I grew up in Sekhukhune in Limpopo, the third child in a family of seven – four boys and three girls. Our mother took care of us and we were supported by our father who was a migrant labourer in Johannesburg. We were poor and there were many hardships.
Our school was ten kilometres from where we lived, and every day we had to hike up and down rocky paths and through a river to get there. It was very difficult in winter when we had to wake up in the dark, at 4.00am, to make sure we got to class on time.
I know that my thinking as a child was different. From the age of about eight, back in 1973, I remember being concerned about taking care of the family. I was nine when I started getting temp jobs, either gardening or doing piece work at the local factories.
I would earn R20 and take it to my mother. Children usually think of buying things for themselves, but I bought curtains for the house at a jumble sale. I liked shopping at jumble sales because I saw that I could buy so much more there than at a regular shop.
I bought clothes for myself which was a big thing for us because we would otherwise only get clothes once a year at Christmas, when my father came home with clothing and a school uniform for each of us.
Poverty was a strong driving force for me and it pushed me to work harder. I became committed to ensuring that somehow I would build a better future for my family and continue to be a giving person. In high school, I continued to do part-time work to help the family with the basic necessities.
I would give some money to the local bus driver when he was on his way into town. He bought boxes of apples for me which I sold at school for a small profit. These things started to help me develop a business mind over time.
A little later I started selling Putco bus tickets. I used to buy about five weekly tickets, as well as one for myself, and go to the bus stop before sunrise to catch the commuters who were going from Kwa-Ndebele to Marabastad.
The weekly tickets were convenient and good value for the bus passengers, as they were cheaper than the daily fare. I would find the commuters who needed only a single ticket, and would allow them to use one of the weekly tickets at the reduced price, but I would travel with them so that I could take my tickets back once they reached their destination. I would then do the same thing with commuters travelling from Marabastad to KwaNdebele.
I managed to earn about R800 a month this way.
Becoming a teacher
When I finished high school, my parents chose teaching as a career for me. It was a highly respectable profession at the time, and education was seen as a good field to go into. My parents had saved the money to pay for my tuition, but there was little left for anything else.
We had second-rate schooling, no facilities, and huge discrepancies between rural and urban education. In addition, the high fees made it almost impossible for people from my background to study. I became an activist and a student leader at college and I was committed to fighting the education system that was being imposed on us by the apartheid government.
I was fighting for equality and aiming to change the rules so that they could be more favourable to the needy. But I managed to keep focused on my studies too, and graduated with a secondary school teaching qualification.
I got my first teaching job in Tembisa in 1989, but I continued to be an activist and I helped to organise the operation of banned organisations in the schools. I paid dearly for that. At the beginning of the next school year, I discovered that the Department of Education had fired me from my position – I still remember it was post number 14.
They employed somebody else and no-one had bothered to tell me. I then discovered I had been banned in Gauteng, and in my home province of Limpopo. I remained unemployed for four months and I went into arrears on the payment for the first thing I had bought on my teacher’s salary – a bed from Price and Pride. Being unemployed led to numerous financial difficulties.
I lived on half a loaf of bread a day and a 5-litre bottle of Oros which would last me two weeks.
Luckily, there was a shortage of teachers in Mpumalanga at the time and I managed to get a job in KwaNdebele. But the salary was low; I was making R16 000 a year, and I needed to earn more money just to survive. I started selling insurance part-time almost immediately.
I was selling to teachers who knew and trusted me and I did very well. Within a few months I became the top part-time rep in my region and I was earning 12 times my teaching salary every month.
The move to insurance
In 1992 I decided that enough was enough and I went into insurance full-time. I worked for Sanlam and soon became one of their top reps in Mpumalanga. A year later I moved back to Polokwane because I wanted to be closer to my family, but I continued to work for Sanlam until 1995.
In my time there I learnt that when you sell, you’re selling yourself first, and then the product. People are buying you, which is why it is so important to build good relationships and have strong networks.
In 1995, I took the leap and decided to open my own brokerage. By then, the ANC Government had been in place for a year. New opportunities became available to black people for the first time.
It was a good time to take advantage of this business opportunity as Government was employing public servants across various departments and new public service organisations that had been established. This gave me access to a whole new market.
I also wanted to start my own business because when you are employed by a company, you can only sell their products – I wanted the freedom to sell other insurance products and I also wanted to be independent. I had done really well and I didn’t see the need to report to anyone else anymore.
My own business strategy was to target pensioners and the uninsured low end of the market who were not being serviced by the big companies. I financed the launch of a brokerage firm – Morethi Insurance Brokers – with the commission I had been making.
For that type of business, all you need is a desk, a laptop, four walls and a PA. I basically continued to do what I had been doing, just for myself. But there are major challenges involved in shifting from one gear to the next – I went from the security and recognition that comes with a big insurance company to a small independent brokerage.
That kind of move can really mess you up emotionally and financially. Cash flow needs required me to recapitalise the business from time to time, which was stressful. I was alone and I suffered for the first few months as I built my client base, but I was determined not to borrow money.
As a result, some of my credit accounts were compromised. Everything I was paying on instalments, like my house and car, was in arrears. The sheriff was threatening to attach all my possessions. But I knew that if I borrowed money from the loan sharks, I would then be threatened from both sides, so I paid what little I could when I could, and starved and suffered my way through.
The determination not to borrow money became a fundamental part of my business philosophy. I said to myself, “I’m down now, but I’ll push to bring in the business and then I’ll be up again.”
And that’s what I did. Because insurance is about relationships, I would wake up at 3.00am, go to my office, and prepare breakfast for my clients with bread I had bought the night before. I packed the sandwiches in my car and spent the mornings on the road selling.
I knew this would work as a value add because when people do not have a lot of money, they are hungry and food is received like a gift. By midday I would be back at my desk doing admin. At the end of the day I went straight home and I would go to sleep early because I had to be up again before dawn.
I travelled vast distances between Limpopo and Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the hinterlands of KwaZulu Natal. Challenging as it was, my efforts paid off. Within six months the business was doing well and I had proved my ability to sell once again by acquiring many new clients.
At this point, my vision began to unfold and I started believing that something really great was going to happen. I had been learning every step of the way and my hard work was starting to pay off. It was then that I knew I wanted to create a meaningful and sustainable business that would enable me to help lots of people in my community.
Building on opportunities
In 1996 I took advantage of Government’s drive to empower previously disadvantaged people and I established a company called Tebeila Building Construction, today known as Tebcon Developers, which does building projects in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West.
The provincial governments were faced with massive infrastructure backlogs that needed to be addressed. They invited companies to help roll out the development of government buildings and housing. As a result, between 1997 and 1998 Tebcon became the biggest black construction company in Limpopo.
I ran the business alongside the brokerage firm very successfully for a few years, but then I got bored and I started investigating opportunities to take on new challenges and find ways to contribute meaningfully to the mainstream economy. That was how I moved into the mining sector.
The new Government had started opening up the country’s mineral resources and the Mining Charter had come into being. The Limpopo provincial government was selling shares in Anglo Platinum. They called for bids and I put in an offer. In December 2002, I led Sekoko Platinum, a company that successfully bid for the acquisition of 480 000 shares in Anglo American Platinum through a public tender process. This laid the foundation for Sekoko Resources.
But I also realised that I wanted to find a sustainable way to create new wealth from resources, and not just to own shares. I saw that in mining when you buy into an existing opportunity, the interest is very high.
I wanted to build my own Anglo American in a way that would enable local communities to profit too. I had courage because I had already become a successful businessman, and the time was ripe to seize the opportunities that were being made available.
I developed an interest in resources and started to read and learn about the industry. I still had many political connections from my days as a student leader and trade unionist, but I refused to build my business on political connections. I wanted to do it by taking advantage of my own talents, skills and credibility. I am a firm believer in the fact that a business is built on the strengths of its founder.
Learning some tough lessons
I decided that the best way forward was to buy my own mineral rights. To do that, I consulted a geologist who helped me to identify various areas in Limpopo. Because the construction business had been so successful, I had managed to save R100 000.
I used this to pay the geologist’s fees and to cover the cost of submitting the application. I then put forward my application for mineral rights to Government. Not all prospecting rights requests submitted were successful, however, and mine was rejected.
That day, I was devastated. It was all the money I had saved; I had worked very long hours for it and there was nothing left. I spent the day alone, locked in my office. But by the end of that day I had reflected long and hard and I was resolute that there was no way I was going to let everything go down the drain.
The process of putting the application together had taught me a lot, and I had been doing my own research into the mining and exploration sectors as well. I sat with my PA and we put together another application. This time it was successful, and I secured my first prospecting rights in the Soutpansberg.
Of course, once you have rights you have to use them or you lose them. But I had no money to develop the land I had acquired the rights to, so I went back to my community and I approached the local chiefs, women’s groups and disabled groups to become shareholders in the business.
We went on a two-day bosberaad during which we discussed ways to raise the money to enable exploration of the area I had secured. Within ten months, we managed to raise R1,5 million between us all, with me as the major investor and shareholder. The money came in dribs and drabs, a few thousand here and a few thousand there. But we got it.
Next, I appointed a consulting company to do the exploration. This is where I made the biggest mistake of my life. Money was so limited and as a new business I had no resources with which to do research into the contractors and their business history.
Needless to say, there was an internal dispute among the consultants and one of them disappeared overseas with the money I had raised from the community. To this day, he has never been found.
It had been difficult enough for me to deal with losing my own money early on in the game, but now I had to go back to a group of vulnerable people who had invested everything they owned in the business and tell them I had lost their money. There was just no way I was going to admit defeat. I could not let them down.
Building a mining empire
By this time, I had become very hands-on in the business and I was participating physically in all the site visits and going to the labs.
I had collected all the lab test results and kept copies of them in my own files. These pieces of information turned out to be a lifesaver. I started meeting with prospective investors and showing them that although I had no formal reports, I had the test results proving that there were vast coal deposits in the area.
The first company to understand the value of what I was holding in my hands was mining operator, Coal of Africa, which invested R55 million in the business there and then, laying the foundation for growth for Sekoko Resources.
The investment was amazing because it not only enabled the company to begin exploration, but it also meant that we had the capital to start on other exploration projects too.
Today we have projects on the go in the Soutpansberg, the Waterberg, Capricorn and the Eastern and Western Bushveld complexes in Limpopo. We have gone on to acquire the rights to vast holdings of the country’s rich coal, platinum and iron ore deposits.
Our shareholding, which includes the original members who continued to believe even after the loss of their R1,5 million, ensures that local communities in the area also benefit from the natural wealth of South Africa. This is a key consideration for me. Sekoko also promotes empowerment through preferred procurement and we work extensively with local businesses wherever possible. It’s vital to include local communities in this business so that they too can benefit.
My father is a priest and he taught us that on dry soil, no-one can reap a harvest. You have to provide people with opportunity if you want them to succeed. Our empowerment model was developed because I did not want the ordinary people living in and around the mining areas to be excluded from our mining empowerment transactions.
I never imagined that my life would turn out this way, or that I would be part of such a big mining company, but as the business opportunities unfolded my vision grew and I followed the dream.
I am driven by a sprit of entrepreneurship and by my faith, both of which have enabled me to look beyond what people normally see. Eight years down the line, Sekoko Resources is well funded and has never had to borrow money from the banks.
It is often said that your job is your second home, and I like my staff to feel that this is their second family. I see myself as a father figure, and I want to be respected as such. I think I have proved that I am not just a businessman who wants to enrich himself alone. We employ 32 people, all of whom have shares in the business.
I believe it is critical for them to know that they have ownership in everything they do. We have created a friendly work environment. I encourage our people to respect and trust one-another. In addition to the permanent employees, we have hundreds of consultants in the field so we provide employment for many people.
In 2008 we entered into a joint venture for two Waterberg coal projects with Firestone Energy, a Perth-based exploration company listed on the Australian and South African stock exchanges. Sekoko is now the majority shareholder of Firestone Energy and I am a director of the company. The Waterberg coal joint venture is playing a major role in helping to alleviate poverty in Limpopo, which has a high unemployment rate.
Related: Adrian Gore – The Disrupter
We are now working on listing Sekoko on the London Stock Exchange. There is a huge appetite for coal assets in the UK. We have prospecting rights on 27 coal farms measuring nearly 36 000 hectares in the Soutpansberg, and on eight farms measuring about 8 000 hectares in the Waterberg. Considering the future fuel and energy requirements in this country and abroad, this is of great strategic value to the company.
I am a spiritual person and my faith is an important part of my life. Last year The Tim Tebeila Foundation donated R7 million for the building of a church in Sekhukhune, the first of its kind in a rural area. The foundation helps feed the needy, including pensioners, the disabled and children in Limpopo.
I also sponsor a number of students at various universities. I am passionate about human development and helping to fight poverty. We regularly hand out clothing and food parcels to people who need them. Whatever we get from life, we must plough back into our communities and it will be multiplied many times. I believe that if Nelson Mandela could give the best of himself to this country, who am I not to do the same?
Invest your own sweat
Make sure your principles are clear and established. Then, stick to what you know best to generate income and save money. Do not borrow from others, but learn to create your own wealth. It’s vital to build your income on what you know how to do best. That’s what I did when I was in the insurance business, and it’s a principle I continue to apply even now.
It takes time to make money this way – it’s not something that can be achieved overnight or without much hard work and personal sacrifice – but it can be done. You cannot depend on government handouts if you want to create sustainable wealth for yourself and your investors.
Being able to earn money is fundamental to operating a successful business. I was prepared to invest my own sweat and my own efforts, and I believe that is what convinced others to come on board. Also, if you are serious about your business, don’t spend money on cars and big houses. Don’t confuse working capital with profit. First you must make the business work, then you can develop expensive tastes.
Discipline is key
In addition to my teaching diploma, I have participated in many specialised courses in marketing, business management and mining over the past years, but I have learnt my most valuable lessons in the course of doing business.
I don’t believe that the spirit of entrepreneurship can be taught, but I do believe you can learn the principles and then apply them in your business.
I draw a lot of inspiration from the stories of international entrepreneurs like Donald Trump. But I am also inspired by mining companies around the globe.
I am a disciplined person by nature, which is probably a result of the way I grew up. My wife Pollett and I married in 1998, and we now have four children. When I was single and focused on making money to survive, I worked solidly from Monday to Friday and kept any socialising strictly to weekends.
These days my free time is devoted to my family. I have also found it vital to spend time only with people who are positive. There are many negative detractors out there who do not have your best interests at heart.
As a business person, it is advisable to keep away from them as their gossip brings nothing into your life. Surrounding yourself with children is a good way to ensure that you only hear optimistic stories.
A long and winding road
Tim Tebeila qualifies as a teacher and his first post is at a high school in Tembisa. At the end of that first year he is fired by the Department of Education for being an activist for change.
He finds work as a teacher in Mpumalanga and supplements his meagre income by selling insurance in the evenings and on weekends.
He leaves teaching and joins Sanlam where he becomes a successful broker, later moving back to Limpopo.
He leaves Sanlam and opens his own brokerage, Morethi Insurance Brokers.
Tebeila Building Construction is launched, carrying out building projects in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West. Between 1997 and 1998 it becomes the biggest black construction company in the country.
Tebeila starts to develop an interest in mining and resources and loses R100 000, his life savings, by making an application for prospecting rights that is rejected.
He raises R1,5 million from his own funds and from local community groups in Limpopo – who remain shareholders in the business to this day – to begin prospecting. The money is lost to an unscrupulous consultant.
Armed with lab test results, he secures R55 million in capital from Coal for Africa. This paves the way for the expansion of Sekoko Resources.
Sekoko enters into a joint venture for two local coal projects with Firestone Energy, a Perth-based exploration company listed on the Australian and South African stock exchanges. Sekoko becomes the majority shareholder of Firestone Energy.
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.
John Holdsworth Founder Of Tautona AI Shares 4 Disruptive Strategies That Are Changing The Insurance Industry
What can we do now that we couldn’t do before, thanks to changes in technology?
“Disruption isn’t just doing things in a different way which doesn’t resonate or go any further — it’s about changing the game. Being disruptive means taking a look at an industry and finding a way to do it differently, giving you an advantage over the incumbents.”
- Player: John Holdsworth
- Company: Tautona AI
- Est: 2016
- Visit: www.tautona.ai
Disruptive innovation is the catchphrase that defines the last 20 years. New technologies, business models and media have disrupted the way we do just about everything. Conventional wisdom has it that the new kids on the block are the ones who are going to own the market at the expense of industry stalwarts, but this innovative South African disruptor is showing them how it’s done.
1. It’s the experience economy, stupid
Regardless of how the world changes, organisations that consider their customers’ emotions and experience first, win. That’s exactly what Tautona did. They put themselves in the customers’ shoes and asked one key question: ‘What’s wrong?’ Few industries are as ripe for disruption as insurance. When John Holdsworth co-founded cognitive automation business Tautona AI in 2016, he knew that there had to be a better way for insurers to handle client claims.
Tautona AI emerged out of a consulting engagement John had with a large insurance company. With a background in IT, he is a highly experienced technology executive and entrepreneur who has started a number of successful companies. He says he loves the energy and adrenalin associated with start-ups. He pioneered the use of digital signatures in South Africa, founded mobile payments company PAYM8, and converged voice and data provider ECN, which he sold to Reunert for R172 million in 2011. The experience acquired over this time meant he was ready to take on a massive challenge.
“When a policyholder submits an insurance claim, that action should trigger an instant decision, with the outcome immediately communicated back to the policyholder,” John says.
“Customers want swift claims handling, communication, and compensation. They want the same instant gratification that they get from online banking. So that’s what we set out do — to revolutionise the entire claims process. We have made traditional claims processing a thing of the past by pioneering a cognitive solution that is making the claims process faster, smarter and more efficient.”
2. Automating judgment tasks once reserved for humans
Tautona’s claims automation solution uses artificial intelligence to instantly approve or refer claims for further investigation. By using machine learning algorithms to identify patterns in the data, Tautona’s solution identifies fraudulent claims, enabling insurers to halve fraudulent claim losses.
Tautona also uses Robotic Process Automation to integrate to legacy systems, removing the need for traditional programming techniques. This means that Tautona’s claims automation solution can be implemented with minimal disruption to a business. By automating decision-making, communication, and compensation, Tautona enables insurance companies to take a major step towards becoming true digital insurers.
3. Ditch the legacy systems, start from scratch
Disruptive innovators invest in digital strategies so that they can find new ways of responding to their customers’ evolving needs. The founders of Tautona AI agree on several principles, but one that stands out specifically because it goes entirely against traditional thinking, is the importance of starting from scratch.
“You cannot take a non-digital business model and expect it to work online,” says John. “Instead of using old methods, you need to start from the beginning. Ditch the legacy systems, take a leader mentality and imagine the art of the possible.”
This iterative, modular approach typically begins with defining the strategy and programme plan upfront, delivering a core capability fast so it can provide benefits immediately, and then continuously improving with regular, incremental capability improvements to achieve the objectives of the strategy. It’s an approach that fosters closer collaboration between stakeholders, improved transparency, earlier delivery, greater allowance for change and more focus on the business outcomes.
4. Shaking up an industry
How do you launch new solutions and educate customers who are used to doing things the way they have always been done? John says resistance to change is inevitable. That’s why you need more than good technology.
“When you introduce something ground-breaking to the market, you encounter many different types of personalities asking diverse questions. That demands an approach that is client-centric and entirely customer focused. It also means you have to spend time developing a sound business case to present to decision makers.”
A solid business case documents the justification for the undertaking of a project. It’s the way you prove to your client and other stakeholders that the product you’re pitching is a sound investment. You need to justify the project expenditure by identifying the business benefits the innovation will deliver and that your stakeholders will be most interested in reaping from the technology.
“Essentially, it’s about proving you can deliver,” says John. “When you have an entirely new proposition, the only way you can hope to get your foot in the door is with a value proposition so profound that clients are forced to take a look at it.”
Tautona has convinced a number of South Africa’s top insurers to implement their AI-powered claims automation solution. The results to date have been ground-breaking, with insurers dramatically reducing turnaround times and processing fees. As a result, Tautona’s sales pipeline is full to the end of the first quarter of 2019.
“But there’s no rest for disruptors. Nokia and BlackBerry crumbled because they were slow to react to market changes, and they underestimated the challenge from Apple and Samsung. The only way to retain leadership is with relentless innovation, that is, a constant flow of new versions and features. That applies in any industry today.”
Tim Hogins Started Out As A Security Guard, Today His Has A Turnover Of R150 Million And Has Self-Funded Three Huge Lifestyle Parks
As a poor township kid, Tim Hogins watched kids pile into buses heading to Sun City every weekend, knowing he couldn’t afford to join them. He was a youngster, but he made a promise to himself. One day he would build parks that anyone could visit — especially underprivileged kids like himself.
- Player: Tim Hogins
- Company: GOG, formerly Green Outdoor Gyms
- Est: 2012
- Turnover: R110 million
- Projected Turnover: R150 million (2018)
- Visit: gog.co.za
“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that – I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this.”
“Poverty can be a good thing, because growing up poor makes you creative, and that’s an incredible power if you know how to use it.”
Seven years ago, Tim Hogins drove out of an office park and pulled onto the side of the road because he was having a panic attack. His car was closing in on him, he couldn’t see and he couldn’t breathe. After months of hard work, it was all over. His dreams were shattered.
Tim isn’t the first entrepreneur to find himself here, and he won’t be the last. What separates him from countless other aspiring business owners is that despite a massive setback, he didn’t back down. He sat in his car, phoned his wife, and told her what had happened. Instead of telling him it was time to move on and find a job, she asked him how they were going to cobble together the money he needed to start again.
And that was the beginning of Green Outdoor Gyms, a vision Tim had been nurturing for almost two years. A business idea that had led to his retrenchment and was almost ripped away from him by his business partners and investors.
But he didn’t quit. He pushed on. And today his business has a projected turnover of R150 million and has self-funded three huge lifestyle parks that Tim hopes will impact the lives of thousands of underprivileged children while providing jobs for hundreds more.
The in-built art of tenacity
To understand Tim, you need to understand where he came from. As a township kid growing up in Randfontein on the West Rand of Johannesburg, Tim always helped his parents to sell stuff. They were traders. His dad had a small café selling burgers and chips, and his mom baked. While other kids in the area piled into buses for Sun City on the weekends, or visited a local bird park, Tim had to work or the family didn’t eat.
“I matriculated in 1996, and even though I had an exemption, tertiary education wasn’t on the cards for me,” he says. “We just couldn’t afford it.” But Tim had a plan. His cousin told him about a free four-week course to become a security guard, and Tim aced it, securing a position at one of the firm’s top industrial sites.
Here’s the first secret to Tim’s success. Instead of seeing a dead-end job, Tim saw an opportunity. If he did his job well, he would progress to a driver, and then a cash-in-transit guard. From there the plan was management. Becoming a security guard wasn’t his fate because he couldn’t get a degree — it was step one to the rest of his life.
“I was raised to be the best version of myself. Everything is what you make of it. In primary school I was head boy, and in high school the head of the SRC. There’s always a way to grow and improve yourself.”
Two years into his career as a security guard, Tim heard about another opportunity — a free programming course teaching COBOL, a back-end system used by the financial services industry.
“I grew up 500 metres from Stafford Masie, who would go on to become the first head of Google South Africa and is one of our country’s greatest tech entrepreneurs,” says Tim. “I had zero programming experience — I’d never touched a computer — but I knew how valuable these skills were, and here was an opportunity being handed to me.”
It wasn’t quite as easy as Tim imagined. He failed the aptitude test and had to take it again. Once he was on the course, he failed that too — it was a programming course after all, and Tim needed a far more basic introduction to IT. He didn’t give up though. He’d quit his job and needed to make this work while he was still living with his father and didn’t have financial responsibilities, so he begged the course administrator to let him retake the programme. This time he passed, and found a job at a small IT firm.
Once there, Tim built up his IT acumen. Over the course of his IT career Tim worked for Dimension Data, EOH and SITA. In his final three years he applied for an account management position and moved into sales. His goal was to become a business owner, and so he diversified and learnt what he could about business.
He also paid attention to the world around him, looking for a business opportunity or problem he could solve. He dabbled with some ideas, but the one he kept coming back to was outdoor gyms.
“I saw kids in parks doing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups on trees, and kept thinking there must be a better way than this for them. I knew that a proper solution would be good for the whole community — giving kids and parents a safe and free environment to play in and focus on their health. I focused on poorer communities, where gym fees weren’t an option, and kids needed safe places to play and keep out of trouble.”
The more Tim unpacked the idea, the more he began to believe in it. And then his employers found out, and made it clear that they did not like Tim’s attention divided between his job and his business idea. Despite this, Tim continued to focus on his entrepreneurial play, and within a few months he’d been retrenched, ostensibly due to a restructuring of the business, yet Tim was the only person let go.
It was October 2010 and Tim had no job, two-months’ salary and he was about to get married. But it was the best thing that could have happened to him. “That retrenchment catapulted me into business. From then on, my full focus became outdoor gyms.”
Winning and losing
Tim had approached Joburg City Parks who where interested in the idea. He had also met with an engineer and they had begun to design the equipment. There was just one small problem: Money.
“I knocked on doors, approaching anyone who would listen. One investor laughed at me. He said I’d gone from IT to playing with steel — what was wrong with me? A contact at SITA said flat out that she wouldn’t help me. Looking for funding can be incredibly demoralising. I had an idea and a letter of intent from Joburg City Parks, and it still wasn’t enough.”
And then Tim was introduced to a group of investors who wanted to instal kids play areas in municipal parks. Tim had the City Parks connection; they had the funding. They entered into a business partnership and built a prototype together. This was when Tim’s wheels fell off.
“I was invited to a meeting by my three business partners, and when I arrived there were five people in the room — my partners and their two lawyers. We’d entered into the agreement as 50/50 partners, and they wanted us to all be 25% shareholders. I couldn’t agree to that. This was my idea, my connection, my baby.”
By the time Tim left the meeting, he had no funding, no partners and no prototype and he knew City Parks was getting impatient. All he’d done was create competitors — and they had a demo model.
Tim had spent most of 2011 looking for funding and then building the prototype once he found his partners. He wasn’t just back to square one, he was behind where he’d started months ago. Hence the panic attack.
It was a pivotal moment. Give up or push on? Tim chose to push on. That night, Tim and his wife, Rona Hogins, sat down and came up with a plan. They would sell one car and Rona would apply for a bank loan. Together, they managed to come up with R200 000. Tim approached a friend who was interested in a side business and they launched LXI, an importer of screens for media companies. LXI brought in enough to pay the bills while Tim concentrated on getting Green Outdoor Gyms off the ground.
Then luck stepped in. “I drove past a warehouse and saw some play equipment. Instead of driving on, I pulled in and pitched my business idea to the owner.” The owner, Neta Indig, agreed to build Tim’s prototype at cost, in exchange for a long-term partnership. Tim agreed. His R200 000 would be enough to get the business back off the ground. Green Outdoor Gyms was officially launched in February 2012.
Here’s the thing about luck though. Unless you’re open to opportunities, paying attention and willing to step out of your comfort zone, luck alone will get you nowhere. By the time Tim drove into Neta’s parking lot, he’d spoken to countless investors, had doors shut in his face, lost a partnership and his prototype, and was still willing to look for any opportunity that might present itself. Through sheer will and tenacity, he found it.
After the first outdoor gym was installed, two things happened. The competition Tim had feared from his old partners didn’t materialise. It was Tim’s first real lesson in the power of passion. He’d doggedly pursued his idea for over two years. His partners, who didn’t share that passion, did nothing with the prototype they’d acquired. Tim was still — at that stage — in blue ocean territory.
The second was how quickly an idea can take off once the foundations are in place. GOG’s turnover was R3 million in its first year, and orders were flooding in from municipalities throughout South Africa.
Tim was invited to present his solution in parliament, and it was included in the National Development Plan. “Everything escalated faster than I could have imagined,” he says.
“The reality is that we’re an obese nation. It’s a real problem. On top of that, 90% of the country can’t afford commercial gym fees. Under the National Development Plan, every community was earmarked for an outdoor gym. Government saw my vision and they bought into it.”
Tim had to tender for each new site, but he had a first-mover advantage. By the time other players entered his space he’d already built up a track record. His team’s turnover times are impressive and the business doesn’t only design and instal the equipment, but can also overhaul a derelict park. The quality of his products ensures that equipment lasts at least eight years with no maintenance, although once an outdoor park is installed, the community takes ownership of it, cleaning it regularly and maintaining the area.
In six short years, GOG has installed over 1 000 outdoor gyms for local municipalities around the country, and there’s still room for growth. There are currently between 5 000 and 10 000 sites available, and while Tim doesn’t believe they will get all of them, the business will continue to expand. “I believe we still have a ten-year run with government-funded outdoor gyms, but this is no longer our core business.”
In fact, GOG has grown and changed considerably since that first outdoor gym was installed in February 2012.
“I’m an opportunist. I pay attention to developments around me and am always on the lookout for where we can add value,” says Tim. As a result, GOG is now developing its own sites and supplying equipment to the industry — across private and public sectors.
“You need to know that competitors are coming,” says Tim. “When we started out we had a niche with outdoor gyms and government, but someone will always want to eat your lunch. If you know that someone’s paying attention to what you’re doing and that everyone needs to diversify, you can stay ahead of your competitors.
“Our business is centred around health, fitness and family, and this understanding has allowed us to grow into lifestyle spaces that support our core focus.”
As a result, GOG has expanded to the installation of play areas and outdoor gyms for hotels, private and public schools, beach parks and lifestyle estates, including Steyn City.
“We also have a registered landscape company,” says Tim. “We can take vacant land and transform it into a park with grass, trees, water and pathways. We have a Geotech division that does soil testing and environmental studies.”
None of this happened overnight. It takes time to build a reputation, but if you’re focused on four key things, you can build a sustainable business. “You need to diversify your product range, diversify your customer base, nurture relationships and push outbound sales,” says Tim.
Tim has geared the business for scale, which is critical in a production and manufacturing context. “We have always outsourced our manufacturing, first with Neta, and later to a Chinese manufacturer who has become integral to our success.”
Tim’s relationship with Neta was critical in the start-up phase, but after two years the manufacturer decided to focus on his core. “We were too big — it wasn’t a side project anymore, and Neta wanted to remain in construction,” says Tim. “I needed to either find another manufacturing partner, or move into that space myself.”
Tim visited manufacturing facilities in China and sourced samples until he found a plant that could handle GOG’s volumes and quality. “Chinese manufacturers value loyalty and they’ll do whatever you want at the price point you ask. If you want a cheap product, you’ll get it — and the quality to match. Good quality costs more. I have an excellent relationship with our supplier — so good that he flew out to South Africa to see our operations, because he was impressed with the volumes he produces for us.”
It’s this relationship and the capacity available to Tim that has allowed him to take the next step towards his ultimate vision for GOG: Lifestyle parks.
Living the dream
GOG’s first lifestyle park stemmed from Tim’s need for a showroom and his life-long dream to give underprivileged children access to entertainment parks that he couldn’t afford when he was a child.
“We were manufacturing outdoor parks and I started thinking about other ideas in this space that aligned with our vision and niche. I needed a showroom that could showcase everything we can do, from ziplines to climbing walls, swimming pools to spray pools and outdoor gyms. A lifestyle park was the natural answer to everything I wanted to achieve.”
GOG Lifestyle was opened in November 2016 and is situated off the N14 near Lanseria Airport. It’s close to a number of townships, including Diepsloot and Cosmo City. “The revenue model is corporate team building events, family days and launches, which allows us to run specials for kids, the elderly, and CSI projects for schools and churches.”
The next lifestyle park, GOG Gardens, was opened in Soweto in December 2017. Bigger than the first lifestyle park, GOG Gardens caters for picnics, outdoor events and concerts. It’s a multi-purpose venue with seven venues in one, and also focuses on corporates, the general public and events, with CSI projects that support children.
“We have launched some smaller projects, such as GOG Kids at Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort and a play area in Vilakazi Street, but our next big project is Happy Island, a 36 hectare water park off Beyers Naude Drive in Muldersdrift.”
Happy Island is GOG’s first joint venture with an investment partner, Tim’s Chinese supplier. Unlike the other lifestyle parks, which GOG self-funded from cash reserves, Happy Island is a multi-hundred million rand project with large capex needs. “The idea came to life when the chairman of our manufacturing supplier visited our operations in South Africa. There are no water parks in South Africa similar to those I visited in China. We are doing something completely new and exciting, and we broke ground in April 2017.”
All of GOG’s lifestyle parks have required high capex investments and have not yet reached break-even, unlike the smaller projects that will reach break-even within a few months. “Our projection for the lifestyle parks is three years, and five years for Happy Island,” says Tim.
“My long-term goal is to have ten lifestyle parks across South Africa, one in each region, and that’s what I’m investing in. We want to make a difference, give kids access to these parks and employ people.
“I’m here today because of my childhood experiences, but before I could invest in this dream, I needed to start small and build up my reputation and cash reserves. To achieve my ultimate dream will take a lot of investment, so that’s the focus.
“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that — I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this. When someone says something is impossible, I want to know why, and then try anyway. That’s how you achieve great things. That’s how you realise your dreams.”
In 2016, GOG launched its first lifestyle park, GOG Lifestyle. Since then, two more lifestyle parks have been added, GOG Gardens in Soweto, and GOG Kids in Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort. The company’s biggest venture, Happy Island will soon be open to the public as well.
GOG’s genesis was outdoor gyms, and the company continues to grow from these original roots: Catering to a growing focus on healthier lifestyles, from public parks to beaches, corporates and residential estates.
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