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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

Vital stats

  • 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.”

chrome-supplements-and-accessories

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.

health-supplements-in-south-africa

“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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Entrepreneur Profiles

4 Lessons From The Pivotal Group Founders On Growing And Disrupting All At Once

Here’s how they’ve built what they believe to be the foundations of a successful group of businesses in five years.

Nadine Todd

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paul-hutton-joel-stransky-and-bruce-arnold-of-pivotal-group

Vital stats

  • Company: Pivotal Group
  • Players: Paul Hutton, Joel Stransky and Bruce Arnold
  • What they do:  Pivotal pioneered voice biometrics in the financial and telecommunications market. Over time, the company has grown to include nine divisions across multiple sectors.
  • Launched: 2012
  • Visit: pivotalgroup.co.za

How do you build a disruptive business while also focusing on growth? Disruptive ideas are by definition new and unknown to the market. They defy traditional and established solutions and ways of doing business, and they require the market to be educated before you can really onboard clients or even sell your product or service.

The answer is to build parallel solutions: Business units that bring in revenue while the more disruptive ideas are being developed and introduced to the market. Here are the four top lessons the founders of the Pivotal Group have learnt while building their business and pursuing disruptive opportunities simultaneously.

1. Know who your competitors (and potential competitors) are

Great ideas that are economically viable and solve a need that consumers are willing to pay for are few and far between. Great ideas alone are a dime a dozen, but if you’ve spotted a need, chances are someone else has as well. You then need to step back and critically evaluate why someone else hasn’t done this before; if they have done it and they’ve failed; or if you’re entering shark-infested waters riddled with competitors.

Once you’ve determined there is a gap in the market, you need to evaluate who your potential competitors are, and the impact if they suddenly started offering a similar solution to the market.

For Paul Hutton, Bruce Arnold and Joel Stransky, the founders of OneVault, competition was always a factor, particularly as a start-up, and given that potential competitors included Bytes and Dimension Data, this was a very real factor to consider. After careful analysis, however, the founders decided to go for it. Their differentiator was their business model. They wouldn’t be selling OneVault as a software solution, but as a service.

Related: Which Of These 7 Personality Traits Do You Share With The World’s Richest People?

The idea had taken root while Paul was still CEO of TransUnion Credit Bureau. “I came across voice biometrics in Canada. There’s been a surge in identity fraud around the world, and I really understood the value of voice recognition as a verification tool,” he explains. “It can’t be faked, and it’s the only remote biometrics solution available, because you don’t physically need to be there to verify yourself.”

Paul had presented the idea to Transunion’s global board, and while they were intrigued, nothing came of it. “TransUnion’s model is to buy companies that are experts in their specific fields, not launch a new disruptive division from scratch.”

But this meant there was an opportunity for Paul to pursue the idea independently. Joel (former MD of Altech Netstar and CEO of Hertz SA) and Bruce (formerly Group CFO of TransUnion Africa and CFO at Unitrans Freight) were immediately interested in partnering with Paul. Both wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, although neither could do so immediately. The commitment was enough for Paul to get directly involved and start working on the business while he waited for his partners to join him.

In January 2011, Paul and Joel travelled to the UK and started investigating voice biometric solutions. “Voice biometrics was fairly new, but good technology was available, and there were global leaders in the sector,” says Joel.

It was important to choose the right product for the South African market, as this would form the basis of their offering. A contact at Dimension Data (one of whom became an investor in the business) offered this simple and straightforward advice:

When you’re choosing a technology partner, go with the company whose tech you’re confident in, and whose leadership is stable. You’re basing so much on this company and their longevity, so don’t disregard this criteria.

For Paul, Joel and Bruce, a US-based company, Nuance, ticked those boxes. But, from a competitive perspective, OneVault wasn’t the only potential player in the market. “Neither Bytes nor Dimension Data had gone into voice, but they had the potential to do so,” says Bruce. “The products were available to them through their partners.”

To mitigate this very clear risk, the founders made two critical decisions. “Our intention was to sell voice biometrics as a service, instead of a software solution that customers bought and owned, with the necessary infrastructure to go with it. The idea for OneVault was that there would be one place where your voice print lived, and different businesses could plug into our solution.”

The business model of large technology players in South Africa is to sell integrated software solutions, so OneVault’s business model was a differentiator. The next differentiator Paul, Bruce and Joel focused on was becoming specialists in their field.

“This is Paul’s baby,” says Bruce. “We’ve needed to build up a niche, expert team that specialises in voice biometrics. Because we aren’t generalists, 100% of our focus goes into this, instead of 5% or 10%.”

To attract the best in their fields, the founders needed a very appealing culture and a strong recruitment strategy. “We focused on what we wanted from our work environment, and then applied the same rules across the business,” says Joel. “Our goals were to drink good coffee, have no leave forms — ever; be able to take the time to ride our bikes and watch our kids play sports. If someone can’t make it work, or takes advantage without putting in the work, they come and go, but on the whole, we’ve had extremely low churn, and we’ve attracted — and kept — incredible talent.”

This differentiator would prove to be important for two reasons. First, two and a half years into the business, with investors on board and having pumped a significant amount of their own capital into the business, the team hit a major stumbling block. For a few weeks, they didn’t even know if they had a business.

“We had been operating on one major, and as it turned out, faulty, assumption,” says Paul. “We thought South African companies had the right telephony structure to implement our solution. We’d been building our solution on top of Nuance’s software, and were ready to start piloting the entire system with a few key customers, and we found out that in order to meet global voice biometric standards, the telephone technology had to be G711 compliant. South Africa was operating on G729.”

This was OneVault’s make or break moment. The team had six weeks to come up with a solution that ensured it met the necessary levels of accuracy. Without a highly skilled team this would have been impossible.

Even as a start-up, the strategy had been to only bring the best of the best on board. “We didn’t interview,” says Bruce. “We approached people whom we knew. We approached the best in the industry, and convinced them to take a chance with us. There was risk, but there were also rewards.” One of those people was Bradley Scott, a brilliant engineer whom both Paul and Bruce had worked with at Transunion.

Today, OneVault is one of the most specialist companies in the world, and often asked to speak at events in the US.

Being the niche specialists paid off, and OneVault achieved the almost impossible. But this had its downside.

Once you’ve shown something can be done, the bar of what’s impossible moves. Competitors enter your space.

This was the second reason why being such focused, niche experts paid off. “We demo’d the solution for a large local corporate, they loved it, and then went to a ‘then’ competitor  to implement it,” says Paul.

“We always knew this was a real danger. Players like Bytes and Dimension Data have solid, existing client relationships with the same companies we’re targeting.”

18 months later the project still wasn’t working. “This is deep specialist knowledge,” says Paul. “Knowledge we built while we created our offering.” OneVault won the contract, and developed a partnership with Bytes at the same time. Today, OneVault works with all the major software integrators in the market. “We’re a specialist service they can offer their clients, without needing to put the same time and energy we needed to put in to become the specialists.”

Through a focused strategy, OneVault has become a partner, rather than a competitor, of some of the largest players in the industry.

2. Understand the nature of disruption so that you can prepare for it

pivotal-group

In today’s ever-changing and fast-paced business world, most business experts are in agreement that as a company, you’re either the disruptor, or you’re being disrupted. The problem is that disruption comes with its own set of challenges.

“Our entire business model was built around a subscription service. Instead of a company buying a software solution, installing it and running it internally, we would do all of that. We would carry the infrastructure burden, and the high upfront cost,” says Joel.

In theory, this sounded like a clear win for businesses that would benefit from a voice biometrics solution. The reality is never so simple, particularly when you’re a disruptor.

“The software is expensive, and so we thought this would be seen as an excellent solution,” says Paul. “Instead, we faced a lot of reticence over the cloud. Businesses didn’t trust it yet.”

On top of that, first movers are often faced with a lag in corporate governance guidelines. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so governance guidelines change — but it’s a slow process, and the lag can impede disruptors.

“You also can’t give proper reference cases, because it’s all brand new to your market,” says Paul. “The best we had was a case study of how well it had worked in Turkey.”

To compound matters, proof of revenue is essential for businesses wanting to trade with large corporates, but non-existent in the start-up phase.

So, what’s the solution? According to Joel, Bruce and Paul, it’s all about being patient, never giving up, building gravitas and getting a few clients on board, even if it’s free of charge to build up your reputation and prove your concept. Finally, you need to bring in revenue from more traditional channels to support your disruptive products and solutions.

“Disruptive solutions are by their nature new and different, which means change management for your customers. This makes the sales cycle long and complex, and you have to be prepared for that,” says Bruce.

Don’t stop laying your groundwork. While disruptors are ahead of the curve, you need to be ready for the uptake when it arrives. “We’ve now concluded a partnership with South Africa Fraud Prevention Services,” says Paul. “When an imposter calls we won’t only  terminate the transaction but we will alert the identity being compromised in the attempt and we will actively prevent fraud by contacting Fraud Prevention. The ultimate vision is for every South African’s voice biometric signature to live in our vault, and we are already receiving imposter information.”

3. Cultivate additional revenue streams

So, what do you do while you are living through the extremely long sales turnaround time of your disruptive, game-changing solution? Bills still have to be paid and investment is needed to develop truly disruptive ideas.

First, the team realised that while an annuity subscription service was their ultimate goal and where the industry was heading, initially they needed to be able to sell and implement the software.

It’s worth noting that one of OneVault’s earliest customers who bought the software has since launched a new business, which is on OneVault’s annuity service model. The shift has just taken time. “The change is happening, but it’s been slower than we anticipated,” says Bruce. “We needed to accept that fact and sell the software to bring revenue into the business while we were waiting for the market to catch up.”

It’s an important lesson. You don’t want to get distracted from your vision, but you need to be bringing in revenue, even if that means your short-term strategy differs from your long-term goals.

“It took three years before we really started seeing a move towards hosted solutions,” he adds. “Outsourced and offsite solutions are opex environments, not capex. They are more cost-effective for customers, but they require a shift in thinking. It’s a move away from how things have always been done, and that takes time.”

But, while Paul, Bruce and Joel were learning the art of patience, they also needed to start bringing revenue into the business.

Related: 8 Inspirational Quotes From Movie Mogul Steven Spielberg

“It was clear that we needed to find other opportunities,” says Joel. The result is the Pivotal Group, a diversified holding company with different businesses that are interlinked and complementary.

The group’s first business outside of OneVault, Pivotal Data, was based on a large call centre contract Joel, Paul and Bruce secured. “You can’t be an expert in everything – when you specialise you will always be more successful. The trick is to partner with other experts,” says Joel. In this case, three entrepreneurs were opening a call centre — this was their area of expertise; they were absolute subject matter experts. What they weren’t experts in was technology or facilities management. Instead of doing it themselves, they were looking for partners.

“We manage everything aside from the people element,” explains Joel. “We found and leased a building, built the bespoke workspace, put in the technology, and managed the facility and IT on an opex basis back to them.”

The business immediately had a good anchor client, and Pivotal Data has built on that. The annuity income has supported further growth.

“This was a base for us, but we’ve acquired a few businesses on the back of this success, and created our own cloud contact centre solution — which also feeds into what we’re doing with OneVault,” says Bruce. “Our vision is to create a technology stack that’s world-class and provides a range of services that no other businesses provide as a single solution.”

Because of this pivot into call centre management, a new opportunity has presented itself, and Pivotal’s ambition has grown to include a solution that calls, authenticates, and then analyses all the data that is collected during those calls.

“Through partnerships, my team has developed a predictive analytics system that gives contact centres deep diagnostic tools. We can predict why agents are having the conversations they have, and what to tweak to improve them. We see the agent’s problem before they do. This isn’t just value add, it’s a revenue generating tool if it improves lead conversion rates and customer service. It’s also all geared to lowering call volumes.

“We know we need to keep looking forward. OneVault is starting to gain real traction, but we need to be working on the next disruptive solution and model. We can’t sit back and relax,” says Bruce.

“Three years ago we said that’s it; no more start-ups or investing in pre-adoption phase businesses. From now on, everything we do will be revenue generating,” says Paul. “We’d stretched three years of runway to five years in OneVault, and we didn’t want to keep doing that. We wanted instant revenue businesses. And the very next thing we did was invest in a start-up. It’s a crazy space, but it’s also very rewarding.”

To sustain it, the group continues to grow, focusing on investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are subject matter experts and therefore already know and understand the market, and then positioning each new business or service to plug into the current offering.

“Data is our golden thread — technology and the disruptive space,” says Joel.

4. Be open to new ideas and opportunities

pivotal-group-south-africa-founders

Integral to the Pivotal Group’s positioning is Paul, Bruce and Joel’s focus on supporting other business owners whose offerings align with the group’s own growth goals, and who would benefit from joining a group.

“If your goal is to be disruptive, you need to be open to all kinds of new ideas,” says Joel. Some will be better than others, and the co-founders have made the decision to focus on the ‘jockey’ rather than the business as a result. Business offerings and ideas need to pivot. If you have the right partners, finding a solution is all part of the challenge.

Pivotal’s move into the world of artificial intelligence is due to one such partnership. “One of our clients approached us with a concept. But he needed a partner to develop it into a proper AI solution,” says Joel.

It’s an augmented intelligence solution that focuses on recruitment, talent management and career guidance. The solution screens, ranks and matches candidates against a job profile, or a number of profiles. It’s a multidisciplinary platform that predicts the performance of the individual in a role.

“Our partner is a former Accenture consultant and a leader in this field. His focus is on the IP and science of the product, ours is on the business component.”

The challenge is how to commercialise and scale the business in as short a time frame as possible. Like many disruptive products, the adoption process is a stumbling block. “We invest at the pre-adoptive curve — not at the revenue generating stage, which means a big focus is always on how we can take an idea and build it into a revenue generating business,” says Bruce.

The business uses capital selectively. “We want to invest in and drive our own agenda,” says Paul. “We’re in charge of our own destiny, but it’s not comfortable or simple. We came from corporate. Big machines that you need to direct and keep on course. This is an entirely different challenge and we are still learning.”

Related: Listen And Learn: Why Podcasts Aren’t Just For Start-up Founders


Listen to the podcast

Matt BrownMatt Brown interviews Paul, Joel and Bruce and discusses what it’s like to invest in pre-adoptive start-ups and staying ahead of the curve.

To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Afritorch Digital An Overnight Success That Was Years In The Making

By any standard, local start-up AfriTorch Digital has seen phenomenal growth and traction. But, while the company’s success might seem quick and effortless, there is a lot of hard work behind it.

GG van Rooyen

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michel-m-katuta-and-thabo-mphate-of-afritorch-digital

Vital stats

  • Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
  • Company: Afritorch Digital
  • Established: 2017
  • Visit: afritorchdigital.com
  • About: Afritorch Digital assists research agencies in conducting market research through its in-depth knowledge of the African continent and its use of the latest digital technologies.

There is a saying that goes: It takes years to become an overnight success. While a company or individual might seem to enjoy sudden (and seemingly effortless) success, there is often more to the story. The results are usually public and well-publicised, but the years of hard work that came before go unnoticed.

Local start-up AfriTorch Digital is a great example of this. Since launching in May 2017, the business has seen excellent growth. “To be honest, we were very surprised by the level of success. Things progressed a lot quicker than we anticipated,” says co-founder Thabo Mphate.

 “All the goals we had hoped to reach in four or sixth months, we managed to hit in the first month. It was just amazing.”

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

Preparing to launch

While AfriTorch Digital has certainly seen quick growth and success, it would be a mistake to assume that the same is true of the two founders. For them, the creation of AfriTorch was years in the making.

“The goal was always to start our own business,” says Thabo. “I think we’re both entrepreneurs at heart, and we saw an opportunity to create a unique kind of business that offered an innovative solution to clients, but we also realised the value of getting some experience first. Without the knowledge, experience, network and intimate understanding of the industry landscape, getting AfriTorch off the ground would have been incredibly difficult.”

Entrepreneurs tend to dislike working for other people. They want to forge their own path. However, as AfriTorch Digital’s case illustrates, spending time in the industry that you’d like to launch your business in is tremendously useful.

“Finding clients when we launched AfriTorch was relatively easy,” says company co-founder and CEO Michel Katuta. “One reason for this, I think, was that we were offering potential clients a great solution, but the other was that we had established a name for ourselves in the industry. People knew us. We had worked for respected companies, and we had done work for large clients. So, when we launched, we were able to provide a new start-up with credibility in the industry.”

The Lesson: Becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t always start with the launch of a company. Spending time in an established business, gaining experience and making contacts, can be invaluable. Very often, it’s the relationships you build during this time and the knowledge you accumulate that will help make your company a success.

Solving a problem

Everyone knows that launching a successful business means solving a burning problem, but what does that mean in practice? Aren’t all the burning problems already being addressed? And how do you attempt this without any money?

Thabo and Michel identified a small group of potential clients with a burning problem. Crucially, it was a problem that no one outside of the research field could have identified. Having spent years in the trenches, they saw a massive gap waiting to be filled.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

“A decade ago, researchers were still debating whether the future of the field was in the digital space. That debate is now over. Everyone agrees that online is the way to go. What once took months now takes days or hours, and the cost of research can be reduced by a factor of five,” says Michel.

“But researchers are not technology specialists. If made available, they are eager to adopt digital tools, but they aren’t eager to develop these tools themselves. That’s not their area of expertise.”

AfriTorch Digital stepped up to provide these tools. Katuta has a background in software engineering, so he could approach research problems with the eye of a tech specialist. Very soon, research agencies were lining up to make use of AfriTorch Digital’s services.

“We work with research agencies that conduct research on behalf of their clients. We provide the digital tools needed to conduct research online, and we provide the online communities. A big reason for our success is that we understand Africa. A lot of companies want to conduct research in Africa, but traditionally, this has been very hard. There was a lack of access and a lack of infrastructure that made research very hit-and-miss. Thanks to the continent’s adoption of mobile technology, it’s now much easier. If you have the technological know-how and an understanding of the environment, you can do amazing things,” says Michel.

The Lesson: Find a niche and own it. Research agencies might not have seemed like an obvious and lucrative market, but having spent time in the industry, the AfriTorch founders were able to identify clients who would be desperate for their offering. Spending time in an industry will help you see where the opportunities lie.


Take note

Before launching a business, get to know an industry from the inside out. This will give you an unparalleled view into gaps you can service.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Jason English On Growing Prommac’s Turnover Tenfold And Being Mindful Of The ‘Oros Effect’

Rapid growth and expansion can lead to a dilution of the foundational principles that defined your company in its early days. Jason English of Prommac discusses how you can retain your company’s culture and vision while growing quickly.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital stats

  • Player: Jason English
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: Prommac
  • Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
  • Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
  • Visit: prommac.com
  • About: Prommac is a construction services business specialising in commissioning, plant maintenance, plant shutdowns and capital projects. Jason English purchased the majority of the company late in 2012, and currently acts as its CEO. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a small business to an international operation.

Since Jason English purchased Prommac in 2012, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. At the time he took over as owner and CEO, it was a small operation that boasted a turnover below R50 million.

Today, Prommac is part of a diversified group of companies under the CG Holdings umbrella and alone has grown it’s turnover nearly ten fold since Jason English took over. As a group, CG Holdings, of which Jason is a founder, is generating in excess of R1 billion. How has Prommac managed such phenomenal growth? According to Jason, it’s all about company culture… and about protecting your glass of Oros.

Jason English

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

“As your business grows, it suffers from something that I call the Oros Effect. Think of your small start-up as an undiluted glass of Oros. When you’re leading a small company, it really is a product of you. You know everything about the business and you make every decision. The systems, the processes, the culture — these are all a product of your actions and beliefs. As you grow, though, things start to change. With every new person added to the mix, you dilute that glass of Oros.

“That’s not to say that your employees are doing anything wrong, or that they are actively trying to damage the business, but the culture — which was once so clear — becomes hazy. The company loses that singular vision. As the owner, you’re forced to share ‘your Oros’ with an increasing number of people, and by pouring more and more of it into other glasses, it loses the distinctive flavour it once had. By the time you’re at the head of a large international company, you can easily be left with a glass that contains more water than Oros.

“Protecting and nurturing a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Prommac has enjoyed excellent growth, and I ascribe a lot of that success to our company culture. Whenever we’ve spent real time and money on replenishing the Oros, we’ve seen the benefits of it directly afterwards.

“There have been times when we have made the tough decision to slow growth and focus on getting the culture right. Growth is great, of course, but it’s hard to get the culture right when new people are joining the company all the time and you’re scaling aggressively. So, we’ve slowed down at times, but we’ve almost always seen immediate benefits in terms of growth afterwards. We focus heavily on training that deals with things like the systems, processes and culture of the company. We’ve also created a culture and environment that you won’t necessarily associate with engineering and heavy industries. In fact, it has more in common with a Silicon Valley company like Google than your traditional engineering firm.

“Acquisitions can be particularly tricky when it comes to culture and vision. As mentioned, CG Holdings has acquired several companies over the last few years, and when it comes to acquisition, managing the culture is far trickier than it is with normal hiring. When you hire a new employee, you can educate them in the ways and culture of the business. When you acquire an entire company, you import not only a large number of new people, but also an existing organisation with its own culture and vision. Because of this, we’ve created a centralised hub that manages all training and other company activities pertaining to culture. We don’t allow the various companies to do their own thing. That helps to manage the culture as the company grows and expands, since it ensures that everyone’s on the same page.

“Systems and processes need to make sense. One of the key reasons that drove us to create a central platform for training is the belief that systems and processes need to make sense to employees. Everyone should understand the benefits of using a system. If they don’t understand a system or process, they will revert to what they did in the past, especially when you’re talking about an acquired company. You should expect employees to make use of the proper systems and processes, but they need to be properly trained in them first. A lot of companies have great systems, but they aren’t very good at actually implementing them, and the primary reason for this is a lack of training.

“Operations — getting the work done — is seen as the priority, and training is only done if and when a bit of extra time is available. We fell into that trap a year ago. We had enjoyed a lot of growth and momentum, so we didn’t slow down. Eventually, we could see that this huge push, and the consequent lack of focus on the core values of the business, were affecting operations. So, we had to put the hammer down and refocus on systems, processes and culture. Today Prommac is back at the top of it’s game having been awarded the prestigious Service Provider of the year for 2017 by Sasol for both their Secunda and Sasolburg chemical complexes.

Related: Establishing The Wheels Of Change In Business

“If you want to know about the state of your company’s culture, go outside the business. We realised that we needed to ‘pour more Oros into the company’ by asking clients. We use customer surveys to track our own performance and to make sure that the company is in a healthy state. It’s a great way to monitor your organisation, and there are trigger questions that can be asked, which will give you immediate insight into the state of the culture.

prommac

“It’s important, of course, to ask your employees about the state of the business and its culture as well, but you should also ask your customers. Your clients will quickly pick up if something is wrong. The fact of the matter is, internal things like culture can have a dramatic effect on the level of service offered to customers. That’s why it’s so important to spend time on these internal things — they have a direct impact on every aspect of the business.

“Remember that clients understand the value of training. There is always a tension between training and operational requirements, but don’t assume that your clients will automatically be annoyed because you’re sending employees on training. Be open and honest, explain to a client that an employee who regularly services the company will be going on training. Ultimately, the client benefits if you spend time and money on an employee that they regularly deal with.

“For the most part, they will understand and respect your decision. At times, there will be push back, both from clients and from your own managers, but you need to be firm. In the long term, training is win-win for everyone involved. Also, you don’t want a client to become overly dependent on a single employee from your company. What if that employee quits? Training offers a good opportunity to swop out employees, and to ensure that you have a group of individuals who can be assigned to a specific client. We rotate our people to make sure that no single person becomes a knowledge expert on a client’s facility, so when we need to pull someone out of the system for training, it’s not the end of the world.

“Managers will often be your biggest challenge when it comes to training. Early on, we hired a lot of young people we could train from scratch. As we grew and needed more expertise, we started hiring senior employees with experience. When it came to things like systems, processes and culture, we actually had far more issues with some of the senior people.

“Someone with significant experience approaches things with preconceived notions and beliefs, so it can be more difficult to get buy-in from them. Don’t assume that training is only for entry-level employees. You need to focus on your senior people and make sure that they see the value of what you are doing. It doesn’t matter how much Oros you add to the mix if managers keep diluting it.”

Exponential growth

When Jason English purchased Prommac late in 2012, the company had a turnover of less than R50 million. This has grown nearly ten fold in just under five years. How? By focusing on people, culture and training.

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