How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

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Mark Sham hasn’t just created a microphone. He’s creating a movement. In July 2015 he hosted his first event. It was called Suits & Sneakers, and 1 000 people attended. Mark was looking to see if his idea resonated with anyone else. It was clear it did.

The second event, a few months later, drew 1 500 people. Two events held in 2016 had 3 000 people respectively, and it would have been more if Mark hadn’t realised they needed to limit attendees to ensure the event was still personal.

Keep up the momentum

To keep the Suits & Sneakers momentum going, a weekly event, Suits & Sneakers Fixed was added. While the main events each year have four speakers focusing on completely different content, Suits & Sneakers Fixed is held every Wednesday and has only one speaker, discussing one topic. Between 100 and 120 people can attend, and you can book online. It’s a free event, first come, first served.

But here’s the secret behind Suits & Sneakers. It’s not an eventing company. It’s a business promoting the benefits of informal training, and focuses on a new method of corporate training, that with enough traction will hopefully turn the current education system on its head — something Mark believes South Africa desperately needs.

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The 3 goals of Suits & Sneakers

The Suits & Sneakers events were created with three goals in mind: One, to test whether Mark’s theory of informal education held weight.

Two, to bring corporates on board to his way of thinking, and to be willing to test this new training methodology in their own organisations, and ultimately support a new education system for South Africans who cannot access the current system.

And three, to build a really, really big microphone letting the country know who Suits & Sneakers is, and what the brand stands for.

In a nutshell, it’s marketing on steroids. And it’s having a massive impact.

Here’s how the idea took shape, and how it’s developed within the market place.

How did a love\hate relationship with learning lead to Suits & Sneakers?

suits-and-sneakers

I’m an avid learner who is addicted to learning new things and educating myself, but I hate the formal education system. I didn’t matriculate despite having good marks; I didn’t quite fit in. I questioned everything and the traditional schooling system isn’t built for that.

I ended up spending a few years travelling around the US. When I came back to South Africa I tried to enrol at IMM to study marketing but soon realised that nothing had changed. The traditional education model still wasn’t for me. So I started my own business.

I’d been exposed to social media overseas, I was born in an era of full access, thanks to the Internet, and I upskilled myself while learning the ins and outs of business. I also knew I had a natural talent for advertising, and just needed to pull all the threads together.

R1 million in debt at 25

The problem is that I’m high-energy, and tend to have a lot of different ideas and projects on the go. I was building up my marketing agency, but I also launched an online fragrance store. My suppliers convinced me to open a physical store as well, and that was a big mistake. I ended up losing the store, and being R1 million in debt at 25.

I knew I would never be able to pay that back through traditional employment, and nothing had changed — I still had no qualifications. What I did have was a young marketing agency. I needed to find a way to really make an impact on my clients and start building that up.

In sales and marketing, you’re always looking for an in: How do you give your clients real value, in such a way that they want to do business with you, because they know you can positively impact their business. That’s the code you need to crack with every prospective company you do business with.

Share your insights with your clients

Because I was an avid learner and I’d already spent a few years working in the social media space, which was still in its infancy in South Africa, I knew I had some real insights to share with my clients. I designed and marketed a social media course.

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There was a lot of interest, but I couldn’t find anyone to present it for me. I ended up doing it myself and it worked. I’d never thought of myself as a public speaker, but my passion for the topic came through.

It triggered something in me. I read a book, Inside Coca-Cola, by David Beasley and E. Neville Isdell, that’s filled with lessons I wanted to share with the marketing community. I created a breakfast event to share this with marketers, and which I could use to build relationships with them, and was invited to do the talk for corporates.

It made me realise that while the education system in South Africa is broken, there is a solution. Informal training really worked well for me. I’ve created ‘Ted Talk’ syllabuses for people. There is a real need, and maybe I have a solution. 

How did you take a wild idea that could change the world and turn it into a reality?

My talks started out well. I travelled around the country, speaking on different topics, and making a decent living.

Then I realised it was futile. I was giving one day workshops that people loved, but they weren’t putting what they’d learnt into practice. I needed to switch people on to learning and to make them hungry for knowledge and, through ‘drip’ learning, change their approach to business and life through consistent and habitual changes that together make a powerful whole.

At first it was a side project. I had my business and this was a pet project. I had four aims: Put together an incredible event as a proof of concept; find a way to get corporates excited by the structure and vision; get entrepreneurs and corporate execs to attend; and finally, use this whole thing to build a really big microphone for the brand, to let people know what our vision was, and how training and education can be transformed.

Get people excited about your offering

Step one was easy — I had so many incredible contacts to draw from. My goal was to pull four very different speakers together. Suits & Sneakers isn’t about one particular topic. It’s about getting people excited by the idea of learning something new. If you can trigger that, you can create a life-long learner. That’s our aim.

Securing a corporate sponsor took a bit longer. First, I needed to be able to articulate what I understood because I was feeling misaligned. Previously, you qualified with a degree and you were relevant for 20 or 30 years. Now, in two years you’re irrelevant. That’s the pace of today’s world.

The same is true of the workspace — annual training that isn’t revisited isn’t benefitting anyone. It’s like going to gym once a month for 12 hours — you’ll never be fit and in shape. It takes regular practice.

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And yet this isn’t how we treat training. It’s a bigger problem and more costly than it needs to be. Smaller, more regular doses of training that teach employees to become learners who embrace their own development is a solution to this training crisis — for employers and employees.

We needed a change of style. Podcasts and Ted Talks work for me because they’re personal, informal and entertaining — even though the content is exceptional. How could we bring this into a traditional training environment? I didn’t want presentations and slides. I wanted a visceral, immersive experience.

I didn’t have everything perfectly laid out, but I knew we needed to get started and develop it as we want along. My vision and goals were clear, even if the final product wasn’t, and I approached Sage.

There was alignment: They have a great product that is valuable to SMEs, and I could gather SMEs into one venue, and create a database. Sage could pitch their services to a captive audience, and I would have a platform to start refining my training ideas, and I would also be creating my giant microphone and brand.

Big risk, big reward

I invited Sage to the first event. They didn’t think I could get 1 000 people there. Not only did I hit my target, but 300 of those tickets were paid — the balance were free. I lost R600 000 putting the event together, but it was my marketing for the year — my giant microphone. After the second event Sage was on board.

I still run the main event at a loss, but each year the gap is smaller, and it’s our most valuable marketing tool, attracting a number of different corporates. We’ve launched the Real Life MBA, which is a charged-for event with six simultaneous speakers.

You choose who you want to listen to in person, and have exclusive online access to the videos of the other talks post the event. The conference is really the start to a 12-week learning programme.

We’re also creating informal learning curriculums for corporates. We collaborate with them to develop manuals, events, self-learning assignments and so on. Eventually we want to digitise and gamify the entire experience.

How is the current Suits & sneakers model feeding into a bigger vision of change?

Ultimately, we want to disrupt education. Real quality education can be free. There is so much out there; so many experts to learn from — we just need to reimagine how to learn. Our aim is to create a free education system for 18 to 24 year olds.

In 2016 I decided to sell my other businesses and focus full time on Suits & Sneakers. I’m a start-up again, but I’m finally living my vision.

Our offices are a co-working space called Impello, operating in Greenside. It’s a space for start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs to collaborate and work with like-minded individuals. By paying the bills with one revenue model, we can fund a training and education space that incubates small business and works as a campus for our informal university.

Tech advances are revolutionising learning possibilities, but you need a mix of classroom and online learning. Face to face is social and emotional but classroom learning doesn’t scale without adjacent costs. So what’s the solution? Co-functional, co-working spaces. We have six funders who share the vision and understand what we’re trying to do here. That’s been the power of our giant microphone.

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