Jenni Button is bouncing out of her chair, talking a mile a minute about her new ventures as she sits in her Parkhurst-based Philosophy boutique, surrounded by garments in a riot of gorgeous colours of luxurious fabrics. The energy that radiates from her is electric.
It’s Friday afternoon and the feisty blonde is in high spirits, throwing her head back and laughing loudly as she recounts how she made (and lost) her name in fashion. You get the distinct impression she’s like this most of the time.
To listen to her rattle off ideas, you’d never guess this was someone who recently lost a major court battle in which she was hoping to be awarded what she believed were her rightful shares from the sale of the Jenni Button fashion company. And she was barred from ever attaching her name in any way to any clothing brand in South Africa.
“To add insult to injury, the economy took a complete nosedive, which means I had to borrow money from the bank to build my guest house, my latest venture – not a great time to be building or borrowing money from banks, let me tell you!
And I lost my two beloved cats to feline leukemia,” she says of the year that she describes as ‘an absolute shocker.’It’s the kind of year that would make even the most battle-hardened businessperson give up and go home, but astonishingly, Button is brimming with confidence, exuding the kind of energy, enthusiasm and passion one associates with young entrepreneurs who are still blissfully naive and have yet to learn how it can all go horribly wrong.
She simply refuses to lie down and die. Hers is a story of troubled times, and how to bounce back. Here’s how she did it.
It all started off happily enough. Jenni Button first made her name as a fashion designer at the age of 23 when she opened her first Jenni Button clothing store in Adderley Street, Cape Town, in 1984.
“I’d left advertising to do my own thing and had always been passionately interested in fashion, the female form and making women look beautiful,” says the former fine arts student. She worked from home. “I’d do all the cutting on the bed, and the lounge was full of garments and ironing boards – crazy times!” she remembers.
The young designer caught the fashion world’s attention. Her extreme minimalist style in muted tones of blacks, whites, greys and beige stood out in stark contrast to the patterned, coloured prints that dominated fashion in the mid-80s. “In many ways I was lucky. I was designing the kinds of clothes I loved to wear back then, but I was also in the right place at the right time,” she says.
It was a time when minimalist designers like Georgio Armani and Calvin Klein were just coming to the fore. Women were coming to realise their power in the boardroom and were dressing accordingly.
Partners & growth
Right from the start the store took off. “It was absolutely amazing. We couldn’t produce the clothes fast enough – part of the reason the store looked so minimalist was because sometimes we literally only had four or five garments left to sell,” Button laughs.
Within a year she had brought in partners Mandy. Chemaly and husband-and-wife team Liz and Phil Biden. Both Chemaly and Liz Biden played a hands-on managerial role in the company, leaving Button free to design. Phil Biden took up the position of chairman.
The company opened stores in Hyde Park, Sandton City, Claremont and a second Cape Town city store. At its height there were six stores in total. Jenni Button became synonymous with understated elegance, sexy sophistication and ‘Queen of the boardroom’ style.
She became famous for dressing South African celebrities, such as news anchors Gillian van Houten and Doreen Morris and many participants in the annual Best Dressed Woman of South Africa award. Internationally, she became popular among international film stars, with Bo Derek and Jacqueline Bisset listed as clients.
The Jenni Button label was a key showcase in all of South Africa’s major fashion shows, including Lucilla Booyzen’s SA Fashion Week. Then in 1997 the company decided to sell. “Mandy Chemaly was ill at the time and didn’t want to be in the rag trade anymore. We were approached by The Platinum Group and decided to sell,” Button says.
It was the start of what was to become her biggest mistake, one that ended unhappily in court in October 2008 when a judgment brought to a close the sorry tale of how not to sell a business.
To cut a long story short, Button and her partners sold 70% of the business to The Platinum Group in 1997. At the time of the sale Button owned only 35% of the company. She ceded 5% to her partners, who owned the remaining 65%, so that The Platinum Group could purchase the 70% they were looking for.
A written agreement at the time of the sale stipulated that she would be offered at least a 30% interest in the new company. But – and this is the crucial bit – the agreement stated that the terms and conditions of this interest would be decided at a later date.
She would work in the new company for two years and that during that time, a shareholders’ agreement would be drawn up. It was all a bit vague and worryingly lacking in concreteness.
No shareholders’ agreement was drawn up and it slowly dawned on Button, who was working at the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company, that her requests to finalise the shareholding and transfer the promised 30% shares to her name were falling on “deliberately” deaf ears.
She brought a court application in which the judge ultimately found that, “for reasons of vagueness and unenforceability” the provision in the agreement to give Jenni Button 30% was void. The shares were never transferred to her name. “I didn’t have a legal leg to stand on,” she says.
At the time that Button brought a court application to transfer the shares to her name, the Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd group brought a counter-application to bar her from using her name in her new clothing range, which was called ‘Philosophy’, but which she marketed as being ‘by Jenni Button’.
The court ruled that, on purchase, the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company had acquired all the goodwill to the ‘Jenni Button’ name. Although there was no registered trademark, the court found that for Jenni Button, the person to use the ‘Jenni Button’ name, infringed the goodwill rights that the Pty (Ltd) company had to the trademark.
All this begs the question: “What on earth were you thinking?”. What would make a smart businesswoman with experience enter into an agreement to sell her own name, without any concrete safeguards in place to ensure she got an appropriate payment for it?
It’s not the selling of the trademark that’s baffling; Donna Karen did it, but she was handsomely remunerated, something that Button sadly cannot claim. These are questions that Button has had to answer thousands of times, and has no doubt turned over in her own mind many more, and she takes them in her stride.
She says: “The deal was done and signed in two days. So firstly it was rushed because the buyer was going overseas and it needed to be finalised quickly. Secondly, it’s not that I got bad legal advice; I didn’t get any legal advice. That was my single biggest mistake. I was naive and I thought I was in good hands. I trusted too much. I truly believed that the provision in the agreement to offer me 30% in shares would be honoured. After all, I was going off to work in this new company.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption to make. Together with The Platinum Group, she was going to help take the Jenni Button brand to new heights and, although she’d sold the rights to her name, she believed she’d own 30% of the new Jenni Button (Pty) Ltd company, so the pay-off made sense.
Learning the lessons
“I believe that everything in life teaches a lesson, so let me tell you the one I learned: never agree to a rushed deal and never, ever, ever do any kind of deal without getting your lawyers to look at it,” Button says emphatically, describing herself as “totally lawyered up these days.”
It’s a lesson she’ll never forget. She’s registered the rights to her name overseas and sells the Philosophy range through Jenni Button International. “No one can use my name overseas without my permission – and that’s something they won’t get,” she says.
She’s also registered Jenni Button Jewellery and Jenni Button Gallerie locally and overseas. Philosophy has been running internationally for nine years and exports to London, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona. The label has developed a loyal following, particularly in LA, and among the likes of Charlize Theron, Marla Maples and Cheryl Tiegs.
Button is adamant that she never wants to endure the drama of another legal fight ever again. But while she describes the process as “totally destructive” and while it might have been financially crippling, it clearly wasn’t creatively so.
In spite of the court case, the economic downturn and other personal challenges, last year was one in which Jenni Button had enough creative energy to start three new ventures. The first, and perhaps the one she’s most passionate about, is her new guest house, Maison du Sud, currently under construction on the side of the mountain in Oranjezicht, Cape Town.
“That court judgment was absolutely devastating, but the day I walked out of there last year I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be up there, on the top of that mountain running my guest house,” she says.
She describes it as a luxury residence offering a completely unique experience: “There are only four suites and it’s priced between R3 500 and R7 000 per person per night. I am going to run it myself, which means I plan to do most of the cooking and the hosting.
So it will be like coming to stay at Jenni’s, but with a combination of exclusivity, privacy and luxury – all on top of the mountain set amongst gorgeous old oak trees.” She’s combining this new venture with her old passion for painting, which she plans to pursue in the studio that is being built in the guest house for that purpose.
She also plans to host painting getaways where guests can take a package that includes accommodation at the guest house and access to painting time in the studio. “I also want to host regular cocktail parties there to promote fantastic local artists,” she adds.
Button has employed her creative eye in doing all the decorating for Maison du Sud. “The style is very ‘French meets African’ and I’ve used some beautiful antiques that I’ve been collecting for a long time,” she says.
In fact, creativity, decorating and hospitality are connected to her other two ventures, one of which is corporate clothing. Button landed the contract to do the corporate wear for Sol Kerzner’s luxury One & Only Resorts establishment, which opened in Cape Town this year.
The other is interior decorating, and she’s been approached by Toni Stern, the owner of the luxury floating 150ft house-boat hotel, the Zambezi Queen, to do the interiors. And although she knows she doesn’t yet have a reputation as a painter, she’s already started work establishing one.
Her first work, a portrait of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, sold for R250 000. Button will continue to be involved in Philosophy, running the online store but leaving the day-to-day running of that business to Noel Hibner, who’s been with her for 15 years. “I will always love fashion and the rag trade, but I want to move into other creative fields now,” she says.
The living brand
Button markets all of these ventures through the extensive network she’s built up over the years. There’s no doubt that she’s a born salesperson and that, combined with her creativity, is what made her successful in the first place. It’s also what she’ll draw on in future to grow her ideas into successful enterprises.
Looking back on it all she concludes, “I suppose that’s why I’m able to feel at peace with everything that’s happened. I realised that a brand is not a label or a sign outside a door. A brand can be a person – think of Madonna or Sol Kerzner.
It’s a living thing that’s made up of the sum of all the ideas, creativity and all the positive energy that you have.” Understanding the power of this brand essence has enabled Button to start again. “When someone takes everything away from you, they can’t take that. It’s the most important thing you have and it’s the thing that you can draw on to build success any time you choose,” she concludes.
Jenni Button’s secrets to success & inspiration
- If you don’t have absolute passion and pure conviction about your business venture, don’t bother doing it.
- Being naive has its virtues in business but make sure you get all your admin perfectly in place. Many an otherwise savvy business person has been brought down because they didn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it came to issues of partnership agreements, tax or legal documents.
- If you choose to delegate (something I don’t do easily) make sure you check and double-check that it’s been done, and done properly. Your business relies on it.
- Make sure you have a business plan and that it covers all potential areas of risk.
- Do not procrastinate! “Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.” – Don Marquis
- Change your thoughts and you can change your position in life. “It’s not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it’s the one that’s most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
- “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” – Napoleon Hill.
- Refuse to be a victim! “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” – Steven Biko
- Be flexible. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
- “If moment by moment you can keep your mind clear then nothing will confuse you.” – Sheng Yen
4 Lessons From The Pivotal Group Founders On Growing And Disrupting All At Once
Here’s how they’ve built what they believe to be the foundations of a successful group of businesses in five years.
- Company: Pivotal Group
- Players: Paul Hutton, Joel Stransky and Bruce Arnold
- What they do: Pivotal pioneered voice biometrics in the financial and telecommunications market. Over time, the company has grown to include nine divisions across multiple sectors.
- Launched: 2012
- Visit: pivotalgroup.co.za
How do you build a disruptive business while also focusing on growth? Disruptive ideas are by definition new and unknown to the market. They defy traditional and established solutions and ways of doing business, and they require the market to be educated before you can really onboard clients or even sell your product or service.
The answer is to build parallel solutions: Business units that bring in revenue while the more disruptive ideas are being developed and introduced to the market. Here are the four top lessons the founders of the Pivotal Group have learnt while building their business and pursuing disruptive opportunities simultaneously.
1. Know who your competitors (and potential competitors) are
Great ideas that are economically viable and solve a need that consumers are willing to pay for are few and far between. Great ideas alone are a dime a dozen, but if you’ve spotted a need, chances are someone else has as well. You then need to step back and critically evaluate why someone else hasn’t done this before; if they have done it and they’ve failed; or if you’re entering shark-infested waters riddled with competitors.
Once you’ve determined there is a gap in the market, you need to evaluate who your potential competitors are, and the impact if they suddenly started offering a similar solution to the market.
For Paul Hutton, Bruce Arnold and Joel Stransky, the founders of OneVault, competition was always a factor, particularly as a start-up, and given that potential competitors included Bytes and Dimension Data, this was a very real factor to consider. After careful analysis, however, the founders decided to go for it. Their differentiator was their business model. They wouldn’t be selling OneVault as a software solution, but as a service.
The idea had taken root while Paul was still CEO of TransUnion Credit Bureau. “I came across voice biometrics in Canada. There’s been a surge in identity fraud around the world, and I really understood the value of voice recognition as a verification tool,” he explains. “It can’t be faked, and it’s the only remote biometrics solution available, because you don’t physically need to be there to verify yourself.”
Paul had presented the idea to Transunion’s global board, and while they were intrigued, nothing came of it. “TransUnion’s model is to buy companies that are experts in their specific fields, not launch a new disruptive division from scratch.”
But this meant there was an opportunity for Paul to pursue the idea independently. Joel (former MD of Altech Netstar and CEO of Hertz SA) and Bruce (formerly Group CFO of TransUnion Africa and CFO at Unitrans Freight) were immediately interested in partnering with Paul. Both wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, although neither could do so immediately. The commitment was enough for Paul to get directly involved and start working on the business while he waited for his partners to join him.
In January 2011, Paul and Joel travelled to the UK and started investigating voice biometric solutions. “Voice biometrics was fairly new, but good technology was available, and there were global leaders in the sector,” says Joel.
It was important to choose the right product for the South African market, as this would form the basis of their offering. A contact at Dimension Data (one of whom became an investor in the business) offered this simple and straightforward advice:
When you’re choosing a technology partner, go with the company whose tech you’re confident in, and whose leadership is stable. You’re basing so much on this company and their longevity, so don’t disregard this criteria.
For Paul, Joel and Bruce, a US-based company, Nuance, ticked those boxes. But, from a competitive perspective, OneVault wasn’t the only potential player in the market. “Neither Bytes nor Dimension Data had gone into voice, but they had the potential to do so,” says Bruce. “The products were available to them through their partners.”
To mitigate this very clear risk, the founders made two critical decisions. “Our intention was to sell voice biometrics as a service, instead of a software solution that customers bought and owned, with the necessary infrastructure to go with it. The idea for OneVault was that there would be one place where your voice print lived, and different businesses could plug into our solution.”
The business model of large technology players in South Africa is to sell integrated software solutions, so OneVault’s business model was a differentiator. The next differentiator Paul, Bruce and Joel focused on was becoming specialists in their field.
“This is Paul’s baby,” says Bruce. “We’ve needed to build up a niche, expert team that specialises in voice biometrics. Because we aren’t generalists, 100% of our focus goes into this, instead of 5% or 10%.”
To attract the best in their fields, the founders needed a very appealing culture and a strong recruitment strategy. “We focused on what we wanted from our work environment, and then applied the same rules across the business,” says Joel. “Our goals were to drink good coffee, have no leave forms — ever; be able to take the time to ride our bikes and watch our kids play sports. If someone can’t make it work, or takes advantage without putting in the work, they come and go, but on the whole, we’ve had extremely low churn, and we’ve attracted — and kept — incredible talent.”
This differentiator would prove to be important for two reasons. First, two and a half years into the business, with investors on board and having pumped a significant amount of their own capital into the business, the team hit a major stumbling block. For a few weeks, they didn’t even know if they had a business.
“We had been operating on one major, and as it turned out, faulty, assumption,” says Paul. “We thought South African companies had the right telephony structure to implement our solution. We’d been building our solution on top of Nuance’s software, and were ready to start piloting the entire system with a few key customers, and we found out that in order to meet global voice biometric standards, the telephone technology had to be G711 compliant. South Africa was operating on G729.”
This was OneVault’s make or break moment. The team had six weeks to come up with a solution that ensured it met the necessary levels of accuracy. Without a highly skilled team this would have been impossible.
Even as a start-up, the strategy had been to only bring the best of the best on board. “We didn’t interview,” says Bruce. “We approached people whom we knew. We approached the best in the industry, and convinced them to take a chance with us. There was risk, but there were also rewards.” One of those people was Bradley Scott, a brilliant engineer whom both Paul and Bruce had worked with at Transunion.
Today, OneVault is one of the most specialist companies in the world, and often asked to speak at events in the US.
Being the niche specialists paid off, and OneVault achieved the almost impossible. But this had its downside.
Once you’ve shown something can be done, the bar of what’s impossible moves. Competitors enter your space.
This was the second reason why being such focused, niche experts paid off. “We demo’d the solution for a large local corporate, they loved it, and then went to a ‘then’ competitor to implement it,” says Paul.
“We always knew this was a real danger. Players like Bytes and Dimension Data have solid, existing client relationships with the same companies we’re targeting.”
18 months later the project still wasn’t working. “This is deep specialist knowledge,” says Paul. “Knowledge we built while we created our offering.” OneVault won the contract, and developed a partnership with Bytes at the same time. Today, OneVault works with all the major software integrators in the market. “We’re a specialist service they can offer their clients, without needing to put the same time and energy we needed to put in to become the specialists.”
Through a focused strategy, OneVault has become a partner, rather than a competitor, of some of the largest players in the industry.
2. Understand the nature of disruption so that you can prepare for it
In today’s ever-changing and fast-paced business world, most business experts are in agreement that as a company, you’re either the disruptor, or you’re being disrupted. The problem is that disruption comes with its own set of challenges.
“Our entire business model was built around a subscription service. Instead of a company buying a software solution, installing it and running it internally, we would do all of that. We would carry the infrastructure burden, and the high upfront cost,” says Joel.
In theory, this sounded like a clear win for businesses that would benefit from a voice biometrics solution. The reality is never so simple, particularly when you’re a disruptor.
“The software is expensive, and so we thought this would be seen as an excellent solution,” says Paul. “Instead, we faced a lot of reticence over the cloud. Businesses didn’t trust it yet.”
On top of that, first movers are often faced with a lag in corporate governance guidelines. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so governance guidelines change — but it’s a slow process, and the lag can impede disruptors.
“You also can’t give proper reference cases, because it’s all brand new to your market,” says Paul. “The best we had was a case study of how well it had worked in Turkey.”
To compound matters, proof of revenue is essential for businesses wanting to trade with large corporates, but non-existent in the start-up phase.
So, what’s the solution? According to Joel, Bruce and Paul, it’s all about being patient, never giving up, building gravitas and getting a few clients on board, even if it’s free of charge to build up your reputation and prove your concept. Finally, you need to bring in revenue from more traditional channels to support your disruptive products and solutions.
“Disruptive solutions are by their nature new and different, which means change management for your customers. This makes the sales cycle long and complex, and you have to be prepared for that,” says Bruce.
Don’t stop laying your groundwork. While disruptors are ahead of the curve, you need to be ready for the uptake when it arrives. “We’ve now concluded a partnership with South Africa Fraud Prevention Services,” says Paul. “When an imposter calls we won’t only terminate the transaction but we will alert the identity being compromised in the attempt and we will actively prevent fraud by contacting Fraud Prevention. The ultimate vision is for every South African’s voice biometric signature to live in our vault, and we are already receiving imposter information.”
3. Cultivate additional revenue streams
So, what do you do while you are living through the extremely long sales turnaround time of your disruptive, game-changing solution? Bills still have to be paid and investment is needed to develop truly disruptive ideas.
First, the team realised that while an annuity subscription service was their ultimate goal and where the industry was heading, initially they needed to be able to sell and implement the software.
It’s worth noting that one of OneVault’s earliest customers who bought the software has since launched a new business, which is on OneVault’s annuity service model. The shift has just taken time. “The change is happening, but it’s been slower than we anticipated,” says Bruce. “We needed to accept that fact and sell the software to bring revenue into the business while we were waiting for the market to catch up.”
It’s an important lesson. You don’t want to get distracted from your vision, but you need to be bringing in revenue, even if that means your short-term strategy differs from your long-term goals.
“It took three years before we really started seeing a move towards hosted solutions,” he adds. “Outsourced and offsite solutions are opex environments, not capex. They are more cost-effective for customers, but they require a shift in thinking. It’s a move away from how things have always been done, and that takes time.”
But, while Paul, Bruce and Joel were learning the art of patience, they also needed to start bringing revenue into the business.
“It was clear that we needed to find other opportunities,” says Joel. The result is the Pivotal Group, a diversified holding company with different businesses that are interlinked and complementary.
The group’s first business outside of OneVault, Pivotal Data, was based on a large call centre contract Joel, Paul and Bruce secured. “You can’t be an expert in everything – when you specialise you will always be more successful. The trick is to partner with other experts,” says Joel. In this case, three entrepreneurs were opening a call centre — this was their area of expertise; they were absolute subject matter experts. What they weren’t experts in was technology or facilities management. Instead of doing it themselves, they were looking for partners.
“We manage everything aside from the people element,” explains Joel. “We found and leased a building, built the bespoke workspace, put in the technology, and managed the facility and IT on an opex basis back to them.”
The business immediately had a good anchor client, and Pivotal Data has built on that. The annuity income has supported further growth.
“This was a base for us, but we’ve acquired a few businesses on the back of this success, and created our own cloud contact centre solution — which also feeds into what we’re doing with OneVault,” says Bruce. “Our vision is to create a technology stack that’s world-class and provides a range of services that no other businesses provide as a single solution.”
Because of this pivot into call centre management, a new opportunity has presented itself, and Pivotal’s ambition has grown to include a solution that calls, authenticates, and then analyses all the data that is collected during those calls.
“Through partnerships, my team has developed a predictive analytics system that gives contact centres deep diagnostic tools. We can predict why agents are having the conversations they have, and what to tweak to improve them. We see the agent’s problem before they do. This isn’t just value add, it’s a revenue generating tool if it improves lead conversion rates and customer service. It’s also all geared to lowering call volumes.
“We know we need to keep looking forward. OneVault is starting to gain real traction, but we need to be working on the next disruptive solution and model. We can’t sit back and relax,” says Bruce.
“Three years ago we said that’s it; no more start-ups or investing in pre-adoption phase businesses. From now on, everything we do will be revenue generating,” says Paul. “We’d stretched three years of runway to five years in OneVault, and we didn’t want to keep doing that. We wanted instant revenue businesses. And the very next thing we did was invest in a start-up. It’s a crazy space, but it’s also very rewarding.”
To sustain it, the group continues to grow, focusing on investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are subject matter experts and therefore already know and understand the market, and then positioning each new business or service to plug into the current offering.
“Data is our golden thread — technology and the disruptive space,” says Joel.
4. Be open to new ideas and opportunities
Integral to the Pivotal Group’s positioning is Paul, Bruce and Joel’s focus on supporting other business owners whose offerings align with the group’s own growth goals, and who would benefit from joining a group.
“If your goal is to be disruptive, you need to be open to all kinds of new ideas,” says Joel. Some will be better than others, and the co-founders have made the decision to focus on the ‘jockey’ rather than the business as a result. Business offerings and ideas need to pivot. If you have the right partners, finding a solution is all part of the challenge.
Pivotal’s move into the world of artificial intelligence is due to one such partnership. “One of our clients approached us with a concept. But he needed a partner to develop it into a proper AI solution,” says Joel.
It’s an augmented intelligence solution that focuses on recruitment, talent management and career guidance. The solution screens, ranks and matches candidates against a job profile, or a number of profiles. It’s a multidisciplinary platform that predicts the performance of the individual in a role.
“Our partner is a former Accenture consultant and a leader in this field. His focus is on the IP and science of the product, ours is on the business component.”
The challenge is how to commercialise and scale the business in as short a time frame as possible. Like many disruptive products, the adoption process is a stumbling block. “We invest at the pre-adoptive curve — not at the revenue generating stage, which means a big focus is always on how we can take an idea and build it into a revenue generating business,” says Bruce.
The business uses capital selectively. “We want to invest in and drive our own agenda,” says Paul. “We’re in charge of our own destiny, but it’s not comfortable or simple. We came from corporate. Big machines that you need to direct and keep on course. This is an entirely different challenge and we are still learning.”
Listen to the podcast
Matt Brown interviews Paul, Joel and Bruce and discusses what it’s like to invest in pre-adoptive start-ups and staying ahead of the curve.
To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.
The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.
Afritorch Digital An Overnight Success That Was Years In The Making
By any standard, local start-up AfriTorch Digital has seen phenomenal growth and traction. But, while the company’s success might seem quick and effortless, there is a lot of hard work behind it.
- Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
- Company: Afritorch Digital
- Established: 2017
- Visit: afritorchdigital.com
- About: Afritorch Digital assists research agencies in conducting market research through its in-depth knowledge of the African continent and its use of the latest digital technologies.
There is a saying that goes: It takes years to become an overnight success. While a company or individual might seem to enjoy sudden (and seemingly effortless) success, there is often more to the story. The results are usually public and well-publicised, but the years of hard work that came before go unnoticed.
Local start-up AfriTorch Digital is a great example of this. Since launching in May 2017, the business has seen excellent growth. “To be honest, we were very surprised by the level of success. Things progressed a lot quicker than we anticipated,” says co-founder Thabo Mphate.
“All the goals we had hoped to reach in four or sixth months, we managed to hit in the first month. It was just amazing.”
Preparing to launch
While AfriTorch Digital has certainly seen quick growth and success, it would be a mistake to assume that the same is true of the two founders. For them, the creation of AfriTorch was years in the making.
“The goal was always to start our own business,” says Thabo. “I think we’re both entrepreneurs at heart, and we saw an opportunity to create a unique kind of business that offered an innovative solution to clients, but we also realised the value of getting some experience first. Without the knowledge, experience, network and intimate understanding of the industry landscape, getting AfriTorch off the ground would have been incredibly difficult.”
Entrepreneurs tend to dislike working for other people. They want to forge their own path. However, as AfriTorch Digital’s case illustrates, spending time in the industry that you’d like to launch your business in is tremendously useful.
“Finding clients when we launched AfriTorch was relatively easy,” says company co-founder and CEO Michel Katuta. “One reason for this, I think, was that we were offering potential clients a great solution, but the other was that we had established a name for ourselves in the industry. People knew us. We had worked for respected companies, and we had done work for large clients. So, when we launched, we were able to provide a new start-up with credibility in the industry.”
The Lesson: Becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t always start with the launch of a company. Spending time in an established business, gaining experience and making contacts, can be invaluable. Very often, it’s the relationships you build during this time and the knowledge you accumulate that will help make your company a success.
Solving a problem
Everyone knows that launching a successful business means solving a burning problem, but what does that mean in practice? Aren’t all the burning problems already being addressed? And how do you attempt this without any money?
Thabo and Michel identified a small group of potential clients with a burning problem. Crucially, it was a problem that no one outside of the research field could have identified. Having spent years in the trenches, they saw a massive gap waiting to be filled.
“A decade ago, researchers were still debating whether the future of the field was in the digital space. That debate is now over. Everyone agrees that online is the way to go. What once took months now takes days or hours, and the cost of research can be reduced by a factor of five,” says Michel.
“But researchers are not technology specialists. If made available, they are eager to adopt digital tools, but they aren’t eager to develop these tools themselves. That’s not their area of expertise.”
AfriTorch Digital stepped up to provide these tools. Katuta has a background in software engineering, so he could approach research problems with the eye of a tech specialist. Very soon, research agencies were lining up to make use of AfriTorch Digital’s services.
“We work with research agencies that conduct research on behalf of their clients. We provide the digital tools needed to conduct research online, and we provide the online communities. A big reason for our success is that we understand Africa. A lot of companies want to conduct research in Africa, but traditionally, this has been very hard. There was a lack of access and a lack of infrastructure that made research very hit-and-miss. Thanks to the continent’s adoption of mobile technology, it’s now much easier. If you have the technological know-how and an understanding of the environment, you can do amazing things,” says Michel.
The Lesson: Find a niche and own it. Research agencies might not have seemed like an obvious and lucrative market, but having spent time in the industry, the AfriTorch founders were able to identify clients who would be desperate for their offering. Spending time in an industry will help you see where the opportunities lie.
Before launching a business, get to know an industry from the inside out. This will give you an unparalleled view into gaps you can service.
Jason English On Growing Prommac’s Turnover Tenfold And Being Mindful Of The ‘Oros Effect’
Rapid growth and expansion can lead to a dilution of the foundational principles that defined your company in its early days. Jason English of Prommac discusses how you can retain your company’s culture and vision while growing quickly.
- Player: Jason English
- Position: CEO
- Company: Prommac
- Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
- Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
- Visit: prommac.com
- About: Prommac is a construction services business specialising in commissioning, plant maintenance, plant shutdowns and capital projects. Jason English purchased the majority of the company late in 2012, and currently acts as its CEO. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a small business to an international operation.
Since Jason English purchased Prommac in 2012, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. At the time he took over as owner and CEO, it was a small operation that boasted a turnover below R50 million.
Today, Prommac is part of a diversified group of companies under the CG Holdings umbrella and alone has grown it’s turnover nearly ten fold since Jason English took over. As a group, CG Holdings, of which Jason is a founder, is generating in excess of R1 billion. How has Prommac managed such phenomenal growth? According to Jason, it’s all about company culture… and about protecting your glass of Oros.
“As your business grows, it suffers from something that I call the Oros Effect. Think of your small start-up as an undiluted glass of Oros. When you’re leading a small company, it really is a product of you. You know everything about the business and you make every decision. The systems, the processes, the culture — these are all a product of your actions and beliefs. As you grow, though, things start to change. With every new person added to the mix, you dilute that glass of Oros.
“That’s not to say that your employees are doing anything wrong, or that they are actively trying to damage the business, but the culture — which was once so clear — becomes hazy. The company loses that singular vision. As the owner, you’re forced to share ‘your Oros’ with an increasing number of people, and by pouring more and more of it into other glasses, it loses the distinctive flavour it once had. By the time you’re at the head of a large international company, you can easily be left with a glass that contains more water than Oros.
“Protecting and nurturing a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Prommac has enjoyed excellent growth, and I ascribe a lot of that success to our company culture. Whenever we’ve spent real time and money on replenishing the Oros, we’ve seen the benefits of it directly afterwards.
“There have been times when we have made the tough decision to slow growth and focus on getting the culture right. Growth is great, of course, but it’s hard to get the culture right when new people are joining the company all the time and you’re scaling aggressively. So, we’ve slowed down at times, but we’ve almost always seen immediate benefits in terms of growth afterwards. We focus heavily on training that deals with things like the systems, processes and culture of the company. We’ve also created a culture and environment that you won’t necessarily associate with engineering and heavy industries. In fact, it has more in common with a Silicon Valley company like Google than your traditional engineering firm.
“Acquisitions can be particularly tricky when it comes to culture and vision. As mentioned, CG Holdings has acquired several companies over the last few years, and when it comes to acquisition, managing the culture is far trickier than it is with normal hiring. When you hire a new employee, you can educate them in the ways and culture of the business. When you acquire an entire company, you import not only a large number of new people, but also an existing organisation with its own culture and vision. Because of this, we’ve created a centralised hub that manages all training and other company activities pertaining to culture. We don’t allow the various companies to do their own thing. That helps to manage the culture as the company grows and expands, since it ensures that everyone’s on the same page.
“Systems and processes need to make sense. One of the key reasons that drove us to create a central platform for training is the belief that systems and processes need to make sense to employees. Everyone should understand the benefits of using a system. If they don’t understand a system or process, they will revert to what they did in the past, especially when you’re talking about an acquired company. You should expect employees to make use of the proper systems and processes, but they need to be properly trained in them first. A lot of companies have great systems, but they aren’t very good at actually implementing them, and the primary reason for this is a lack of training.
“Operations — getting the work done — is seen as the priority, and training is only done if and when a bit of extra time is available. We fell into that trap a year ago. We had enjoyed a lot of growth and momentum, so we didn’t slow down. Eventually, we could see that this huge push, and the consequent lack of focus on the core values of the business, were affecting operations. So, we had to put the hammer down and refocus on systems, processes and culture. Today Prommac is back at the top of it’s game having been awarded the prestigious Service Provider of the year for 2017 by Sasol for both their Secunda and Sasolburg chemical complexes.
“If you want to know about the state of your company’s culture, go outside the business. We realised that we needed to ‘pour more Oros into the company’ by asking clients. We use customer surveys to track our own performance and to make sure that the company is in a healthy state. It’s a great way to monitor your organisation, and there are trigger questions that can be asked, which will give you immediate insight into the state of the culture.
“It’s important, of course, to ask your employees about the state of the business and its culture as well, but you should also ask your customers. Your clients will quickly pick up if something is wrong. The fact of the matter is, internal things like culture can have a dramatic effect on the level of service offered to customers. That’s why it’s so important to spend time on these internal things — they have a direct impact on every aspect of the business.
“Remember that clients understand the value of training. There is always a tension between training and operational requirements, but don’t assume that your clients will automatically be annoyed because you’re sending employees on training. Be open and honest, explain to a client that an employee who regularly services the company will be going on training. Ultimately, the client benefits if you spend time and money on an employee that they regularly deal with.
“For the most part, they will understand and respect your decision. At times, there will be push back, both from clients and from your own managers, but you need to be firm. In the long term, training is win-win for everyone involved. Also, you don’t want a client to become overly dependent on a single employee from your company. What if that employee quits? Training offers a good opportunity to swop out employees, and to ensure that you have a group of individuals who can be assigned to a specific client. We rotate our people to make sure that no single person becomes a knowledge expert on a client’s facility, so when we need to pull someone out of the system for training, it’s not the end of the world.
“Managers will often be your biggest challenge when it comes to training. Early on, we hired a lot of young people we could train from scratch. As we grew and needed more expertise, we started hiring senior employees with experience. When it came to things like systems, processes and culture, we actually had far more issues with some of the senior people.
“Someone with significant experience approaches things with preconceived notions and beliefs, so it can be more difficult to get buy-in from them. Don’t assume that training is only for entry-level employees. You need to focus on your senior people and make sure that they see the value of what you are doing. It doesn’t matter how much Oros you add to the mix if managers keep diluting it.”
When Jason English purchased Prommac late in 2012, the company had a turnover of less than R50 million. This has grown nearly ten fold in just under five years. How? By focusing on people, culture and training.
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