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Performance & Growth

Market Stifled? Create Your Own

Escape economic doldrums and achieve maximum business growth.

Pavlo Phitidis




In the days of wind powered seafarers, the true skill of a ship’s captain was measured by those who traversed the Atlantic and the Pacific. What made these journeys so treacherous were the doldrums, spaces and places of no wind.

Not a breath sometimes for days on end. Caused by the centrifugal forces of the earth’s spin, the doldrums claimed many pioneering and ambitious captains, crews, the ships they sailed in and ultimately, the investors who lost all but their lives.

The strategy adopted by smart captains was this: Acknowledge that you’re in the doldrums and then act. Get your crew on deck to take up oars and paddle to where the headwinds are blowing. Those that sat and prayed for an end to the doldrums often perished.

Related: Thriving in a Downturn

Paddling a seafaring ship is no mean feat. It’s hard. The ship was designed to be powered by wind, not grumpy sailors. The smartest captains would even offload hard-won cargo into the seas to lighten the load since they knew it was a race against time and resources – water and food!

The South African Doldrum

Today, I believe that South Africa is in the doldrums. The rand has collapsed, our recent credit rating places us just above junk status, the impasse between labour and business deepens and that between business and government is at an all-time low.

Ambivalent economic direction and leadership suggests the doldrums are here to stay for a while. Any prediction of when they will end will make one look like a fool or a genius. Either way, it’s too risky to bet, and good entrepreneurs are risk averse.

At Aurik Business Accelerator we’ve conducted 22 000 entrepreneur assessments, and the best performing entrepreneurs have a number of things in common, one being a low tolerance for risk, and a habit of only moving once the downside risk has been capped.

The best way to alleviate the worry of the doldrums is to act. Paddle towards the headwinds. Make changes in your business model, strategy and perhaps life.

The big benefit today is that we have  many radars pointing clearly to where the headwinds are blowing. As a South African entrepreneur, when I look into this radar I see a weak currency that seems intent on depreciating further as long as current conditions hold.

I also see a distinct and unique heritage, English as the language of business, a collection of excellent trade agreements such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act allowing exports into the US to be duty free, the source of raw materials and brainpower.

When I shift the radar further afield, I see flat, soft economies globally, intense competition, humility brought on by tough times, and the need to innovate to sustain and build business. In one word, the appetite for change in foreign markets is greater than it’s ever been, and with change, the appetite to accommodate new ideas has grown remarkably.

The starting point is always to work with what you’ve got. Looking at the radar of three entrepreneurs that I work with can provide some inspiration, insight and ideas on what we could do.

Related: How to Survive – and Grow – in Tough Times

The Biker Fashionista

Preston has always had a natural talent for fashion and making any item of clothing look edgy and sexy. 20 years back he created a brand called Rip Torn that targeted urban, hip, edgy young professionals. It was a hit.

Recently he became interested in biking and noticed that the protective clothing that bikers wore was, well, very functional. It made a biker look ridiculous and overweight with a contorted body made up of knobbly knees and a big bum.

Within a short period, Preston came out with a range of bikers’ wear that challenges the edgy, sexy clothing ranges of Diesel, True Religion and the like, but with all the functional features of traditional bikers’ wear.

The jeans were Teflon coated inside, had removable knee guards inside the leg, gauzes to increase airflow and reflector tags in all the right places.

The range got launched and the business is being built. Preston’s radar points his ship towards an obvious set of headwinds.  Niched customer segments, such as bikers amongst others, are easy to find and reach globally.

Bikers cliques are serviced by passionate, biking retailers that are easy to locate globally. On the back of his unique, edgy fashion biker wear, a number of models would see Preston leveraging his fashion range here in South Africa into the same market abroad.

His choice of country must capitalise on trade agreements, the weak rand, his unique designs, and the fact that a retailer in that foreign market will want a point of difference.

That retailer is hungry for something that will set his outlet apart from other competitors in his market. Preston’s strategy for entry could be through an agent, distributor or direct, but this is another discussion. His radar is clearly indicating which direction he needs to paddle his ship to catch some very fruitful headwinds.

The Leather Lord

As a second generation entrepreneur, Thomas’ taxidermy business is built on one of South Africa’s most sustainable natural resources: The hunting industry. Popular or not, it brings in over R1,6 billion of foreign revenue and employs well over 400 000 people.

Foreign hunters pay fortunes to spend a week on a hunting trip and leave with a trophy. The skills of a good taxidermist include the tanning of skins which allows for the manipulation of the leather into shapes and creates a smooth feel.

His greatest competition comes from US taxidermists who also target American hunters. They claim that South African taxidermists cannot be trusted to turn a hunt into a trophy; that they’re poorly skilled and unreliable, and a hunter can ill afford to take chances. It’s problematic for Thomas.

The creation of a hunting trophy has a number of stages and each stage adds tremendous value in the process. Ideally, Thomas, and South Africa, want the complete trophy to be made here.

Thomas’s radar is spinning hard and never before has timing been so good to paddle towards headwinds blowing in the faces of his competitors. In the niched taxidermy industry, American competitors who are at a cost disadvantage serving the same market will find relief in having a significant portion of the taxidermy process done locally where the cost of labour is lower, the advanced process of value dropping the shipping costs further and no need to use preservative chemical for the hide.

The competitive price advantage for a taxidermist in the US using Thomas for this purpose would provide an undeniable competitive advantage.

Related: Disrupt Your Thinking, Transform Your Business

The Dignified Driver

Martin had a terrible accident at the age of 26. On a weekend away with friends, he jumped into the Vaal River from the same spot as the day before and hit a sandbank, which left him paralysed, unable to move his hands or legs. Many of us would have resigned our lives at this misfortune. Martin did otherwise. He went on to build one of the world’s best 4×4 electric wheelchair manufacturing businesses, selling wheelchairs locally and globally today.

Most disabilities occur at a time in one’s life where you don’t know what you don’t know and so the purchase of a wheelchair is a tricky business. Martin’s wheelchairs have the benefit of being designed by someone who knows what your life will be like.

I understand that a great frustration is the complete loss of independence, having to rely on people for almost everything. In addition, it’s likely you use a catheter. Catheters that aren’t managed and not emptied can cause fatal infections. Martin’s experience in this field led to him designing a number of useful elements to his wheelchairs.

The most recent has been a solenoid that Martin designed to allow the user of the wheelchair to independently void the catheter. You simply drive out the room, find a tree, park under it and release the contents of the catheter with a wisp of your breath: A completely independent solution avoiding an embarrassing request for help, and potentially fatal outcome for inaction.

Similar to Preston and Thomas, Martin’s radar is pointing to strong headwinds. A niche market, proprietary design, local manufacture using many local parts, a weak currency lowering his final costs, and a trade agreement.

Sourcing and finding other manufacturers and licensing the solenoid or supplying it for their use on their products is in itself a significant business. What makes it even easier for Martin is the fact that he has an international reputation both as a motivator, inspiring all who have the benefit of meeting him, but also as a user.

There is undoubted sincerity in his presentation of the product. Imagine his story in the US!

So, to all entrepreneurial captains out there, look at what you have, combine it with what we have in South Africa, and begin paddling to the headwinds. It may take time but when your spinnaker fills with wind, you may wonder why you never did it before.

Your first step is acknowledging

Admit you’re stuck in a doldrum, then act accordingly. Those who do nothing will perish.

Plot your direction

Shift your radar for headwinds or market opportunities, then paddle if you have to, to get there.

Related: Silent Killers of Great Businesses and How to Avoid Them

Pavlo Phitidis is the CEO of Aurik Business Incubator, an organisation that works with entrepreneurs to build their businesses into valuable assets. Pavlo is a regular commentator on entrepreneurship on 702 Talk Radio and 567 Cape Talk Radio. He can be contacted at

Performance & Growth

You Too Can Grow A Successful Subscription Company. Here’s How

Dog toys? Baby stuff? Puzzles? Makeup? How can you think ‘outside the box’?

Matthew Gallagher




Subscription companies have a unique opportunity to connect with their customers. By offering a recurring product, they get multiple chances to interact. Products range from razors like those sold by Dollar Shave Club to wristwatches like the ones we offer at my company, Watch Gang. Then there’s BarkBox, which treats your dog to a monthly shipment of toys and treats. These companies are vastly different but share a common goal: Curating a high-value experience for members.

Thousands of businesses have adopted the subscription model. We’re seeing new companies launching all the time, in every niche, from Sock Work, which sends monthly socks and donates some of its revenues to veterans, to iFind Seekers, sending monthly puzzles.

What may be surprising to some is that businesses offering a recurring product have been around since the dawn of commerce: The Romans sold and delivered food and newspapers on a repeating schedule 2,000 years ago. In this country, weekly milk deliveries were common even before the Constitution was written.

Related: Dr Greg Fisher’s 5 Key Principles For Executing Your Growth-Driven Strategy

Interested in establishing a subscription business for your product? In my experience, I’ve come to recognise what I call the “five pillars” for the foundation of a successful and sustainable subscription business. Those pillars – community, value, discovery, service and integrity – are exactly what you should focus on:

Pillar 1: A thriving community

Having a community of enthusiasts speaks volumes about your company. It’s a sign of trust and brand affinity, and proof that people are genuinely interested in what you have to offer. They are willing to share their experience with others.

Your community is a trusted group of peers who are more than ready to authenticate a product, provide feedback on the service and help create a sense of belonging for like-minded members.

Your community drives your business forward, motivates you to improve and helps you craft service improvements. You have to be dedicated to growing and nurturing your community, because ultimately it is the backbone of your business.

Pillar 2: The delivery of value

Consider this: Why would customers want to “set it and forget it” when they can just order when it’s convenient for them? Why would they agree to a recurring payment every month for your service? The answer is value.

People have to get a product far more valuable than what they are paying for, which means you as the company founder have to go above and beyond to deliver added value.

Watch Gang, for instance, has price levels to fit all budgets, from $29 to $999 a month, and the watches members receive have a value that’s higher than their membership fee. At Barkbox, a $20 box is valued at over $40. Bluum, which offers a box containing the best-reviewed baby, toddler and mom products, has a monthly subscription fee of $34 with the box’s guaranteed retail value at $45. These are tangible savings, and for customers they provide convenience.

Related: How You Can Over-Deliver To Gain The Advantage

Apparently, customers agree. A Gang member recently sent a testimonial that stated, “My Watch Gang subscription is the only bill I actually look forward to paying every month.” A bill that’s welcome? This tells me that we have honored our commitment to delivering value.

Pillar 3: Opportunities for discovery

Subscription companies need to serve as a point of discovery. One of the reasons why subscription businesses continue to be so successful is because of the element of surprise — people love to open a box without knowing what’s inside. Subscription boxes give members the opportunity to discover new brands and styles.

Companies today are engaging members beyond just the monthly shipment. Birchbox offers loyalty points and money back for purchasing the full-size version of samples. At Watch Gang, we launched the “Wheel of Watches,” where members can spin a virtual wheel full of watches they may be interested in.

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

They earn points to apply to the wheel every month they remain a member. This has become one of the biggest draws at Watch Gang, because it provides an entirely new kind of discovery experience – and it’s fun.

Pillar 4: Amazing customer service

While not a subscription box, Zappos has repeatedly been recognised as a shining example of how to treat customers. The often forgotten, but arguably crucial, benefit you can provide to a member of a subscription company (or any company) is world-class customer service.

Of course it’s easier and cheaper to outsource customer service or offer email-only support to cut costs. But you have to remember that every call, every customer and every situation is unique. Your customers deserve exceptional service from real people whom you’ve empowered to solve their problems.

Some of the most important changes your company can make may revolve around your customer service department. A single phone call can have immense impact. Having a well-trained customer service team gives your company the opportunity to learn from valuable feedback.

It’s crucial to give your team members a voice in your business and encourage them to share what customers are saying, both positive and negative. These team members are on the front lines with your customers every day, so they need to be adequately supported and compensated.

Pillar 5: A high standard of integrity

Without a sincere commitment to the above four pillars, your subscription business may never be profitable or sustainable. That’s why maintaining a high standard of integrity means you put people over profit. You need to take a stand to help your customers and deliver on your promises – even when that might cost you.

Every time a customer reaches out for support, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your integrity. It’s not an opportunity to make more money from the customer or even to deter him or her from canceling. It’s an opportunity for you to shine, as a beacon of good morals.

Set an example for all your employees and team members from the top, and it will trickle down to all day-to-day dealings within your company – with your customers, with your shareholders and with the public at large.

Today, anyone can launch a subscription business and start selling memberships; however, the businesses that will stand the test of time and truly become successful are those built with a solid foundation using these five pillars.

Related: 4 Ways To Make Your Business More Authentic And Successful

Investing time and resources into these five areas will help you not only grow quickly but also stand out as a company committed to taking care of its customers and employees.

This article was originally posted here on

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Performance & Growth

Are You Prepared To Listen To Your Board Of Directors?

If you want to drive growth in your organisation, you need to listen to your board at critical junctions.

Carl Bates




In speaking with shareholder-managers about creating a board of directors, at some point the most critical question of all raises its head. “At the end of the day, will you actually listen to them?” Having a board of directors is a great driver of profitability and performance as we have traversed in previous articles. However, if you are not prepared to listen to them you will not receive the value from having them there.

Listening at critical moments

It can be very easy to respond to this challenging question by saying, “Of course I would listen to them.” In practice, it can be a much harder reality.

More specifically, it can be one thing listening to your board when you like what they have to say, and another thing entirely when you disagree or do not like what you are having to hear. When your board is challenging you, making you feel uncomfortable or suggesting you are going down the wrong path, this is the time to sit up and take notice.

Related: Scale Your Values To Scale Your Business

Being the shareholder-manager and the entrepreneur means having to take a step back and take account of what others are saying. It can be an interesting change. I am sure that on your entrepreneurial journey you, as have I, have occupied that comfort zone of “what I say goes.” In the boardroom though, the last thing you want your non-executive directors to do is to turn-off because of the way you respond.

Do not avoid the tough discussions

As a non-executive director, I am not one who avoids the tough discussions. In a board meeting I once chaired, the board felt that whatever we asked or said about a particular issue we were told we did not know the context or management explained how much work had already been done. It was as though the entrepreneur had decided what was happening and did not want the board to get in the way.

The project in question was at an early stage and while it was a good idea it was going to require guidance and critique to support its success. The discussion got to the point where I turned to the shareholder-manager and asked, “What questions are we actually allowed to ask?” It was in a slightly heated tone, I will admit.

There were a few moments of silence while the room took stock. The point was made and management relaxed a bit. We then worked through the issues as a team. The entrepreneur still refers to that discussion and the fact that if he is not prepared to hear the board, then what is the point of having a board.

Related: Relax Spas Founder Noli Mini Shares Her Insights On Building A Business Of Value

It takes two to tango

If you are not getting this sort of level of challenge and debate, it may not only be your fault as the entrepreneur. It may not be because you have shut down conversations or stopped lines of questioning you have not liked. It could be because you do not have directors who are naturally challenging enough. If you have a board of directors, including independent non-executive directors, my question for you is, “When was your last tough discussion?” If this is a difficult question to answer then you should ask yourself, “Has my board turned off the tough discussions because of how

I respond?” or “Do I need to find non-executives who are really willing and able to challenge me?”

Building a high-performance board is a journey, not a destination. It is critical that you have the right people around the table to tango with you.

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Performance & Growth

7 Ways To Leapfrog Your Business From 0 To 1

Here are some of the ways I have leapfrogged my business, Mann Made, alongside relevant examples.

Mic Mann




Entrepreneurs should always be asking themselves, “How can I use technology to scale my business faster?” There are a number of ways to do this to move ahead of your competition and leapfrog your business into the future, as detailed in Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One and Salim Ismail’s Exponential Organisations, which I recommend every entrepreneur read.

Here are some of the ways I have leapfrogged my business, Mann Made, alongside relevant examples.

1. Utilise already available Tech Stacks

You can scale your business in an exponential way by using various internal and external tech stacks that are free or available at a low cost. Just think of the iPhone. When it first launched, it did not use a single piece of new technology. It was manufactured using pre-existing technologies. It was more a case of how Apple packaged these technologies together that created the iPhone’s unique user experience and ecosystem. It illustrates that you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, you can use pre-existing technologies to help your business get ahead. In this way, you’ll have more time to focus on other more important elements of the business, which will allow you to scale faster.

Related: Breaking Office Walls With Augmented And Virtual Reality

Use project management software tools and digital dashboards to help you assess the financial health of your business in real time by means of a digital timeline. They can comprehensively outline your expenses and sales drivers, provide an overview of your previous, current and projected sales, and illustrate further ways in which you can streamline various business processes. These should be implemented across your business, alongside time-tracking software, such as Toggl, and project management software, such as Asana, both of which we use at Mann Made. Choose whichever tech stacks suit the structure of your business and will help you scale and automate quicker.

Also think of shortcuts. Mandrill by MailChimp is an email marketing platform that provides in-depth analytics and tracking options. Using plugins on your website or inbox means you don’t have to create your own email software. By combining multiple programming languages, software services and online products, you can rely on external servers and databases to make your own tech stack.

2. Leverage assets, products and services you don’t own

Uber and Taxify don’t own any cars, Airbnb and AfriStay don’t own any properties, social media platforms don’t create any content. Each of these businesses leverage assets they don’t own. And you can do the same.

In the digital realm, you need to be able to scale up your systems, servers and output really quickly to ensure your website doesn’t crash during peak periods. Make sure you use the big guys – those with a reliable reputation, proven track record and 24/7 support – for domain and website hosting as well as cloud storage.

3. Crowdsourcing through the gig economy

Similarly, leverage freelancers and contractors through the gig economy. This is one of the ways in which the future of work will be defined in the coming years. “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else,” according to Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. By using the power of the crowd and the collective, you can source solutions beyond your employed work force. Look to OfferZen, Flexy, Fiverr, Supplier swop for on-demand work forces, as well as The Resource and I Know a Guy Facebook groups.

The gig economy allows you to call up trusted and proven freelancers and contractors as and when you need them. It doesn’t leave you with the financial burden of keeping them onboard when you don’t have projects for them to do. Have systems in place so that the training required for on-demand staff is minimal or has been briefed ahead of time using training materials, so once the project is briefed they can hit the road running.

NetFlorist is the perfect South African example, they scale up really quickly during their peak periods and don’t have to bear the costs during the quiet times when it’s business as usual.

4. Create an ownership mindset

You won’t have to micro manage your staff if you hire the right people. Make performance-based individuals – those who are self-motivated to grow without the need for external input – part of your core team. Give your employees more autonomy and decision-making power. Allow them to have creative ownership of the projects they’re working on. This will help them to thrive in the work environment and will ensure optimal results. That’s exactly what we try to do at Mann Made and have found that people rise to the occasion and take accountability for their projects with exceptional pride.

5. Expand your network and community

In 2011 software engineer Marc Andreessen said that software is eating the world. And it’s true that in the coming years, all businesses, not just internet companies, will become digitised and will run on software.

In 2018, networks are eating the world. By leveraging the network effect, you can create a strong system and support base of likeminded entrepreneurs in the same or similar industries, as well as future business opportunities.

The best way to do this is to attend industry related-events, conferences, indabas and award ceremonies – find those by browsing B2B websites and industry calendar listing, such as BizCommunity. Attend relevant alumni events hosted by your university, a local business school, or sign up for webinars hosted by international business schools. Expand your network by joining local community pages and groups, try LinkedIn,, Facebook, as well as open-source communities to share ideas and collaborate on projects. The SingularityU South Africa Summit has a number of chapter events about exponential technologies happening throughout the year in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

More importantly – offer advice and personal learnings on these various platforms, be engaged and answer questions freely, so that you are seen as an industry leader. Accept invitations to exclusive and invite-only industry related events and conferences. Also be sure to share information and key learnings with your audience on social media. And remember to be relevant.

Related: How To Embrace An Exponential Mindset For Your Business

6. Learn from the future

In the past, we were taught in quite rigid ways; these days there are multiple teachers and numerous credible sources of information. Subscribe to newsletters from quality websites and blogs that are linked to your line of business, join online courses, participate in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are offered through various universities. Have a look at the free introductory course to understanding exponential technologies offered by Singularity University. You can’t evolve to the next level – as a human and an entrepreneur – if you’re not updating your knowledge base and keeping up with industry trends. Watch pertinent lectures on YouTube and presentations on TEDTalks, increase your emotional intelligence by watching The School of Life – each of these will help you become a more agile leader and understand your work force better.

My goal for 2018 is to do at least three online courses – in electronics, programming and in Blockchain. Never stop learning!

7. Experiment with iteration

Jeff Bizos rates the success of Amazon not based on earnings, but on the amount of research and development they are undertaking. Of course, it’s much easier for multi-billion-dollar companies to pump billions of dollars into R&D, but much harder if you’re still starting out or at the stage of trying to grow your business.

Supercell, the mobile gaming company that developed Clash of the Clans, has an entire department that develops, trials and kills games. Progress is all about experimentation. While it’s important to develop new products and services, it’s equally important to trial them, get constructive feedback from your target audience, redevelop, trial for a second and third time and, at times, learn how to bury unsuccessful projects. This process will help you to minimise the risks involved in R&D.

At Mann Made we’re always willing to try new things – and fail. We established a music record label that folded, tried our hand at advert gaming in the early days of internet adoption in South Africa, and created a content-sharing platform in 2005, the same year that YouTube was launched.

Through these trial and error projects we learned the importance of asking – our internal or external project managers – to create a minimum viable product that was not as expensive as the final product, but could be used to test and receive sufficient feedback from our target audience. This process would give us an indication of whether it was worth investing further.

I encourage you to fail in your business from time to time as ‘fail’ merely stands for F- first, A- attempt, I – in, L – learning, and that’s the only way you’ll get your business to thrive.

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