- Player: Peter du Toit
- Company: Soccer Laduma
- Established: 1997
- Turnover: R90 million
- Visit: soccerladuma.co.za
It was 1993. Peter du Toit had long hair and an earring, and he’d just made the decision that he never wanted to wear a suit again. He wanted to wear flip-flops, surf and go to work in shorts.
So far life hadn’t quite turned out the way he’d planned. He’d left South Africa in the mid-70s to play professional football overseas but his dreams were shattered when he broke his leg, and to make ends meet he started a micro-computer business. It was the 1980s, and although he knew nothing about this fledgling industry, he learnt enough to build a business that he was able to sell for a decent profit a few years later.
But now what? He was nearing his late 20s and wasn’t actually sure what he wanted do with his life. All he knew was: No suits.
And so he did what any young man in his 20s with no responsibilities would love to do. He travelled. For four years he followed football around the world, indulging his greatest passion, even if he could no longer play himself.
And along the way he stumbled across an amazing business idea. “There were only a handful of dedicated football newspapers around the world,” he says.
“And I was buying them all. I couldn’t even read most of them, but if I was in Brazil, I was buying their Portuguese football newspaper and muddling my way through it. That’s what passion for a subject does, and people can get really passionate about football.”
So… a business built around football. Could he make it work? “I knew nothing about publishing, but then, I’d known nothing about micro-computers or the stock market either, and I’d managed to build a business there.
“The first rule of business is: Don’t do something you know nothing about. But I’ve always found that rules are made to be broken. Plus, this was something I genuinely loved. The universe would teach me what I needed to know. I just needed to get started.”
For the first 18 months Du Toit lost money. A lot of money. “Because I didn’t know this industry, I’d hired experts. That just meant that we were doing what already existed. There was nothing special about us, and the business wasn’t working.”
So Du Toit made a risky decision. He replaced his industry experts with himself and readers as writers. He chose passion over skill and industry experience. And something magical happened as a result.
“For the first 18 months we sold 27 000 copies a week. Within two weeks of my changes, we were up to 40 000 copies a week. It was a quantum moment for me. If you’re doing what you love, and you’re surrounded by people who are doing what they love, success is inevitable.”
It’s all about the passion
“From the moment we hired readers who were passionate and could write, we started to skyrocket. Hiring like-minded people was a game-changer for me. I realised that experience is irrelevant. You can learn skills, particularly if it’s around a subject you’re passionate about. You don’t even need to ask them. They’re committed to your vision. If you offer trust upfront, they’ll even redirect themselves after mistakes. If you love what you do, this comes naturally. Even mistakes don’t come from a bad place. You can find a solution together, and nine times out of ten it won’t happen again.”
Soccer Laduma’s current success lies in the fact that Du Toit has maintained this culture, even though the business has grown to 45 full-time employees.
“Those early hires were incredibly important, because they brought like-minded people into the business. As we grew and needed to hire more people, they knew exactly what we were looking for. We all wanted to maintain the same team dynamic. I’m not even needed anymore in that respect. The team understands its own make-up.”
Du Toit’s first rule is that he’s not the boss. The reader and online user is the boss. “No one works for me. They work for the reader. It’s an important mindset, because it means that everything we do is with the reader in mind. What do they need from us? What do they care about? Are we delivering on those needs?”
Even though the reader is the boss, Du Toit has implemented a system to ensure everyone works towards keeping that boss happy. It’s called the six golden rules: Planning, planning, planning, preparation, preparation, preparation.
“If a story didn’t do well we know that one of the six golden rules was missing. I’m able to ask the writer if they followed the rules, and they’ll know that somewhere they cut a corner, and the result is clear for everyone to see.
“I don’t like conflict, so I’ve found it’s important to all be on the same page. If the guidelines are clear you can point to them when something doesn’t have the desired effect. No arguments needed.”
The system’s working. Soccer Laduma has a 100 to one compliments/complaints ratio.
“I believe this is because we don’t have an opinion or ego. We haven’t set ourselves up as industry experts, but instead bring readers and fans to the players and coaches. We connect those dots, and so everything is all about their opinions. We’re not telling you what to think. We’re giving you access. No one in our organisation is an expert. Experts focus on what they know. We believe that what we don’t know is far more important. That’s what we’re always pursuing.”
This attitude means that Du Toit will put anything into the paper that his readers want. “We receive reader letters and are then able to call players and tell them how much our readers want an interview with them. They’re happy, the readers are happy, and we’re living up to our values of connecting those dots.”
Soccer Laduma takes this a step further though. Readers can send in questions for specific players as well, and they’re published with the reader’s name. “We sell 310 000 copies per week, and have an even larger online user base, and we’re still managing to feel like a small community. Each of our readers feels a sense of ownership over the Soccer Laduma brand, and that fosters real loyalty.”
Clients above all else
As the business has grown, a level of sophistication has grown alongside it. 310 000 weekly copies is a far cry from 23 000, and that growth is maintained through a level of understanding amongst Du Toit and his team of Soccer Laduma’s readers.
“What we do is only as successful as our understanding of our readers. We think of it as a relationship. The first encounter is simple: I like football. The second encounter is where we can start developing a relationship with a reader or user, and this is our job, not theirs. We need to understand them: Who they are, what they care about, what they need from us. They need to trust us as well — that we’re listening to them, understanding them, and focused on delivering to their needs. The work needs to be on our side; not theirs.
“I think it’s easy for businesses to forget this, particularly successful brands. You can easily start buying into your own hype and believing that you’re somehow doing your customers a favour. That should never be the case. They’re doing you the favour, and you need to keep earning that trust and loyalty.
“As with any relationship, real trust doesn’t come easily, and it should be cherished.”
The reality though is that as a brand, Soccer Laduma is trying to maintain a relationship with three million readers, which is no small task. In addition, advertisers are the company’s clients as well, and they have their own needs. Du Toit believes that the only way to achieve this is through authenticity.
“Once you’ve earned trust, people will accept mistakes if they know you’re authentic. We understand that people get bored. They’re growing and developing, and we need to as well. We need to reach new levels, incorporate new skills, deliver new offerings.
“Because our readers know we’re continuously striving to achieve this, they’ll accept a few stumbles along the way as well. We’re a community.
“I’ve put a score in incorrectly due to finger trouble. People noticed. I spent an hour responding to each of them individually. Almost everyone laughed and said no problem. It actually created a relationship with them. But if I’d left it, I shouldn’t be on twitter!
“It must be consciously done though. You need to have a system in place, as well as a culture that everyone believes in. Digital is of course easy to track, and we have a philosophy to always listen to our readers, which means we’re very responsive. It’s built into our DNA. Because of this, we learn so much, but it’s also clear that we’re listening, which goes a long way towards building and maintaining trust and loyalty.
“But digital and social media is also tough. It’s a different kind of content creation that evokes immediate reactions and requires quick response times. It’s emotionally more rewarding but it can also be more challenging.
“Social media is such a medium for knee jerk reactions, especially when you’re dealing with topics people are passionate about — and South Africans are passionate about football. We have to remember that they love us. That’s why they’re on our site. And they have a form of ownership over it; they’re emotionally invested. They have the right to say something. If you respect that, you won’t just react to criticisms, whether you see them as unfair or not. And if you do, then they have a right to get offended.
“We’ve found that the best way to handle online criticism is to step back and understand that it’s not directed at you. What is the person saying? Is their opinion valid? If you understand their viewpoint and the language they’re using to get that across, you can respond from a place of understanding. Something could sound bad, but they’re actually asking you for something.
“The website is the same. You need to think of it as your shop. If 100 people come in a day, your manager can’t treat them badly. You’re trained to give good service — but you get good and bad customers.
“Through our website we’ve opened our doors to thousands of people. Are your staff trained to deal with them? Think back to a bricks and mortar store. Is service fast, efficient, with no queues at tills? Imagine a scenario where the store is flooded with people all talking at the top of their voice. That’s the reality of an interactive website. And you need to treat everyone with respect or they will destroy your shop.
“Everyone is expected to have empathy towards our users, and to focus on their section of the site. That’s how we ensure community engagement and that we’re quick and responsive. It means a lot of trust, and that the whole team needs to share the same values and have the same voice, and that means working together as a close knit team, even as we grow.”
Learning to listen
Du Toit believes that most of Soccer Laduma’s growth is as a result of listening to its customers. “We created an internal unit, Brands Laduma, whose sole purpose is determining what our readers want and think: What’s important to them, their challenges, how articles and adverts make them feel. It’s not a division designed to generate profit, but rather feeds into our editorial team and also offers valuable insights to our advertisers.
“We’re able to give them feedback on which adverts delivered the message they were aiming for, which adverts fell flat and how our readers feel about their brands.
“Brands Laduma allows us to engage with our supporters in a deeper manner, and this led directly to the formation of Educate24. While engaging with our readers, we started digging into what is most important to them, and we discovered that education is high on that list. Education is seen as a status symbol. It leads to jobs and wealth, but it’s also often out of reach.
“If we really started evaluating our readers’ pain points, this was a big one: Qualifications cost money, but we can’t make the money to pay for the qualifications without having the qualification in the first place.
In the interim, The University of Cape Town had approached Soccer Laduma because they wanted to use the business as a case study for their MBA students, particularly given the level of engagement the company has with its readers.
“Through this engagement we started asking our readers new questions: What would people like from education? What courses will give them something now? What did they see as actionable skills?
“UCT Marketing Department found the study fascinating, and of course they can provide the quality and credibility to short courses to make them valuable for job seekers who cannot afford higher qualifications.
“Next, Media24 came on board, offering their support and input. Educate24 grew from our user base. This soccer business has given birth to something incredible for the needs of the people.
“Professors from around the country are involved, and the platform has been developed for online and mobile to increase its accessibility. It’s also affordable for the people who it can help the most.
“This has been the most incredible journey for me. It’s taken two years to come together, but it’s also shown what you can achieve when like-minded people come together to solve a real need. We posted two adverts and received 13 000 enquiries, proving that the need does exist.
“We also assist with CVs and psychometric tests, which have been provided for free because the companies want the research they provide. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. I know nothing about education. I did one year of university and failed. And yet here I am, hopefully playing one tiny part in improving thousands — hundreds of thousands — of lives. For me, that’s what entrepreneurship is about, and I hope we continue to find new ways to add value long into the future.”