Branding Design SA and the Search for Customers

Branding Design SA and the Search for Customers


Vital Stats

  • Company: Branding Design SA
  • Players: Heman Mohanlal and Dean van Zyl
  • Est: 2013
  • Turnover: R20 million
  • Contact: +27 (0)11 057 4335,
  • Visit:

Dean van Zyl’s unique approach to the launch of Branding Design SA in 2013 was one that could prove disastrous for a start-up. Like Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer in Field of Dreams, he took a huge risk. He hunkered down and built a business, and then went to find customers.

It was an unusual move for an experienced entrepreneur – he cut his teeth in the branding business in Swaziland – but two years later the company has achieved an annual turnover of R20 million.

“It was a calculated risk that paid off,” says Van Zyl. “Instead of building our customer base and reputation, and then upping our capacity according to sales, we took the opposite route.

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“We bought top-of-the-range specialised equipment and set up a state-of-the-art digital factory with money we didn’t have, for customers we hadn’t signed, with employees we didn’t need.” From his experience, here are some key takeaways:

1. Think Big

Van Zyl attributes a big chunk of the success of the business to the four months he took to plan.

“My business partner Heman Mohanlal and I know our industry well and we love it. We spent time asking where we wanted to be, and what we would have to do to get there. There are already hundreds of people doing what we do, making what we make and selling what we sell. Some of these people have been in the game for decades. So what would make us unique and different?

“It was clear we needed a certain type of client that we would get only if we had the right equipment. To achieve that, we needed R8 million. There was no starting small and building up for us – everything had to be in place from the beginning. This motivated us to push hard for success.

“We looked at every aspect of the business: Equipment, products, suppliers, competition. More importantly, we looked at what the customers wanted and what our potential competition was doing right and wrong. And then, we continuously adapted, after implementation, always tweaking, redirecting and making better.”

2. Invest in Technology

In speaking to potential customers, Van Zyl discovered gaps in the market, and what people were looking for from a branding company.

“We put a software system in place to manage our colour printing. To attract top-end corporate clients who have high standards, you have to ensure that you can match their pantone colours.

“Sophisticated technology has paid off in other ways too, like reducing our ink use by 17% on a job worth R2 million, and the number of employees required because we’re working smart. A systems-driven business also results in fewer human errors.”

3. Start Creating Relationships

A customer called one Friday night to tell Van Zyl that he needed a wrap for a yacht in Cape Town – by Sunday.

“The budget of R35 000 didn’t even cover the costs of the raw material, never mind the overtime and shipping. But that customer is worth R4 million in sales to us, so we did it, because good relationships are critical.”

He also won’t tell lies. “I once overheard one of our sales people telling a client the job was on its way when it hadn’t even been printed. This is a no-no. Most of our customers are middlemen who take the flack when an order is late. Because we pride ourselves on quality and service, honest, ongoing communication is non-negotiable.”

4. Fix the Mess

Van Zyl does not tolerate finger pointing in the business. “As in any organisation, things sometimes go wrong. When that happens, we fix the mess, then investigate where the mistake happened. I tell my people that it does not matter if the client made an error; what-takes precedence is the product we supply.”

5. Show Your Team the Money

Every three months Van Zyl shares the financials with everyone in the company. “When your employees see a huge order coming in, they need to understand the costs of overheads, raw materials, salaries and more. We don’t discuss balance sheets and income statements, but we have a frank discussion about what the expenses are, and what is left over. As a result of this policy, we now have 2% wastage in the business, which is unheard of in our industry. Why? Because our staff understand how everything affects our financial position.”

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6. Stand Up for Your Team

Yes, it’s true that one disgruntled customer can wreak havoc on a brand today, but Van Zyl believes it’s important to protect his team from hostile customers who break down morale.

“I fired a customer whose business was worth between R80 000 and R100 000 a month because he complained, always wanted a discount, never paid on time, and was constantly rude to the staff. My team were so grateful that I had stood by them. Employees will be loyal to you if you are loyal to them.”

7. Start-up Advice

Van Zyl cautions, “I work with students from disadvantaged communities, and when I first meet them, they all want to be entrepreneurs because all they see at first is a dude driving a cool car. Nobody realises how much work goes into building a business. Heman and I have sacrificed sleep, money, relationships, and friendships. Whatever you do, make sure you have enough commitment and enthusiasm to get you through the tough times.”

Monique Verduyn
Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.