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How Roman’s Pizza Got A Great Big Slice of Success (Over R1 Billion Of It)

When John Nicolakakis took over the reins of Roman’s Pizza from his father, he had only one goal: To create the biggest pizza brand in South Africa. R1 billion in system-wide sales into this journey, and the company’s aggressive expansion plans have never wavered. In fact, if ever there was a poster child for the mantra ‘go big or go home’, Nicolakakis would be it.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: John Nicolakakis
  • Company: Roman’s Pizza
  • Turnover: Over R1 billion in system-wide sales
  • Accolades: Young Business Leader of the Year – Southern Africa, 2015 All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA) Brand Builder of the Year 2016, Franchise Association of South Africa (FASA) 2016 Awards Nominated for EY 2015, EY Entrepreneur of the Year, Exceptional category
  • Visit: romanspizza.co.za

The first Roman’s Pizza franchise John Nicolakakis ever sold was to a complete fraud. He was 23 years old, and it was his first deal since joining his father in the family business.

“I was so excited when he handed over the cheque for his joining fee. I didn’t realise it was the last cash we’d see from him. He couldn’t even cover his set-up costs. We had to step up and help him get the business up and running. We basically loaned him the money to buy a franchise from us. And we had to do it. The brand was more important than my mistake.”

Nicolakakis’ father hadn’t liked the prospective franchisee, but he’d gone through with the deal anyway, against his father’s wishes. It was a lesson the young businessmen took to heart.

“On the one hand, I was 23 with a 30-year-old’s experience. My dad had spent my whole life talking about the restaurant business. He always explained every decision he made to me, and would ask me questions. ‘John, this is a good site. Can you tell me why?’ Sites, restaurants, customers, I was always learning, which is why by the time I agreed to join him in the business, I had a solid concept of a good site — but I was very short on people skills.

“From that moment on I became far more discerning, and a lot less eager. The agreement that my father and I had when I joined the business was that we would embark on an aggressive expansion plan. That was my condition. My father had grown a strong brand with 28 stores and a distribution centre, but he loved the restaurant business and serving customers. That’s what made him happy.

“I wanted to grow a brand that would be a household name. But I was realising that there’s a right way to grow, and a wrong way. Every decision I made from then on had to take the sustainability of the brand into consideration.”

Related: How Flick Visual Foundry Found High Rewards By Taking A Narrow View

Informal Growth

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Arthur Nicolakakis’ goal was to run the busiest pizzeria in South Africa. Serving people was his first love, and the fact that many of the 25 stores in 2001 were franchised was simply because Arthur had agreed to let a few friends purchase franchises if they could find a good site. “That was my dad,” says Nicolakakis.

“His philosophy was ‘If I know you, trust you and you have my number, we can chat about a franchise.’ That’s as formal as the process got. When I joined the business in 2001 there was an entire filing cabinet filled with little slips of paper: Franchise enquiries that my dad’s secretary didn’t know what to do with, so they all ended up in drawers.”

But Nicolakakis Senior must have understood his son and what it would take for him to join the business, because even though it’s never been discussed between the two, he had quietly laid the foundations that Nicolakakis would need to build the business into a formidable brand.

“The distribution centre was started when the brand had less than 25 stores and didn’t need it yet,” says Nicolakakis. “But it’s much easier putting these systems in place when you’re small than when you have hundreds of stores. My dad had incredible foresight for what the business could become, even though that wasn’t his personal goal. These foundations allowed us to scale and keep costs down for our franchisees. Back-end infrastructure is crucial if you plan to grow. You have to start small, but think big. What will need to be in place as you hit certain milestones? The better your infrastructure, the smoother and more successful your growth.

“In hindsight it’s possible my dad played me,” laughs Nicolakakis.

“I had always been adamant that I was going to be a stock trader in New York, and yet here was this business with all the right foundations, ready for someone with completely different growth objectives to take over and run with.”

Nicolakakis had some conditions though. First, all profits had to be reinvested into the company. Profits couldn’t be saved so that one day the family could move back to Greece, as so many of Arthur’s contemporaries were doing. “If we did this, we were going to grow aggressively,” says Nicolakakis. “That was my main objective.”

Arthur was ecstatic to have his son on board, and happy to let Nicolakakis run with any growth plans he had. He was supportive, but he didn’t interfere with his son’s strategic decisions. This was why the young franchisor had a lot of hard lessons ahead of him.

Related: Business Partners Limited Explain What It Takes To Have The X (Fundable) Factor

Getting Serious

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Missteps are common for all businesses, particularly in start-up and growth phases. What’s important is not that they happen, but that lessons are learnt and systems, processes and strategies are adjusted as a result.

This is an area where Nicolakakis has been particularly vigilant. “Mistakes happen. I know, I’ve made my fair share of them,” he laughs. “But I’ve had one goal since joining the business, and it was only strengthened when I took over the helm from my father in 2004. I want to be the biggest pizza brand in South Africa. Nothing less will do.”

To achieve this ambitious goal, Nicolakakis has focused on three core areas of the business: The business model, marketing, and franchisee selection and support.

1. A business model that delivers on key objectives

When Nicolakakis joined the business, Roman’s Pizza was a strong brand in a localised area of Pretoria. His first step was to sell franchises — he wanted to grow the company’s footprint as quickly as possible, increasing its reach on a national level. But he also knew that while the pizza business had been a fledgling industry when his dad had first bought a struggling pizzeria in 1993, the landscape was far more competitive in 2001.

If Roman’s Pizza was going to be the largest pizza brand in the country, he needed to give consumers a compelling reason to choose Roman’s over a myriad of other pizza brands and take-away options.

That reason was a high quality product at a low price point. Now he just had to figure out how to deliver on that brand promise. High quality at a high price point is easy. Similarly, it’s relatively simple to price low if you aren’t concerned about quality and service delivery. High quality, low price is much harder to achieve — and maintain.

The distribution centre was an important first step that was already in place. It allowed the brand to purchase in bulk, and pass those savings onto its franchisees. It also meant Nicolakakis could control the quality of the product. All calamata olives, anchovies and pizza sauce are imported from Europe. Seeman’s is the company’s meat supplier, and only the highest quality mozzarella is used.

To offset the costs of quality, Nicolakakis needed some smart cost-cutting strategies. The first involved the operation of the head-office and distribution centre. This is a lean, mean operation. Offices are functional and above the distribution centre. There’s no plush furniture or frivolous expenses.

“We strip out all unnecessary expenses. The aim is to keep costs down, and other than our ingredients, every buying decision is made through that lens.”

Next, Nicolakakis turned his attention to the customer experience. With the exception of independent brands, most of his competitors — from pizza takeaways to burgers or fish — offer a free delivery service.

“This was the area in which we could really make a difference on our bottom line,” he says. “I don’t believe the South African market suits a delivery model. Urban areas are congested with traffic, and suburban living means that a delivery radius needs to be quite large. It’s expensive to offer; even if it’s marketed as ‘free,’ that service has to be built into the product’s price point. It’s also difficult to deliver a hot product that’s as good when it reaches its destination as it was when it left the store, and there will always be incorrect orders.”

As a result, Nicolakakis made the bold decision to be a call and collect business. It was flying in the face of traditional customer expectations, but the price point he was able to offer as a result also broke conventional norms. As a Roman’s customer you can purchase a high-quality pizza for less money than anywhere else — as long as you’re happy to pick up your order yourself.

As it turned out, most people are perfectly willing to do just that, and the model has been a runaway success. “We are the leaders in terms of value, and this is why — we can’t afford to deliver without raising our prices to cover those costs. Yes, we lose out on people who will only order deliveries. That’s okay, we’ve chosen our model and it’s working.”

Related: Urban Property Development Brand Blok’s Niche Designs For The Urban Dweller In Mind

2. Aggressive marketing and discounting tactics

Roman’s Pizza operates some of the busiest pizzerias in South Africa, and aggressive marketing campaigns and crazy discounting deals play a large role in that success.

“We’re in unprecedented times,” says Nicolakakis. “For the first time in 15 years the consumer sector is facing a proper downturn. How will we weather this recession? The consumer is stretched beyond belief, which means as a brand you need to give a reason why people should buy from you.

“It’s accepted that quality is important, but in this sector, so is price. Our stock-standard menu pricing is 10% to 35% cheaper than our competitors, so we’re already better value for money. Our whole model is built on discounted prices. But it’s important to remind consumers who you are. Never stop marketing, particularly in a crowded market. We’ve learnt that you need to get a little bit crazy.” Roman’s Pizza markets 365 days a year, but ad campaigns switch between generic campaigns and discount campaigns.

“We see an effect with our generic branding campaigns, and they’re important, but the real response comes from our promotional campaigns. The problem is that there’s a fine line you need to walk when you’re offering discounts to that degree.

“Gross profits (GP) collapse when we do this, which means volumes have to make up the losses. A GP of 40% instead of 50% is fine as long as volumes make up the difference, and then you carry your increased customer base through a generic marketing period. It’s a balance and it takes constant work.”

To make the large-scale discounting campaigns work, head office takes on the risk. “If the growth in turnover does not ensure that the franchisee maintains the rand value of his GP, we will subsidise the loss through a rebate or royalty discounts. We’re a debt free family-owned business, which means we have no partners and shareholders to report in to. It gives us an enormous amount of freedom.”

Well-marketed discount campaigns mean a sudden influx of customers, and this needs to be carefully managed as well.

“We’ve been doing it for so long we now know how to prepare for our discount campaigns,” says Nicolakakis. “In the early days we had some specials where the wheels fell off, but today we’re prepared for those volumes. Our stores are built for high volume, low margins.

“Our first above-the-line advertising was a R750 000-radio campaign. A few months later we followed up with our first TV campaign, offering incredible discounts. Volumes skyrocketed by 40%. It was chaos. As the distributor, it’s up to us to ensure that our franchisees receive the stock they need. We needed extra trucks to deliver the volumes. It was all hands on deck, working around the clock.

“The trick with discounting is to drive the volumes, and then be able to deliver. In-store the franchisees and their staff need to be equipped to handle high volumes, but our support is crucial. It’s a team effort.”

3. Finding and supporting the right franchisees

Nicolakakis’s growth strategy has always been a franchise model. Currently the brand has 25 company-owned stores, 30 joint ventures and 140 franchised stores.

As so much of the brand’s success rests with its franchisees, the company has also fine-tuned its franchisee selection process since Nicolakakis’ early (and over-eager) mistakes.

“Our first step is to verify financial records and vet all financial criteria,” says Nicolakakis. “We learnt the hard way that you can’t just take someone’s word at face value. We conduct personal interviews and do psychometric testing as well.” As a general rule, Roman’s Pizza franchisees should be owner-operators, and before any documents are signed or money exchanges hands, each prospective franchisee spends one full week in a store, from open to close.

According to Nicolakakis, many prospective franchisees drop out of the process at this point. “This business is a lifestyle choice. You either love it, or it’s not for you. But it’s important to know which before we embark on a relationship together. Protecting the brand is far more important than selling another franchise. We want our franchisees to love what they do and what Roman’s Pizza stands for.”

Given how seriously Nicolakakis takes service delivery, it’s an important distinction. Franchisee cell phone numbers must be prominently displayed in-store, and customers must be able to contact you, no matter the day or hour. Nicolakakis’ own number is readily available for all customers as well.

“We have a lot of loyalty towards our franchisees, and we will always go the extra mile for them, which is why our first franchisees are still with us, 20 years later. But we expect excellence from them as well — and will be completely transparent if something isn’t operating according to our expectations.

“Great franchisees are irreplaceable. This is why we spend so much time vetting new candidates; it’s why we will always give first option of a new site to an existing franchisee, and it’s why we are so focused on maintaining an open and transparent relationship with our franchisees.

Related: From Simple Idea To Sideline Business: How Nkosenhle Hlophe Spotted An Opportunity

“Our worst store is a corporate store, our best is a JV. Corporate stores tend to trade on average. They’ll trade better than a bad franchisee — bad franchisees take shortcuts, buy inferior products, and will destroy your brand, no corporate store will ever do that — but they also lack the passion of an exceptional franchisee.

“We’ve also found that it’s incredibly important to have corporate stores from an overall business perspective. We’re able to test new procedures, systems and standards at our corporate stores before rolling them out, and it keeps our finger on the pulse of the market.

“For example, we insist that franchisees spend a minimum of 1% of sales on local marketing, but at our corporate stores we spend 2,5%. It’s our testing ground. We need to back up our theories at store level before we can expect franchisee implementation.

“We’re an aggressive brand. We’re hands on, passionate, and value personal relationships. But we’re also very straightforward. If you play ball and we make an error, we’ll do anything to fix it. But we expect the same from you.”

Throughout this expansive growth journey, Roman’s Pizza has remained a family business. “My dad is a sounding board. His experience is a vital factor in our growth. But we’re also both alpha males, and we’ve boxed over the years. We’re the two people who love this business most, and when we fight it’s truly for the business’s best interests. We might not always agree on what’s best for the business, but we know any argument is coming from a good place.”

With that degree of passion behind its name, it’s no wonder Roman’s Pizza has become a household brand.

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

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting a brand

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

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

Supporting growth

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

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

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

The business

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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VITAL STATS

Take note

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

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

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

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

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

Start small, but dream big

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

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

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

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

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

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

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

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Find people to inspire you to reach success

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

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

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

Build your success, one step at a time

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

Be your own biggest cheerleader

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

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

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

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

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

Drive a movement with your business

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

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

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

Pivoting to further growth

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

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

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

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

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

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

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

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

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

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

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

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

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

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

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


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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

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

Nadine Todd

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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.

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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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