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Swipe Successful – How Sureswipe Scaled To A R250 Million Turnover

Here’s how Sureswipe cornered a niche market with limited funding and continues to enjoy double-digit year-on-year growth.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Paul Kent
  • Company: Sureswipe
  • What they do: Sureswipe is one of South Africa’s first card Payment Service Providers (PSPs), established to make card payment acceptance easy and accessible to all independent retailers and service providers.
  • Est: 2008
  • Turnover: R251 million
  • Visit: sureswipe.co.za

Four years ago, Paul Kent received a Request for Proposal (RFP) from a tier one retailer. He ran around the office high-fiving everyone. Sureswipe had made it. They were officially on the map.

Two days later, Paul and his COO, Richard Flack, turned the RFP down, choosing not to pitch for the business, even though it would have been a huge deal if they’d secured it. It took two brutal days to make the decision, but ultimately, Paul and Richard understood that sometimes you have to say no to business, particularly if it doesn’t align with your vision.

“I was so excited, but Richard immediately said, ‘let’s think carefully about this before making any decisions,’ and so we did. We went back to our vision to make card acceptance easy and accessible for all independent retailers. The more we thought about the RFP, the more we realised that we’re not geared to service tier one retailers. Our team has a deep connection with independents. That’s who we want to support and where our expertise lies. Our business model is geared to support that market sector. Extending our focus to tier one retailers would require a change in our business and a new division to service them. It wasn’t the right move for us.”

Paul learnt what many successful entrepreneurs before him have discovered: In business, what you say no to is as important as what you take on. The more focused you are and the better you understand your core customers, the more successfully you will service them. That’s the foundation of a sustainable, high-growth company.

It took Paul and his team five years to get 3 000 Sureswipe card payment machines into the market. They were growing rapidly by the time they received the RFP. Today they have 10 000 devices in the market, and expect to hit 30 000 within three years. The business has grown 30% in the last year alone.

Here are the lessons Paul has learnt since launching Sureswipe in 2008, from the leanest way to start (and run) a business, to minimising customer churn and maximising market loyalty.

1. Launch a solution, not just a company

sureswipe-machine

The idea for Sureswipe was born inside Healthbridge, a company that processed claims between doctors and medical insurers. It was the mid-2000s and medical aids were changing. Where previously doctors submitted directly to medical aids, co-payments and limited annual benefits compelled medical practices to start accepting cash and card payments.

Sureswipe was launched as a division that supplied card payment machines to support this shift. Paul, who was heading up the business development key account team at Healthbridge, realised that there was a much bigger market that needed a value-for-money, high service level card payment solution, and that was independent retailers.

“Growing up in the UK, I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s fruit and florist store and in high school I worked weekends at a local clothing retailer. As a result I understood the challenges of retail, particularly the time-bound administrative burdens,” he says.

Paul researched the market and developed a value proposition based on two key factors. First, although paying for payments is a grudge purchase, particularly for small, independent retailers, cash-based businesses that adopt card payments typically experience a 50% increase in monthly turnover. Second, independent retailers with point of sale (POS) machines were paying a 5% transaction fee, while those that hadn’t adopted POS systems weren’t the core focus of banks. Paul found a frustrated customer base eager for an alternative service provider.

“Most retailers either thought that card payments were too expensive, or that they could only access POS machines through their banks. They’d often wait up to 30 days for a machine, and if it broke, it would be another week before a technician came to fix it. At that time, the large banks weren’t geared to service that market.”

With a clear value proposition in mind, Paul convinced Healthbridge to ring-fence Sureswipe and launch it as a separate business. In October 2008, Sureswipe opened its doors with Heathbridge as the majority shareholder. The business model had two core focuses: Converting cash-based businesses and switching independent retailers who already had POS systems but were dissatisfied with their current service providers.

“We were strategic in picking the right market, but luck also played a part,” says Paul. “When we entered this space, a similar company was launched to focus on tier one and two retailers. But, the banks were highly competitive in that market segment and new entrants found it difficult to compete. We targeted a market that was largely ignored and today, 70% of our business is from single-store owners.”

While they were fine-tuning their offering, Paul and his team found that their customers were so grateful for an alternative solution that they tended to forgive start-up wobbles as Sureswipe found its groove.

Related: If You Want Scale, Fail Fast And Learn Quickly

Stress-testing your business

In the early days, the Sureswipe team leveraged its relationship with Capitec Bank to secure meetings and make sales. “We’re not a bank, so we need a banking sponsor to help us meet regulations and operate within this market,” explains Paul. “When Capitec secured its licence to do merchant acquiring, they had no customers and were developing their product in-house. They were also looking for a distribution partner. We aligned Sureswipe with Capitec as our sponsor and provided them with a distribution partner and a solid footprint in the medical market — it was a perfect solution.”

When you’re dealing with people’s money, you need a strong level of trust, so the relationship with Capitec was essential while Sureswipe built its own brand. “It wasn’t always easy,” says Paul. “We had six people who went from retailer to retailer explaining who we were and what we did. At one restaurant, two off-duty cops heard one of our reps and decided it was a con. They arrested him and he called me from the back of the police van. I had to convince them that we were a legitimate business before they’d let him go.”

After five years, Sureswipe and Capitec found that they were competing with each other. When the contract came to an end, both parties decided not to renew it. But Sureswipe had 3 000 devices in the market, all of which were on Capitec’s technology platform. By not renewing the agreement with Capitec, Sureswipe needed to recontract all 3 000 of their customers. It was a massive project.

“It was also a huge lesson for us, and I’m glad it happened when we only had 3 000 machines in the market. We realised the risk in working with one bank, particularly because the technology that processed our customers’ payments wasn’t our own. We needed to licence our own technology and develop a dual sponsor system to mitigate this risk.”

The entire project took more than six months to complete. “People in the industry were sceptical — a project of this scope had never been done before,” says Paul. “We started with a small, ring-fenced team. By the end of the six months every employee was working on the migration of customers onto the new platform.”

The lesson: There will always be challenges, particularly during growth phases. Stress-test your business as much as possible. The earlier you spot a potential risk or problem, the sooner you can address it and implement a solution, even if it means adjusting your business model.

To stress-test your business, ask yourself these four questions regularly: What happens if everything goes right (ie, we grow too fast)? If I remove one piece that’s central to the functionality of my business (this is what Sureswipe faced), what happens? Is my business valued (ie, do you know if your buyers love you and why)? What’s the worst that could happen?

2.Variable cost models keep businesses lean

One of Sureswipe’s success factors is that its product isn’t cutting edge — what the business does is not unique, and the technology is available to be licensed. Nothing had to be built from scratch.

This allowed Paul and his team to launch the business with a variable cost model, outsourcing sales, the call centre and even their technology.

“The biggest outlay was the initial investment into the product, funded by Healthbridge, but within a year we were cashflow positive,” says Paul. “We’ve been funding ourselves organically ever since.”

At the time, launching the business wasn’t a big risk because it didn’t involve a huge upfront investment. Healthbridge was happy to see where it went. Paul and his team of eight kept costs down and slowly built up the business to the point where it became bigger than its initial shareholder.

“It was the ideal business model to start with. Don’t try to build the biggest — do the minimum required and don’t use a lot of capital. If you use a lot of capital upfront shareholders will put you under immense pressure. We were under no pressure. We weren’t drawing anything; we were just a little side thing that may or may not work.

“We were the first mover in this space in South Africa, but everything we do has been done somewhere else. The machines are sourced from a few companies in the world that manufacture them. The mPOS machine is licensed from a company in Iceland. Software is licensed. Everything Sureswipe needs exists — it’s just a case of sourcing it and building a solid service-delivery business around the tech.”

Without the burden of heavy research and development and other start-up costs, Sureswipe channels all internally-generated cash into finding ways to do things better and faster for their customers.

 “Today fintech is a buzzword. Disruption within the financial services sector is expected. Ten years ago, fintech wasn’t even a word. Everyone thought you could only deal with banks.

“What we had going for us when we launched was our card machines. People understood them so we didn’t need to educate our market on what we did. We just needed to make them aware that there was an alternative to banks, and because we focused on an untapped market, there weren’t really competitors in the space. We weren’t trying to bring in new technology like mobile payments. The market wasn’t ready for that in 2008.”

Sureswipe launched with traditional stand-alone card machines, followed by Integrated payments for larger retail franchise stores, mobile MOVE card readers for businesses on the go, and Sureswipe POS LITE, an app-based point-of-sale software for start-ups and smaller retailers.

“When it came to mPOS, we were happy to be followers. We had a product ready to launch, but we made the decision to wait for the banks to launch their offerings and educate the market first. We were then in a perfect position to be fast followers — without needing to educate the market ourselves.

“It was a strategic play and it worked for us. We’ve also had good growth in our MOVE product and we’re doing the same with QR code payments. There have been trailblazers in the market who have done phenomenally well, but they operate on separate platforms. We can now offer a QR code that accepts almost any QR Wallet.

“On the other hand, a peer-to-peer mobile wallet was developed within Healthbridge that never gained the traction needed for success. It was too early for the market and deep pockets were needed to fund the business. The business had a great team that worked on the project and Sureswipe benefited from accessing them.”

Today, Sureswipe has integrated many functions that were previously outsourced. “Our variable cost-model allowed us to enter the market without huge financial backing, but where it’s made financial sense, or it offers us a strong competitive advantage, we have brought services or products in-house.”

Related: How to Build a Lean and Efficient Business Plan

3. Understand — and leverage — your competitive advantage

sureswipe-product

Since entering the market ten years ago, transaction fees have more than halved. This is good for retailers, but it makes the space more competitive for service providers who must maintain quality products and service as profit margins narrow.

Sureswipe’s value proposition is captured in one sentence: They come for price, they stay for service. “Everything we do needs to adhere to that,” says Paul. “We need to bring technology to market at a lower price point than incumbents are offering, and then secure customer loyalty with our superior service offering.”

Within an increasingly competitive space, Sureswipe is not always the most cost-effective solution in the market, but a focus on service and convenience means that retailers are willing to pay a premium if the offering is good for their business.

“Our focus is value for money, not price. Retailers want to be able to accept any legal currency from their customers. As a service provider, we needed to figure out a way to do that in the most cost-effective way possible, without increasing our administrative burden as the business grew. With its low margins, this business only works at scale. If our internal costs escalate with each new user, that’s not a scalable business.”

So, what is Sureswipe’s competitive edge? “We’ve always understood retailers,” says Paul. “Their biggest burden is time — they never have enough of it. If you have an unreliable product, or an administrative burden, you’re essentially losing time and revenue.”

This was the business’s entry into the market, but growth has been the result of continuously fine-tuning Sureswipe’s offering based on its knowledge of customer needs. “The more time we spend understanding our target market, the more we’re able to recognise their pain points. Everything we do is focused on simplifying the lives of retailers and helping them to grow their businesses.”

In a highly competitive space, you need to create an edge for yourself. Some businesses create a moat around the business with tech, but often there is a competitor who can do things faster and cheaper.

Successful companies find a different competitive edge, one that focuses on delivering value to the customer beyond the product.

Sureswipe has a two-pronged approach. First, convenience and simplicity are a must — if Sureswipe isn’t making the lives of its clients easier (and more convenient for their customers in turn), then the business isn’t living up to its core values. The second is keeping costs as low as possible. Sureswipe needs to be able to offer its products and services to the market at highly competitive prices. This is only possible if the business has lean operations and is scalable.

So, how have Paul and his team managed to offer exceptional service while keeping costs low? “You need to sweat the details,” he says. “This landscape has become increasingly competitive. Banks have caught up to us. An independent retailer can pick up the phone and the bank will send someone the following day to chat to them.”

To counter competition, Sureswipe focuses on service and cost to serve. It’s one thing acquiring a customer, it’s another keeping them, and this has been where Sureswipe’s team focuses their passion and energy.

“We’ve found that complex structures hinder service levels and so we’ve kept our structure flat. Our internal culture is extremely important for customer service. Hiring the right people who are passionate about retail and business means we are able to service our clients better. We care about their businesses. 86% of calls get resolved by our call centres. If they can’t solve the problem, a technician is sent to the store to fix or swap a faulty machine.”

From a cost perspective, Sureswipe needs to continuously get to market cheaper than before, while simultaneously offering products that are better, more seamless and more integrated into the business.

“There is always an initial cost when introducing a new product, whether it’s a device or an app. However, each new offering increases our clients’ revenue, which in turn increases our revenue. Scale is critical — we’re in the red until we achieve scale.

“We’ve had to be ruthless about achieving great service levels at low costs. We don’t believe in either low cost or good service — we need to deliver both. If something is too expensive for us or our clients, we either don’t do it, or we find a more cost-effective way to bring it to market.”

Related: Why Start-ups Like Uber Stumble When They Scale

4. Ensure you have a ‘stickiness’ factor

One of the dangers of a highly competitive market is that it’s simple for customers to switch service providers if they are only looking at price. If a retailer only has a POS machine with Sureswipe for example, it can be swopped out for another device. With this in mind, Paul started looking at value-added services that increase brand loyalty and reduce churn.

“We call it preventable churn,” says Paul. “If business owners have a POS device and take just one more product from us, the stickiness factor is exponential. This can include a cash advance product, or creating a gift and loyalty programme through our platform, or both. As a business owner you can still switch to another service provider, but it’s more complicated and you’re receiving a bundle of services that all add value to your business.”

To achieve this, Sureswipe has partnered with Retail Capital to offer its customers cash advance products, while a loyalty programme allows consumers to swipe their loyalty cards and gift cards at all Sureswipe terminals, accumulating points.

“We’ve seen a small increase in revenue since we added these offerings, but more importantly, our customers’ revenues have increased. For example, if someone has a gift card, they will generally spend a bit extra in-store as well. Our merchant discount fee means we offer these products to our customers at a low cost, but our churn rate has lowered by 70%.”

Everything Sureswipe introduces to the market is based on a long-term view. “We offer a commoditised product and so our success relies on scale and volume. As long as you can do that at the right cost, with the right returns, you have a sustainable business. These extra products reduce churn, solve pain points for our customers and in the long term will increase our revenue.”

Paul’s long-term focus is consolidation. “We’ve been in this space for ten years, we have a great customer base, and we believe that we can consolidate our market. Our long-term view informs any decision we make about acquisitions or mergers.”

In 2016, Sureswipe acquired Concord, a company running software that integrated banks with retailers’ till systems.

The acquisition enabled Sureswipe to reduce costs by offering customers one point of contact for their POS system, tills and the processing between the two. “It removes complexities from the value chain, reduces costs and reduces retailer admin.”

With new generation mPOS offerings encroaching on Sureswipe’s standalone devices on the one side, and Integrated payments on the other, Sureswipe is effectively cannibalising its own market, but as Paul is quick to point out — that’s the idea.

5. Always look to the future

paul-kent-sureswipe

Sureswipe’s potential is huge. With 10 000 devices in the market, the business will facilitate R10 billion in transactions this year alone, which accounts for only 6% of its target sector, 2% overall, and 1% if you consider that the biggest competitor to electronic payments isn’t other service providers or banks, but cash.

“Markets change and adapt, particularly in this space where there has been incredible innovation and growth over the past few years. We know that in the long run, if we want to sustain growth, we will need to cannibalise the stand-alone devices, which we’re already doing. Ultimately though, what we really want to bring to market are products that can compete with cash.”

According to Paul, everything comes down to two things: Convenience and cost. mPOS is a lower cost option; contactless payments are all about convenience. Sureswipe needs both — and to keep looking ahead to see what’s next for their market.

“In the UK this year, for the first time, there were more electronic payments than cash, thanks to the convenience of contactless purchases for small ticket items. This is a big driver for us.”

To stay ahead of the game, Paul focuses on the business’s capabilities, and his own. “I need to pay attention to what’s happening internationally and how we can adapt our product offerings based on international innovations, but I also need to continuously focus on personal growth.

“One of my biggest fears is that the business will outgrow me. It’s a common founder’s fear, and for good reason. Many founders are great at launching businesses, but they don’t possess the skills the business needs to grow.”

To avoid this pitfall, Paul has consciously developed his business acumen over the past 15 years, beginning with Wits Business School’s Management Advancement Programme in 2003, and completing his MBA in 2015 through IE Business School in Madrid.

“I think it’s essential for all entrepreneurs and business owners to keep the pencil sharp and learn as much as possible. If I reached a stage where I didn’t think I was the right person for this position, I’d step back. We’ve built a team to complement each other; I’m not a details guy, but someone who is can fill that role. Part of my journey has been working my way out of a job by bringing in someone who can do what I’m doing, and often they do it better than me.

Related: How To Scale Your Business Effectively


LESSONS LEARNT

Become an expert in a niche

Our focus on the independent retailer space has given us a deep understanding of our customers and their needs. We’ve had international companies that are interested in acquiring us state that companies in other markets don’t have our level of understanding for each element of the business.

Look at problems with fresh eyes

We were naive about banking and financial businesses; we’re more retailers than bankers. This meant we didn’t have legacy systems when we launched, which allowed us to look at the independent retail sector without preconceived ideas and ask: What does this market need and how can we service it?

Always seek to remove pain points from your customers, no matter how small

In our sector, as businesses grow, their owners go back to the bank each year to renegotiate their fees. We removed this administrative burden by signing them up on a sliding scale, and as they grow, they automatically move into new segments and their fees drop — both new entrants and incumbent banks have copied this pricing model.

Understand where you’re innovating and why

We knew we didn’t need to innovate on the tech side. Everything we needed existed, and it was far more cost-effective to licence products than build from scratch. Instead, we innovated around our business model and service offering.

Everything starts with your people

Our employees are friendly and helpful, even though we now have a staff complement of 139 people. We foster a passion for learning, promote from within, where possible, and champion a can-do attitude. We’re a service-based organisation, which means everyone’s visions need to align with our service goal.

Pay attention locally and internationally

Read a lot, find out what’s trending, be well networked and have associations overseas. For example, Mastercard and Visa let us know what’s happening in other markets. We’re not at the forefront of technology, but we need to know what’s happening with technology to be able to follow it.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
  • Company: Property Point
  • What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
  • Launched: 2008
  • Visit: propertypoint.org.za

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.

While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.

Risk, reputation and relationships

“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.

So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?

Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.

“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”

Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”

A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.

“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”

Related: Property Point Creates R1bn In Procurement Opportunities For Small Businesses

Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”

This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.

“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”

In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”

Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.

“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”

Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.

Building a sustainable start-up

While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.

Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.

1. Align and partner with the right people

This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.

2. Make sure you get the basics right

Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?

3. Understand your value proposition

Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?

Related: Want To Start A Property Business That Buys Property And Rents It Out?

4. Unpack your value chain

If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?

8. Don’t ignore technology

Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.

Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.

“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”

Networking, collaborating and mentoring

Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.

“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.

“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”

The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.

To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Bain & Company Give You The Data On How To Become 40% More Productive

Top performing organisations get more done by 10am on a Thursday than most companies achieve in a full week. They don’t have more talented employees than everyone else though — they’re working with the same people and tools as you. Michael Mankins unpacks what separates these businesses from everyone else, and how you can learn to be more like them.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

“Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

When Bain & Company partner, Michael Mankins evaluates businesses, he clearly distinguishes between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is producing the same amount with less — in other words, finding and eliminating wastages. Productivity, on the other hand, is producing more with the same, which requires an increased output per unit of input and removing obstacles to productivity.

Interestingly, when businesses face challenges or tough operating conditions, the first response is always to become more efficient, instead of more productive. Restructuring and ‘rightsizing’ are the result. The problem, says Michael, is that when companies take people out, they don’t take the work out, and so the people end up coming back, along with the costs.

A better response, he says, is to identify the work that could be removed to free up time, which could then be invested in producing higher levels of output.

While businesses have become very good at tracking the productivity levels of blue-collar and manufacturing workers, tracking the productivity of knowledge workers is entirely different.

“There’s no data around white-collar productivity,” says Michael. “The problem is that the world is shifting towards knowledge work, and so, if we can’t measure productivity, output and obstacles in that space, businesses will never get the great levels of performance they’re looking for.”

Because of a complete lack of statistics in this area, when Michael and his colleague, Eric Garton, were approached by Harvard Business Review Press to write a book dealing with this issue, they had to devise a way of looking at the relative productivity of organisations comprised of white-collar workers.

The results were unexpected. “We were asked to research the difference between top performing organisations (the top quartile) compared to average organisations. I honestly thought the answers would be obvious, even if we didn’t yet have the tools to track them. I thought the best companies would have the best people. That’s 90% of the answer. Simple as that.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple at all. Of the 308 organisations in the study, drawn from a global pool, the average star performer or A-player was one in seven employees. This statistic held true whether the company was in the top 25% of performers or an average performer. The difference was that the top performing businesses were 40% more productive than their counterparts — and yet their mix of talent, on average, was the same.

“There were some exceptions, but on the whole, the best in our research accomplishes as much by 10am on a Thursday as the rest do the whole week. And they continue to innovate, serve customers and execute on great ideas — all with the same percentage of A-players as other, more mediocre businesses.”

Related: (Slideshow) Top Advice From Local Entrepreneurs That Will Change Your Business In 2019

So, what were the differentiating factors?

What’s dragging your organisation down?

First, we need to understand how Michael and Eric approached their research before we can understand — and implement — their conclusions.

“We began with the notion that every company starts with the ability to produce 100 if they have a workforce that’s comprised of average talent, that’s reasonably satisfied with their job and can dedicate 100% of their time to productivity — bearing in mind that no-one can dedicate 100% of their time to productive tasks.

“The question we were focusing on was around bureaucratic procedures, complex processes and anything else that wastes time and gets in the way of people getting things done, but doesn’t lead to higher quality output or better service to customers. That’s what we call organisational drag. You start at 100 and then the organisation drags you down. The good news is that you can make up for organisational drag in three ways: First, you can make better use of everyone’s time. Second, you can manage your talent better by deploying it in smarter ways, which includes placing it in the right roles, teaming it more effectively and leading it more effectively. Third, you can unleash the discretionary energy of your workforce by engaging them more effectively.”

This trifecta — time, talent and energy — became the basis for Michael and Eric’s book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. “The way you manage the scarce resource of talent can make up for some, potentially even all, of what you lose to organisational drag,” says Michael.

What the research revealed: Time

time-management-productivity

“Wasted time is not an individual problem,” says Michael. “It’s an organisational problem. The symptoms include excess emails and meetings and far more reports being generated than the business needs to operate.”

These are all manifestations of an underlying pathology of organisational complexity, which is managed by senior leadership. “The best companies lose about 13% of their productive activity to organisational drag. The rest lose 25%. The most important thing is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions that workers are having. That means meetings and ecommunications need to be relooked.”

The easiest manifestation for Michael and Eric to observe were hours committed to meetings and how much time workers spend dealing with ecommunications. What’s left-over is the time people can actually get some work done.

What they found is that the average mid-level manager works 46 hours a week. 23 hours are dedicated to meetings and another ten hours to ecommunication. That leaves 13 hours to get some work done — except that it doesn’t.

“It’s difficult to do deep work in periods of time less than 20 minutes. When we subtracted all the other distractions that happen daily, we were left with just six and a half hours each week to do work.” What’s even scarier about this statistic is the fact that meeting work and ecommunication time is increasing by 7% to 8% each year and doubles every nine years. If left unchecked, no-one will have the time to get any work done. “This is why everyone plays catch-up after hours and on weekends,” says Michael.

“One of my clients told me that his most productive meeting is at 6.30am on a Saturday, because it doesn’t involve one minute that isn’t required or one individual that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. If the same meeting was held at 2pm on a Tuesday, there’d be twice as many people, it would be twice as long and there’d probably be biscuits.”

The point is clear: We don’t treat time as the precious resource that it is, and if we did, we would radically shift our behaviour.

Start by asking what work needs to be done and then figure out the best structure to do that work. “Don’t confuse having a lean structure that does the wrong work with being effective,” says Michael. “One of the biggest problems we see is that companies are not particularly good at stopping things. Things get added incrementally, but nothing ever gets taken away. For example, we found that 62% of the reports generated by one of our clients had a producer — but no consumer. Time, attention and energy was invested in reports that no one needed and no one read.

“Ask yourself: How many initiatives have you shut down? If you made the decision that you could only do ten initiatives effectively, and each time you added an initiative, one had to be eliminated, what would your organisation look like?

“Unless you routinely clean your house, it gets cluttered. The same is true of companies. Initiatives spawn meetings, ecommunications and reports, which all lead to organisational drag.”

What the research revealed: Talent

According to Michael, the biggest element in their research that explained the 40% differential in productivity is the way that top performing organisations manage talent.

“We conducted research in 2017 that revealed the productivity difference between the best workers and average employees. Everyone knows that A-level talent can make a big difference to an organisation’s performance, but not everyone knows just how big that difference is.”

To put it in context, the top developer at Apple writes nine times more usable code than the average software developer in Silicon Valley. The best blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas keeps his table playing at least five times as long as the average dealer on the Strip. The best sales associate at Nordstrom sells at least eight times as much as the average sales associate walking the floor at other department stores. The best transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic has a patient survival rate at least six times longer than that of the average transplant surgeon. And the best fish butcher at Le Bernadin restaurant in New York can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours.

It doesn’t matter what industry you investigate, A-level talent is exponentially more productive than everyone else.

This is why Michael thought that the obvious answer to why some organisations perform better than others is the mix of talented employees they’ve attracted.

“When we asked senior leaders to estimate the percentage of their workforce that they would classify as top performers or A-level talent, the average response was slightly less than 15%. And that’s despite the fact that most companies have spent vast sums of money in the so-called war for talent.”

The big difference, as Michael and Eric discovered, is how that talent is deployed. “It’s what they do with that one in seven employees that makes the biggest difference,” says Michael. “Most companies use a model called unintentional egalitarianism, which basically means that they spread star talent across all roles. The best on the other hand, are more likely to deploy intentional non-egalitarianism. They ensure that business-critical roles are held by A-level talent.”

The challenge is that approximately 5% of the roles in most companies explain 95% of a company’s ability to execute its strategy, and very few organisations articulate which roles those are — but the ones that do tend to be top performers.

“There’s an excellent historical example of this at work,” says Michael. “Between 1988 and 1994, Gap was a high-flyer in the retail sector. They performed globally on all levels — they grew faster than anyone else, were more profitable, had higher shareholder returns, and were the most admired company.

“During that time period, the organisation was led by Mickey Drexler, and his strategy was to focus on what he believed was Gap’s critical role, which was merchandising. He wanted every merchandiser to be a star. ‘No one will tell us what the colour is this year — we’re going to tell the world. We’re going to determine which styles are in and what everyone will be wearing.’

“And they did. If you want proof that Gap’s merchandisers were in fact stars during that period, you can look at today’s CEOs and COOs of the world’s largest retailers. Most of them were merchandisers at Gap during those years.”

The challenge of course is that everyone is always trying to hire stars, and yet only 15% of employees can be described as A-level talent. What can organisations do to utilise their stars wisely?

“First, move a star into a different position if they’re not in a business-critical role. To achieve this, how you define a star might have to change. Some companies hire for positions, and others hire for skills across positions. Stars, in my view, are more the latter. They can learn different skills and fill different roles.

“Second, start defining your business-critical roles. If you ask executives what percentage of their roles are business critical, most say 54%. They’re not discerning. It’s unintentional, because they don’t want to signal to their workers who aren’t in a business-critical role that they’re not as valuable to the organisation, but the reality is that people figure it out anyway, and you just end up with business-critical roles that aren’t filled by the right people, and stars in positions that anyone else could fill.”

Related: Entrepreneur Erik Kruger On The Importance Of Clarity And Embracing Failure

Teams perform better than individuals

To understand how important teams are when deploying talent, Michael uses an example from the world of racing — Nascar in the US to be precise.

“Between 2008 and 2011, there was one pit crew that outperformed everyone else on the track,” he says. “A standard pit stop is 77 manoeuvres, and this crew could complete them in 12,12 seconds, which was faster than any other team. However, if you took one team member out and substituted them with an average team member, that time jumped to 23 seconds. Substitute a second team member, and it was now 45 seconds. The lesson is simple: As the percentage of star players on a team goes up, the productivity of that team goes up — and it’s not linear.”

Michael and Eric also discovered that the role leadership plays on team productivity is both measurable and exponential.

“In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to quantify the impact of a great boss on team productivity. They found that a great boss can increase the productivity of an average team by 11%, which is the same as adding another member to a nine-member team.

“If you take that same boss and put them in charge of an all-star team, productivity is increased by 18%, and this is with a team whose productivity was exponentially higher to begin with. Great bosses act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.”

According to Michael and Eric’s research however, what most organisations tend to do is place a great boss with an under-performing team in the hopes of improving them, when what they should be doing is pairing great bosses with great teams.

“We did a survey that asked a simple question: When your company has a mission-critical initiative, how do you assemble the team? A: Based on whomever is available. B: Based on perceived subject matter expertise. C: We attempt to create balanced teams of A, B and C players to foster the development of the team. D: We create all-star teams and we put our best leaders in charge of them.

“We thought everyone would answer D. We were wrong. 30% of our bottom three quartiles answered B, closely followed by C, and then A. Only 8% of them answered D.

“The results were very different in our top-performing quartile though. There, 81% of respondents answered D. In other words, the 25% most productive companies in our study set were ten times more likely to assemble all-star teams with their best players than the remaining 75% of the organisations in our research.”

How talent is deployed makes a difference. “I recently had this highlighted for me through another sporting analogy. The world record for the 400-metre relay is faster than the 100-metre dash multiplied four times. How is that possible? When your role is clear and your position is clear, the handoff is seamless. Under these conditions, the best teams outperform a collection of the best individuals.” Michael does offer a word of advice though.

“Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you do have the best talent, you don’t need to worry about anything else. I don’t believe that’s true. There are always higher levels of performance that can be achieved because there are always areas you can improve on.”

What the research reveals: Energy

According to Michael, employee engagement and inspiration is a hierarchy. “There are a set of qualifiers that have to be met just to feel satisfied in your job: You need to feel safe, have the resources you need, feel that you’re relatively unencumbered in getting your job done every day and that you’re rewarded fairly.

“To be engaged, these all need to meet, and more. Now you also need to feel part of a team, that you’re learning on the job, that you’re having an impact and that you have a level of autonomy.”

Inspiration takes this a step further. “Inspired employees either have a personal mission that is so aligned with the company’s mission that they’re inspired to come to work every day, or the leadership of their immediate supervisors is incredibly inspiring, or both.”

Why does this matter? Because how satisfied, engaged or inspired your employees are has a real, tangible impact on productivity. “Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

The really scary statistic is that 66% of all employees are only satisfied or even dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% are engaged, and only 13% are inspired. “These statistics are pretty constant, although top organisations can improve their engaged and inspired ratios,” says Michael. “What we found amongst those companies that did have more engaged and inspired workers was that they all tended to believe that inspiration can be taught. It’s not innate. You can become an inspirational leader with the right attitude and training.

“For example, one organisation surveys its employees every six months and specifically asks workers to rate how inspirational their leaders are. If you’re rated uninspiring by your team for the first time, you’re given training. If, six months later, you’re still rated uninspiring, you’re given access to a coach to evaluate why the tools aren’t working for you.

“By the third, two questions are asked: Should you be a leader, and should you be at the company? Many productive employees can be effective individual contributors but aren’t necessarily leaders, or aren’t happy as leaders, and would best serve the organisation in a different role. The second question is tougher, but even more important. If an inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more than a satisfied employee, an uninspiring leader is a tax on the performance of the company, and there has to be a consequence to that. We have to constantly enrich our workforce and leaders need to be included in that.”

The problem is that very few organisations are asking how inspiring their leaders are. “If you don’t know if your employees are engaged or if your leadership is inspiring, you can’t address it,” he says. “You can take a satisfied employee and make them engaged, but you can’t inspire someone if they aren’t first engaged — that’s the hierarchy. Employee engagement is largely achieved through the way you manage teams. You have to give people the sense that they are having an impact, working within a team and learning. Get that right, and you’ll unlock a powerful level of discretionary energy that will drive productivity in your organisation.”

Related: How Yoco Successfully Secured Capital And The Importance Of A Pitch

Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, focuses on the scarcest resource companies possess — talent — and how it can be utilised to drive productivity.

Visit www.timetalentenergy.com to find out more.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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.

Nadine Todd

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brand-cartel

Vital Stats

  • 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.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

“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.

Related: How Matthew Piper And Karidas Tshintsholo Launched Their First Business From Their UCT Dorm Rooms

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.”

brand-cartel-south-african-agency

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.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk

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.

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