfferZen was conceived in Silicon Valley but launched in Cape Town. The company founders discuss the advantages (and disadvantages) of starting a tech business in South Africa.

GG van Rooyen

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Philip and Malan Joubert of OfferZen

Vital stats

  • Players: Philip and Malan Joubert
  • Company: OfferZen
  • Established: 2015
  • Visit: www.offerzen.com
  • About: OfferZen is a curated online marketplace for software development talent. It has over 500 companies since it launched, including big industry names like Barclays, GetSmarter, Takealot, FNB, Superbalist, Allan Gray, and 24.com. Founders Malan and Philip Joubert have been included in Quartz Africa’s annual Africa Innovators list for 2017. The list features 30 of Africa’s leaders in technology, business, arts, science, agriculture, design and media.

As soon as they graduated from university, brothers Philip and Malan Joubert entered the start-up scene. Their first business, FireID, met a rather swift and ignominious end, but they kept the name and launched an incubator under the same moniker in Stellenbosch.

This endeavour was far more successful, helping to launch local start-ups like SnapScan and JourneyApps. Soon, a few of the businesses in their incubator were scaling and in need of funding, so the Jouberts relocated (with the start-ups) to Silicon Valley.

While living in the world’s most famous tech hub, the idea for OfferZen was born.

1How did you get the idea for OfferZen?

We enjoyed running the incubator, but we also knew that we loved start-up life and wanted to launch our own business. We identified education and recruitment as two areas where a tech start-up could be particularly successful and have a real impact.

Related: Meet The 40 Richest Self-Made Entrepreneurs On Earth

We settled on developer recruitment because of how skewed that marketplace is. Companies are so desperate for good developers, that they get spammed constantly on sites like LinkedIn.

We decided to create a site where developers could upload their details and companies would approach them — the opposite of your typical job or recruitment site.

2Why launch in South Africa instead of Silicon Valley?

We knew the South African recruitment market well, so we felt more confident launching locally. Also, South Africa is home to some great developers, as well as many large companies in need of their services, so we knew that a market existed for what we were doing.

Another big reason was the fact that we could bootstrap this business in South Africa, while we would have needed to raise funds if we wanted to operate in Silicon Valley.

Living and operating there is extremely expensive, so you need a lot of runway. There’s also a lot more competition, so you need big names and big money behind you.

3Is visiting a place like Silicon Valley worthwhile if you want to launch a tech business in South Africa?

It is definitely worth it. There is an unbelievable concentration of talent and expertise in Silicon Valley, and people are very willing to speak to you. While we were there and preparing to launch OfferZen, we spoke to countless similar recruitment businesses.

Figuring out what could be handled via software/computers versus what we would need people for was one of our major questions, and it was great to discuss this with experts on the ground. So, yes visiting Silicon Valley can be very useful, but you should be working on a specific project.

People there don’t mind engaging with you, but they want to address specific issues and challenges. They don’t want to chat in general. If you’re not actually busy working on a business, you won’t find it as useful.

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

4How did you manage to attract enough developers and companies to create a viable marketplace?

It really is a chicken/egg situation. You need a bunch of companies on the site to attract developers, and you need developers to attract companies, so how do you build up your database to a point where the whole thing becomes viable? That was one of the biggest challenges we had.

Our advantage, though, was that good developers are so sought after. Companies are desperate to find developers, so they were quite keen to support what OfferZen was doing and join the marketplace. We started by building up a solid database of companies, and then started signing up developers.

Once we had the companies, it was easier to convince the developers. We also offer developers who find employment through OfferZen a R5 000 bonus. Importantly, we started off quite small. Initially we just focused on Cape Town and created a viable marketplace there.

Once that was up and running, we expanded to Johannesburg. If we threw the net too wide, we ran the risk of not having enough developers and companies in one place.

5You have a very impressive developer-centric blog on your site. Why the focus on the blog?

We realise that only a small portion of developers are actively searching for a job at any given time, so we wanted to create something that would allow us to engage and offer something useful to the rest.

Ultimately, we want all developers to be aware of OfferZen and its website, and a great way to do this is to generate useful content that drives traffic to the site. But we don’t think this would work if the whole exercise was just a thinly-veiled marketing exercise.

So, we decided to create genuinely useful content that would interest local tech entrepreneurs and developers. Creating this kind of content takes time and money, but we believe it’s worth it.

6You’ve grown massively over the last twelve months, from five people to more than 20. How do you make good hires when having to fill roles that quickly?

We’ve posted an article on our blog where we go into the minute details of our hiring process, which people can read, but I would add that people should seek out the book Who: Solve Your #1 Problem by Geoff Smart. It’s a fantastic book on the hiring process.

Another thing worth mentioning, which OfferZen does, is to have what we call ‘simulation days’, where a candidate comes in and does actual work for a few days. It requires time and energy from the rest of the team, and it is also risky, since the candidate is doing real work and interacting with real clients, but we find that it’s an excellent way to gauge capability and culture fit.

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Gareth Cliff Shares His Tips For Starting Your Very Own Podcast

Here are Gareth Cliff’s tips for starting your very own podcast.

GG van Rooyen

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Well-known South African DJ Gareth Cliff left radio a few years ago to start his own podcasting company, CliffCentral. The company celebrated its third birthday in May of 2017, and has shown steady growth, both in terms of content and listeners. CliffCentral has definitely shown that there is a South African market for this new medium.

Here are Gareth Cliff’s tips for starting your very own podcast.

1How easy is it to start a podcast if you don’t have a large team/company behind you?

Anyone can start a podcast. You don’t need staff, a studio or expensive equipment. The hard part is delivering quality content and being consistent.

Related: When Gareth Cliff Met Bill Draper – The First Skype Funder

2What advice do you have for people looking to start a podcast? What are some of the dos and dont’s?

What can you do that nobody else can, or what can you do better than anyone else? That would be the start of the content plan for the podcast. Also, be prepared to grow the audience slowly. Building a solid listenership takes time. It isn’t something that happens quickly.

3More and more companies (like Dell and McAfee) are launching branded podcasts. What do you think of this as a content marketing strategy?

We think it’s terrific, as long as it’s relevant and interesting. Take a listen to what Gimlet Creative are doing for Microsoft and Virgin Atlantic. They’re not ads, they’re great to listen to. AutoCentral on CliffCentral is our motoring show, hosted by the guys from AutoTrader — and it’s really good, because they are so passionate about cars. T-Systems also host their own podcast during which they interview ‘disrupters’ in the industry.

4What does the local landscape look like? How is the local popularity of podcasting growing? Do you need to aim your content at an international audience?

Local service providers have told us that podcasting in South Africa doubled from 2014 to 2016 and keeps growing incrementally. In the US, podcasting has increased by 70% year on year for the last three years. That makes it the fastest growing medium of all. Our audiences are local and international. They choose us, we don’t target them.

Related: Celebrity Jen Su On Building Your Brand

5What is it about podcasting that you think sets it apart from other channels/mediums? What are its strengths, and what are its weaknesses?

Podcasting is replacing long-form journalism. People don’t have time to read reams of stuff. You can listen to a podcast while you’re driving, cooking or training. Also, mainstream media try to be everything to everyone. As Dion Chang recently told me in an interview, individuality is the way of the future — and niched content will become much more sought after than bland content crafted to appeal to the masses.

6What are some of the challenges of doing a regular podcast that people don’t tend to think of starting out?

Keeping content fresh, unique and relevant. That sounds easy, but it’s hard to consistently up your game and keep delivering. Listening to podcasts is an active choice — people don’t stumble upon them like you stumble upon a music radio show. That means the audience are discerning; they understand all the choices they have.

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