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Comair Limited CEO Erik Venter’s 5 Key Lessons In Leadership Innovation And Remaining Competitive

CEO Erik Venter unpacks how a 70-year old business can remain relevant and innovative in a highly competitive and commoditised market.

Nadine Todd

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In many industries, the way to handle inflation and higher operating costs is simply to implement an annual price increase. If this is your strategy, there’s no need to be creative, efficient or innovative. It’s also a highly ineffective way to increase margins or build a sustainable business, particularly if your competitors are more focused on keeping their customers satisfied and adding value.

Comair operates within an extremely tight and competitive industry. Operating costs have inflated by 225% since 2001. Have any of these costs been passed on to the consumer? Sure. Since 2001 tickets prices have increased by 27%.

As a listed company beholden to its shareholders, how is Comair carrying these increased costs, while still posting a profit, not passing the costs on to its customers and enjoying impressive employee retention? In addition, more than 50% of the company’s 2 100 people have been with the company for over ten years.

Here are CEO Erik Venter’s five key lessons in leadership, innovation and remaining at the top of a highly competitive and commoditised industry.

1. Focus on what you’re doing, not what everyone else is doing

“In this day and age, your competitors know what you’re doing and you know what they’re doing. Be careful not to let that distract you from what’s important,” says Erik. “Keep an eye on your competitors, but don’t benchmark against them as a basis of action. Internal practices determine your success. Your level of competitiveness is a by-product of operating at the top of your game.”

In Comair’s case, internal practices are the foundation of long-term success. Everything the business does, including its interactions with shareholders, is based on a long-term view. The company has had four CEOs over the course of the last 70 years. Erik’s predecessor held the position for 30 of those years, and is currently chairman of the board. Comair’s institutional memory is second to none, and the business’s strength lies in a strong culture and a history of longevity.

Related: Establishing The Wheels Of Change In Business

The danger of course, is that while a wealth of experience and ingrained knowledge helps the current c-suite navigate competitive behaviour and understand what works and doesn’t work, the potential for complacency and legacy systems is heightened.

To counteract this, Comair focuses on driving a culture of innovation. “It’s a constant balancing act,” admits Erik, “but I would still choose an experienced team with a mandate to be innovative over an inexperienced team doing its own thing.”

The definition of innovation is making an existing product or service better. Not as a once off, but consistently. It’s this focus on constant, incremental changes that has allowed Comair to absorb a 225% cost inflation over the past 15 years without passing it on to its customers.

“If we were just focused on what our competitors were doing instead of reviewing each and every system and process in our own business, this would never have been possible,” says Erik.

2. A key role of leadership is stability

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Press coverage tends to focus on charismatic leaders, and the role of stability is often overlooked. Yet consider the value of a truly steady and stable executive team. “Both employees and shareholders respond well to stable leadership, from the CEO to company directors, the board and management teams,” says Erik.

“This is particularly important in South Africa. There is so much instability outside the workplace that it’s important for your place of employment to be stable. We understand that people need to know where they stand. The need for transparency is integral to our business model. Without transparency, our company culture cannot function, because it’s based on a long-term view of the future and how we get there together.”

The process didn’t happen overnight. Once Comair’s leadership understood the value of transparency, and how it would form the basis of the business’s culture, all data, analytics and dashboards started moving towards a transparent way of doing business.

“Figures are short-term though,” explains Erik. “We needed a way to communicate long-term value and growth. We needed to develop a language that unpacked this for all 2 100 Comair employees, so that a call centre agent or baggage handler can understand and appreciate that when we purchase a new aircraft, it means there’s shareholder confidence in the business, which means we’re all doing our job well, and the company is financially healthy. And ultimately that translates to stability as well.

“It’s not just about having the same leaders year in and year out. It’s about understanding that if the company is doing well, your job is secure and there’s room for growth. You can’t expect your employees to know how the business is doing and where it’s going if you aren’t sharing that information with them.”

Over 50% of Comair’s current staff complement has been with the business for over ten years, highlighting a high employee retention rate as a product of stable leadership.

3. Effective company cultures are built on consistency

This was one of Comair’s biggest challenges when it began developing a company culture that translated the vision and mission into a set of values that the entire organisation could embrace.

“We needed to develop an overriding culture that could be embraced across departments, levels of education and personal values. It was no easy feat,” says Erik.

“First, to develop a framework and organisational language that would resonate with everyone, and second because successful implementation meant that everyone, from executives and managers right through to our cleaning staff needed to be subject to the same rules and treated in the same way. Consistency is critical. What complicates this is that managers also need to be able to have flexibility and use their discretion where necessary, or you’re creating a stagnant, stifling environment.”

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

This focus on consistency became a crucial component of Comair’s values and culture. “We wanted to unpack our company values and culture in a clear, concise way that laid the parameters and foundations of who we are, but still gave enough room for creativity so that everyone within the organisation is constantly on the lookout for better ways to do things.”

Comair achieved this herculean feat by taking a 50-page document and turning it into a clear and concise stratogram. “It’s one clear picture,” says Erik. “People respond to images. They’re simple and powerful, and so we needed a way to distil the culture into an image.

“How we do business changes, but the fundamental picture doesn’t. At its core is the message that we all rely on each other. This entire business is built on inter-dependencies. Everyone knows and understands their role in the cycle. Our whole focus in creating the stratogram was to put the vision and mission into context. Management can’t push culture down to the organisation. The workforce drives culture. It’s a living, breathing thing, and everyone must feel pride and ownership in the business and the role they play in its successes.

“It’s not a quick process. It took five years for people to start using the terminology we created in their daily spaces. Five years — but then it clicked. Now the language of Comair is everyone’s language. I can leave my office at 7pm, and a call centre agent can walk out of his building at the same time, and he’ll make a remark about how we’re both dedicated to the business, and doing our bit, using Comair’s language. It’s an incredible feeling, and creates a real sense of camaraderie across the business. We both care, we’re proud of where we work, and we ‘get it’.

“That chain of understanding influences staff attitudes, which determines customer retention, which in turn determines profitability and reinvestment potential. It’s a long-term vision based on an entire value chain that continuously links understanding to value and back again.”

Comair transitioned to a new system in 2011, which was the perfect time to launch the stratogram as well. “The industry was in a crisis, and it’s my personal motto to never waste a burning platform. In the context of our survival, the oil price had topped out and South Africa was experiencing general financial turbulence,” says Erik.

“That’s the best time to implement change. No one likes change. We resist it as much as possible. But when there’s general fear, you can use that to show a better way, and to rally everyone around a common cause working towards a shared goal.

“The reality is that most people don’t understand profitability and the role of retaining customers as a means of driving growth. Don’t assume your workforce understands how the business really operates, and how their roles influence the bigger picture. You need to share that information, and show each and every person where they fit into the bigger vision. It’s that understanding that forms the basis of a strong culture.

“For us, there’s nothing better than people leaving and then coming back because they’ve experienced life outside Comair, and they didn’t like it. We’re like a family.”

4. Drive short-term results but be guided by a long-term vision

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Short-term results are important, but if your goal is to build a sustainable business, you need to be guided by a long-term vision.

“One of the real benefits of our institutional memory is that we understand that the right upfront investments deliver huge savings down the line,” explains Erik. “For example, new model aircraft upgrades increase the hours between services and add seats, which increases revenue per flight, and decreases operational costs. The same is true of IT and infrastructure investments.”

In 2001, Comair invested R300 000 into kulula’s booking system. The next major upgrade took place in 2011, cost R50 million, and took a full year to transition the business onto the new platform. It was an enormous cost, but the benefits have already been clear.

“Over that period our passenger to employee ratio increased by 64%, and yet our service is better than ever. Better processes streamline our business, lower our operating costs and allow us to offer exceptional service. We recognise where we’re going and what it will take to get there.”

There’s a balance between a long-term growth strategy and a short-term vision though, and both are necessary ingredients of ultimate success. “In the long term you need to be investing in the business and have patience, but short-term things move quickly and you need to be flexible enough to move with the times,” says Erik.

“Your vision is long-term. How you get there is short-term, and it’s adjusting all the time.”

5. Have a conscience

“Even as a listed business with a responsibility to our shareholders, we believe we’re a moral entity first and foremost,” says Erik. “What are the implications to your organisation and wider community when you make a decision?

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

“You can’t have an attitude that disregards social implications. In a service industry in particular, you’re operating as part of a community, so how you operate within that community — from your employees to the community at large — matters. Either you are adding real value, or you aren’t, and if you aren’t, you don’t have a sustainable future.

“There’s more to life than money, and how you behave as an organisation tells your larger community what your values are. People are paying attention to this, and how they respond to brands and interact with them is changing, largely based on these perceptions.”


Key Insights

Focus on making consistent, incremental improvements across the organisation

Comair Limited’s operating costs have increased by 225% over the past 15 years, but ticket prices have only risen by 27%. The business has been able to carry the additional costs without passing them on to its customers because of a laser focus on consistently improving efficiencies throughout the organisation.

Develop an organisational language that everyone understands and uses    

When Comair invests in a new aircraft, it’s entire staff complement of 2 100 people understands that this is an indication of shareholder confidence in Comair’s growth prospects, which is good for the company, and in turn, good for them. This is the result of an imbedded culture and language that permeates the entire organisation.

Cultivate transparency within your organisation

Many employees don’t understand profitability and the role of retaining customers as a means to drive growth. This can only become clear — and impact employee behaviour — once you start sharing top and bottom line figures with your workforce.


Three key components of success

For Erik Venter, technical decisions are easy. It’s managing the trifecta of culture, skills and tools to deliver objectives where the real magic happens.

Here’s the framework in action:

  • Culture
  • Tools
  • Skills.

“Culture is extremely important,” says Erik. “The right culture attracts and retains the right skills.

If you don’t have a great culture in place, you’ll lose good people first and you won’t be able to attract good people down the line. This is true from your board and directors all the way down the organisation.

“With the right culture, you attract the right people, which means you have the best skills — or people who are able to learn the right skills.

“From there, you implement the tools necessary to do the job. All three levels work in conjunction with each other. The top tools are useless without the best people utilising them, and you won’t attract top people without a great culture. Get the basics right first, and success will follow.”

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

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting a brand

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

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

Supporting growth

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

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

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

The business

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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Take note

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

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

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

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

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

Start small, but dream big

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

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

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

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

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

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

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

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Find people to inspire you to reach success

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

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

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

Build your success, one step at a time

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

Be your own biggest cheerleader

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

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

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

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

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

Drive a movement with your business

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

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

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

Pivoting to further growth

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

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

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

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

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

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

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

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

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

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

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

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

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

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

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


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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

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

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

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

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

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

Keep up the momentum

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

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

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

The 3 goals of Suits & Sneakers

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

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

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

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

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

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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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