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Fry’s Vegetarian: Wally and Debbie Fry

Without any experience and no knowledge of the industry, Wally and Debbie Fry — winners of the emerging entrepreneur category at the 2010 Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur awards — cornered an international market with Fry’s Vegetarian, the home-grown brand that makes a vegan and vegetarian range of meat-alternative products.

Juliet Pitman

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Wally and Debbie Fry

Wally Fry is the kind of man who jumps in with his boots on. He never intended Fry’s Foods to be an international company, shipping 6 000 tons of food products a year. In fact, he never intended there to be a company, having started making the meat alternative products for which the brand is now famous as “something of a hobby.” But, having made the decision to build something in 1992, he’s been relentless in pursuing his chosen course of action.

“He’s also an absolute perfectionist,” says Debbie, his wife, with whom he started and now runs the company. Wally happily agrees. “I’m pedantic about absolutely everything. There is a process and a system for everything in the company. There’s a process for how you walk into my factory – and if you walk in the wrong way, you have to know I’m going to klap you for it, because that system is there for a reason. It has its foundation in the mistakes that we’ve made and the solutions we’ve found to challenges,” he says.

Doing it all

It might sound overly dictatorial (and Wally uses the word klap in a strictly figurative sense) but, if anything, he has earned the right to his fastidiousness. He’s the kind of entrepreneur who’s done absolutely everything in the company, so he should know what works best and what doesn’t. After all, this is a man who devised the recipes and developed the products and who, along with Debbie and a single employee in the early days of the company, weighed and measured ingredients, cooked the food, packaged it, boxed it and delivered it. He’s fixed the factory machines, run the finances, done the marketing, secured supermarket listings, run the operations, managed the payroll, hired and fired staff, and steered the strategic ship.

Of course today the company has structures in place to run the different functions and Wally and Debbie have been freed up to focus on strategy and growing the business. But Wally gave up control of each function incrementally, and only once he was happy he’d put in place the right person with the right training to run things the way he believed they should be run. “The food we make is unique. No other company does it. It’s not like we’re running a bakery, for example, and can just hire someone who’s worked in a bakery before. We have to make sure everyone understands our processes and systems, and our way of doing things. I had to write the manual on how things worked because every job was so specific,” he says.

It’s that perfectionism talking again, along with a healthy dose of being a stickler for detail. But it’s not like Wally is one of those entrepreneurs who refuse to relinquish control, believing only they have the magic touch to make the company a success — the company wouldn’t be where it is today if he’d refused to delegate responsibility. It’s not even that he believes he has a line into the one right way of doing things. It’s rather that he knows what the right way is. He’s learned what it is through trial and error, through working 18-hour days, and having done it himself. He’s gone from making 20 sausages in his kitchen in his KwaZulu Natal home, using a Kenwood Chef, an AMC pot and a two-plate burner, to running a factory that produces 500 tons of food a month, and has cornered the vegetarian and vegan markets. And that has to count for something. So when he stipulates that things follow a particular course of action, he expects to be listened to.

Setting up systems has been central to the success of the business. Processes and well-defined ways of doing things are vital to any business, but particularly in an area where you want to maintain the same standards and quality throughout. Systems allow a business to scale up and repeat its initial success over and over again.

Sit up and listen!

On that note, there’s something commanding about him in general that demands you listen. Interestingly, what drives this hard-nosed, tough, uncompromising businessman is a deep passion for saving the planet. Get him talking on the subject of the environmental havoc being wreaked by animal farming and that passion flares. He was invited to speak on the topic at the World Preservation Foundation’s 2010 Westminster Conference in the UK, addressing MPs, local government and the media, and got a standing ovation. People listen to him. This is not some peace-and-yoghurt hippie who makes vague hand-waving gestures in the direction of ‘green issues’, or even a fundamentalist who engages in heated rhetoric. He talks straight facts. He knows his stuff. He grabs your attention. Uncomfortably (for a sworn meat-lover) what he says makes sense.

And yet Wally wasn’t always a vegetarian (how many people who’ve been raised on a farm are?). “I’ve been a vegetarian since I was very young but Wally always loved meat, and it caused some degree of difficulty in our home because I wasn’t used to cooking or preparing meat,” says Debbie.

The change came by degrees but started, Wally says, when their daughter Tammy was born. “Since she could understand where meat came from, she refused to eat it. She’d ask me what she was eating and I’d say, “A drumstick” and she’d say, “Drumsticks are for playing drums” so I’d tell her it was the leg of a chicken, and that was it. She wouldn’t touch it,” he relates. The influence of his daughter and wife got him thinking and reading. “At the same time I studied Eastern religion, which of course is centred very much on vegetarianism. I started learning about the environmental collapse being driven by intensive animal farming, and I eventually decided I couldn’t in good conscience continue to eat meat,” he said.

Turning personal passion into a business edge

The fact that he had previously been a meat-eater was, in fact, the driving force behind the development of Fry’s products. “Just because I believed it wasn’t ethically right to eat meat, didn’t mean I didn’t miss it. It was really tough to give it up,” says Wally. That’s when he started experimenting with the creation of a meat-alternative. “I wanted something that had the same taste, texture and mouth-feel as meat,” he says.

And therein lies the uniqueness of Fry’s products. “No one else is making a vegan meat alternative range of products,” says Wally. Not only is the product both vegan and vegetarian, it’s also Kosher, Halaal, Suddah and non-GM, making it very special in its category. Wally’s conviction about environmental responsibility and ethics has driven him to extraordinary lengths in developing the product range. “We look at the ethics of every one of our raw material suppliers, and make sure that neither the company nor any of its shareholders is involved in any way in another company that might have interests in animal farming,” Wally explains. The brand has been voted the Best Buy label in the UK, based on the company’s ethics.

This was all driven by the Frys’ passion, but it’s had a positive business spin-off too, giving it a unique competitive edge in a market that’s increasingly focused on sustainability and the ethics of animal farming. It’s opened doors to a substantial international market and the company now exports to 23 countries around the world.

Passion is a significant motivator, and the Frys have it in spades, but is it enough to take you out of a home kitchen and into a global market? How does someone with no knowledge of food science or food manufacturing get to where Wally is today? Part of the answer lies in being willing to put in hours, days and years of hard, hard work. “We weren’t particularly clever but my goodness have we worked hard. I think we’re living proof that if you work hard enough at anything, you will succeed,” says Wally.

Mastering through learning

He’s also proof that you can master an industry about which you know absolutely nothing, having learned most of what he knows from reading books and through trial and error. “I’d read up on the different properties of food ingredients and then experiment by putting together different combinations. I learned that if I put together two different ingredients, it would give me a particular taste or texture, and that’s how our products evolved,” he says.

Wally also put himself through a crash course in machine engineering. “I bought all of our first machines for the factory on auction and I had no idea what they did or even if they were the right ones,” he says. He started learning and in a short time he was carrying out repair work on the factory machines.

And there’s the thing. Wally is the kind of person who masters whatever he puts his mind to. He doesn’t do things in half-measures. This is a ‘go big or go home’ kind of guy. Other entrepreneurs could learn a lot from him. “Someone once asked me what course I’d recommend an entrepreneur should take before starting a successful business and my answer was ‘None’. You need vision and enthusiasm and you just need to go for it,” he says.

Grab opportunities and run

The story of how the company got started is testament to this willingness to grab opportunities and run with them. Wally relates the story of how an encounter with a marketing expert really got things going.

“A vegetarian friend of a friend heard about the products I was making, purely for family consumption, and asked if he could come over and try them. When he tasted them he tried to convince me that they needed to be marketed and listed in supermarkets, but I wasn’t really interested in setting up a business. I was doing this as a hobby really,” he relates.

So convinced was the marketer of the potential success of the product that he offered to conduct market research and compile a full marketing plan for free. “His words were that I owed it to society to commercialise these products and that he himself wanted to be able to buy them in supermarkets,”

Wally adds.

Being a natural businessman and entrepreneur, the realisation that there was a market out there was enough to galvanise him into action and he couldn’t walk away from the opportunity once it had been pointed out to him. “The marketing person helped us with the package design, which we hand-drew on pieces of cardboard, I got my kids to make little flags stuck on toothpicks to identify the different products and I set off to go visit the supermarkets to get listings,” Wally recalls.

Getting a foot in the door

Anyone who’s run a business in the food industry knows just how hard this can be. Getting listed in significant supermarkets is the make-or-break tipping point, but it’s notoriously tough to do. Large supermarket chains hold all the cards and competition is fierce.

Here again Wally’s ability to make people listen and to push where necessary stood him in good stead. “I took all my pre-cooked sausages and other products and prepared them in the boardroom tea room before the meeting, sticking all our little home-made flags into the products. When the guys arrived for the meeting they told me they didn’t do taste testings in these meetings, but I said, ‘Well humour me. I’ve done all this work so you might as well eat it,” he relates. “They started tasting and then called in people from outside to taste as well, and when I left they wanted to know when I could start supplying them.”

It was a good question. “We had no factory, no equipment, no staff. I had an AMC cooking pot! I didn’t even know what equipment I’d need to buy,” he says. Machines bought at an auction were loaded into two 20 ton trucks and delivered to a small factory space the Frys owned. Wally snapped up an experienced factory worker who knew how the machines worked – the company’s first employee – and within 15 days Fry’s was up and running. The first delivery was made within three months.

Slowly does it

This makes it sound easy but the reality was anything but. “I had to learn everything from scratch. Food is a highly regulated industry – I needed to learn about food safety standards, how it should be prepared, cooked, frozen, packaged and distributed. I was also used to ordering raw materials in batches of a kilogram and I now had to order them in bulk,” Wally says.

The first orders required large quantities, but thereafter Wally and Debbie would call the supermarkets every day to find out how many boxes had been sold as this told them how much new product they would need to prepare. “We did it very, very slowly, only making as much as was required. If they had only sold two boxes, that’s how much we would make,” Debbie indicates.

It’s a far cry from the dream many entrepreneurs have of reaching a tipping point and ‘making it big’, but Wally stands by his experience of slow, steady, risk-averse growth. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that you need to sit down before starting a business and draw up a detailed SWOT analysis. If you look at the pitfalls too closely, they will become your reality. You don’t need to build an empire overnight. Just start something small and see if it works,” he advises.

‘If I can’t afford it, I don’t want it’

Growth was incremental but continuous – and entirely self-funded. Wally’s
personal rule is, ‘If I can’t afford it, I don’t want it’ and he’s applied that rigorously to the company, which has never borrowed a cent.

“If we had borrowed money the growth might have been quicker but we only know now that the product was a success. Back then, we didn’t know that so we grew organically and we’ve been very happy with that,” says Debbie.

The company was able to make use of factory space that it already owned, and some might argue that it’s easy to make a business succeed if you are lucky enough to have access to such assets. But here’s the thing. The reason the Frys owned that space in the first place was because Wally had already built up and then sold a construction company. This is the second time he’s made a success of a business, the second time he’s put in the long hours and the hard work to make something happen. So luck has nothing to do with it. And it’s worth bearing in mind that while the Frys have never borrowed money, they risked their early retirement money to make the business work.

Developing a brand people fall in love with

As Fry’s initially had no marketing budget, the product became known only through word of mouth. However, it was unique enough to make itself felt. “One supermarket told us they would have to delist us because they simply weren’t selling enough. Three months later they called us up and asked us to deliver stock because there’d been such an outcry from the vegetarian customers who had been purchasing our products,” Wally explains. Listings grew incrementally, until the product reached that golden ‘critical mass’ where stores would be out in the cold for not stocking it.

Creating something unique that meets a previously unfilled need is one thing, but how do you develop a brand that people fall in love with? Ask Wally and he’ll tell you it all comes back to passion. “You can’t start a business just because you want to make money. You need to start it because you are inspired to deliver a service or a product to people that will make their lives better or easier in some way. You need to have conviction that what you are supplying is really great for people to use. Believing in and being passionate about your product will inspire other people to believe in it too. People buy into passion. You can’t manufacture it,” he says.

Fry’s offers its customers an alternative to meat products, giving them the opportunity that Wally hoped for – to eat a meat-free or, at the very least, a reduced-meat diet. But it also offers them a chance to go green, save the planet, prevent animal cruelty and, ultimately, make a difference. That’s what builds brand loyalty and getting it right is what every brand is trying to achieve.

Taking on an international market

Customers’ demand for Fry’s products indirectly drove its penetration into international markets, as expats who wanted to continue to buy the product contacted the company to find out if they could distribute it in their new home country. “We’re represented in other countries by people who have the same passion and conviction that we do, and that makes all the difference to our success,” says Wally.

The international market currently accounts for just 25% of the company’s business, but Wally has a vision to grow aggressively on the international stage. “We just got into the States and the response has been phenomenal – our first container was sold before we had time to get the second one on the water,” he says. He’s certainly not about to ignore the South African market, but indicates that if the scales of economy are right in another country, the company would consider setting up an operation outside South Africa’s borders. “It’s not something that’s on the cards right now but yes, we’d look at it,” he says.

Continuous improvement

Wally’s drive is relentless and sometimes surprises even him. “When we were packing 500 kilograms a day I said to myself, ‘Now I’ve reached my goal. This is enough, I need to take a rest.’ But somehow I never did and today we pack 16 tons a day,” he says.

His drive propels continuous improvement in the company and the development of new product lines. A few years ago the company turned its attention to reducing the salt and fat content of its products. Today fat content is down from around 12% to between 3% and 4% while sodium content has been halved.

“We’re researching new ingredients all the time. We look all over the world, and of course where we source from has to be aligned with our ethics and values. This means R&D can take months or even years, but it’s worth it,” Wally says.

“I’m working harder now than I ever have, but I’m loving every minute of it. I’m doing something I really believe in.” It’s something nearly everyone wants to be able to say, but in the case of Fry’s Vegetarian it’s no accident – it’s integral to the business’s success. And there must be a lesson in that for other entrepreneurs.

The impact of animal farming

“The world is currently raising over 50 billion farmed animals for slaughter each year and, in addition to its major impact on global warming, this is contributing significantly to the destruction of tropical rainforests and other valuable habitats. Because of its high degree of inefficiency compared to plant protein production, animal agriculture is disproportionately depleting the planet’s dwindling reserves of fresh water, land, fuel, and other resources,” says Tammy Kelly.

The company draws on hard facts to support its position. Here are some of their stats:

  • At least half of all the greenhouse gases are due to livestock production
  • If all Americans ate no meat, chicken or fish for just one day a week, this would result in the same carbon savings as taking 19,2 million cars off the road in the USA for an entire year, or save gas emissions equivalent to 46 million return flights from New York to Los Angeles
  • It requires 500 times as much land to produce 1kg of beef as it does to produce 1kg of vegetables
  • It takes 250 litres of water to produce 1kg of wheat, and 25 000 litres of water to produce 1kg of meat
  • Cows, pigs and sheep bred for human consumption discharge millions of tons of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Livestock accounts for about 18% of greenhouse gases, more than all the world’s transportation systems including

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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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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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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