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At 21 Rodney Norman’s Business Owed R1 Million. Today He Has A R100 Million Turnover

When Rodney Norman was 21, his first business ended up R1 million in debt. With so much owing to suppliers, he couldn’t continue trading. Instead, he needed to take stock of what had gone wrong, pull himself together, and come up with a plan.

Nadine Todd

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Rodney Norman

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  • Player: Rodney Norman
  • Company: Chrome Supplements and Accessories
  • Launched: 2009
  • Turnover: R100 million
  • Visit: www.chromesa.co.za

Ask Rodney Norman why Chrome Supplements and Accessories has grown to a company with a turnover of R100 million, and he’ll say it’s because things just go his way. He’s lucky like that. Except things haven’t always gone his way.

He was kicked out of school when he was 15. At 21 his business wasn’t just in debt — he owed suppliers R1 million. And just when he found out his wife was pregnant, he lost a distribution deal that wiped out 70% of his business overnight.

Keep a positive attitude and you’re half way there

It’s safe to say that things haven’t always gone Rodney’s way, and yet his positive outlook on life and business, his trust that things will work out, and his ability to put his head down and outwork everyone around him have enabled him to turn even the most hopeless situations around.

He’s also a born trader. If he’s not making deals, growing a customer base and finding solutions to all the daily challenges that running a business brings, he’s not truly living. Chrome SA is the result of taking life’s knocks on the chin, and then manning up, facing the music, and growing stronger through adversity. A lesson he began to learn at the tender age of 15.

I hated following the rules at school. I bucked the system and had a bad attitude

The result? Rodney was kicked out of school in Grade 10. His parents were not impressed. Determined to teach their son to face the consequences of his actions, they told him to find a job, pay rent, or move out. It was the greatest gift they could have given him.

“I got a job at the local gym as a weight packer. But my studies through Intec College cost R650 a month, my rent was R650, and I only earned R1 050. I needed to find a way to supplement my income.”

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When opportunity knocks, answer

Rodney was athletic; he worked out, and was interested in supplements. Soon people at the gym started asking his advice on supplements, and he saw an opportunity. He offered to organise products for them, adding a small mark-up for himself.

“The gym had a strict no-supplements policy, so I’d deliver the products before and after my shifts. I once cycled from Edenvale to Isando to make a delivery that was worth R50. I was that serious about building up my client base.” It worked. That customer is still a Chrome client today.

“I kept every contact detail I ever received. Soon I had this incredible data base. I found a Durban-based company that agreed to supply me — I couldn’t pay cash upfront, so it took a while to find the right supplier, but from there my small side business started to soar. I made a profit of R95 000 in my first few months. That first year I didn’t even go on holiday in December because I was so focused on building my business. Soon my cell phone bill was higher than my gym salary.”

For 12 months Rodney ran his business from inside the gym. His managers turned a blind eye for as long as they could, but when people started phoning the gym and asking for Rodney or enquiring where their orders were, it was time to part ways.

Standing on your own two feet

By then Rodney had a large database, and could continue trading from his bedroom for the next three years. “I did try employment for a year. My supplier moved to Joburg and opened a store in Edenglen next to the gym where I had worked. My personal sales exceeded the store’s sales, so he offered me a job. Within 12 months I realised that I was better off running my own business, and went back to servicing clients from the boot of my car and my bedroom. Employment has never been for me.”

And then an old friend approached him with an idea. “He had a connection inside a small gym chain, and could organise a small pop up store for us in their Bedfordview branch. He just wanted to join the business as a 50/50 partner in return.”

Rodney agreed, and G-Force Nutrition, as his company was called, opened its first branch. The business took off, exceeding the wildest expectations of the partners. Within two years they had grown from one to 15 satellite stores, with the growth funded by their suppliers. “If I couldn’t negotiate payment terms with a supplier, we walked away,” says Rodney.

Cultivate relationships with your suppliers

“When we started we didn’t have the cash for COD terms, so we worked with suppliers who agreed to be paid 30 days from statement. As long as we could make the stock move, we had the cash to pay our suppliers. They could see the potential — I had built up good relationships, and good value. We were selling between R400 000 and R500 000 a month. We were not their biggest distributors, but they saw that we’d keep growing.”

If a supplier insisted on COD only, Rodney would renegotiate after two months based on the value of their orders, asking for terms of 50% upfront and 50% in 30 days. Two months later he’d renegotiate again, this time to the full settlement 30 days from statement. “You just have to ask. Never be afraid to negotiate. You need to convince people to take a chance on you.”

Rodney’s tenacious negotiating skills allowed the business to grow at an exhilarating rate — but that would also ultimately be what killed it and landed him in enormous debt.

We were R1 million in debt — and I had no idea

What happened next would teach Rodney two of his most valuable lessons. First, you need to always know what’s happening inside your company. “I didn’t understand margins; I just knew we needed to be trading, getting cash in, and making a small profit.

“I was 100% focused on negotiating the best terms I could, and moving stock. That was the secret — use supplier cash to fund the business, and then move stock so you could pay the statements on time.

Always know who you’re working with

“But I wasn’t paying any attention to my business partner, or his side of the business. One of his jobs was to collect the cash from stores and deposit it into our suppliers’ accounts. We would settle bills at 30 days, but pay in batches as we could, so there was a steady flow of money. Then one day I fetched stock from USN and they said, sorry Rodney, you’re very behind in your payments. We’re not releasing stock until you’ve settled your debt.

“USN had been a supportive supplier, so the exchange surprised me, but I thought it was just a misunderstanding. I called my partner and left him a message asking him to send me the deposit slips for USN. He didn’t return my call. I tried again. When it became clear I wasn’t going to reach him, I started calling the rest of our suppliers.

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“There was a pit in my stomach that grew deeper with each call. It wasn’t just USN. We owed money to all of our suppliers. None of them would service us. We were R1 million in the hole. I felt furious and betrayed, but I also needed to face the facts. I’d let this happen. I’d been trading, and not paying attention to the signs.

“You don’t get R1 million into debt with a business our size overnight. It happened gradually and I’d missed the signs. My partner had problems, and he left. I was the one who had built up relationships with our suppliers and convinced them to trust me. This was on me.”

Turning your business around: Anything is possible if you just get started

Which is when Rodney learnt the second — and most valuable — lesson: Anything is possible if you just get started. Start somewhere, anywhere. But start.

“At 21 I had this enormous debt. Where the hell do you get R1 million? It was a defining moment for me. I could call it quits, or get stuck in and make it happen. I managed to pay it back in two years. That’s all it took. I just had to start. I remember my dad telling me he would never see R1 million in his lifetime. It was this huge sum. So how could I do it? The answer? Slowly.

“I was young, but that was also to my benefit. My life wasn’t over. I knew it would be a rough few years, but I also knew that if I didn’t man up and make this right, I would never build the business I now knew I was capable of building. The first thing I did was speak to all of my suppliers. I explained the situation, and that I would be fixing it and paying off our debt — I just needed time.

“Then I went and found a buyer for my business. We had a name, clientele and premises — but we couldn’t pay for stock up front, and our suppliers wouldn’t do business with us until our debt was settled. I found a buyer who would take over the business and pay me R350 000 in two instalments. They would also hire me. It was an employee in my own business. I’d never been good at taking orders, but I knew it was time to learn. I needed the salary and commissions to pay off my debts.

Pay your debts, even if it’s a little at a time

“I’m proud that nothing was handed over to attorneys. I answered every phone call. They were tough; these are not nice calls to answer, but I did it, and I let every accounts manager who called me know what was happening, how much I was expecting to pay them, and by when.

“I made small deposits consistently, and that was enough. As long as it was being paid, and the needle was moving, everyone who I owed money to was happy. That’s the secret: Consistency. Don’t avoid the tough calls; take them and face the music.”

The result is that when Rodney opened Chrome SA a few years later, all of his previous suppliers were happy to start working with him again. They trusted his integrity.

By 24 I was debt free, and I immediately quit my job.

Unfortunately, although Rodney could now go back to being self-employed, he still had a 12-month non-compete clause. He needed to find something to do other than supplements, and so he sold surfwear for a year. “That’s what I do — trade,” he says. “I’m a salesman. I shared a showroom with a friend who had the rights to Fox. It did well but I realised I had no passion for the products I was selling; it was just a means to an end.”

Launching a business out of the ashes of another

And yet Rodney still maintains he’s incredibly lucky. Things have a way of falling into place. “On the day my restraint of trade ended, I got an email from an old supplier saying he was closing down his store, and did I know anyone who’d be interested in buying his PC and shelving.

“I had a better idea — I’d buy everything for R65 000, but I also wanted to take over the store. I even had a supplier — the friend I’d been sharing a showroom with had another friend in Durban who was launching a new supplements product and was looking for a distributor in Joburg. I had a store and a product. I contacted my entire client list, which I’d kept, and let everyone know I was back in business.”

The birth of Chrome

Rodney ran his new business with his girlfriend (now wife), Erienne. He handled sales and distribution, and she took care of the administration and finances. They registered the name Chrome Supplements and Accessories, and while they were waiting to move into the store, they filled her old bedroom in her parents’ house with stock and started trading.

“In our first month we did R76 000 worth of sales. Within six months we’d sold R1 million worth of products, and business was picking up. There were three of us; myself, Erienne and Gareth-Ashley Munthri, who had worked with me at G-Force. Gareth-Ashley and I did everything, from sales to sweeping the floors. We worked 24/7.”

But, while the store was doing well, Rodney was learning that being a distributor brought its own problems. “The more people we supplied, the bigger our cash flow issues became,” he explains.

“Many of our customers didn’t settle their debts, and we were starting to spend all of our time and energy collecting cash. It was when I realised I couldn’t buy the Corsa Utility I needed to make deliveries because I’d just written off R144 000 in bad debts that I decided to start operating on a COD basis only.

“I firmly believed that fewer clients who paid cash upfront was the smarter business decision, and would keep us cash flow positive.”

Unfortunately, Rodney’s supplier disagreed. They saw their own orders declining as a result of Rodney’s new strategy, and made the decision to take over Gauteng’s distribution themselves. The move couldn’t have come at a worse time.

You need contracts to protect you

“We had no formal contract in place. Our entire working relationship was based on the strength of a handshake. I learnt the hard way that you need contracts to protect you, although it’s still not a reality I like — I’d rather do business on trust and a handshake, even though I’ve been burnt so many times.”

The lack of a contract meant the supplier could cancel the contract overnight. Rodney and Erienne had just found out they were expecting their first child, and Chrome lost 70% of its business. It was a major blow.

“To balance the COD strategy I had promised our supplier that we would open more Chrome stores and boost sales in that way. By the time they cancelled their contract with us we had four stores, and so we poured ourselves into the retail side of our business. We needed to make this work. We were about to be a family.”

I learnt my limit was five stores — as soon as I opened my sixth, the wheels started falling off

The problem with growth is that with each new development, the business becomes exponentially more complex. “We wanted to grow; that was our strategy. But it’s very difficult for one person to manage more than five stores,” says Rodney. “After the fifth store, I started losing control.

“The good thing about opening multiple stores is that each new store is easier to open. One to two is a massive struggle; it’s expensive. But then it becomes easier. Two stores pay for the next one, then three stores pay for the fourth. And so we just kept rolling out new stores. But we didn’t have a proper plan.

Have a consistent brand image and business model

“I kept changing my mind about how the stores should look; merchandising wasn’t consistent, and we ended up with a confused brand. The stores didn’t do consistently well, and I needed to be at a store for it to perform well.

“I looked at other chain stores and realised I was getting it wrong. Our stores didn’t look the same. We needed to slow down, fix the model, do a revamp and develop a firm expansion strategy. We’d been winging it a bit, and the results were evident. This was no way to build a strong brand.”

At the same time, Rodney had started importing international products to give Chrome a competitive edge. The problem was that he couldn’t pay suppliers within 30 days of the stock arriving. He needed a different way to approach imports that still kept the business cash positive.

The solution seemed obvious. “We’d received so many franchising enquiries, we thought this was the perfect growth strategy. We could use franchisee cash to buy stock, instead of the bank’s cash. Plus, there was the control factor. With a franchise system, we could have a unified brand and get rid of the inconsistencies that plagued us.”

Chrome evolved into a franchise

There were seven stores when Chrome moved to a franchising model. This soon grew to 12 stores. Franchisees had a buy and sell agreement with Chrome. They had to buy stock exclusively from Chrome unless they could find the same product at a better price. Rodney put a small mark-up on Chrome’s product range and handled all the marketing for his franchisees.

Within two years it became clear that franchising had not been the right growth path. “We had more stores and a bigger footprint, but our control issues were even worse. Now we were trying to control people with their own vision for the business — and it didn’t align with our own. I wasn’t a good franchisor, that was the long and short of it, and I needed to accept that. It was time for a shift again.”

Trying to franchise the business was a failure. It just didn’t work for us

Although the franchising model wasn’t what Rodney had expected, the business had been growing and making a profit, and so he was able to buy all the franchised stores back bar one.

Franchising isn’t for every business

Now the real work began. It was time to get serious about growing his brand. Continuity, systems, finding good managers, incentivising them, formulating one vision and sharing it with the company — these all became paramount.

“I also decided that I would be based in head office only, and not in stores. I needed the retail side of the business to function well without me on the floor. I needed to learn how to hire and incentivise the right store managers.”

This is always a challenge for organisations whose previous success has been driven by the entrepreneur’s hard work, charisma and personal relationships with clients.

Chrome on the verge of exponential growth

Today, Chrome stocks 59 different brands, with four ‘house’ brands. One of those brands, Amplify, has 17 lines. Chrome is made up of a retail arm with 19 stores and a distribution arm. “We’ve maintained our COD policy,” says Rodney. “We occasionally give bigger pharmacies terms, but on the whole we would rather have fewer clients with a healthier cash flow.”

It’s taken Rodney almost eight years to build his business into a R100 million organisation, but he’s now poised for exponential growth.

“I needed to figure out who we were going to be, what the brand was going to look like, and what our growth strategy was. It took a while, and we had a few stumbles along the way. Once we found the model that worked, the business started taking off.

“Two years ago we built our first warehouse. Since then we’ve built a second warehouse that’s twice the size.” Rodney isn’t targeting unrealistic goals. He’s learnt that the best growth is slow, steady and sustainable. And a little luck goes a long way.

Lessons learnt

1. What seems like an expensive lesson is actually the best thing that could have happened to you

I wasn’t paying attention to my partner or my books. We ended up owing R1 million. In hindsight, it was a cheap lesson to learn. Imagine if that happened today? The fallout would be much greater. We have 19 stores and nearly 100 staff members. It would hurt everyone, not just me.

2. Increase your revenue streams

By becoming an e-tailer we not only have an online presence in South Africa, but we’ve been able to launch in the UK without funding a physical store.

3. Hire for attitude, not for skill

No qualifications can take the place of hard work. When we decided to launch our website and online store, I recruited a friend of mine from school, Chad Costa. He had a marketing background but no online experience. It didn’t matter. I knew he was a hard worker, and that he’d do what it took to upskill himself and build the platforms we needed. He’s got an incredible work ethic and I value that above all else.

4. Promote from within

Gareth-Ashley, my first employee who used to sweep floors with me at our first store, is now our warehouse manager. I’ve learnt that if you find good people who are willing to work hard for your brand, they’re more valuable than someone with highly specialised skills. It’s amazing what you can learn on the job with the right attitude. Hard workers will always figure it out.

5. Good management is crucial

This goes for store management, warehouse management and head office management. Everyone needs to treat the brand and the store like it’s their own, so you need to incentivise them appropriately, and value their contributions.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

In business, your offering is only as good as your relationships. Neil Robinson from Relate Bracelets explains how FedEx Express has helped the business grow into Africa and beyond.

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  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit: relate.org.za

Neil Robinson, MD of Relate Bracelets understands the importance of business relationships. While Relate is a non-profit organisation, it is run like a business. It does not rely on donors, but instead produces and sells a product.

For each bracelet sold, one third of the income goes towards the materials and operating costs, one third supports the people who produce the bracelets, and one third goes to the charity for which that particular bracelet is branded.

In order for the business model to work and be sustainable, Relate’s partners are incredibly important. These include the retail chains that stock the product and who provide prime point-of-sale positioning, the charities who Relate works with, and most importantly, Relate’s logistics service provider, FedEx Express.

“Retail is all about visibility and availability,” explains Neil. “A brand is a living, breathing thing. People can see it, use it, and comment on it, but if they can’t access it, it’s all for naught. And so, at the point of purchase, it’s both visible and available, or it’s not.

“Logistics is key. You need to get your product to the retailer on time, 100% of the time. The expertise and focus that FedEx displays in supply chain and logistics encompasses far more than just retail, they understand our specific needs, making them a strategic partner, rather than merely a supplier.”

Related: Zenzele Fitness’s Clever Tactics To Grow In Next To No Time

Building a relationship

The FedEx/Relate Bracelets relationship stretches back to 2009, when Relate Bracelets launched its first campaign with ‘Unite Against Malaria’ leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

“We did the first campaign in partnership with Nando’s,” says Neil. “Robbie Brozin was passionate about the cause, and he pulled in strategic partners to launch the campaign. Within two years we’d shipped hundreds of thousands of bracelets. FedEx was an incredible partner, ensuring the integrity of our product and time-sensitive deliveries, and we’ve worked with them ever since.”

As with all good B2B relationships, the FedEx and Relate Bracelets teams understand that regular strategy sessions and updates are important.

“FedEx understands the inner workings of our business,” says Neil.

“A successful campaign has multiple elements, from planning and strategy, to marketing support, pricing and distribution planning. Of these, distribution planning is the most critical. For us, the bridge between our brand and the consumer is logistics. FedEx have delivered beyond expectations. They literally and figuratively go the extra mile for us.”

Protecting a brand

FedEx has customers across different industries and each of their needs are different. In the case of Relate, who operate in the retail sector, buying patterns are important. “Retailers run a tight ship,” explains Neil.

“They have planning cycles and seasons. Besides the fact that penalty clauses are built into contracts, you can’t miss a deadline by two days, or you’re in the next cycle, and that might be two weeks later. Not only are you missing out on valuable shelf time, but this can affect an entire campaign. Lost sales can also influence the retailers’ buying decision the following season. FedEx has made it their business to understand our business, so they know what’s at stake and what’s important to us.”

Supporting growth

FedEx has also played an integral role in the overall expansion of Relate Bracelets, particularly into new markets. “As a global organisation, FedEx has been absolutely critical in supporting us to grow our business into Africa, the US, Australia, the UK, Western Europe, and now New Zealand. They play an enormous role in the delivery of our products, with sophisticated tracking systems ensuring that the quality and integrity of our products are maintained.”

Through the relationship with FedEx, Relate experiences the benefits of working with a globally recognised and credible brand. “When you work with quality, you get quality.”

Related: Entrepreneur BB Moloi’s Inspiring Story of Rise To Success Through Grit And Hard Work

The business

If you’ve ever bought a beaded bracelet that supports a cause (for example: United Against Malaria, Operation Smile SA or PinkDrive), chances are it was a Relate Bracelet. If you bought it at Woolworths, Clicks, Sorbet or Foschini, it most definitely was.

To date, Relate Bracelets has raised more than R40 million, which supports various charities and ‘gogos’, women living on government grants and supporting their grandchildren, and who desperately need the additional income Relate Bracelets provides.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Slikour’s Moto: If You Dream It, You Can Be It

Rapper and entrepreneur Slikour believes his success is the result of one key element: The aspiration to make something of himself, and create a platform for his voice to be heard. Now he’s bringing that mindset to South Africa’s black urban youth.

Nadine Todd

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Take note

Before you can achieve great success, you have to believe in the possibility of success. This is the single greatest secret to changing your circumstances — you have to believe it’s possible.

Did music or entrepreneurship come first? Siya Metane, aka rapper Slikour, isn’t sure himself. The two have worked hand in hand for him since he started selling cassette tapes of his own music when he was 12 years old.

What has developed over time however, is an innate and deep understanding that with his success comes a responsibility to pay it forward, and help his community and kids like him see that they can be anything they put their minds to.

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

If they can dream it, they can be it — provided they realise they can dream it in the first place. This is his challenge, and greatest driving force.

Start small, but dream big

I bought cassette tapes on Smal Street in the CBD for R5. My best friend, Lebo and I recorded our own rap music onto them and sold them in our neighbourhood for R15. We needed the mark-up — it meant we could buy more tapes, and also that we were making a profit.

Related: Zuko Tisani Learnt These 7 Invaluable Lessons On His Path To Success

I’m not sure if we were trying to start a business or launch our rap careers, but if you’re living in a hood like Leondale you don’t always recognise that there are opportunities open to you. No one is going to do it for you — you have to have your own aspirations, and find a way to make them happen.

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

That was one of the biggest and earliest lessons I recall growing up: The ability to dream big can be stifled out of you. I lived in a hood where there were no aspirations past our neighbourhood — the neighbourhood and its opportunities were everything. If 90% of the people you know are suffering, who are you to not suffer?

It’s a very limiting mindset, and one that does a lot of damage to our youth. I knew kids who had incredible potential, but could only look at their immediate environments for opportunities. So a budding young scientist doesn’t find a way to change the world — he finds a new way to make drugs.

Those are the limiting aspirations I was surrounded by. I call it the Trap, and it’s the driving force behind everything I do today. I want South Africa’s urban youth to recognise the Trap, and understand that they should have aspirations beyond it, because they have the abilities and potential necessary to break free.

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

I was lucky, I wasn’t a victim of the Trap. What so many people don’t understand is that I could have been. Hard work, drive and discipline aren’t enough to break free of the Trap. You need to believe you can break free — to look beyond your current circumstances. In my experience, that seemingly simple mindset shift is the biggest hurdle to overcome. It’s more complicated and pervasive than you can imagine.

Two things showed me a different way. First, my mom got me bursaries at Holy Rosary Convent and then St Benedict’s College. I was surrounded by rich white kids, full of privilege, and it struck me that here were the same talents and opportunities, but with a wealth of aspiration in the mix.

Related: Self-Made Millionaire At 24 Marnus Broodryk On How To Build A R1 Billion Business

That was the real difference — not ability, but recognising that ability and having the aspiration to do something with it. It was eye-opening. The second was meeting my best friend, Lebo Mothibe. Lebo, or Shugasmakx, as he’d later be known in the music world, had one foot in the privileged world, and one foot in our world.

His mom lived in the hood, his dad was a wealthy entrepreneur who lived in Illovo. And Lebo straddled both worlds effortlessly, and with humility. But he looked beyond the limiting beliefs held by many of his neighbourhood peers.

Find people to inspire you to reach success

His dad was also the first self-made, wealthy black man I met. But when I heard his story, I realised that it wasn’t overnight success. He’d slept on Lebo’s mom’s couch while he slowly but steadily built his business. It gave me an understanding that success is earned. You need to work at it, and push on against adversity. This had a huge impact on me.

Lebo was the ying to my yang. Even though we didn’t think of each other as business partners, that’s what we were, from the age of 12. We formed Skwatta Kamp, we hustled and shook up the music industry together, and changed the face of rap music in South Africa.

I was the dreamer, the visionary, and Lebo was the executor. He found a way to make my crazy schemes and ideas come to life. This is exactly what a partnership should be — helping each other grow, and complementing diverse skill sets.

Build your success, one step at a time

We built our success, brick by brick. I entered a TV show competition, Jam Alley, and won. I used the cash and Dions vouchers to buy recording equipment. Lebo’s dad helped with speakers and a keyboard. My brother, who was studying IT, downloaded software and helped us with our recording quality. Everyone pitched in with what they could. 

Be your own biggest cheerleader

We tried the recording contract route for a while, but realised that the only people who cared about our success were us. And so we hit the streets — hard. We had street crews, we sold our own CDs and negotiated with music stores to carry our albums.

Recording studios kept saying they’d sign us, but they never had a studio available. They just didn’t see the value in rap and hip hop. They didn’t believe there was money in it in South Africa. We needed to prove there was.

Gallo finally approached us and signed us after we won at the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) as an independent act. We used real guerrilla tactics to get our name out there — on stage, with that platform, we told our fans that if a music store didn’t carry our album, to burn it down. We wanted the attention — that’s how you build a name.

Related: Entrepreneurial Powerhouse TBO Touch On How Success Is Built From Small Acts

Our first album went gold, and we used that to push the idea of rap into mainstream media. If 20 000 people bought the album, another 200 000 had bootlegged it. There was money here; and slowly brands and advertisers started realising we were right.

Drive a movement with your business

We were musicians, but first and foremost we were driving a movement, and that meant we needed to be businessmen as well. We hosted end of year parties, and got brands on board, realising we had a captive audience that aligned with their target market demographics. We started our own label, Buttabing Entertainment.

Our goal was to find and nurture young musicians from the hood to get them established in the industry, and show other kids in the Trap that it could be done: Anyone can create their own destiny. One of the things I’m proudest of is discovering a kid in Katlehong, Senzo Mfundo Vilakazi, who would develop into Kwesta.

He’s doing phenomenally well, and recently appeared on Sway in the Morning, one of the biggest hip hop shows in the US. Our success spilt over into Kwesta, and now his meteoric rise will hopefully inspire a whole new generation to dream bigger than they ever thought possible.

Pivoting to further growth

All success has its pinnacle. By 2010 we had achieved so much as Skwatta Kamp. We’d brought rap music into the mainstream and opened opportunities for countless kids, as music labels actively sought rap and hip hop acts. I realised that I’d hit a ceiling. I needed to step back, regroup and figure out what to do next.

What I did was something I’ve only ever associated with privilege. I moved home, spent a lot of time lying on the couch, and wrote. I wrote my life, my lessons, my dreams, my ideas. I don’t know how I reached a point where I was able to do that, but I’m grateful. I started collecting my thoughts and understanding my purpose.

During that time I was approached to join a few marketing agencies. I had no formal marketing training, but we’d worked with big brands at our parties and activations.

Sprite was the first to recognise that they had an opportunity to authentically connect with the black urban youth through us, and so we partnered up. I learnt above-the-line marketing in a Coca-Cola boardroom, and built onto what we’d learnt on the streets about below-the-line marketing.

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

That experience had drawn attention, and so for a while I joined an agency. But its mandate was sponsorships, and my heart was with the black urban youth. I’d discovered my purpose, even if I’d subconsciously been living that purpose for almost 20 years.

I wanted to create a platform that gives young black artists a voice; established artists a way to reach out to the youth that other platforms don’t offer; and brands a way to authentically connect with that audience — not just to sell products, but to show black urban youth that their culture is important, that it holds value, and that they, in turn, hold value.

Related: Shark Tank’s Romeo Kumalo Weighs In On High-Impact Entrepreneurial Businesses

Adidas’s support of Run DMC in the US showed that kids from the ghetto had a message worth listening to. Big brands have the power to connect the unheard and voiceless to the mainstream, if it’s done correctly. I had the marketing experience to understand the ROI that brands need, as well as what I could do with that to support black urban youth.

All I had were dreams and a URL, but that was enough. I quit my job and launched my website, Slikouronlife.

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

This is my politics and CSI. If we can get marketing to marry culture, and change the positioning and perception of young black South Africans, we can show there are opportunities out there, and create aspirations.

But we need to put culture first and tap into the authenticity of who we are as South Africans. We need to recognise and acknowledge the mental traps that exist in our neighbourhoods, and that we are victims of limiting beliefs, and then show that there is another way.

Everyone told me I was nuts. That black people don’t go online. I did it anyway. With Skwatta Kamp we had created a market for our music. Kids supported us; my name added value — and then brands came on board. We now average between 200 000 and 250 000 unique visitors a month, which is impressive for a mainstream website, let alone a niche music site.

Ten months ago we were a team of three operating from my house with one desk. Today we’re a team of ten with one focus: To make a real difference on the ground. To give the voiceless a voice. To prove that if we can drive the aspirations of South Africa’s urban youth, the sky will be the limit.


Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

For many businesses, the biggest challenge is getting their message heard. Through Suits & Sneakers, Mark Sham is not only building a huge microphone to create awareness around his business and his vision to change education and training in South Africa, but he’s forging a network of entrepreneurs and corporate businesses to champion the cause. Here’s how he’s doing it.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

Mark Sham hasn’t just created a microphone. He’s creating a movement. In July 2015 he hosted his first event. It was called Suits & Sneakers, and 1 000 people attended. Mark was looking to see if his idea resonated with anyone else. It was clear it did.

Related: Persistence Can Beat Any Odds Says The Founder Of Rebosis Property Fund

The second event, a few months later, drew 1 500 people. Two events held in 2016 had 3 000 people respectively, and it would have been more if Mark hadn’t realised they needed to limit attendees to ensure the event was still personal.

Keep up the momentum

To keep the Suits & Sneakers momentum going, a weekly event, Suits & Sneakers Fixed was added. While the main events each year have four speakers focusing on completely different content, Suits & Sneakers Fixed is held every Wednesday and has only one speaker, discussing one topic. Between 100 and 120 people can attend, and you can book online. It’s a free event, first come, first served.

Related: Lichaba Creations Founder Max Lichaba’s Inspiring Journey To Entrepreneurial Success

But here’s the secret behind Suits & Sneakers. It’s not an eventing company. It’s a business promoting the benefits of informal training, and focuses on a new method of corporate training, that with enough traction will hopefully turn the current education system on its head — something Mark believes South Africa desperately needs.

The 3 goals of Suits & Sneakers

The Suits & Sneakers events were created with three goals in mind: One, to test whether Mark’s theory of informal education held weight.

Two, to bring corporates on board to his way of thinking, and to be willing to test this new training methodology in their own organisations, and ultimately support a new education system for South Africans who cannot access the current system.

And three, to build a really, really big microphone letting the country know who Suits & Sneakers is, and what the brand stands for. In a nutshell, it’s marketing on steroids. And it’s having a massive impact.

Here’s how the idea took shape, and how it’s developed within the market place.

How did a love\hate relationship with learning lead to Suits & Sneakers?

suits-and-sneakers

I’m an avid learner who is addicted to learning new things and educating myself, but I hate the formal education system. I didn’t matriculate despite having good marks; I didn’t quite fit in. I questioned everything and the traditional schooling system isn’t built for that.

I ended up spending a few years travelling around the US. When I came back to South Africa I tried to enrol at IMM to study marketing but soon realised that nothing had changed. The traditional education model still wasn’t for me. So I started my own business.

I’d been exposed to social media overseas, I was born in an era of full access, thanks to the Internet, and I upskilled myself while learning the ins and outs of business. I also knew I had a natural talent for advertising, and just needed to pull all the threads together.

R1 million in debt at 25

The problem is that I’m high-energy, and tend to have a lot of different ideas and projects on the go. I was building up my marketing agency, but I also launched an online fragrance store. My suppliers convinced me to open a physical store as well, and that was a big mistake. I ended up losing the store, and being R1 million in debt at 25.

I knew I would never be able to pay that back through traditional employment, and nothing had changed — I still had no qualifications. What I did have was a young marketing agency. I needed to find a way to really make an impact on my clients and start building that up.

In sales and marketing, you’re always looking for an in: How do you give your clients real value, in such a way that they want to do business with you, because they know you can positively impact their business. That’s the code you need to crack with every prospective company you do business with.

Share your insights with your clients

Because I was an avid learner and I’d already spent a few years working in the social media space, which was still in its infancy in South Africa, I knew I had some real insights to share with my clients. I designed and marketed a social media course.

There was a lot of interest, but I couldn’t find anyone to present it for me. I ended up doing it myself and it worked. I’d never thought of myself as a public speaker, but my passion for the topic came through.

It triggered something in me. I read a book, Inside Coca-Cola, by David Beasley and E. Neville Isdell, that’s filled with lessons I wanted to share with the marketing community. I created a breakfast event to share this with marketers, and which I could use to build relationships with them, and was invited to do the talk for corporates.

Related: 5 Answers From Digital Kungfu On Why Podcasts Are Your Best Self Development Tool

It made me realise that while the education system in South Africa is broken, there is a solution. Informal training really worked well for me. I’ve created ‘Ted Talk’ syllabuses for people. There is a real need, and maybe I have a solution. 

How did you take a wild idea that could change the world and turn it into a reality?

My talks started out well. I travelled around the country, speaking on different topics, and making a decent living.

Then I realised it was futile. I was giving one day workshops that people loved, but they weren’t putting what they’d learnt into practice. I needed to switch people on to learning and to make them hungry for knowledge and, through ‘drip’ learning, change their approach to business and life through consistent and habitual changes that together make a powerful whole.

At first it was a side project. I had my business and this was a pet project. I had four aims:

  1. Put together an incredible event as a proof of concept
  2. Find a way to get corporates excited by the structure and vision
  3. Get entrepreneurs and corporate execs to attend
  4. Use this whole thing to build a really big microphone for the brand, to let people know what our vision was, and how training and education can be transformed.

Get people excited about your offering

Step one was easy — I had so many incredible contacts to draw from. My goal was to pull four very different speakers together. Suits & Sneakers isn’t about one particular topic. It’s about getting people excited by the idea of learning something new. If you can trigger that, you can create a life-long learner. That’s our aim.

Securing a corporate sponsor took a bit longer. First, I needed to be able to articulate what I understood because I was feeling misaligned. Previously, you qualified with a degree and you were relevant for 20 or 30 years. Now, in two years you’re irrelevant. That’s the pace of today’s world.

The same is true of the workspace — annual training that isn’t revisited isn’t benefitting anyone. It’s like going to gym once a month for 12 hours — you’ll never be fit and in shape. It takes regular practice.

Related: 4 TED Talks To Help You Deal With Stress And Anxiety

And yet this isn’t how we treat training. It’s a bigger problem and more costly than it needs to be. Smaller, more regular doses of training that teach employees to become learners who embrace their own development is a solution to this training crisis — for employers and employees.

We needed a change of style. Podcasts and Ted Talks work for me because they’re personal, informal and entertaining — even though the content is exceptional. How could we bring this into a traditional training environment? I didn’t want presentations and slides. I wanted a visceral, immersive experience.

I didn’t have everything perfectly laid out, but I knew we needed to get started and develop it as we want along. My vision and goals were clear, even if the final product wasn’t, and I approached Sage.

There was alignment: They have a great product that is valuable to SMEs, and I could gather SMEs into one venue, and create a database. Sage could pitch their services to a captive audience, and I would have a platform to start refining my training ideas, and I would also be creating my giant microphone and brand.

Big risk, big reward

I invited Sage to the first event. They didn’t think I could get 1 000 people there. Not only did I hit my target, but 300 of those tickets were paid — the balance were free. I lost R600 000 putting the event together, but it was my marketing for the year — my giant microphone. After the second event Sage was on board.

I still run the main event at a loss, but each year the gap is smaller, and it’s our most valuable marketing tool, attracting a number of different corporates. We’ve launched the Real Life MBA, which is a charged-for event with six simultaneous speakers.

You choose who you want to listen to in person, and have exclusive online access to the videos of the other talks post the event. The conference is really the start to a 12-week learning programme.

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

We’re also creating informal learning curriculums for corporates. We collaborate with them to develop manuals, events, self-learning assignments and so on. Eventually we want to digitise and gamify the entire experience.

How is the current Suits & sneakers model feeding into a bigger vision of change?

Ultimately, we want to disrupt education. Real quality education can be free. There is so much out there; so many experts to learn from — we just need to reimagine how to learn. Our aim is to create a free education system for 18 to 24 year olds.

In 2016 I decided to sell my other businesses and focus full time on Suits & Sneakers. I’m a start-up again, but I’m finally living my vision.

Our offices are a co-working space called Impello, operating in Greenside. It’s a space for start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs to collaborate and work with like-minded individuals. By paying the bills with one revenue model, we can fund a training and education space that incubates small business and works as a campus for our informal university.

Tech advances are revolutionising learning possibilities, but you need a mix of classroom and online learning. Face to face is social and emotional but classroom learning doesn’t scale without adjacent costs.

So what’s the solution? Co-functional, co-working spaces. We have six funders who share the vision and understand what we’re trying to do here. That’s been the power of our giant microphone.


Related: Self-Made Millionaire At 24 Marnus Broodryk On How To Build A R1 Billion Business

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