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Capitec: Riaan Stassen

How Capitec gave the established banking industry a run for its money.

Juliet Pitman

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Riaan Stassen

Chances are, most entrepreneurs will never get their hands on R250 million start-up capital. They probably won’t have the backing of a large investment company to get their dream off the ground. These are considerable advantages and Capitec Bank had both of them. But that’s where the dissimilarity with most entrepreneurs ends, and a truly visionary journey begins.

Had you purchased Capitec shares back in 2002 when the company listed, you’d be feeling smugly pleased with yourself right now. From a listing price of R2, the company’s shares are today worth R173. The success of the bank that took on the banking industry is a remarkable story, and one from which entrepreneurs can learn a great deal, no matter how small their business or how modest their means.

It is a story of disruptive thinking in action, of the new kid on the old block who took a gap that others saw but were unable to fill. In doing so, it showed up the big players at a time when they seemed immovably entrenched as market leaders. And while it hasn’t yet dethroned one of the Big Four banks, it certainly has them sitting up and taking notice.

With good reason too. The country’s first new retail bank in decades, Capitec has cornered the massive lower-middle income retail banking market, signing on average 70 000 new customers a month. It has ambitious plans to grow its branch network by 55 branches a year for the next five years, and recently posted continued profit growth of 46%. All those things are deeply worrying (or should be) if you’re an established bank that’s grown used to your entrenched position in an industry that’s remained essentially unchanged for decades.

Shifting the game

And there’s the thing. Capitec’s greatest achievement is arguably the fact that it has changed an industry. Its no-frills approach to simple banking that meets the real needs of the customer has introduced a new element to the banking landscape and fundamentally changed the rules of the game. Those who want to compete can’t but take cognisance of this fact.

Capitec’s success has been driven by a ‘go big or go home’ approach that’s nothing if not ambitious. But then it has to be. As CEO Riaan Stassen points out, “You can’t compete in the banking industry as a small-time player. Not if you want to get ahead.” The same applies to any established industry. You might be able to carve out a tiny niche for yourself, but you’ll never really be in the game. Knowing this, Capitec did for banking what William Webb Ellis did for rugby. (Popular legend has it that Ellis picked up and ran with the ball during a soccer game at Rugby School, birthing a new sporting code named after the school). It’s what Apple did internationally and kulula, locally. And it transformed Capitec from ‘the little guy trying to carve out a market space’ to ‘the next new big thing’.

Taking the gap

This had always been Stassen’s goal. He’s not a maverick like Richard Branson and he doesn’t possess the charismatic god-like aura of Steve Jobs, but he’s no less the disruptive entrepreneur for all that. As far back as 1995, when he was MD of Boland Bank, he had ambitions of reengineering the bank, but when it merged with BoE and became part of a larger corporate structure, those plans were scuppered.

He didn’t forget them however. “We’d done a thorough analysis of the retail banking market and we knew there was an opportunity to do things differently,” he says. So when he and the majority of the former Boland Bank Exco left BoE to join PSG’s micro-lending outfit, Keynes Rational in 2000, those plans were revisited. (Keynes obtained a retail banking licence in February 2001 and Capitec was born.)

What the market analysis revealed was hardly surprising. After all, it wouldn’t take a genius to point out the flaws in the current banking landscape. The average banking customer could easily identify astronomically high banking fees, poor customer service, opaque policies and procedures, overly-complicated products and services, and reams upon reams of red tape. And that’s just for a start.

But while the market gap might have been obvious, the fact remains that no one – least of all the established banking players – had taken advantage of it. What Stassen did was outline where the opportunities lay and used this to clearly articulate the new bank’s vision.

“They key thing was to ask ourselves what we wanted to achieve. The answer was directly informed by where we saw the market gaps: affordability, greater and more hospitable branch access, and simplified, easy-to-understand banking products,” says Stassen.

It sounds simple: identify the gap and build your business around filling it. But it’s something countless businesses, large and small, fail to get right, even when they can see where the opportunities for
differentiation lie. That Capitec got it right speaks of a single-minded focus on a clearly defined vision, and the strength of leadership to carry that vision through to fruition.

Stepping into the customer’s shoes

Stassen’s point of departure in all of this was the question, “What does the customer want?” It’s a question many banks (and businesses) claim to ask. But if they are indeed asking it, they certainly don’t seem to be using the answer to inform any of their strategy.

At Capitec, what the customer wants drives everything. Indeed, it’s given the bank its differentiating edge, helping it to introduce a range of industry firsts.

Take its pricing structure for instance. Other banks have repeatedly claimed it’s impossible for them to reduce bank fees because of the high cost of servicing the low-end market. Capitec proved them wrong.

“We identified affordability as a huge opportunity. Most banks were charging very high transaction costs and were giving virtually no return on savings,” says Stassen.

Point-of-sale debit card purchases are free, as are balance enquiries except when using other bank and international ATMs. The monthly administration fee is R4,50. Customers can also withdraw cash from participating retailers – including Pick n Pay, Shoprite, Checkers, PEP, Boxer and Score stores – for R1,00 per transaction. On average, when compared to traditional banks, customers can save close to R100 a month. “Our bank charges are 50% cheaper than the best product in the market,” says Stassen.

Capitec also encourages saving by turning the traditional interest rate structure on its head, offering a higher rate of interest for lower value savings.

This year, the bank took the decision not to raise banking fees. Interestingly these decisions, which put customers before shareholders, have delivered the goods when it comes to the share price, proof positive that the needs of the customer and the shareholder need not be in opposition.

Retaining personalised service

Stassen believes that the face-to-face relationship is also critical to providing customers with what they want. “Banks have become very unfriendly and intimidating places. We wanted to improve access – not just from the point of view of having more branches, but also by making the bank a hospitable place that people felt comfortable visiting,” he says.

At a time when other banks are actively discouraging customers from using the branch, Capitec is engineering its branches to make them welcoming. Cash withdrawals can only be made at an ATM, and cash deposits are immediately sent to a drop safe, which allows the bank to do away with the unfriendly bullet-proof glass of most branches. At Capitec, consultants talk to customers across tables.

In fact, its entire recruitment strategy is informed by the recognition that many customers prefer to speak to a consultant face to face.

“We take cognisance of the diversity of our customer base, so we recruit staff from the communities in which we open branches,” Stassen explains. A policy of recruiting for potential and training for skill brings its own set of challenges. “Very often, particularly in remote rural areas, it’s difficult to find staff with the right potential. We never want to compromise on the quality of service we give to customers, and this means we’ve had to invest a lot in excellent training,” he adds. Around 200 new staff members are trained each month but for every one of those, the bank has interviewed ten people.

Training is intensive and carried out over seven weeks. In order to manage training costs, the bank employs a combination of e-learning and interactive training, and trains all staff centrally at its Stellenbosch headquarters. “Centralised training has also helped us to create a homogenous culture,” says Stassen.

Going where the customers are

Capitec’s objective to grow its branch network by 55 branches a year  will provide customers with even greater branch access. Like everything else it does, the way these branches are distributed is directly informed by a thorough understanding of the market and what customers need.

“Modes of transport are particularly relevant to our customer base, and we’ve used research in this area to help us establish branches in the best possible location,” says Stassen. This often leads to distribution channels that might seem counter-intuitive. In Belville, for example, there are three Capitec branches within 200 metres of each other.

As Stassen explains, each services customer groups with very different profiles. “One group commutes by train. They are blue-collar workers who are paid weekly. Another group is employed by bigger companies and government buildings in the area. They commute by car and are paid on a monthly basis. The third group is balanced between monthly and weekly paid customers.”

Typically, branches are located on transport routes and in retail centres, and in order to allow greater access the bank has offered minimum banking hours of 8am to 5pm since its inception. In certain areas, branches are open from 7am to 7pm. Capitec also recently became the first bank in South Africa to open for Sunday trading. (Unsurprisingly, other banks have quickly followed suit).

Making ‘simple’ sophisticated

These are just some of the ‘industry firsts’ that have helped Capitec attract new customers at the rate it has. But perhaps more than anything, it’s the bank’s products that set it apart. There is a single transaction and savings product for all customers, regardless of income. It’s a fundamental break from the multiple and complex products offered by traditional banks trying to provide something tailored for every customer group. The transaction account also acts as a savings and loan facility, all rolled into one.

The very existence of the Global One product is proof of Stassen’s innate tendency of turning the tried and tested way of doing things on its head, and challenging entrenched industry beliefs and systems.  This is a man who sees things very differently to his competitors, and it’s given him the edge.

As he explains, most banks segment the market in terms of income, based on the assumption that different income groups have different needs. “I take a very different view,” he says, “I believe that the only time that income drives different needs is when it comes to wealth creation. A poorer person requires good savings advice and products, whereas a richer person requires good investment advice and products. But that’s where it ends. When it comes to things like making withdrawals or payments, different income groups might choose different access mechanisms, but at the end of the day they require the same functionality. They want a bank that can handle cash in and cash out, efficiently.”

The bank’s pay-off line, Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, is borne through in its products as well as its fees. “I don’t like the bundled fee approach. We’ve gone with a single, pay-as-you-go pricing structure,” he adds.

Capturing a market

All this simplicity leads to greater clarity in the minds of the consumer, and transparency is an important deliverable at Capitec. “We believe customers want more control over their money, and they can’t have that if they don’t understand the banking fees they are being charged,” Stassen points out.

Such transparency has no doubt played a central role in helping the bank to gain access to a market that’s notoriously mistrustful of financial services institutions. It goes hand in hand with open communication, and for Stassen this has been key to capturing the market. “For this market, you never want to create an expectation gap. Such gaps lead to things like more enquiries at the branch which, at the end of the day are non-income-generating activities for the business,” he says, proudly asserting that, unlike its competitors, Capitec branches have very short enquiries queues.

As part of its communication strategy, the bank offers customers the opportunity to register for SMS updates. “It’s too expensive to send out statements for savings accounts and many customers don’t have fixed addresses. The SMS facility allows them to see, in real time, how much money they’ve just spent on a transaction and what their existing balance is,” he explains. Customers also get a monthly SMS outlining their banking fees and any interest earned. “It’s all about putting them back in control. We believe customers have a right to know what’s happening to their money,” says Stassen.

Building a system that delivers

Such strategies are easily conceived, but Stassen is the first to admit that setting up a bank is a mammoth undertaking. “We underestimated what it would take to establish and build such an organisation from scratch. You need massive infrastructure to compete with the big players,” he says, adding that technology is a critical component. In spite of that, Stassen believes that Capitec was able to turn its newcomer status to its advantage. “Most banks inherit their systems, which have been changed and added to over generations. It was a major undertaking but the fact that we got to build our own technology platform from scratch turned out to be an advantage. It meant we could tailor it exactly to suit our needs,” he says.

The system had to be able to handle high volume, low value transactions, quickly and efficiently, and be scalable. “Being paperless was also very important, particularly given the fact that much of our market is only semi-literate,” says Stassen. The system was engineered to be process-driven with a high degree of centralised control. As Stassen explains, this took much of the administrative burden away from the point of customer interaction.

At the time that the technology platform was built Capitec was the only bank in the country that ran its main banking system off a Windows platform. And here’s the thing. In total, the company has spent around R120 million on both hardware and software. “Many of the big banks can spend in the region of R3 billion over a three-year period on the same thing, and our system handles similar volumes to theirs,” Stassen points out. “Setting clear objectives of what the bank wanted to achieve was a critical guide as to which components we needed to select for the technology platform,” he adds.

The system has provided the bank with the ability to sign up customers in ten minutes, without any forms. Prospective customers need only their ID document and proof of residence, and in some instances don’t even need to visit a branch to sign up. Stassen formed a mobile banking unit to travel to large organisations and sign up new customers on the spot. The value of such immediacy in capturing the market cannot be overstated.

Overcoming growing pains

Stassen believes that one of the reasons Capitec was able to take advantage of the market gaps where its competitors weren’t, is that it had the nimbleness of a small entrepreneurial company. But the business’s growth plans are ambitious and Stassen is acutely aware of the danger of becoming another large, slow-to-respond bank as the organisation gets bigger.

“Implementation definitely becomes more difficult as you grow, but I think the solution is to prioritise properly to get the best new ideas implemented,” he says. Getting this right is partly a function of building the right culture. “We’ve worked hard to make sure our people understand the value of continuous improvement. We communicate the benefits it will bring to them and to the organisation,” Stassen says. The upshot is that the bank experiences very little push-back when things like Sunday trading are introduced. “Staff don’t automatically ask ‘Why should I change or work harder?’” he says.

As the organisation grows, Stassen will continue to implement his conservative approach to financial management and accounting standards. “I’m happy to be innovative when it comes to development, but on issues of managing liquidity and conserving capital, I’m definitely conservative,” he says. Looking ahead, it’s an approach that will stand the bank in good stead.

Stassen wants to grow internationally but typically, unlike other banks, he’s not overly focused on the African market. “The cost of entry in banking is high, so we want to be in the high potential countries. For this reason, we’d rather go into India than Namibia, for example. We would also prefer to focus on countries that have stable economies,” he says. In addition to India, he’s interested in Brazil and the Eastern Block countries. “I’d also love to be in China but the complexities are too great for us to consider it for another couple of years,” he says.

Recognising that a thorough understanding of the market has been so critical to Capitec’s local success, Stassen indicates that the bank would prefer to partner with a local player in overseas markets. One option would be to partner with retailers, which would give the bank access to a customer base, market knowledge and a distribution network.

For the moment, however, he’s focused on growing the South African market. “We want 1 000 branches and five million customers.” Given what Capitec’s achieved to date, it’s not difficult to imagine it reaching those goals. If the future belongs to disruptive thinkers, this is what it looks like.

Building a brand that shows it understands the market

At a time when most banks are encouraging customers to spend more, Capitec launched a campaign to do just the opposite. Called The Live Free Project, the campaign staged events that highlighted ways in which consumers could enjoy themselves without spending money.

In one instance the bank employed a sandcastle construction crew on Cape Town and Durban beaches in December, reminding consumers that they could enjoy a day out with their families building sandcastles on the beach, for free, instead of racking up debt in shopping malls.

In time for the national budget speech it opened Le Budget Cafe in Cape Town, where consumers could enjoy their own home-made lunch in a completely free environment. And in a different take on shopping, the campaign launched a ‘swapping mall’ in Johannesburg where consumers could exchange their lightly-used fashion, homeware, art, books and design items.

“Advising consumers not to spend money might seem like a paradox for a bank – particularly given that they were blamed for the debt crisis that triggered the global recession in 2007. But Capitec wants consumers to save money, stay out of debt and live within their means,” says Charl Nel, Head: Strategic Communication.

For Stassen, it’s all about resonating with the needs of the market. “Not everything needs to be about making more money off your customers.
I can’t stand all those strategies about cross-selling or upselling. We don’t sit around a table and ask ourselves how we can get more money out of our client base. We ask ourselves what our customers need and how we can give it to them in a way that’s different to, and will beat our competitors.”

What you can learn from Capitec

  1. Don’t accept the status quo: Just because things have been done a particular way by companies that have become market leaders, doesn’t mean there isn’t a new, better way of doing things.
  2. Ask how it can be done differently: Capitec challenged long-held assumptions about the banking industry and how to service the market.
  3. Start by going back to the source – your customer: Give them what they need – particularly if no-one else is meeting those needs – and the rest will follow.
  4. It’s not enough to identify the gaps: You need to come up with a sustainable and profitable solution to fill them. Capitec’s advantage lay not in the fact that it saw the market gaps, but in being able to meet them.
  5. Articulate a clear vision based on the opportunities available: Gear your business and all its systems and processes around taking advantage of these.
  6. Structure your systems to meet your objectives: The smartest system is worthless unless it helps your business achieve its goals.
  7. Be prepared to work longer and harder than your competitors: Taking on the big guns is hard work. Make sure you and your staff are up to the challenge.
  8. Employ people who understand the importance of doing things differently: Capitec’s leadership was able to articulate why it’s important for the business to continually improve, a critical step in getting staff on board

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Edwin Letlape

    Dec 22, 2014 at 08:19

    Six days for a simple and small deposit to clear, hao and the say they providing us with good service, where is the good in all this huh, best to move on

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting a brand

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

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

Supporting growth

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

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

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

The business

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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

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

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

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

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

Start small, but dream big

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

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

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

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

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

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

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

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Find people to inspire you to reach success

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

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

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

Build your success, one step at a time

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

Be your own biggest cheerleader

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

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

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

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

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

Drive a movement with your business

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

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

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

Pivoting to further growth

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

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

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

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

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

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

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

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

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

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

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

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

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

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

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


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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

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

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

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

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

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

Keep up the momentum

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

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

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

The 3 goals of Suits & Sneakers

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

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

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

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

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

suits-and-sneakers

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

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

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

R1 million in debt at 25

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

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

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

Share your insights with your clients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get people excited about your offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big risk, big reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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