In the early 80s, Connie Mashaba worked for Southern Sun hotels as a junior bookkeeper. In 1985, her husband Herman Mashaba asked her to join his fledgling business in Garankuwa, north of Pretoria. What started out as a small manufacturer of hair care and grooming products for the black consumer has grown into a multi-billion rand business and a household name.
Herman Mashaba launched Black Like Me with his wife Connie at the age of 26, with R30 000 he borrowed from two friends. They marketed and distributed ethnic hair products and, within seven months, the loan was repaid.
In 1997 he sold 75% of the business to Colgate-Palmolive, buying it back in 1999. His company had 47% growth in 2001 – the most rapid in the industry sector. Black Like Me re-invented its image in 2002, launched into the UK, and added fragrances and cosmetics to its range. In 2003 it entered the personal care market.
Today, Connie Mashaba has set the company – a model of African entrepreneurship – on a solid growth path, merging the business with cosmetics company Amka, driving its market share, and streamlining its operations to strengthen its performance.
Entrepreneur spoke to her about what it’s like to be the driving force behind a leading South African brand.
What role did you play in the establishment of Black Like Me in 1985?
I was involved in the company from the beginning and I did everything from reception all the way up. I’m an all-rounder, but my love has always been for administration and finance, so that was where I landed up.
You took six years off to study between 1997 And 2003. What did you study?
I left when Black Like Me formed a strategic partnership with Colgate-Palmolive. Herman stayed on as MD, but I did not want to be part of a corporate organisation.
I also wanted to complete my studies as I had never had the chance to do so. I finished my bcom and followed that with Honours in business management. My goal was to consolidate the knowledge I had gained through work experience.
How have your studies benefited you in your current position at the helm of the company?
Achieving a qualification gives you a greater, firmer belief in your own abilities. When you combine experience with education, you have a winning formula.
Herman Mashaba relinquished the reins to you in 2004. What were the reasons for this move?
In 1999, Herman bought the business back from Colgate-Palmolive and spent the next few years injecting flexibility, speed and entrepreneurial flair into the company. By 2004 he wanted to enter a new business environment and there were several people who were possible candidates to take over from him, but because of my experience in the business the board took the decision to appoint me as MD.
What particular challenges have you faced (if any) after taking over from Herman?
We are in an era of vastly increased competition, particularly in the lifestyle industry, so differentiation and relationship building are extremely important. I have also learnt a lot about leadership – people cannot be taken for granted, and you have to keep the channels of communication open at all times.
Why did you decide to merge with Amka in 2004 when you took over?
Our two companies had been long-time competitors, and we agreed that by merging the businesses, we would increase our market share significantly. As a result, Amka bought a 49,9% stake in Black Like Me. The BEE deal was one of the biggest ever in the beauty industry and saw two serious black companies joining forces.
There were great synergies between Amka and Black Like Me, from both a manufacturing and a distribution point of view, and Amka had a distribution network established in over 39 African countries.
Related: Black Like Me: Herman Mashaba
What value has this brought to Black Like Me?
It has streamlined our distribution, enabling us to reach every corner of the country. It has also provided us with a vehicle for further expansion into Africa. Another important outcome is that we both have increased buying power.
What challenges did you face as a result of the merger and how have you overcome these?
Herman and the Kalla family had been competing for many years, so the two businesses were fairly familiar with each other. Nonetheless, integration itself is not easy as two organisations have to learn each other’s cultures and approach to business.
We were fortunate that both companies were family-owned businesses and were entrepreneurial ventures – that meant there were some fundamental similarities and common values that eased the way for us. It took about a year for us to become fully integrated.
How have you maintained the identity of the Black Like Me brand within the merged company?
I am responsible for the sales and marketing of Black Like Me, so I am fully involved in the identity of the brand. I think it’s important that I am here and doing things hands-on.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs whose companies are going through some form of significant change such as a merger?
If it’s a good merger, one plus one will equal three. Success depends on the trust and respect you have for one-another, as well as shared commitment to the business. Number one rule: do not go into a partnership if you have any doubts.
You have set the company on a specific growth path. What is your strategy?
My strategy focuses on three simple tenets: Give people what they want; do not take customer service for granted; and do not be static – when you stagnate, you die.
You are well on your way to building Black Like Me into a major African brand. What challenges have you faced in marketing the products beyond our borders?
We are exporting to about 10 African countries and also to Papua New Guinea and the UK. However, our focus remains on South Africa because we still have so much to build here. The most challenging aspect of exporting to other African countries is collecting payment. Getting products through customs is also very difficult.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to export into Africa?
The most important advice I can give is to start by establishing your brand at home first. Only once you have accomplished that should you start studying the foreign market you want to enter. It’s important to pinpoint your reasons for wanting to do so, so that you are clear about this upfront. It is also essential to establish partnerships in the countries you wish to export to – you cannot do it yourself from South Africa.
What level of interaction does the black like me brand have with its customers?
We have two types of customers: wholesalers and retail stores, and consumers in the lsm 4 to 7 brackets. The former are most receptive to initiatives like product promotions.
To reach consumers we promote our product in print media and on tv, where we tend to sponsor certain shows. Our primary interaction with consumers is at store level and our in-store promotions are extremely successful.
What is the key to maintaining customer loyalty?
Competition is growing in our market, but the key to customer loyalty is firstly the quality of the product. Secondly, we place a huge emphasis on education at salon level. In Gauteng alone there are over 4 000 salons that use our products. We have teams who visit them regularly and demonstrate new products to them.
Black like me is over 20 years old. How do you ensure your products remain relevant to a fast-growing black middle class?
We redesign our packaging every two years to keep it fresh and up-to-date. We also have a dedicated research and development team that conducts intensive research into the cosmetics market to ensure that our products meet the needs of our target market, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Our range has grown to include not only hair care, but also skin care products, cosmetics, toiletries and fragrances.
How big is your management team?
There are six people on the team, three men and three women. It is focused entirely on sales, marketing, public relations and promotions.
How would you describe your management style?
It is democratic and consultative, but i am not afraid to show authority when i have to. I expect people to be responsible and accountable, and because i trust and respect my team, they are.
You are a highly successful leader, from both a financial and operational point of view. What would you say are the key reasons for this success?
I’m passionate about the business. I am committed to making sure it succeeds, and i am surrounded by people who are all working towards the same goal – as a team, we understand where we are going.
Does the business still maintain its entrepreneurial flair?
Most definitely. When we come up with decisions, we go with them there and then. There is no corporate machine standing in our way. We have also retained all the flexibility of an entrepreneurial business. And we work from the grass roots up, not from the top down.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt about being involved in a business with your spouse?
The day never ends and you always take your work home with you. On the other hand, you always have a profound understanding of the problems and challenges you both face and you can rely on one another’s support. You also know that the advice you receive is relevant and apposite.
What are the next big goals you have set for black like me?
My aim is to grow the business in the face of fierce competition. I want to reach as many black women in South Africa as possible, no matter where they live, whether it’s in villages, towns or cities. I want them to know and understand our products. I also want to ensure that every woman in this country can afford to buy our products.
How do you develop your knowledge and skills?
I surround myself with people who are knowledgeable. I ask questions, i attend seminars, i read as many books as i can about subjects that interest me.
Is there anyone whom you look upon as an inspiration in your career?
There are many people, but i prefer to focus on the qualities and strengths they have and to admire and emulate those, rather than to focus on the individuals themselves.
What major strategic moves did you make over the years that made the biggest positive impact on your business?
Our single most important strategy has been community involvement. The community projects we have sponsored and supported have differentiated the black like me brand.
We have educated hairdressers in rural and urban areas and taught beauticians how to use our products; we have sponsored boxing events; and we have funded emergency helicopters for the annual pilgrimages to Moria in Limpopo.
Giving back to the community at this level – and being visible at events that are seminal in the lives of our consumers – has carved a space in their hearts and minds for black like me. In-store promotions have been invaluable in increasing the visibility of the brand.
Working closely with salons and salon associations to educate users of our products has also contributed enormously to growth. The products work and once people know how to use them properly, they are hooked.
What is your key advice to anyone seeking to start a business in this country?
Understand the market you want to go into, be passionate about what you want to do and be committed. It’s a cliché, but if you do not love your business, you cannot succeed. It was John Maxwell who said, “winning is an inside job”. Trust and respect the people you work with.
If you don’t give them that, they will sabotage you, even without knowing they are doing so. Be positive in your outlook.
Despite the very serious issues that South Africa faces, the possibilities for economic growth are enormous, and job creation is possibly one of the most important things you can do for this country today.
What have you brought to the business that has complemented or extended Herman Mashaba’s legacy?
I’m benefiting from what he has built and I work hard to maintain his legacy. I have cemented the relationships he created within the industry. I have been most fortunate in that the respect he built in this sector has opened doors for me.
At the same time, I have to ensure that my actions remain consistent with the foundations he has laid. Relationships in business are extremely important and when someone has been as successful as he was, it’s vital that you do everything in your power to maintain those bonds.
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.
- 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
- Player: Siya Metane AKA Slikour
- Company: Slikouronlife.co.za
- Launched: 2013
- Visit: www.slikouronlife.co.za
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Player: Mark Sham
- Company: Suits & Sneakers; Impello
- Est: 2015
- Visit: www.suitsandsneakers.co.za; www.impello.co.za
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
- Put together an incredible event as a proof of concept
- Find a way to get corporates excited by the structure and vision
- Get entrepreneurs and corporate execs to attend
- 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.
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.
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.
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