- Players: Aaron Thornton and Colin Thornton
- Company: Dial a Nerd
- EST: 1998
- Visit: dialanerd.co.za
What is success?
It’s a question that the founders of Dial a Nerd, brothers Colin and Aaron Thornton, have often thought about and debated with their fellow directors, Roberto Caprio and Phil Case. Is it massive top-line growth? Check.
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Growing from one retail store in Joburg to 14 nationwide, with another 26 on the cards? Check. Drawing the attention of a large ISP who wants to acquire you, and then signing a three-year structured buy-out deal? Check.
By 2008 it seemed like nothing could go wrong, and the brothers would be in their 30s and retired by 2011. And then the wheels fell off.
“In hindsight, the writing was on the wall,” says Colin.
“At the time, we felt like we were flying. We were signing expensive leases, chasing top-line growth and focusing on getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We were no longer just Dial a Nerd either. A few years into the business we formed Nerdworks as a holding company for Dial a Nerd and Network Nerds. We had home, software development and website divisions. We were doing a lot — and fast.”
What they didn’t see was how the buy-out would negatively impact their business, the effects of a global recession on the horizon, and how the home IT market was about to radically shift.
The ISP’s interest and the buy-out deal just accelerated Dial a Nerd’s growth, which meant 100% of Aaron and Colin’s focus was on the top line, instead of paying careful attention to the market. Before long, the cracks started to show.
“It was a perfect storm,” says Aaron. “We were chasing turnover growth without properly considering what it was costing us, or if there was a smarter way to be making better margins and higher profits. We were blinded by the beautiful retail stores we were opening and the brag factor of the growth we were experiencing.” It soon became apparent that there were some fundamental flaws in the buy-out deal.
“The ISP that we’d signed the deal with was aggressively gaining market share, and wanted to partner with a support company. They also wanted to break into the SME space. They saw us as the ideal partner for this. One of their goals was for us to grow to 40 branches nationwide. We were all for it, and used their cash for aggressive expansion,” explains Colin.
Unfortunately, the reality of the deal was quite different to how it looked on paper.
“We’ve learnt that in a successful partnership, 1 + 1 = 3,” says Aaron. “Then it’s worth it, and you have real, sustainable growth that everyone benefits from. This just wasn’t the case for us. The synergy wasn’t right.”
“We all got carried away with the value of our organisation, and when we joined the ISP, we didn’t do enough homework on the market, what they were purchasing, where the gaps lay, and who our competitors in the space were,” adds Colin. As it turned out, a lot of those competitors were actually resellers for the ISP.
”By marketing ourselves to their end-users we would’ve alienated the resellers who, as you can imagine, weren’t happy. Once they got wind of our plan they threatened to stop selling the ISP’s services – and that obviously wasn’t acceptable. A major ‘synergy’ we had identified just evaporated.
“To make matters worse, the ISP’s board wanted us to cover South Africa as fast as possible to help accelerate their own growth. We were trying to grow too quickly, which was putting enormous pressure on the business’s sustainability,” says Colin.
Finding an exit and facing new challenges
“We stood back, took stock, and realised the whole deal wasn’t working out the way we’d planned,” says Colin. It’s never easy to admit that you’ve made a mistake, let alone face the fact that the deal you thought would make you rich just isn’t delivering on its promise.
Colin and Aaron could have ignored this realisation and kept pushing, hoping they could turn it around or that they could still make it work. Instead, they decided to take their company back and build it on their terms, at their pace.
“We were lucky. The ISP’s focus was shifting, and we no longer represented the core market they wanted to concentrate on. Roberto approached the board and asked them if we could take ownership off the table, walk away and pay back the money they’d already given us,” says Aaron.
“They were happy with the proposed deal. We agreed on a payment structure, and it took us three years to pay them back.”
Not only were the brothers now free and clear to rework their entire business strategy, but they managed to salvage a good relationship with the ISP, which remains to this day.
They might have extricated themselves from a poor partnership, but the business’s problems were far from over.
“Our relief at ending the partnership was short-lived,” says Colin. By 2011 the market started to shift rapidly. First, operating systems were getting much better.
Second, while the 2008 crash took a while to get to South Africa, by 2011 it was starting to impact consumer buying trends. Both would have a significant impact on Dial a Nerd’s business model.
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“IT costs were dropping and the home consumer market was becoming incredibly competitive,” says Colin.
“Consumer electronics were becoming commoditised, and large retail chains were squeezing suppliers for better prices.”
What did this mean for the business? When Dial a Nerd had first launched 11 years earlier, Colin made the decision to focus on the home user market, which needed assistance, but wasn’t being serviced. Desktop computers couldn’t just be bought out the box.
They were custom-made from specific components based on the customer’s needs. There were only a handful of computer brands on the market, and these were high-end products.
“It was actually worth personally spending an hour or two with each customer who wanted a laptop or desktop to find out exactly what their needs were at their homes or offices,” says Aaron, who would then take the specs back to a technician who would build it from components and then set it up for the customer — again at their homes.
“Everything was complicated. We had a document a page and a half long with instructions on how to connect to the Internet.”
Fast forward a decade and things were very different. Laptops were standard, and could be bought out the box.
Apple had launched the iPad, and suddenly consumers didn’t need desktops at home anymore — they had laptops at work and tablets at home. Nothing needed to be custom-made, and there was a range of out-the-box products to choose from.
Large retailers bought and sold on price, and Dial a Nerd, which had retail stores and sold products, but at a much smaller scale, just couldn’t compete on price.
“At this stage around 50% of our revenue was hardware sales, and we had all these fancy retail stores,” says Aaron.
“However, our FD Phil, kept warning us that margins were disappearing. We began to seriously question not only our original strategy of opening 40 stores nationwide, but even keeping the existing 14 stores.”
“It’s amazing how you can be blinded by the trappings of looking successful,” says Colin.
“We loved opening stores — they were beautiful, and you’ve got this showcase that you feel incredibly proud of. Of course, there was a reason behind them. We needed a way to present the hardware on offer, and it meant that technicians had a base to work from.
“They’d waste so much time travelling from Bryanston to the East or West Rand, so it made sense to open offices in each major area. But as the market changed, rents were going up, and margins were shrinking. What’s the point of a high turnover if you’re working so hard for small margins? The model just wasn’t making sense anymore.”
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“Launch is the wrong word. We fizzled into existence,” is how Colin Thornton describes Dial a Nerd’s beginnings. It was August 1998, and Colin was 19 years old. He’d just dropped out of his first year of university — an interesting choice, considering his father was a professor and his mother was a teacher — and he needed to make an income. His dad had been clear: If he wasn’t studying, he needed to pay rent.
“I had always been interested in computers. In 1984, when I was six years old, we got our first computer. It was one of the first private computers of anyone we knew, and I was always fiddling with it — playing games, breaking it, fixing it. I loved it. From a young age, friends and family asked me to look at their PCs when they broke, and to train them.
“By the time I was in high school I was charging R50 an hour for my services. When I realised that I didn’t want to study, this was the natural place to turn to. I had some clients, I had skills and most importantly, I had a passion for technology. What I didn’t have was a business — or enough clients.”
Colin’s solution was simple. He paid his rent, and every cent he made above that he spent on flyers.
“They were cheap flyers that I printed in bulk, and I handed them out everywhere – at robots, in car parks, at malls. We got chased out of more car parks in Joburg than I can count. We paid car guards to put them under people’s windscreens, and students did mailbox drops for us. If I could have hired a helicopter to blanket them over the city I would have.”
It worked. Home users needed help, and Colin was affordable. Word started spreading, and as the business grew, three other friends who knew PCs came on board.
By 2000, Dial a Nerd had offices and a receptionist, and then Aaron, who had made it to his second year in varisty, decided to drop out as well.
“I knew tech, but we needed someone who could focus on marketing, business growth and clients. Aaron was a perfect fit, and I asked him to join us.”
Eight years later, the business had grown substantially and the brothers attracted the interest of a large ISP. A deal was signed. By 2010 that deal was reversed. By 2014 the debt to the ISP was settled, and consolidation began. Today, Dial a Nerd is a smaller business, but a far more profitable one. And growth is more on the cards than ever.
Time for a new strategy
The brothers took stock yet again. Turnover was good, but profits were not. Because they couldn’t compete with large retail chains on price, the validity of the retail stores was called into question.
They were still helping clients set up their home tech systems, even if the tech was being purchased elsewhere, but this side of the business didn’t require a showroom.
“In addition, even the home user market was shrinking — operating systems were getting better and much simpler to use. People with very little tech-savvy were able to plug and play without technical assistance. Tech was also getting cheaper, which meant in most cases hardware would be replaced instead of fixed.
“Instead of lamenting how tech developments had harmed the business, we decided to focus on how they could help us instead,” says Colin.
“We’d built a great brand over the years. It was well known, respected and trusted. That was a really excellent base to start from. We just needed to accept that we could no longer do what we’d always done if we wanted to continue to grow the business.
“In terms of the retail side, our options were to enter into a pricing war or start importing ourselves. We didn’t want to do either. Tech support was what we were good at, and that’s where we needed to focus. We made the decision to close the retail stores and stop actively selling products. We also made the decision to shift from home users to businesses.”
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A revenue problem
2012 became Dial a Nerd’s first year of consolidation. “Over the past three years we’ve wrapped up a branch every six months,” says Aaron, who spearheaded this side of the business.
“We were watching our revenue evaporate, and as a branch stopped making cash completely, we shut it down.”
“We also started focusing on the business sector,” adds Colin.
“We tried to ramp it up at the same pace that the consumer side was dropping. It took longer than we thought it would, as it so often does, but we were on the path. Corporate has a much longer sales cycle, and you need to take the time to really build trust and put proper service level agreements in place. There’s a lot more at stake in corporate IT support, because downtime costs money — sometimes millions per day in lost revenue and productivity.”
The fact that things were moving more slowly than planned was alright, though. “We knew that this was where we had real scope to grow, unlike the consumer side, which was the exact opposite,” says Colin.
At the same time, business support was getting exciting. “Servers, networks, security, the cloud — there’s so much happening in the tech space; so much scope. Business is now impossible without IT. It’s one of the most important functions of any business.”
Balancing costs with growth
The past three years have been a balancing act for Colin and Aaron. They split their roles: Aaron would wind down the consumer side of the business while Colin concentrated on building the business side.
“It’s a strange position to be in, because you still have to give good support, watch the bottom line, and make profits while decreasing the size of the business and closing branches,” explains Aaron.
“As we shut branches the best operators stayed and became ‘mobile’ operators. They were on the road anyway; now it was just official. To manage technicians who were always on the road, we needed different systems and support to control and get live reporting from. We bought off-the-shelf, yet specialised software to do this. We needed to keep our best operators and the highest billers, but we didn’t need to keep the offices and branches.”
As a result, although the business continued to focus on home users for the next three years, it got rid of overheads.
“We had no company cars, offices or scattered administrators. We focused on creating a mobile workforce with all admin consolidated in one central office with robust systems to support the shift.
A shrinking market
“The market was shrinking, and we shrank with it, keeping only the higher LSM. Today our home users account for 30% to 40% of our turnover, but without the overheads of rent and admin it’s become a very profitable revenue stream.”
An additional revenue generator has been the direct result of technological advancements.
“Robust systems have allowed us to create a low-cost mobile workforce, but on the business side, technology has allowed us to offer off-site support. Our business technicians can monitor our clients’ servers and systems from our offices, without getting in their cars and driving to the client. This means we can spot and solve problems before the client even realises they are there, but it also means technicians can now offer eight hours of support in one day instead of four,” says Colin.
“It’s been amazing for our profit margins. The costs associated with time on the road have just evaporated. The advances of tech meant we had to shift our business model, but the benefits of those same changes have been immense. We just needed to recognise them and make the best use of them.”
Reaping the rewards
Ultimately, while the last few years have been tough, and radically changing a business model can be daunting, for Dial a Nerd, the rewards have been well worth it.
“With the home division we’ve always waited for the phone to ring. Business customers are different. We’ve put contracts in place, which has created an annuity income. This means we know how much revenue is coming in each month, and can plan (and spend) accordingly,” says Colin.
“While getting here has been scary as hell, our lives are simpler as a result and we’ve substantially grown our profits. Our turnover might be down by 35%, but our year-on-year profit growth over the past three years has been 100%.”
Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.
- Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
- Company: Property Point
- What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
- Launched: 2008
- Visit: propertypoint.org.za
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.
While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.
Risk, reputation and relationships
“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.
So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?
Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.
“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”
Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”
A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.
“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”
Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”
This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.
“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”
In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”
Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.
“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”
Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.
Building a sustainable start-up
While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.
Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.
1. Align and partner with the right people
This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.
2. Make sure you get the basics right
Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?
3. Understand your value proposition
Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?
4. Unpack your value chain
If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?
8. Don’t ignore technology
Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.
Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.
“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”
Networking, collaborating and mentoring
Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.
“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.
“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”
The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.
To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za
Bain & Company Give You The Data On How To Become 40% More Productive
Top performing organisations get more done by 10am on a Thursday than most companies achieve in a full week. They don’t have more talented employees than everyone else though — they’re working with the same people and tools as you. Michael Mankins unpacks what separates these businesses from everyone else, and how you can learn to be more like them.
- Player: Michael Mankins
- Company: Bain & Company
- Visit: www.bain.com/offices/johannesburg/
“Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”
When Bain & Company partner, Michael Mankins evaluates businesses, he clearly distinguishes between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is producing the same amount with less — in other words, finding and eliminating wastages. Productivity, on the other hand, is producing more with the same, which requires an increased output per unit of input and removing obstacles to productivity.
Interestingly, when businesses face challenges or tough operating conditions, the first response is always to become more efficient, instead of more productive. Restructuring and ‘rightsizing’ are the result. The problem, says Michael, is that when companies take people out, they don’t take the work out, and so the people end up coming back, along with the costs.
A better response, he says, is to identify the work that could be removed to free up time, which could then be invested in producing higher levels of output.
While businesses have become very good at tracking the productivity levels of blue-collar and manufacturing workers, tracking the productivity of knowledge workers is entirely different.
“There’s no data around white-collar productivity,” says Michael. “The problem is that the world is shifting towards knowledge work, and so, if we can’t measure productivity, output and obstacles in that space, businesses will never get the great levels of performance they’re looking for.”
Because of a complete lack of statistics in this area, when Michael and his colleague, Eric Garton, were approached by Harvard Business Review Press to write a book dealing with this issue, they had to devise a way of looking at the relative productivity of organisations comprised of white-collar workers.
The results were unexpected. “We were asked to research the difference between top performing organisations (the top quartile) compared to average organisations. I honestly thought the answers would be obvious, even if we didn’t yet have the tools to track them. I thought the best companies would have the best people. That’s 90% of the answer. Simple as that.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple at all. Of the 308 organisations in the study, drawn from a global pool, the average star performer or A-player was one in seven employees. This statistic held true whether the company was in the top 25% of performers or an average performer. The difference was that the top performing businesses were 40% more productive than their counterparts — and yet their mix of talent, on average, was the same.
“There were some exceptions, but on the whole, the best in our research accomplishes as much by 10am on a Thursday as the rest do the whole week. And they continue to innovate, serve customers and execute on great ideas — all with the same percentage of A-players as other, more mediocre businesses.”
So, what were the differentiating factors?
What’s dragging your organisation down?
First, we need to understand how Michael and Eric approached their research before we can understand — and implement — their conclusions.
“We began with the notion that every company starts with the ability to produce 100 if they have a workforce that’s comprised of average talent, that’s reasonably satisfied with their job and can dedicate 100% of their time to productivity — bearing in mind that no-one can dedicate 100% of their time to productive tasks.
“The question we were focusing on was around bureaucratic procedures, complex processes and anything else that wastes time and gets in the way of people getting things done, but doesn’t lead to higher quality output or better service to customers. That’s what we call organisational drag. You start at 100 and then the organisation drags you down. The good news is that you can make up for organisational drag in three ways: First, you can make better use of everyone’s time. Second, you can manage your talent better by deploying it in smarter ways, which includes placing it in the right roles, teaming it more effectively and leading it more effectively. Third, you can unleash the discretionary energy of your workforce by engaging them more effectively.”
This trifecta — time, talent and energy — became the basis for Michael and Eric’s book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. “The way you manage the scarce resource of talent can make up for some, potentially even all, of what you lose to organisational drag,” says Michael.
What the research revealed: Time
“Wasted time is not an individual problem,” says Michael. “It’s an organisational problem. The symptoms include excess emails and meetings and far more reports being generated than the business needs to operate.”
These are all manifestations of an underlying pathology of organisational complexity, which is managed by senior leadership. “The best companies lose about 13% of their productive activity to organisational drag. The rest lose 25%. The most important thing is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions that workers are having. That means meetings and ecommunications need to be relooked.”
The easiest manifestation for Michael and Eric to observe were hours committed to meetings and how much time workers spend dealing with ecommunications. What’s left-over is the time people can actually get some work done.
What they found is that the average mid-level manager works 46 hours a week. 23 hours are dedicated to meetings and another ten hours to ecommunication. That leaves 13 hours to get some work done — except that it doesn’t.
“It’s difficult to do deep work in periods of time less than 20 minutes. When we subtracted all the other distractions that happen daily, we were left with just six and a half hours each week to do work.” What’s even scarier about this statistic is the fact that meeting work and ecommunication time is increasing by 7% to 8% each year and doubles every nine years. If left unchecked, no-one will have the time to get any work done. “This is why everyone plays catch-up after hours and on weekends,” says Michael.
“One of my clients told me that his most productive meeting is at 6.30am on a Saturday, because it doesn’t involve one minute that isn’t required or one individual that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. If the same meeting was held at 2pm on a Tuesday, there’d be twice as many people, it would be twice as long and there’d probably be biscuits.”
The point is clear: We don’t treat time as the precious resource that it is, and if we did, we would radically shift our behaviour.
Start by asking what work needs to be done and then figure out the best structure to do that work. “Don’t confuse having a lean structure that does the wrong work with being effective,” says Michael. “One of the biggest problems we see is that companies are not particularly good at stopping things. Things get added incrementally, but nothing ever gets taken away. For example, we found that 62% of the reports generated by one of our clients had a producer — but no consumer. Time, attention and energy was invested in reports that no one needed and no one read.
“Ask yourself: How many initiatives have you shut down? If you made the decision that you could only do ten initiatives effectively, and each time you added an initiative, one had to be eliminated, what would your organisation look like?
“Unless you routinely clean your house, it gets cluttered. The same is true of companies. Initiatives spawn meetings, ecommunications and reports, which all lead to organisational drag.”
What the research revealed: Talent
According to Michael, the biggest element in their research that explained the 40% differential in productivity is the way that top performing organisations manage talent.
“We conducted research in 2017 that revealed the productivity difference between the best workers and average employees. Everyone knows that A-level talent can make a big difference to an organisation’s performance, but not everyone knows just how big that difference is.”
To put it in context, the top developer at Apple writes nine times more usable code than the average software developer in Silicon Valley. The best blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas keeps his table playing at least five times as long as the average dealer on the Strip. The best sales associate at Nordstrom sells at least eight times as much as the average sales associate walking the floor at other department stores. The best transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic has a patient survival rate at least six times longer than that of the average transplant surgeon. And the best fish butcher at Le Bernadin restaurant in New York can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours.
It doesn’t matter what industry you investigate, A-level talent is exponentially more productive than everyone else.
This is why Michael thought that the obvious answer to why some organisations perform better than others is the mix of talented employees they’ve attracted.
“When we asked senior leaders to estimate the percentage of their workforce that they would classify as top performers or A-level talent, the average response was slightly less than 15%. And that’s despite the fact that most companies have spent vast sums of money in the so-called war for talent.”
The big difference, as Michael and Eric discovered, is how that talent is deployed. “It’s what they do with that one in seven employees that makes the biggest difference,” says Michael. “Most companies use a model called unintentional egalitarianism, which basically means that they spread star talent across all roles. The best on the other hand, are more likely to deploy intentional non-egalitarianism. They ensure that business-critical roles are held by A-level talent.”
The challenge is that approximately 5% of the roles in most companies explain 95% of a company’s ability to execute its strategy, and very few organisations articulate which roles those are — but the ones that do tend to be top performers.
“There’s an excellent historical example of this at work,” says Michael. “Between 1988 and 1994, Gap was a high-flyer in the retail sector. They performed globally on all levels — they grew faster than anyone else, were more profitable, had higher shareholder returns, and were the most admired company.
“During that time period, the organisation was led by Mickey Drexler, and his strategy was to focus on what he believed was Gap’s critical role, which was merchandising. He wanted every merchandiser to be a star. ‘No one will tell us what the colour is this year — we’re going to tell the world. We’re going to determine which styles are in and what everyone will be wearing.’
“And they did. If you want proof that Gap’s merchandisers were in fact stars during that period, you can look at today’s CEOs and COOs of the world’s largest retailers. Most of them were merchandisers at Gap during those years.”
The challenge of course is that everyone is always trying to hire stars, and yet only 15% of employees can be described as A-level talent. What can organisations do to utilise their stars wisely?
“First, move a star into a different position if they’re not in a business-critical role. To achieve this, how you define a star might have to change. Some companies hire for positions, and others hire for skills across positions. Stars, in my view, are more the latter. They can learn different skills and fill different roles.
“Second, start defining your business-critical roles. If you ask executives what percentage of their roles are business critical, most say 54%. They’re not discerning. It’s unintentional, because they don’t want to signal to their workers who aren’t in a business-critical role that they’re not as valuable to the organisation, but the reality is that people figure it out anyway, and you just end up with business-critical roles that aren’t filled by the right people, and stars in positions that anyone else could fill.”
Teams perform better than individuals
To understand how important teams are when deploying talent, Michael uses an example from the world of racing — Nascar in the US to be precise.
“Between 2008 and 2011, there was one pit crew that outperformed everyone else on the track,” he says. “A standard pit stop is 77 manoeuvres, and this crew could complete them in 12,12 seconds, which was faster than any other team. However, if you took one team member out and substituted them with an average team member, that time jumped to 23 seconds. Substitute a second team member, and it was now 45 seconds. The lesson is simple: As the percentage of star players on a team goes up, the productivity of that team goes up — and it’s not linear.”
Michael and Eric also discovered that the role leadership plays on team productivity is both measurable and exponential.
“In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to quantify the impact of a great boss on team productivity. They found that a great boss can increase the productivity of an average team by 11%, which is the same as adding another member to a nine-member team.
“If you take that same boss and put them in charge of an all-star team, productivity is increased by 18%, and this is with a team whose productivity was exponentially higher to begin with. Great bosses act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.”
According to Michael and Eric’s research however, what most organisations tend to do is place a great boss with an under-performing team in the hopes of improving them, when what they should be doing is pairing great bosses with great teams.
“We did a survey that asked a simple question: When your company has a mission-critical initiative, how do you assemble the team? A: Based on whomever is available. B: Based on perceived subject matter expertise. C: We attempt to create balanced teams of A, B and C players to foster the development of the team. D: We create all-star teams and we put our best leaders in charge of them.
“We thought everyone would answer D. We were wrong. 30% of our bottom three quartiles answered B, closely followed by C, and then A. Only 8% of them answered D.
“The results were very different in our top-performing quartile though. There, 81% of respondents answered D. In other words, the 25% most productive companies in our study set were ten times more likely to assemble all-star teams with their best players than the remaining 75% of the organisations in our research.”
How talent is deployed makes a difference. “I recently had this highlighted for me through another sporting analogy. The world record for the 400-metre relay is faster than the 100-metre dash multiplied four times. How is that possible? When your role is clear and your position is clear, the handoff is seamless. Under these conditions, the best teams outperform a collection of the best individuals.” Michael does offer a word of advice though.
“Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you do have the best talent, you don’t need to worry about anything else. I don’t believe that’s true. There are always higher levels of performance that can be achieved because there are always areas you can improve on.”
What the research reveals: Energy
According to Michael, employee engagement and inspiration is a hierarchy. “There are a set of qualifiers that have to be met just to feel satisfied in your job: You need to feel safe, have the resources you need, feel that you’re relatively unencumbered in getting your job done every day and that you’re rewarded fairly.
“To be engaged, these all need to meet, and more. Now you also need to feel part of a team, that you’re learning on the job, that you’re having an impact and that you have a level of autonomy.”
Inspiration takes this a step further. “Inspired employees either have a personal mission that is so aligned with the company’s mission that they’re inspired to come to work every day, or the leadership of their immediate supervisors is incredibly inspiring, or both.”
Why does this matter? Because how satisfied, engaged or inspired your employees are has a real, tangible impact on productivity. “Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”
The really scary statistic is that 66% of all employees are only satisfied or even dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% are engaged, and only 13% are inspired. “These statistics are pretty constant, although top organisations can improve their engaged and inspired ratios,” says Michael. “What we found amongst those companies that did have more engaged and inspired workers was that they all tended to believe that inspiration can be taught. It’s not innate. You can become an inspirational leader with the right attitude and training.
“For example, one organisation surveys its employees every six months and specifically asks workers to rate how inspirational their leaders are. If you’re rated uninspiring by your team for the first time, you’re given training. If, six months later, you’re still rated uninspiring, you’re given access to a coach to evaluate why the tools aren’t working for you.
“By the third, two questions are asked: Should you be a leader, and should you be at the company? Many productive employees can be effective individual contributors but aren’t necessarily leaders, or aren’t happy as leaders, and would best serve the organisation in a different role. The second question is tougher, but even more important. If an inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more than a satisfied employee, an uninspiring leader is a tax on the performance of the company, and there has to be a consequence to that. We have to constantly enrich our workforce and leaders need to be included in that.”
The problem is that very few organisations are asking how inspiring their leaders are. “If you don’t know if your employees are engaged or if your leadership is inspiring, you can’t address it,” he says. “You can take a satisfied employee and make them engaged, but you can’t inspire someone if they aren’t first engaged — that’s the hierarchy. Employee engagement is largely achieved through the way you manage teams. You have to give people the sense that they are having an impact, working within a team and learning. Get that right, and you’ll unlock a powerful level of discretionary energy that will drive productivity in your organisation.”
Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, focuses on the scarcest resource companies possess — talent — and how it can be utilised to drive productivity.
Visit www.timetalentenergy.com to find out more.
7 Foundational Values Of Brand Cartel And How They Grew an Iconic Business From The Ground Up
Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren built Brand Cartel, a through-the-line agency, that delivers exactly what they wanted — and has grown exponentially as a result.
- Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
- Company: Brand Cartel
- Launched: 2013
- Visit: brandcartel.co.za
“We’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do.”
When Dillon Warren, Renate Albrecht and Marco Ferreira launched Brand Cartel in 2013 they were in their early 20s with zero agency experience between them. The idea had started when Marco recognised that social media was taking off, but no agencies were playing in that space yet. It was a clear opportunity.
Printing flyers that said ‘Your social media is so last season’, Marco and Renate went from store to store in Sandton City, pitching their services. When Dillon joined them a few months later because they needed someone to handle the company’s finances, they had two laptops between them, R6 000, which Dillon had earned from a Ricoffy advert, and sheer will and tenacity.
“We shared a house to save on rent and split everything three ways,” says Renate. “At one point we hadn’t eaten in two days. My mom lent me R500 so I could buy Futurelife and a bag of apples for the three of us.”
The trio hired their first employee soon after launching Brand Cartel, and after prioritising salaries and bills, there wasn’t much leftover. “Dillon actually paid us R67 each one month,” laughs Marco. “That’s what was left — although I still can’t believe he actually sent it to us.” It was at this point that the young business owners realised they needed credit cards if they were going to make it through their start-up phase — not an easy feat when your bank balance is under R100.
“Looking back, those days really taught us the value of money,” says Dillon
“We spent a lot of time with very little, and we’re still careful with money today.” Through it all though, the partners kept their focus on building their business. “It almost didn’t work for a long time. We were young and naïve, but in a way, that was our strength. We didn’t have any responsibilities, and we’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do. All of our business has been referral business. It takes time, but we focused on being the best we could be and giving everything we had to our clients. Our differentiator was that we really cared, and were willing to offer any solutions as long as they aligned with our values.”
This is how Brand Cartel has grown from a social media agency into PR and Media Buying, SEO and PPC Strategy, Digital and Print Design, Web Development, Campaign Strategy and now an Influencer division. “It’s an incredibly competitive space with low barriers to entry, which meant it was easy to launch, but tougher to build a client base,” says Renate. “I’d sometimes cry in my car between sales pitches, and then walk in smiling. We had no idea if we’d make it.”
The perseverance has paid off though. Strong foundations have laid the groundwork for exponential growth over the past year, with turnover growing almost ten-fold in 2017 thanks to relationship-building, strong referrals and fostering an internal culture and set of values that has driven the business to new heights as a team.
Like many start-ups, Renate, Dillon and Marco have made their fair share of hiring mistakes, but as the business grew and matured, the young entrepreneurs began to realise that the success of their business lay in the quality of their team and the values they stood for.
This meant two things: Those values needed to be formalised so that they could permeate everything Brand Cartel does, and they needed a team that lived, breathed and believed in them.
“We’ve had some nasty experiences,” admits Dillon. “You should always hire slowly and fire fast, and for five years we did the opposite. We’ve hired incredible people, but we’ve also ended up with individuals who didn’t align with our values at all, and that can destroy your culture.
Dillon, Marco and Renate realised they needed to put their values on paper. “We did an exercise and actually plotted people based on a score grading them against our values, so we knew where our issues were. We knew what we wanted to stand for, and who was aligned with those values. We were right; within a few weeks resignations came in and we mutually parted ways.”
The team that stayed was different. They embraced Brand Cartel’s values, and more importantly, it gave the partners a hiring blueprint going forward.
“Values are intangibles that you somehow need to make real, so it’s important to think about the language you use, and how they can be used in a real-world work context,” says Marco.
The team has done this in a number of ways. First, they chose ‘value phrases’ that can be used in conversation, for example, ‘check it, don’t wreck it’, and ‘are you wagging your tail?’ Team members can gently remind each other of the value system and focus everyone on a task at hand simply by referring to the company’s values. “In addition, when someone is not behaving according to those values, you can call them out on the value, which is an external thing, rather than calling them out personally,” explains Dillon.
Second, all performance reviews are based on the values first. This means everyone in the organisation begins any interaction from a place of trust, knowing they are operating according to the same value system.
“When you’re in a production environment with jobs moving through a pipeline, there can be problems and delays,” explains Marco. “Instead of pointing fingers when something is over deadline or a mistake is made, our team can give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together. They trust each other, which creates cohesion. We all work as a team, which impacts the quality of our work and the service we offer our clients.”
The system is simple. Coaches will step in first if there is an issue before it escalates to the Head of Team Experience, Nicole Lambrou. If Nicole is called in, she will address the problem head on. “Inevitably it’s something fixable,” says Marco. “By addressing it immediately and in the context of our values it can be sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the overall quality of our team improves, and we are a more cohesive unit.”
The founders have seen this in action. “I recently arrived at a client event and three different people came up to me and complimented my team on the same things — all of which aligned with our values. Everyone at Brand Cartel lives them, internally and externally,” says Renate.
The value system has also shaped how the team hires new employees. “We used to meet people and hire for the position if they could do the job,” says Renate. “But then we started realising that anyone can hold up for an hour or two in an interview. You only learn who they really are three months and one day later.
“We need people who walk the talk, and we really only had a proper measurement of that once we articulated our values. Our interview style has changed, but so has what we look for.”
Here are the seven values that Dillon, Marco and Renate developed based on what they want their business to look like, how they want it to operate, and what they want to achieve, both internally, and in the market place.
1. Play with your work
Our goal is for everyone on our team to become so good at what they do that it’s no longer work. Once that happens you love your job because you’re killing it. It’s why sportsmen are called players, not workers, and it starts with the right mindset.
2. Wag your tail
The idea behind this value stems from Dale Carnegie, who said ‘have you ever met a Labrador you don’t like?’ In other words, we all respond well to people who are friendly. It needs to be genuine though, so again, it’s a mindset that you need to embrace.
We live these values whether we’re at the office or meeting clients. If you go into each and every situation with joy and excitement, from meeting someone new to a new brief coming in, you’ll be motivated and excited — and so will everyone around you.
3. Check it, don’t wreck it
The little things can make big differences. Previously it was too easy to pass the buck, which meant mistakes could — and did — happen. Once you instil a sense of ownership and create a space where people are comfortable admitting to a mistake however, two things happen. First, things get checked and caught before there’s a problem. Second, people will own up if something goes wrong. This can help avoid disasters, but it also leads to learnings, and the same thing not happening again.
4. What’s Plan B (aka make it happen)
We don’t want to hear about the problem; come to us with solutions, or better yet, already have solved the problem and made it happen. We reached a point where we had too many people coming to us with every small problem they encountered, or telling us that something wasn’t working so they just didn’t do it.
That wasn’t the way we operated, and it definitely wasn’t the way we wanted our company to operate. We also didn’t want to be spoon feeding our team. It’s normal for things to go wrong and problems to creep in — success lies in how those problems are handled.
Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so we embrace them instead, encouraging everyone on our team to continuously look for solutions. For example, the PR department holds a ‘keep the paw-paw at Fruit & Veg City’ meeting every morning, where we deliberately look for where problems might arise so that we can handle them before they do. We start with what’s going wrong and then move to what’s going right. You need to give your team a safe and transparent space to air problems though. We don’t escalate. We need to know issues so that we can collectively fix them, not to find fault.
5. Put your name to it
It’s about pride in work and making it your own. When someone has pride in what they’re doing, they’ll not only put in extra time and effort, but they’ll pull out all the stops to make their creative pop, or go the extra mile for a client.
We need to find the balance between great quality work and fast output though. One way we’ve achieved this is by everyone reviewing the client brief and then committing to how long their portion will take.
When someone gives an upfront commitment, they immediately take ownership of the job. It took time for us to find our groove with this, but today we can really see the difference. Our creative coaches also keep a close eye on time sheets and where everyone is in relation to the job as a whole to keep the entire brief on track. If someone is heading towards overtime we can immediately ask if something is wrong and if they need assistance.
We also celebrate everything that leaves our studio. Every morning we have a mandatory 15-minute catch up session where we check in on four core things: How am I feeling (which allows us to pick up on the mood in the room and the pressure levels of our teams); What’s the most important thing I did yesterday; What’s the most important thing I’m going to do today (both of which give intention and accountability); and ‘stucks’, issues that team members need help with. We then end off with our achievements so that we can celebrate them together.
6. Keep it real (aka check your ego at the door)
We believe in transparency. At the end of the day we’re all people trying to achieve the same thing, but it’s easy for ego to creep in — especially when things go wrong. You can’t be ego-driven and solutions-orientated. If clients or team members are having a bad day, you need to be able to focus on the solution. Take ego away and you can do just that. It’s how we deal with stucks as well. We can call each other out and say, ‘I’m waiting for you and can’t do my job until I receive what you owe me,’ and instead of getting a negative, ego-driven reaction, a colleague will say, ‘sorry, I’m on it.’
7. Walk the talk
For us, ‘walk the talk’ really pulls all our other values together. It’s about being realistic and communicating with each other. If you’ve made a mistake or run into a problem, tell your client. Don’t go silent while you try and fix it. Let them know what’s happening and fill them in on your plan of action.
Walk the talk also deals with the industry you’re in. For example, if you’re a publicist, you need to dress like a publicist, talk like a publicist, and live your craft. In everything we do, we keep this top of mind.