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Steers: George Halamandaris

Steers is a true success story for South African fast food franchising and, as such, a sought-after brand. Chana Boucher uncovers where the brand started and how it has managed to stay relevant for over 50 years.

Chana Boucher

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Steers

What does it take to build one of the strongest and most well-known franchises in South Africa? Is it mastering the art of consistency, the use of pure beef patties to make ‘real burgers’ served with hand-cut chips and exclusive sauce or the guidance of a strong leadership team? Steers has combined all of these to become the 522-store strong fast food franchise it is today.

Val Bourdos, managing executive, Steers believes the brand’s vision of creating and offering customers the ‘perfect burger’ is what has made it so successful over the years. She says Steers has always stayed true to its unique taste and maintained a unique selling proposition. For the last 15 years, Steers has won the award for the best burgers and for the last 13 years, the best chips in Johannesburg.

Apart from that, Bourdos says that Steers’ leadership team are good brand custodians and understand branding. ìWe have had some odd requests in the past for things like hot dogs, but the brand has stayed focused. We have to sacrifice some things, but we can’t be all things to everybody.î With marketing and operations expertise the team has seen the growth and development of the brand, she adds.

Where it All Started

With a vision to start a family run business that would outlast the family, Steers founder, George Halamandaris introduced the first steakhouse concept to South Africa after spending five years in the US identifying new ways of serving food. In 1957, Seven Steer was registered as a private company, followed by the registration of Black Steer and Steers in the early 60s.

The first ever Steers store was opened in 1970 by George’s son, John Halamandaris, in Jeppe, Johannesburg. John later joined forces with his four cousins, Panagiotis, Theofanis, Periklis and Charalambous Halamandaris. The early 80s saw the opening of a fourth Steers in Sandton City, which attracted interest from would-be franchisees. The other stores included Yeoville and Bellevue with a central kitchen in Johannesburg.

In 1983, Steers launched a new franchise programme. The owners placed a single advertisement in a local newspaper inviting franchisees to apply, and since then Steers has never had a shortage of prospective franchisees seeking to buy into the franchise. Within two years there were more than 15 outlets opened, and this number grew to 250 stores ten years later. By the end of the 90s Steers started expanding beyond South Africa’s borders, with outlets in Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mauritius, Zambia, Tanzania and Ivory Coast.

Steers Holdings listed on the stock exchange in 1994, but in 2001 Steers Holdings changed its name to Famous Brands to more accurately reflect the diversity of the group’s brand portfolio, although Steers remained the icon brand within the group.

The Franchise ‘Marriage’

ìA profitable and happy franchisee makes a profitable and happy franchisor,î says Bourdos, explaining that this is a philosophy at Steers. She attributes the strength of Steers’ growth to its franchising model. Believing in the potential franchising offers, Bourdos says it is a true partnership. ìThe franchisor conceptualises the brand while the franchisee sets up, manages and runs the store. If they don’t work in sync the company won’t be successful. The partners are interdependent.î She adds that there is a need to respect each other’s roles.

Bourdos says franchising is ideal for someone who wants a business opportunity that they don’t have to think through themselves. ìWith franchising the formula is already outlined for you.î She says it allows the young entrepreneur to invest in a business when they can’t do it alone. ìThe cost of entry is lower and there is lower risk. In the food game, it is a great model if run properly,î she explains.

Steers is 100% franchised, so there are no company-owned stores in the group. Bourdos explains that Steers believes franchised stores are more successful. ìIt’s the best formula because we could never run the stores as well as franchisees do.î An owner operator, says Bourdos, looks after their investment. ìUnlike in the corporate world, you can’t just send out an instruction, you actually have to convince the franchisee of a new plan. They have invested their money in the business, so their commitment is far greater,î she explains.

Becoming a Franchisee

If you are interested in partnering with Steers by becoming a franchisee, you need business acumen and the willingness to put some time and thought into your application. Steers has a specific process for prospective franchisees that starts with filling out an application available from the Steers website. Applicants are required to submit their personal details along with a business plan of about two to three pages. The business plan, explains Bourdos, communicates the franchisee’s objective. They need to explain what they plan to do if they do get a store.

This process separates the serious prospects from those who are just browsing. Bourdos says Steers often receives enquiries from prospective franchisees who want to know more about buying a franchise, but she says many of them don’t actually go through the application process.

Once the application is processed, the prospective franchisee is interviewed. Bourdos says the perception that franchisees need to have previous experience in the food industry is not true. ìOur franchisees include ex-headmasters, corporate executives and really experienced professionals who are fed up with corporate life.

She says Steers looks for entrepreneurs who can work independently and know the responsibilities involved in running their own business. During the interview they will be assessed to determine whether or not they possess good business acumen and relate to the brand. Steers also looks at interpersonal skills to assess whether or not a candidate is a ‘Steers person’ who will fit into the culture. ìWe generally find the right people, but sometimes we do make mistakes.

According to Bourdos, Steers engages with black entrepreneurs as a priority. Up to 25% of our franchisee network comprises black entrepreneurs, and we are very proud of this,î she adds.

Improving the Chance of Success

To give prospective franchisees a good indication of what it takes to own a Steers franchise, full training has to be completed before the franchise agreement is signed. This, explains Bourdos, exposes them to the long hours and lets them get their hands dirty. ìThey really have to love the brand,  she quips.

Steers insists that its franchises are owner operated, but Bourdos says that at the same time it is possible for multiple-store owners to employ managers. ìThe success rate of a franchise is higher if the owner is involved in the business. They don’t perform as well if this is not the case.

Training for new franchisees is very detailed, says Bourdos. She explains that franchisees go through the Famous Brands training institute which trains franchisees for all the brands. Here they receive training on financial, safety, hygiene, first aid, customer service and labour relations, which takes a full week. From here franchisees receive specific Steers training which involves actual practical experience in a Steers store. Bourdos says they learn everything about operating a store, including working the cash desk, making burgers, packaging, stock control and point of sale training. A franchisee cannot open unless they have been trained, she adds.

The Right Location, the Right Franchisee

Steers receives applications both from franchisees who are interested in a new location for a Steers outlet and those who want to buy existing franchises. According to Bourdos about 15 to 20 new stores are opened every year.

We always advise applicants that the opportunity for them to enter is mainly through change of hand.î Steers franchises change ownership on about 30 to 35 outlets in a year. Post recession, Bourdos says there was an increase in the number of franchises being sold as the existing owners couldn’t afford to run their businesses. ìWhat we usually see is that when a store isn’t performing well the franchisee is distanced from the business. When a new owner comes in, the business improves, she adds.

When we get an application we won’t talk about plans for a site, but rather focus on the business. When a new site is available we will check our database for applicants who are in that area,î explains Bourdos. If an applicant highlights an available site, she says that they are not guaranteed that they will be the franchisee of that site if they are not the right profile, but there have been cases where the franchisees fitted.

Bourdos says that there are multiple owners of Steers franchises. Interested franchisees are given a second store if they have a good success rate.

Finding What Works

To strengthen the franchisor/franchisee relationship, Steers has a franchise council with a representative from each region. The council is useful for the franchisor to bounce decisions off of and either get endorsement on a decision or feedback from the franchisees who have insight into the operations of the outlets.

Bourdos explains that Steers works with the council and relooks the menu on a biannual basis. We look at what is selling well,î she says. Within its network, there are 70 Halaal stores which only differ from other stores in that they don’t feature any pork on their menus and all product must be Halaal.

Bourdos explains that a few years ago franchisees were given the option to drop fried chicken, sandwiches and breakfasts from their menus as these weren’t ideal. Some of the transient outlets (those located on the national highways) opted to keep these items as they did work in these locations. She says that these two factors could see some differences in the menus offered at stores, but that on the whole the Steers menu was quite consistent, with the main focus being on burgers.

One of the major challenges Steers faced in the past was when the economy was down it saw a drop in sales in some areas. Bourdos says there was a need to look at how to manage this. The franchisor had to advise on what to do. Where stores’ profitability was being impacted, the franchisor stepped in to study the business and identify where cost savings could be achieved.

The Quest for the Perfect Burger

Steers continuously runs thorough training programmes for its staff, including special sessions on the back of house, front of house and what is called ‘hot shots training’ which is when someone is trained up to be a trainer in their outlet. Various campaigns are also run to constantly improve operations. For example, a specialist on staff communication will be called in to assist managers in communicating with their staff.

Each year, Bourdos says, there is a specific focus on one aspect of the business. This year the focus is on creating the perfect burger. Training has been centred on how to grill the perfect patty. The aim is to refresh the skills and knowledge of those preparing the patties. Furthermore, there is also a drive to upsell. Bourdos says staff are encouraged to upsell customers by asking if they would like additional cheese or beverages with their orders.

Steers’ marketing efforts position the brand in line with this vision. Bourdos explains that everything is about creating desire for the perfect burger. The brand is aiming to make its marketing messages real and local.

The rebirth of the ‘Real Burger’

For the fifth time in its 50 year history, Steers is rebranding. In the early 60s the brand had a cowboy theme making use of a lot of leather. Since then the brand has gone through various phases, including the introduction of a brighter orange and purple in the 80s. The brand has continued to evolve throughout the years, but the new look and positioning of the brand is “really revolutionary” says Bourdos. The focus has been totally shifted to the product – ‘Real Burgers’. The pay-off line has changed from ‘Real food, made real good’ to ‘Real Burgers’ to signify this shift.

New Builds

All newly-built Steers franchises, of which Rosebank was the first, will feature exposed kitchens allowing customers to watch their food being grilled. Bourdos says that creates transparency as well as allowing for more interaction with staff. A number of new standards have been introduced to encourage this, including a hand cleaning routine which happens every 30 minutes. Staff need to spray their hands with disinfectant, clap their hands and then call out “hands clean.”

New-look drive-throughs will also be introduced, and are a totally new take on the drive-through concept. Large glass windows will make it possible for customers to watch their food being prepared.

New Look

With the aim of appealing to a more youthful market, the purple used in the Steers branding has been toned down and a more neutral palette introduced. The flame behind the Steers name has also changed to be more of a graphic representation of a flame.

According to Bourdos, the new look was developed responsibly to keep the costs down for franchisees. She says franchisees also have options to lower their revamp costs. For example, if their current floor is still in good condition, they can leave it as is. They can also keep their old tables and chairs, just changing the tops to the new materials.

Making the Changes

Bourdos says it will take between five and seven years for the brand to change the entire network as not all the franchises can change at the same time. Some franchisees, says Bourdos have asked to revamp their outlets before the stipulated time in their agreements.

Buying a franchise

Depending on the size of a site, franchisees can expect to pay from R1,1 million (excluding VAT). There is also a joining fee of R123 500 which needs to be paid immediately. The joining fee covers the cost of training, the drawing up of plans and access to a project manager to set up the store. If a franchisee is buying an existing store this fee will be lower.

Unencumbered cash

To invest in a Steers franchise, you will need at least 50% of the investment to be your own money, while the remaining 50% can be financed. Steers has a relationship with local banks and can facilitate finance for franchisees.

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting a brand

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

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

Supporting growth

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

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

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

The business

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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Take note

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

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

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

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

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

Start small, but dream big

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

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

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

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

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

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

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

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Find people to inspire you to reach success

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

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

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

Build your success, one step at a time

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

Be your own biggest cheerleader

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

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

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

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

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

Drive a movement with your business

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

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

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

Pivoting to further growth

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

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

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

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

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

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

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

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

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

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

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

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

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

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

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


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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

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

Nadine Todd

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Mark Sham hasn’t just created a microphone. He’s creating a movement. In July 2015 he hosted his first event. It was called Suits & Sneakers, and 1 000 people attended. Mark was looking to see if his idea resonated with anyone else. It was clear it did.

Related: Persistence Can Beat Any Odds Says The Founder Of Rebosis Property Fund

The second event, a few months later, drew 1 500 people. Two events held in 2016 had 3 000 people respectively, and it would have been more if Mark hadn’t realised they needed to limit attendees to ensure the event was still personal.

Keep up the momentum

To keep the Suits & Sneakers momentum going, a weekly event, Suits & Sneakers Fixed was added. While the main events each year have four speakers focusing on completely different content, Suits & Sneakers Fixed is held every Wednesday and has only one speaker, discussing one topic. Between 100 and 120 people can attend, and you can book online. It’s a free event, first come, first served.

Related: Lichaba Creations Founder Max Lichaba’s Inspiring Journey To Entrepreneurial Success

But here’s the secret behind Suits & Sneakers. It’s not an eventing company. It’s a business promoting the benefits of informal training, and focuses on a new method of corporate training, that with enough traction will hopefully turn the current education system on its head — something Mark believes South Africa desperately needs.

The 3 goals of Suits & Sneakers

The Suits & Sneakers events were created with three goals in mind: One, to test whether Mark’s theory of informal education held weight.

Two, to bring corporates on board to his way of thinking, and to be willing to test this new training methodology in their own organisations, and ultimately support a new education system for South Africans who cannot access the current system.

And three, to build a really, really big microphone letting the country know who Suits & Sneakers is, and what the brand stands for. In a nutshell, it’s marketing on steroids. And it’s having a massive impact.

Here’s how the idea took shape, and how it’s developed within the market place.

How did a love\hate relationship with learning lead to Suits & Sneakers?

suits-and-sneakers

I’m an avid learner who is addicted to learning new things and educating myself, but I hate the formal education system. I didn’t matriculate despite having good marks; I didn’t quite fit in. I questioned everything and the traditional schooling system isn’t built for that.

I ended up spending a few years travelling around the US. When I came back to South Africa I tried to enrol at IMM to study marketing but soon realised that nothing had changed. The traditional education model still wasn’t for me. So I started my own business.

I’d been exposed to social media overseas, I was born in an era of full access, thanks to the Internet, and I upskilled myself while learning the ins and outs of business. I also knew I had a natural talent for advertising, and just needed to pull all the threads together.

R1 million in debt at 25

The problem is that I’m high-energy, and tend to have a lot of different ideas and projects on the go. I was building up my marketing agency, but I also launched an online fragrance store. My suppliers convinced me to open a physical store as well, and that was a big mistake. I ended up losing the store, and being R1 million in debt at 25.

I knew I would never be able to pay that back through traditional employment, and nothing had changed — I still had no qualifications. What I did have was a young marketing agency. I needed to find a way to really make an impact on my clients and start building that up.

In sales and marketing, you’re always looking for an in: How do you give your clients real value, in such a way that they want to do business with you, because they know you can positively impact their business. That’s the code you need to crack with every prospective company you do business with.

Share your insights with your clients

Because I was an avid learner and I’d already spent a few years working in the social media space, which was still in its infancy in South Africa, I knew I had some real insights to share with my clients. I designed and marketed a social media course.

There was a lot of interest, but I couldn’t find anyone to present it for me. I ended up doing it myself and it worked. I’d never thought of myself as a public speaker, but my passion for the topic came through.

It triggered something in me. I read a book, Inside Coca-Cola, by David Beasley and E. Neville Isdell, that’s filled with lessons I wanted to share with the marketing community. I created a breakfast event to share this with marketers, and which I could use to build relationships with them, and was invited to do the talk for corporates.

Related: 5 Answers From Digital Kungfu On Why Podcasts Are Your Best Self Development Tool

It made me realise that while the education system in South Africa is broken, there is a solution. Informal training really worked well for me. I’ve created ‘Ted Talk’ syllabuses for people. There is a real need, and maybe I have a solution. 

How did you take a wild idea that could change the world and turn it into a reality?

My talks started out well. I travelled around the country, speaking on different topics, and making a decent living.

Then I realised it was futile. I was giving one day workshops that people loved, but they weren’t putting what they’d learnt into practice. I needed to switch people on to learning and to make them hungry for knowledge and, through ‘drip’ learning, change their approach to business and life through consistent and habitual changes that together make a powerful whole.

At first it was a side project. I had my business and this was a pet project. I had four aims:

  1. Put together an incredible event as a proof of concept
  2. Find a way to get corporates excited by the structure and vision
  3. Get entrepreneurs and corporate execs to attend
  4. Use this whole thing to build a really big microphone for the brand, to let people know what our vision was, and how training and education can be transformed.

Get people excited about your offering

Step one was easy — I had so many incredible contacts to draw from. My goal was to pull four very different speakers together. Suits & Sneakers isn’t about one particular topic. It’s about getting people excited by the idea of learning something new. If you can trigger that, you can create a life-long learner. That’s our aim.

Securing a corporate sponsor took a bit longer. First, I needed to be able to articulate what I understood because I was feeling misaligned. Previously, you qualified with a degree and you were relevant for 20 or 30 years. Now, in two years you’re irrelevant. That’s the pace of today’s world.

The same is true of the workspace — annual training that isn’t revisited isn’t benefitting anyone. It’s like going to gym once a month for 12 hours — you’ll never be fit and in shape. It takes regular practice.

Related: 4 TED Talks To Help You Deal With Stress And Anxiety

And yet this isn’t how we treat training. It’s a bigger problem and more costly than it needs to be. Smaller, more regular doses of training that teach employees to become learners who embrace their own development is a solution to this training crisis — for employers and employees.

We needed a change of style. Podcasts and Ted Talks work for me because they’re personal, informal and entertaining — even though the content is exceptional. How could we bring this into a traditional training environment? I didn’t want presentations and slides. I wanted a visceral, immersive experience.

I didn’t have everything perfectly laid out, but I knew we needed to get started and develop it as we want along. My vision and goals were clear, even if the final product wasn’t, and I approached Sage.

There was alignment: They have a great product that is valuable to SMEs, and I could gather SMEs into one venue, and create a database. Sage could pitch their services to a captive audience, and I would have a platform to start refining my training ideas, and I would also be creating my giant microphone and brand.

Big risk, big reward

I invited Sage to the first event. They didn’t think I could get 1 000 people there. Not only did I hit my target, but 300 of those tickets were paid — the balance were free. I lost R600 000 putting the event together, but it was my marketing for the year — my giant microphone. After the second event Sage was on board.

I still run the main event at a loss, but each year the gap is smaller, and it’s our most valuable marketing tool, attracting a number of different corporates. We’ve launched the Real Life MBA, which is a charged-for event with six simultaneous speakers.

You choose who you want to listen to in person, and have exclusive online access to the videos of the other talks post the event. The conference is really the start to a 12-week learning programme.

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

We’re also creating informal learning curriculums for corporates. We collaborate with them to develop manuals, events, self-learning assignments and so on. Eventually we want to digitise and gamify the entire experience.

How is the current Suits & sneakers model feeding into a bigger vision of change?

Ultimately, we want to disrupt education. Real quality education can be free. There is so much out there; so many experts to learn from — we just need to reimagine how to learn. Our aim is to create a free education system for 18 to 24 year olds.

In 2016 I decided to sell my other businesses and focus full time on Suits & Sneakers. I’m a start-up again, but I’m finally living my vision.

Our offices are a co-working space called Impello, operating in Greenside. It’s a space for start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs to collaborate and work with like-minded individuals. By paying the bills with one revenue model, we can fund a training and education space that incubates small business and works as a campus for our informal university.

Tech advances are revolutionising learning possibilities, but you need a mix of classroom and online learning. Face to face is social and emotional but classroom learning doesn’t scale without adjacent costs.

So what’s the solution? Co-functional, co-working spaces. We have six funders who share the vision and understand what we’re trying to do here. That’s been the power of our giant microphone.


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

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