- Player: Lizwe Nkala
- Company: GroupThinQ Advisory Holdings
- EST: 2010
- Turnover: R25 million
- Visit: groupthinq.co.za
Lizwe Nkala is a corporate veteran turned entrepreneur. He founded his strategic consultancy firm, Flamingo Moon in 2010, and was competing head-on with the country’s Big Five consulting firms.
As if that wasn’t ambitious enough, fast forward five years, he’s now the CEO of holding company GroupThinQ Advisory Holdings with four subsidiaries (all in the intellectual consulting space) and enjoying consistent year-on-year growth of between 30% and 40%.
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What precipitated the launch and growth of a R25 million consultancy firm? First, Lizwe Nkala’s voracious appetite for understanding strategy saw him outgrow his corporate role by leagues.
The desire to break out of the knowledge-and-responsibility silo that comes with working for a large, established organisation led him down the entrepreneurial path. But what’s really made his consultancy firms stand out from the crowd is that he’s been able to recruit top talent without paying the earth; shift the model to create scalability (no small feat in a knowledge-based consultancy firm) and generate higher profits.
This is how he’s shaken up the model and broken through the time- and resource-limited box many consultancy businesses are trapped in.
How were you able to compete with big agencies and be recognised as a major player?
To scale quickly and become a niche expert requires careful planning and execution of strategy, because every move will count.
In the early days, I realised big players had years to build their brand and to invest in a variety of skills equity with incredible depth and breadth.
I didn’t have those advantages, so in order to compete, I strategically chose to focus on building up one skill at a time.
The core skill would be strategy because it doesn’t matter if you’re doing work for a telco, a bank or a mining house; if you’re working at the executive level, strategy is always the access point. From there we branched out with subsidiary companies focusing on different areas of strategic planning and implementation.
Through this plan of action, we were able to gain access to big companies and foster a relationship with them, so that as we grew our capabilities, we were able to offer them to our clients. In my experience, executive teams are often highly skilled and have valuable technical knowledge, but decision-making and the ability to have consistent dialogue is a challenge. This became our focus.
What strategies did you execute internally to give you a competitive advantage within such a short timeframe?
The business originally started out as Flamingo Moon, which is strategic consulting. It happens to most entrepreneurs that as you grow your business, it’s quite easy to outgrow your own resourcing methods too.
We got to a point where my ambitions for the company were starting to suffer because of the lack of skills we had in the business. The answer lay in a complete shift in strategy.
That’s when we chose to create the holding company, GroupThinQ Solutions, and the four stand-alone subsidiary businesses under the umbrella of GroupThinQ. Each business is driven not by me, but by someone who is at the right level.
That in itself was another major shift in strategy. Previously, and like the larger agencies, we’d taken on bright young university graduates at a lower level and trained them up in the company – but again, the larger agencies have the luxury of time to mould their new recruits.
To create the impact in the market that we needed, to develop our capabilities and to be effective in delivering what we promised to clients, we needed bench strength from the get go.
This resulted in a strategic shift to hiring the best we possibly could at the necessary level to slot them straight in at executive, leadership level.
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How could you afford to take on seasoned executives as a young, growing business with less gravitas than a big firm?
Rather than focus on the things we couldn’t offer, we looked to what we could do in order to get the top players and bring in the talent that would keep us ahead of the knowledge curve.
The Achillies heel of large, established firms is that they can’t provide every bright spark with an opportunity to grow and move up the ranks. Similarly, the corporate ladder can be a very long and arduous climb. Compared to the 50 steps an associate would need to climb to reach their career goals at a large firm, our ladder is only ten steps high and you can see the top at all times. It’s a very appealing prospect for high achievers.
Secondly, we offered them the opportunity to create their own wealth and essentially grow their own company. Each of the subsidiaries of GroupThinQ is its own Pty (Ltd) with its own constitutional structure.
GroupThinQ has an interest in all of them, but a certain portion of the ownership goes to the executive teams of those companies. I want to be surrounded by people who feel that they’ve got ownership, that they all have a stake in each of the entities, so that every morning they’re waking up to go run their own companies.
Thirdly, we have the advantage of being a young, flexible firm. When recruiting talent, we offer them an opportunity to break out of their corporate silo and really put their talents and knowledge to work in helping create and define how things work.
It’s been so enticing that some of our recruits have accepted earning less in exchange for the opportunity to create wealth and build something of their own.
When you look at the success of Microsoft, you often only think of Bill Gates as being the real winner, but look beyond him and you’ll see he’s not the only Microsoft billionaire – there was a whole team who started with him and latched on to the opportunity to create something that is ground breaking and to grow their own legacies, and that’s where our real talent hunting clout comes from.
In any industry, you’ve got to be prepared for disruption. How are you doing this with your own group of firms?
A business that isn’t looking out for disruptors is a company at risk. Just look at the disruption caused to the metered taxi industry by the arrival of Uber. They’ve been shaken to their core because they were too comfortable and unprepared for disruption.
In the case of our group of companies, our model isn’t too far off the industry standard, but we’re cognisant that disruption can come at any time, so we’ve allowed ourselves some wiggle room to adapt when needed.
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In certain aspects we’re also the source of some industry disruption: We’re finding ways for clients to access our tools and models without necessarily needing to engage with them face to face; to charge on a drip-charge basis or on a project basis, rather than an hourly rate; and we don’t set up shop in a client’s offices for the duration of our contract.
These are all innovations because we believe the consultancy model as it exists presently will be extinct in the coming years.