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The Courier Guy: Steven Gleisner

Steven Gleisner went from planning a trip to Mozambique with R2 000 in his pocket, and almost accidently bootstrapping a business, to launching a successful franchise that supports franchisees who, like him, could not normally have afforded to buy into a franchise.

Nadine Todd

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Steven Gleisner

Over the past few years, bakkies emblazoned with The Courier Guy logo have become a common fixture on the roads of Johannesburg. More recently, the brand has expanded to Durban and Cape Town, and the franchise has its sights set on gaining a strong national footing.

Based on a unique franchising model, it’s a simple concept built on always maintaining personalised service to ensure repeat customers, working together, and providing franchisees the chance to be their own bosses, even without large start-up capital. From the moment he began developing the franchise model, founder and franchise owner Steven Gleisner knew he wanted to provide his franchisees with the opportunities he himself hadn’t had.

Road to Nowhere

By the time Gleisner was in his late 30s, he had dedicated 15 years to the food franchise industry in various managerial roles. And he didn’t have much to show for it. He had worked his way up through the managerial ranks of first Pleasure Foods and later McDonald’s – including being trained in Chicago in order to work in South Africa’s head office, training prospective franchisees and staff – but he had no real plans for the future. “The experience at McDonald’s was great,” he says, adding that training in Chicago was particularly gratifying, but always the same problem presented itself: where was he headed?

“I was an area manager, I knew the McDonald’s system like the back of my hand – I even trained new franchisees – but I couldn’t get the finance to open my own store.” Without surety, the dream of owning his own franchise was a pipe dream at best. The thought of working for someone else for the rest of his life soon turned to disillusionment, and by the mid-1990s, knowing nothing but the restaurant business, Gleisner decided to sell everything, buy a motorcycle and head for Mozambique. “I had R2 000 in my pocket and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. But I was determined to figure it out.” Gleisner’s plan was to head for the beaches of our more tropical neighbour, regroup, and take things from there. “In all honesty, I had no real plan,” he admits. “I just knew that I was in my late 30s, I had no real prospects where I was, and I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.”

A Man and His Bike

And then fate intervened. Having already quit his job, sold everything and bought a bike, Gleisner was waiting for his visa to come through and killing time. Knowing this, his cousin asked him for a favour. “My cousin’s business was corporate gifts. She phoned me and asked me to drop off a sample at the printers because her courier service had let her down. I said no problem and hopped on my bike.”

When he arrived, the printer asked him, “Are you the courier guy?” Gleisner decided it was easier to simply say yes than explain the whole story. “It turned out that the printer needed a favour too. He had a parcel that he needed to get to Sandton, and he asked me how much I charged. I had no idea what the going rate was. I had a bike, so petrol was cheaper than if I was driving a car and I had time on my hands. So I said R20, which was enough to cover the costs of delivering his package. Turns out R20 was pretty cheap.”

Gleisner also gave his cellphone number to the printer, in case the woman who he was delivering the package to wanted to track her parcel. “The very next day my phone rang. The printer had recommended me to a company in Doornfontein. When I answered the phone the guy on the other end of the line asked me if I was the courier guy. He had heard I delivered packages for R20.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Gleisner never made it to Mozambique: he started a courier company instead.

Getting Started

“At the beginning, all I had was my bike and the R2 000 I had saved for Mozambique. My first clients were my cousin and her clients, and anyone who heard of me through word-of-mouth.”

Gleisner soon found out just how important word-of-mouth marketing was. “I experienced the most phenomenal organic growth. I didn’t officially have a business or a name, but ‘the courier guy’ had stuck, I was affordable, and I gave great, personalised service. My clients recommended me to their friends and other businesses, and soon I was so busy I actually needed to trade in the bike for a bakkie.”

This all happened within four months. And business got busier still. “I had learnt the value of excellent service and the personal touch during my days in fast food franchises. Yes, people – and businesses in particular – appreciate speed, but service isn’t only in how fast you deliver. It’s also in understanding your clients and their needs. I put a face to the courier business that my clients hadn’t experienced before.”

Things were going well, but there were hard lessons ahead. Growth meant that soon Gleisner couldn’t do the job alone anymore. He bought a second vehicle and hired another driver. This grew into a third and fourth vehicle, and more drivers. And suddenly the business started losing the personal touch that Gleisner had brought when it was just him and his bike.

“My clients started complaining. The communication and level of commitment that we had offered them was changing. We had lost the personal touch.” Gleisner realised that he needed to get back to his roots. “I needed guys in the van who weren’t only employees, but had a vested interest in the business, as I had, and understood business, marketing and above all customer service.”

By this stage Gleisner had been operating for almost three years. The millennium was on the horizon, and he was trying to figure out a way that he could take the model he had developed as the original ‘courier guy’, and turn it into a large, successful business, without losing the core of why he had been successful in the first place. And then inspiration struck. His background was in franchising. Why not franchise the concept?

Vested Interests

“I realised that the way to grow ‘the courier guy’ concept was to create a business where each driver had a vested interest in the growth of the business. A franchise provides that, because each franchisee takes responsibility for their area.” So Gleisner set about creating a franchise system. His experience in developing systems, operations manuals and training programmes stood him in good stead. His only real challenge was creating a system that worked for the courier industry.

“A friend of mine ran a local removals company, Able Removals, and he had a warehouse. He let me park the bakkies there, and I operated from the maids quarters connected to the warehouse. I had an office, and a ‘central depot’. I also approached Franchising Plus to help me fine-tune the concept and the operations manual. I then found new premises in Northriding, north of Johannesburg. If I wanted to eventually sell franchises, I couldn’t be operating from maids quarters.”

Gleisner tested his new concept with three franchisees. “I had five vehicles at this point, which was the only part of my business that was financed. I had grown the business organically from the R2 000 I started with, and by this stage the only credit line I had was a R20 000 overdraft facility, and the financed vehicles. I had a very good relationship with my banker though. He understood what I was trying to achieve. His support and advice were invaluable.”

With three new franchisees, all of whom were associates of associates who had heard about the concept and were interested in seeing if they could make it work, Gleisner launched

The Courier Guy as a franchise

The concept is simple. Based on the idea of ‘the man in the van’, franchisees are owner/operators who pick up packages, make deliveries and maintain personal contact with their clients. “I wanted to offer our clients a personalised logistics service. This meant they didn’t need a driver, and they could send packages throughout the country.”

The fact that drivers are owner/operators means they bring the same level of personalised service to the business that Gleisner had when he started the company on his own, and the franchise concept with a consolidated head office allows The Courier Guy to send packages throughout South Africa. “The three franchisees proved the system worked. Through word-of-mouth I started getting more people interested in joining the group, and only later did I start advertising.” Today, the Courier Guy has 52 areas, with 41 franchisees operating in those areas, and although the bulk of these are situated in Gauteng, there are franchisees in Durban and Cape Town, and Gleisner’s goal is to establish a nationwide footprint.

The Franchise

Having long since outgrown the original warehouse where he started the franchise, Gleisner has built a head office and central depot in Kya Sands, near the N14 in Joburg. From the depot, franchisees have access to most main centres without accessing the SANRAL toll routes, a significant cost saving for both franchisees and clients.

The Courier Guy franchisees buy areas. Aside from Johannesburg, there are also central depots in Cape Town and Durban, and the franchisees operate from these depots. This means that their offices are their vehicles. Why? Because The Courier Guy’s brand is based on personal service. Franchisees are expected to visit each of their clients personally, so they are on the road, fetching and delivering packages daily. There is also room for growth. Franchisees who prove themselves are given the opportunity to buy additional areas and employ drivers. But, the level of personal service must always be maintained.

“I needed franchisees to take a chance on me at the beginning, but the ultimate goal was also to help people who wouldn’t have normally been able to afford going out on their own to own their own businesses, and work for themselves. I couldn’t buy my own franchise when I was still in the food sector, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling. I wanted to be my own boss, and I couldn’t get the financing to realise my dream.”

Today, Gleisner has built a company from scratch, but The Courier Guy’s model allows franchisees to join his vision without large upfront expenses. A once-off fee purchases exclusive rights to an area. This upfront fee is determined by the size and location of the area. Franchisees do not pay marketing fees or franchise fees, but they are expected to generate ten qualified leads per month. Leads mean business for everyone.

The franchisee makes their money from packages picked up or delivered. The franchisor invoices clients and takes care of the administrative side of the business. The franchisee is then paid a fixed fee per package.

This means there is no competition between franchisees. All packages are delivered to the central depot, sorted, and distributed to the franchisees operating in the destination areas. So packages collected in Sandton by one franchisee are delivered in Claremont in Cape Town by another. If packages need to travel to another province, head office arranges transport to the franchisee in that province, or through an independent operator. Head office also holds a few areas itself.

“My aim is to grow the footprint so that we no longer need to rely on independent operators at all. I even want a few line haul trucks in our fleet for the long-distance deliveries.”

Franchisees need to be able to purchase a new vehicle – the image of The Courier Guy is important, and Gleisner insists that no vehicles over five years old or in disrepair make deliveries. There are incentives for growth. Over and above waybill payments, franchisees are offered incentives in the form of commission. Brackets of business to the value of R100 000, between R100 000 and R150 000 and over R150 000 qualify the franchisee for a certain percentage of commission.

The idea is that the added income helps franchisees grow their own business, as well as concentrate on service delivery to generate repeat business and referrals.

“This business started because I had a bike, time and I understood the value of customer service. Today I’m realising my own dream of owning a business, but I’m also helping others to do the same,” concludes Gleisner.

The franchise model

As a freight consolidator, The Courier Guy provides its franchisees with the following:

  • A central depot where packages can be brought to be delivered by other franchisees in their areas, giving franchisees access to a nationwide-courier system.
  • Line haul and airfreight to deliver packages in other parts of the country.
  • The franchisor invoices all clients directly, and pays franchisees per waybill. This means the franchisees do not carry any of the risks of clients who cannot pay.
  • The franchisor owns the depot and provides operations staff, including admin staff, a call centre, area managers, track and trace services and debtors.
  • Franchisees manage their own areas, including staff, and are expected to own their own vehicles, which must be under five years old.

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

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  1. Insurance Property

    May 9, 2012 at 12:09

    it is not easy to get the bestcourier companyin south africa

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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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