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Performance & Growth

How Ivan Epstein Grew A Bootstrapped Start-up Into An International Organisation

Ivan Epstein, entrepreneur and co-founder of Softline and Chairman of Sage Foundation shares eight lessons on turning a small company into an international business.

GG van Rooyen

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Ivan Epstein

Vital Stats

  • Player: Ivan Epstein
  • Company: Sage Foundation
  • Position: Entrepreneur and co-founder of Softline and Chairman of Sage Foundation.
  • Visit: sage.com

As one of the founders of Softline, which was acquired by the Sage Group in 2003, Ivan Epstein’s business trajectory has seen him go from a small, bootstrapped start-up to a large international organisation.

Looking back on this impressive (but often scary) journey, here are eight hard-earned lessons from his decades in the trenches.

1Don’t rely (too much) on data

Data has become a buzz word. These days, decision-making is all about the gathering of information. As a company grows and expands, data tends to become increasingly relevant, but is this a good thing? Ivan warns against an over-reliance on data.

“When you’re running a small company, you probably don’t have the money to gather and mine loads of data. This changes as your company grows. Suddenly you have access to more data, and you have the means to do something with all this information. So, data tends to become very important. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you never want to rely on it too much. In my experience, great entrepreneurs take risks and trust their gut. You want to look at the data, but you don’t want it to make you overly cautious.”

Related: President Of Sage International Ivan Epstein Shares His Valuable Lessons

2Business partnerships can be tricky

Great founders often come in teams. In fact, the success rate of businesses tends to be higher if more than one entrepreneur is involved. The famous Y Combinator incubator won’t even accept start-ups that consist of only one founder.

However, it’s important to realise that friction between co-founders is inevitable, especially when a company has grown to a point where fundamental decisions regarding the future of the organisation need to be made.

“If you have partnered with other people to build a business, be ready for some potential disputes. Be sure that your partners complement your strengths and weaknesses and that you can turn the challenges in the relationship into a net positive. Conflict, if well managed, can create great opportunities, but it’s important to stay calm and not get too defensive. A clash of egos can destroy a business,” says Ivan.

3Hire carefully

As a company grows, the hiring of staff becomes increasingly important. And, if a company grows very quickly, the need for extra help can be so big that you end up making some rushed hires. Ivan warns against this.

“The wrong people can damage your company’s culture significantly,” he says. “Don’t wait too long to start worrying about culture. Once you gain momentum, your company will grow quickly, and the culture of the organisation will suddenly become very important. Don’t neglect culture. It’s crucial, and starts with the founders.”

4Never think that you’ve ‘made it’

When you’re desperate for PR and your marketing budget is non-existent, it can be very hard to get people interested in your business. Then, when things are finally going well, people start lining up at your door.

It’s at this point that the self-satisfaction can set in and you can start believing all those wonderful things about yourself. Attention is great, but don’t be seduced by it.

“As your business takes off, you might get opportunities to attend events with established business people. That’s all great, but don’t let it go to your head. Make sure you are focusing on your business fundamentals and not just your image.  And remember, the press can be unpredictable.” 

Related: Work Smarter: Softline’s Ivan Epstein Offers His Advice

5Accept that you’ll lose (some) control

Building a company to the point where it becomes an international operation is obviously the aim of some entrepreneurs, but it’s important to keep in mind that this success will result in a lessening of your power.

Growing your company very often means diminishing your own role within it. This is not only true if you take on venture capital or go public, it’s also true if the business officially stays under your control. The fact of the matter is, your business will reach a stage where you can no longer have total control of every aspect of it. You need to be able to let go and let others take ownership of projects and departments.

6Cut your losses

Stay in business long enough, and challenges will arise. Even the most successful organisations have suffered great failures. It’s important, though, to be honest with yourself when things aren’t working out.

Accept that you have failed and cut your losses. “Not every idea or acquisition works out,” says Ivan.

“Accept when things don’t work out. If a product line or a division in your business is failing, act quickly. If it’s beyond redemption, dispose of it as cleanly and rapidly as you can.” 

7Share your success

“As your business grows, make sure that your people’s prosperity grows too. Making people feel that they’re recognised and valued is vital to employee engagement and retention of wonderful talent,” says Ivan.

“This means sharing the wealth, but it isn’t just about money. People don’t work just for money — it’s about passion and meaning as well. Treat people fairly and make them feel engaged.”

Related: 10 Things Successful SA Entrepreneurs Do Differently

8Change the world

At some stage — when a company has grown to a sufficient size — entrepreneurs start shifting their focus from expanding and making money to bringing about real change in the world. According to Ivan this is important — it’s important to dream big and believe that you can change the world.

“You need to always strive for that level of success. If you want to grow, you need to dream and believe,” says Ivan.

“Use your talent and organisation to make a difference in the world. Give something back. It instils in your people a wonderful feeling of being part of something amazing. It also attracts investors, customers, and other stakeholders who want to be associated with a company that has a heart.”

Take note

As you grow your business, your priorities will inevitably shift. But don’t let the short-term derail you from your long-term objectives.

Performance & Growth

Controlling Profit Margins To Build Greater Organisational Wealth

To build organisational wealth, you need to have strong financial management and control. Are you getting the insights you need to properly control your profit margins?

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Organisational wealth is a concept that is based on the premise that businesses can only achieve true wealth once all parts of the organisation are running optimally. It places an emphasis on business systems, internal processes, staff morale, job satisfaction and, of course, financial success.

Having proper control and management of your finances is essential for every growing business. Keeping up with, and staying ahead of, competitors requires more than just a simple accounting system to try control financials. Luckily, modern technology and innovative business management platforms offer practical solutions to give you and your team members up to date information about every part of your business.

This helps businesses better manage cash flow, stock holding, expenses and financial investments for increased control over profit margins as well as continued growth and long-term sustainability.

Here are a few ways in which a good business management system can help you achieve greater profit margins and contribute to building greater organisational wealth.   

Comparing budgets vs actual costs

An integrated system allows different departments to quickly and easily share information on expenses budgeted for and actual payments made. This results in streamlined and seamless project planning and management through automatic distribution of information and project amendments based on accurate information.

Managers can get customised financial reports depending on their requirements and set cash flow alerts as well as expense approvals to ensure that budgets are not exceeded.

Related: 5 Ways To Drive Leads And Double Your Profits

Better buying

With the correct systems in place, your small or medium sized business can manage its entire procurement process systematically. Details of suppliers, requests and responses with cost estimates, purchase orders, returns and outstanding orders can all be recorded, centrally maintained and shared between departments. This will allow you to quickly compare suppliers, negotiate better deals and plan your purchases to maintain and improve profit margins. 

Matching supply and demand

Optimising procurement to expertly match supply and demand can lead to an increase in your business’s profit margins. For many small to medium sized businesses, managing supply and demand cycles can be a time-consuming and complicated task. The good news is that an integrated business system, such as SAP Business One, allows you to get real-time inventory insights and updates.

It also allows you to manage and set up standard and special pricing to cater to seasonal trends, which are also readily available. Over and above that, an integrated system allows business owners to apply volume, cash, and customer discounts and run reports to track the impact these special offers had on overall profit margins. 

Accurate insights to make strategic business decisions

The adage “knowledge is power” is certainly true for businesses – no matter their size. Even in a small business, there is a massive amount of information which can be gathered about your operations within the supply chain and company financials. Having access to accurate information can empower your team members to make more informed decisions.

Related: How You Can Profit From Constrained Consumption

Providing employees with comprehensive information facilitates strategic decision-making, which can lead to optimised stock holding and procurement, meaningful customer relationship management and more successful marketing campaigns. These benefits can contribute to a sustainable growth in profit margins.

An investment in technology may initially seem costly, but when you invest in the right tools and platforms, you will soon start the process of building your organisational wealth through increased profit margins and excellent financial control.

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Performance & Growth

Should You Scale Or Should You Grow? (The 2 Strategies Are Not the Same)

Bigger is not always better.

Pete Canalichio and Mark Di Somma

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For decades, the conventional wisdom in many sectors was that bigger was better. The larger you got, the argument went, the more likely you were to achieve market dominance, supply chain efficiencies and coherencies that you could then carry from developed markets into developing markets. That should lead to happy investors.

Except that, as PwC’s Strategy& discovered, in key sectors like consumer packaged goods there is no direct correlation that can be drawn between being big and achieving higher shareholder returns. That’s a startling conclusion.

There may be a number of reasons for that: Media fragmentation has made it harder and harder to get “big” messages out to a mass audience in the ways that companies could when channels were far more limited; the competitive advantage gap between large companies and smaller participants has closed because small companies have learned how to perform well; and, ironically, innovation has in many ways defeated the need for scale because global networks have changed how big individual companies need to be in order to achieve the presence that they would once have had to grow themselves.

Related: 6 Rules Euphoria Telecom Followed For High-Growth Success

So, how should companies decide whether they need to get bigger? Should they even bother? For many, the decision to remain artisan or to work within defined boundaries is an absolutely valid strategy; it enables them to define what matters to them, and to work within those parameters. But, for those companies that do decide to increase their presence, here are some key factors to consider.

Define your goal, and make decisions from there

The decision as to whether to grow or scale comes down to the definition of success that you have set for yourselves in your strategy.

As Jeremy Melis, UPS’s marketing director for small businesses, told The Balance, “The goal isn’t necessarily the speed of domestic or international growth.The goal is to best position your business to achieve what you’ve defined as success. That could be revenue growth, geographic expansion, a community of loyal customers or a better quality of life for yourself and your employees.”

As in all aspects of strategy, the key concern is why, not what or how. Growth or scaling should be the means, not the end. Your goal should be deciding what you are committed to achieving.

Growth and scaling are different things

A key issue is that growth and expansion are too easily confused. Business coach Mihir Thaker makes the excellent point in an article on the site Business Business Business that, “Growth is all about adding percentages here and there around the business …. Growth is normally a factor of turnover …. Scaling is different.

It’s a process driven approach to growth. No longer is the business concerned with growth for growth’s sake, but only with growth which can be managed.”

So, in seeking to scale a business for example, you are looking to change not just the pace and scope of growth but also the manner in which that acceleration takes place. Growth and scale demand different management styles and therefore different types of leadership, while the pace at which expansion takes place also requires careful judgment.

Expand too fast, and the business risks becoming over-extended; expand too slow and the company risks stalling as others react and/or the business cannot keep pace with demand.

And because scale demands a different set of actions than growth, it follows that it springs from a different mindset. One of the key questions that is asked too seldom is: “Does our company have that mindset?” If not, it may be better, and more profitable, to focus on growth.

To scale the business, first scale the culture

Companies that are serious about scaling their presence must understand that their ability to do so hinges on their ability to shift and coordinate new thinking internally at the same time as they look for opportunities and new customer relationships externally. The temptation is to focus only on the latter – to see a shift in scale as achieving a greater footprint through growth, acquisition and/or diversification.

In point of fact, in order to deliver on that, the business itself must change mindset. As McKinsey has noted, in order to achieve a change of scale at requisite speed, particularly in a digital setting, an organisation today needs to start by realigning its technology infrastructure to handle the new levels of customer interactions that will come.

It will also need to invite new people into the business to make the new scaled process work better, develop new ways to ship faster and more diversely and reset its success metrics so that it can accurately gauge performance against its highest strategic goal and act/react accordingly.

Should you scale?

What questions should you ask yourself to determine if you should scale or grow? We have developed a model that helps companies figure out what they should do in order to meet their objectives. This model, called The LASSO Model, addresses a brand’s optimal expandability.

Nearly all the businesses we spoke to in the course of developing our model commented that the decision to pursue scale was about much more than aspiration. It was a conscious decision to achieve critical weight in the markets that they were focused on because otherwise they risked being unable to achieve their goals.

Related: Elon Musk’s Formula For Successfully Growing Companies Faster

That’s particularly true in sectors like consumer packaged goods, media and entertainment, where the pursuit of scale can become an end in itself.

Companies that are fueling their growth through venture capital, for example, will sometimes set their sights on being a particular size at which they are deemed to have succeeded in their quest to expand. In media, the goal for many is to make it to the R100-plus million revenue mark because that is deemed to be a benchmark for a scaled media presence.

If that’s the metric that is expected of you, then that will be the key measure you focus on. Many will get stuck at around R50 million or lower, unable to grow a unique audience, achieve consistent engagement, differentiate themselves against others and over multiple platforms, and improve their margins.

Size alone is probably not enough

That leads to the final factor. Strong businesses depend on more than one thing to protect themselves against competitors. We liken this to a Rubik’s Cube. What makes the Cube hard to solve is that the puzzle does not exist in one dimension, but rather in three.

Equally, businesses that have ambitious expansion plans need to look for ways to build in other aspects of competitiveness beyond just size itself. Indeed, wherever possible, they need to use scale to reinforce and strengthen those other elements that make up their value proposition, so that the bigger they become, the more competitive they are.

Related: Levergy Founders Tell You How To Scale Quickly – And Intelligently

Many of the companies we spoke to in the course of our research found this the most difficult part of their expansion planning – thinking of scale as a competitive factor that wouldn’t just strengthen their market presence but also raise the barriers to entry for copycats and enable them to profitably leverage and capitalise on what really drew customers to them.

Growth and scaling are different approaches and neither one is “better” than the other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Each works better in some sectors than others. Each has its own dynamics and makes its own demands. What’s important for entrepreneurs with ambitious agendas is that they understand why they have chosen one approach over the other, how they have organized their infrastructure and culture to make it happen, and where they will integrate growth or scale with other competitive factors to make it harder for others to emulate their success.

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Company Posts

How TomTom Telematics Can Keep Your Business Moving Forward

Successful businesses need to find ways to improve their margins while still delivering excellent and efficient customer service. VDM’s CEO, Deon van der Merwe, explains why this wouldn’t be possible in his business without TomTom Telematics’ solutions.

TomTom Telematics

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When TomTom Telematics entered the South African market in 2010, the local team took a deep dive into the different industry verticals they were servicing.

The more they got to know their customers, the more they realised a different solution was needed to address local conditions, and a subscription model was introduced whereby customers didn’t need to invest a large capital outlay into TomTom Telematics’ technology, but would receive the tech and software, including installation, at no extra cost, in exchange for a monthly subscription fee.

This model gives SMEs affordable access to TomTom Telematics’ solutions, but it’s had another benefit as well: As TomTom Telematics introduces new innovations, existing customers can benefit — without the costs associated with replacing all of their existing technology themselves.

An indispensable tool

For a transport and logistics business like VDM Group, which has more than 160 vehicles on the road, this means they have access to incredible new offerings, without needing to replace their TomTom units themselves.

“TomTom plays a critical role in our business,” says Deon van der Merwe, CEO of VDM Group. “It’s an indispensable tool in ensuring quality customer feedback and the management of KPIs for all supply chain stakeholders.

“Earlier this year, TomTom Telematics launched their New WEBFLEET product. We were very satisfied with what we had, and yet they still approached us and offered to replace all our existing units with new tablets, and they’re covering the installation costs,” explains Deon.

Related: Driving Your Business Growth Towards More Customers

“New WEBFLEET is the result of TomTom innovating their product based on customer feedback from around the world, and the local team wanted to ensure we had access to the additional functionality and innovations that had been introduced.”

Seamless integration with your network

According to Deon, the new TomTom PRO 8275 units seamlessly integrate VDM’s fleet scheduling software with information they extract from TomTom, including individual vehicles’ standing time and arrival notifications.

“The software from TomTom is open API, which means that all our various applications can communicate and interact with each other,” he explains. “From a productivity perspective, we no longer need to manually capture any trip information.

In addition, we have every conceivable piece of data available that will assist us to run a leaner, more cost-effective fleet, enabling us to ensure that we are delivering on all our KPIs — particularly with regards to meeting our customers’ needs.”

Related: Changing The Shape Of What’s Possible

VDM is a large transport business, but Deon believes the benefits for SMEs are as great, if not more so. “Many SMEs don’t have the back-office support that we do. The ability to capture and use this information without a team of admin specialists at your disposal is a huge competitive advantage for smaller businesses,” he says.

Offering you the competitive edge

VDM offers a specialised logistics service that creates custom-made options for clients. In order to ensure the most optimal and cost-effective solutions, while still ensuring top quality delivery, they need to consider special and complex individual customer requirements, from the point of origin to the point of destination, before finalising a customer-specific solution.

“We take into account a host of factors, including inventory carrying costs, volume requirements, product specific factors and route to market,” explains Deon.

“Road transport significantly impacts total supply chain costs, and if not managed properly, can have a severe impact on the sustainability of any particular channel. We try and manage this risk by continuously improving our service through innovative logistical solutions, the use of advanced technology, vertical integration and a team of passionate and talented experts.

TomTom assists in creating differentiators

“This focus has helped us to develop a market offering that includes dedicated and completely flexible inter-modal solutions, which is a big differentiator for us. TomTom Telematics plays a key role in our total productivity, helping us measure the performance of road transport across our supply chain.”

Deon believes that what you don’t measure you won’t know.

“TomTom provides updated fleet statistics that allow us to constantly benchmark our fleet against pre-defined route surveys and, in so doing, enables massive savings in fuel and total turnaround time.

Communicating via the WEBFLEET platform also helps us save time and creates a formal trail of correspondence with our drivers. I don’t believe it’s possible to successfully run a business like ours without a solution like this.”

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