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The Creative Counsel: Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved

A R500 million company, staggering growth and domination of a sector. Not bad going for two entrepreneurs who started with nothing.

Juliet Pitman




Walking around the extensive premises of The Creative Counsel (TCC), co-founder and joint-CEO Gil Oved makes the kind of statement one doesn’t typically hear from an entrepreneur: “People look at this company and are impressed by its growth, but in our minds there is always a degree of disappointment because we know how much bigger it could be and how much further down the line we would be had we not made many, many mistakes.

I’d also love to be able to say that all of this happened by design, according to some grand pre-thought-out master plan, but the fact is that it didn’t. In many ways we are where we are today by mistake instead of by design.”

Gil Oved and co-founder and joint-CEO Ran Neu-Ner are at the helm of South Africa’s biggest activations agency – a company with a R500 million turnover, employing 650 permanent people, running between 200 and 300 campaigns a year, and placing up to 15 000 temporary activations people in the field on any given day.

It’s a company with arguably 50% of the instore promotion market share servicing a portfolio of blue-chip clients across a broad spread of industries.

It’s taken this dynamic partnership just 11 years to get here, having started with a zero capital base, no knowledge of promotions and not a single client. Little wonder then that people are impressed.

It could be argued that, whatever their own impressions of the journey, this level of success simply doesn’t happen by accident. They might not have specifically planned to lead a company of this size and diverse structure, but certain fundamentals must have been in place for them to not only dominate, but develop what was a very small and immature industry.

With this Neu-Ner and Oved would probably agree. A number of critical ingredients have driven their success, but so too have the mistakes they’ve made. “We want to share both,” says Oved simply.

This is what they know about starting, growing and sustaining a top-tier entrepreneurial company.

Never ever EVER give up

The story of how TCC started is a lesson in sheer tenacity. When their online trading company was liquidated, Oved and Neu-Ner went to a coffee shop and wrote down how much money they had between them.

“It was a short list,” says Neu-Ner. The partners had lost everything in the venture and were casting around desperately for ideas when the money that Neu-Ner’s then-girlfriend was earning doing promotions caught their eye.

Teaming up with the former owner of a promotions company, the pair took premises in a 15m2 office, decorated it with garden furniture, opened the Yellow Pages and got cold calling.

“I hate cold calling. I don’t know if anyone enjoys it. It’s a terrible, awful thing to have to do,” says Oved. But, without any experience or credentials, it was their only option.

“I kept a spreadsheet to record each call and interaction with the person. Most of the time I got to speak to the PAs of marketing directors, who I’d targeted as a more promising prospect than brand managers.

I learnt very quickly how to be warm and likeable over the phone in 20 seconds, and I’d try to find out anything I could about the person I was talking to. Things like their birthday or their family, so when I next called them the call would be more personal.

In the end they’d feel sorry for me and schedule a meeting.”

Neu-Ner adds: “We learnt two things from that experience. Firstly, PAs are immensely powerful people, so build a relationship with them. And secondly, never, ever, ever give up. If someone tells you that they don’t meet with suppliers, call back. And call back again. And again after that. Break down the door if you have to. And if you can’t, break down their resistance until they’re dying for an opportunity to see you just so they can tell you to go away. Often, what separates people who succeed from those who fail is the willingness and ability to overcome whatever hurdle is placed in their way.”

Oved agrees, “‘No’ is not the end of a negotiation,” he says, “It’s the beginning of one.”

This is what got the partners through the first seemingly impossible months. “Our monthly expenses were R30 000 and we couldn’t raise this money, so Gil went out to work as an IT consultant and handed his cheque over to the business each month, while I tried to get it to work,” remembers Neu-Ner.

From August to February they broke even but never made any money and couldn’t draw a salary. “This meant we’d gone almost a year without having any money for ourselves. That really knocks your confidence, especially when all your friends around you are making money and carving out careers.”

Fed up, Neu-Ner suggested they throw in the towel, but Oved suggested they give it one more month, during which time he gave up his consulting work and came over to give the business everything he had.

“By the end of March, we still hadn’t made any money so we gave it one more month and in April we landed an account for Danone. We got an opportunity to pitch because we just kept calling back and eventually got through to the right person,” says Oved.

This tenacity is a value enshrined in the business today and it informs how TCC hires staff. “We put interviewees through hell. We keep throwing challenges at them to see how much more they are willing to come back for. We’re looking for people who can devise a solution no matter what the problem.

They have to keep their eye on the end goal and keep going after it no matter what. In this industry it’s critical. This is the worst industry to be in if you go home when you hit a hurdle.

Things can and often do go wrong, so you have to be able to think on your feet, come up with plan B and achieve your objective in spite of what goes wrong,” says Neu-Ner.

Related: Hey, Dealmaker!

Pursue opportunities with a clear vision

Oved and Neu-Ner may not have initially planned the way the business grew, but early on they developed a vision of what they wanted to achieve and this was refined as the business matured. “We wanted to own the full activations value chain – to get into the hearts, minds, souls, homes and mouths of consumers so that we could influence their purchasing decisions,” says Neu-Ner.

Having this vision in place proved critical in directing which opportunities they followed. As Oved comments, “All too often entrepreneurs are sinking in a sea of opportunities, and the more successful you become the greater the opportunities that come your way.

You need to find the balance between being open to exciting new possibilities and having a clear idea of where you want the business to go.”

Over the years TCC has developed, invested in and partnered with a range of different businesses. At first glance the reasons for each may not be apparent, but each one of these businesses feeds into the over-arching vision of owning the activations value chain.

The Mr Delivery deal is a good example. Roughly two years ago TCC purchased a 50% stake in Mr D Media, a subsidiary of Mr Delivery. What possible connection could there be between a promotions company and a fast food delivery business?

“It gives us direct access into the homes of 1,5 million consumers, as well as information about where they live, what they buy, what they eat, how much they spend, where they bank and which credit cards they use,” says Oved.

Mr D Media delivers 1,5 million Mr Delivery guides to households around the country, so it provides us with a unique ability to offer clients a platform for their brands that goes directly into people’s homes.”

TCC also owns the South African franchise for the global Product of the Year competition, the largest consumer survey of its kind that rewards brands for innovation across a range of categories.

“We know that brands invest more in campaigns for new innovative products because these have higher margins. By rewarding innovation we are therefore directly encouraging growth of innovative products, which in turn grows the market that we service. It’s also a platform that positions us as leaders in the industry,” Oved explains.

The growth of the company into other areas – eventing, social media, field marketing, among many others – has always been driven by the vision of owning the activations value chain, says Neu-Ner. “From the time a consumer sees an above-the-line advert to the time they make a purchasing decision, there are a number of opportunities to create experiences that will prompt them to buy.

We look for these opportunities where we can implement a range of activations. And we’re aggressive about pursuing them. At the end of the day, our competitor is not the other company that does promotions or activations. Our competitors are rather television, billboard and other traditional media.”

Partners are not suppliers or employees

TCC starts new businesses that feed into its vision or invests in and partners with existing businesses. “These are usually innovative and exciting entrepreneurial companies,” says Oved.

Minanawe, for example, devises strategies to access the township market and is responsible for the Gauteng Beach Party held in Soweto and the Tour de Soweto.

Fusion is a small incubation business that creates partnerships between brands, allowing them to leverage each other’s platforms for greater differentiation, while Popimedia is a fast-growing social media specialist that enables TCC to offer holistic and integrated activation campaigns across a range of social media platforms.

Integrating a small business into an existing, larger one is notoriously difficult, and Oved and Neu-Ner have learnt a great deal about how to absorb these enterprises without stifling the creativity that made them attractive prospects in the first place.

As Neu-Ner says, “Buying into or partnering with another business is probably the toughest thing I have experienced to date. If you put aside the glamour and hype and actually look at the core of what it means, you are effectively taking two entities, each with their own vision, strategy, processes and most importantly culture and trying to merge them.

By definition this is no easy task.” Oved adds, “I think the thing to remember is that partners are neither your staff nor your suppliers. They do not work for you. They work with you – so treat them accordingly. Nurture and support them, but don’t try to manage them. We had to learn the difference between mentorship and management.”

Related: Meet the Young Guns

Systems can make or break a growing business

The company’s extensive, diverse and rapid growth pushed the partners into unchartered waters.

“All our entrepreneurial experience was in start-ups. We’d never had a company that had really grown before, so it was new territory for us. We didn’t know what growth looked like and in a sense I don’t think either of us ever really believed that the company would get as big as it has,” says Neu-Ner.

The result was that, in many respects, they failed to put the right systems in place to facilitate and manage growth. As many entrepreneurs have learnt, growth can be destructive. “It certainly cost us,” says Neu-Ner.

He elaborates: “Combine a lack of systems with a fanatical devotion to delivering excellence and you put your people under enormous pressure. We lost a lot of good people because, without the necessary systems in place, they needed to work 24/7 to deliver on our high standards. It came at a significant human capital cost.”

Oved adds that financial systems were also lacking. “Cash flow was often a mess and collections were an issue. I think some customers even got freebies in the early days because we failed to invoice them! Technology can make or break you.”

Since then the company has invested heavily in implementing systems to manage and facilitate its growth. A state-of-the-art technology platform housed in a call centre manned by operations and logistics specialists helps the company to keep track of the 15 000 people doing different activations work on different brands across the country.

“We tried to buy something off the shelf but eventually realised we’d need to develop this system in-house. It addresses our needs precisely,” says Oved.

And as much as systems can be a hindrance to growth, they can equally be a differentiator. “Having this system in place raises the barrier to entry for competitors,” says Neu-Ner. Oved adds, “Anyone can start a promotions business – all you need is the proverbial man, van and fax machine – but not anyone can run a multiple activations business this size on a national scale.” It’s also helped the business to identify new efficiencies.

Think big — even if you’re small. That’s their advice to start-ups. “If you don’t build foundations for a big business, it will cost you later on. You’ll need to do it eventually so if you’re planning on being big, build for big even while you are small.”

Pass passion onto your staff

Systems have been equally important in ensuring ongoing human resource success. “Passion is everything. It’s the engine that drives this business, and we’ve learnt how important it is to pass this down the management line,” says Neu-Ner.

Doing so was what got them noticed in the first place. “The first pitch that we won, with Danone, was for a cottage cheese promotion in 12 stores over a weekend. They were giving us a chance to prove ourselves.

We ended up getting the account because, in the words of the brand manager at the time, we were able to pass our passion and energy on to our promoters.”

As a company grows, it becomes more difficult to achieve this.

“You need to continually communicate, be visible, and be involved. But you also need to have happy, motivated people. This industry requires more than the usual work ethic. Hours are long and there is a lot of weekend work. We’ve put systems in place for mentorship and coaching.”

Expect excellence – uncompromisingly

In as much as motivation and passion are key ingredients among TCC’s employees, so too is a strict adherence to uncompromising levels of excellence.

“I’m a perfectionist. I want 100%, 100% of the time. In reality I don’t deal well with failure and I adopt a hard stance,” says Neu-Ner, “You can deliver the most brilliant pitch but my whole passion for it will die when I see a spelling error.” The partners are relentless about pursuing the right idea and “bringing brilliance to life.”

“We have our own internal standards and we judge our people by those standards. We might win a pitch but if I feel we didn’t deserve to because our work was not perfect, then I’ll tell staff that. Equally, if we lose a pitch but I know the team gave it their all, then I’ll tell them so.

But it’s not about whether or not it’s good enough for the client or the industry. We need to keep pushing the boat out in terms of excellence.”

Neu-Ner, a self-confessed football fanatic, uses the following analogy: “If a footballer plays a brilliant game and makes one wrong kick, it can cost the team the match. It’s the same in business. You have to be at your best for the full 90 minutes of the game.”

What about human error and the fact that, no matter what your standards, people will fail at some point? “Failure is not acceptable as an end-point,” Neu-Ner answers, “I believe that you may fail initially, but it’s not a failure if you can find a way to fix it.

It’s only a failure if you can’t rectify it or use it as an opportunity to learn from it,” he adds.

Hire people who will grow your business

Excellence relies to a large degree on having the right team in place, and Neu-Ner and Oved have learnt a great deal about surrounding themselves with the best people.

“If I could go back and do one thing differently, I’d hire the best operations person and the best financial director I could find – from day one. We hired them later on and, to some extent, they had to come in and pick up pieces,” says Neu-Ner.

He and Oved say they’ve made the same mistake made by countless other cash-strapped entrepreneurs. “When you’re counting the pennies in the early days you hire the cheaper resource. For the first eight years I always believed in hiring talented people and growing them as we grew.

Today I sing a different tune. Hire the best people. Pay top dollar and get people who can grow your business. Don’t worry about the cost of good people – the return is worth it and the cost of replacing people is often way too high,” he says.

The right partnership is potent

Like most successful (and truthful) entrepreneurs, Oved and Neu-Ner have made their fair share of mistakes. But there’s a great deal they’ve done right too, and one of their key success factors has been their dynamic and potent partnership.

In a rare arrangement – and one that seldom works – they are joint CEOs. “On some things – like the bigger vision and where we want the business to go – we always agree, but on other issues like how to go about getting there, we disagree often and loudly. New staff members are surprised to see us frequently ‘fighting’,” says Oved.

“We work together on the broader strategic stuff, but we worked out early on that we can never meet operationally,” says Neu-Ner.

The fundamentals of the relationship must be in place. Trust, honesty, transparency, consistency, reliability, and above all, equality in everything.

“We share everything equally – risk, reward and responsibility. This is a partnership split down the middle in every respect and I think that’s a very important ingredient for partnership success,” Neu-Ner explains.

“A business partnership is like a marriage – you fight, you make up, you share good times, you endure bad times, one of you is strong while the other is weak and vice versa.

Once you accept that this is how things will be, the partnership becomes a lot easier to manage,” says Oved.

He and Neu-Ner have been friends since childhood, but neither of them believes friendship or a long-time relationship is necessary for partnership success.

“One thing we are and have always been is incredibly competitive – in everything we’ve ever done. So in a way my biggest competitor sits next to me and this pushes me to ever increasing heights on a daily basis,” says Neu-Ner. Oved agrees, “Choose someone who will challenge you to do your best,” he says.

Top tips for entrepreneurs

  1. Challenge everything, question all. There are inefficiencies all around. Each one is an opportunity to make money and change the world.
  2. If you analyse something long enough, you will find all the reasons why you shouldn’t do anything – sometimes you just need to go with your gut and have faith.
  3. People will have more faith in you than you do in yourself – they are generally right.
  4. Act with integrity, it will make you more profit.
  5. Your personal brand is the most valuable or damaging thing you have. Never compromise your integrity and never let anything leave your desk that is below your standard of brilliance.
  6. As an entrepreneur, accept that you are a ‘doctor-on-call’.
  7. Spend time on the future – don’t let your current success blur your vision. Companies that get caught up in their success often lose sight of innovation and before they know it the wave ends and they land up with a huge infrastructure and a product that is out of favour.
  8. The CEO should live at least a year ahead of what the business is doing today.
  9. Put in proper foundations. Investing in the systems upfront will save in the long run and make you really competitive!
  10. Cut. Don’t throw good money and time after bad investments. Often the cost of rectifying may be higher than the loss incurred in exiting.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.


Entrepreneur Profiles

How To Adapt And Thrive Like Arnoux Maré of Innovative Solutions Group

Arnoux Maré is a quintessential entrepreneur. Not only is he wildly competitive (if his business doesn’t triple its own annual projections and targets he’ll review the company top to bottom), but he’s also re-engineered the art of ‘adapt or die’ to, ‘adapt and thrive’.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

  • Player: Arnoux Maré
  • Company: Innovative Solutions Group
  • Launched: 2011
  • Turnover: R780 million
  • Growth: From R32 million to R780 million in four years
  • Accolades:
    • Winner of Best Outsourcing Service Provider in Africa, Africa Leadership Awards 2017. Arnoux Maré: Winner of CEO of the Year, Africa Leadership Awards 2017
  • Visit:

In 2011 Arnoux launched a labour consultancy with R500 that grew into a staff outsourcing company. By 2013, recognising the inherent issues in his industry, he completely reworked his business model to create a solution that employers, employees and trade unions alike could benefit from and support.

Not only did this move allow the business to survive — it’s thrived. Within one year he grew his turnover from R20 million to R32 million. Four years later and Innovative Solutions Group has hit the R780 million turnover mark. Here’s how he did it.

The start-up

Be brave, believe in your idea and sell your vision

Imagine waking up at 6am and spending the next 12 hours on the road between Pretoria, Johannesburg and Middelburg in Mpumalanga, knocking on doors and trying to sell your services. At 6pm you return home (aka your office), spend time with your infant daughter, and then sit down to study by 9pm. By 3am you’re able to crawl into bed, catch a quick three hours of sleep, and by 6am the alarm is going off and you’re up, out the house and doing it all over again.

Related: Managing Your Schedule Like A Boss: Tips The Experts Never Tell You

This was Arnoux Maré’s life for nine months. In 2011 he started his business with R500, which was all he had left of his salary after paying his bills. It was a big move. He was leaving the safety of corporate employment, but he knew he wanted more, and that the only way he would achieve his goals was to do it for himself.

“I had a list of SMEs I wanted to target. Corporates have HR and payroll divisions filled with human capital specialists. SMEs do not. After five years in corporate I’d seen the common HR problems we faced. I particularly believed SMEs needed this solution. Human capital is a specialist field, and yet any available manager tends to be assigned the role. This is such an important part of an SME’s business; I thought there was room for an expert.”

The reality was far more complicated. “Having a list wasn’t enough. Business doesn’t work like that. You need to prove yourself in the market before people will trust you. I had to go from company to company. I’d been a sales rep earlier in my career, and I was back to doing what I’d done then: I was knocking on doors, explaining what I did. I heard ‘no’ 15 times for every yes, but I didn’t let that deter me. I stayed focused. The most important step is to get started.

“You need to be brave. You have to find the courage to go out and sell yourself as the brand you’re planning to be, not what you are at the moment. You can’t be dishonest, but you do need to sell your vision. I had a plan and everything worked around that plan. It was painstakingly slow in the beginning, but I kept plugging away and knocking on doors until slowly I built up a client base.”

The benefits of client referals

Arnoux signed his first client, Yankee Diners for a retainer of R780 per month. For that princely sum, Arnoux gave his client the full benefit of a vast experience in labour relations that a full-time employee would provide at a cost-to-company of R50 000 to R60 000 per month.

The owner of Yankees had a friend who ran a butchery. His referral secured Arnoux his second client. He was essentially the in-house HR manager for two businesses while he focused on selling and completing his labour law studies at night.

“I was determined to become the expert in this field. South African labour law is complex, but if you’re prepared and understand procedures and legislation, you will always be on the right side of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). This was the function I performed for my clients”.

Arnoux was soon consulting for clients and dealing with human resources cases that had been taken to the CCMA. After a year he was providing consulting services to companies in the areas of fair labour practices, labour legislation and industrial relations.

“I knew that to build a name for myself in this industry I needed to take a big risk. In the early days of a start-up you’re in make-or-break territory, so I went big and put everything on the line. I guaranteed clients that we would pay the settlements if we lost a case – provided we were involved in the process from start to finish.”

Going all in when you’re starting out

Arnoux admits that although he still takes risks today, he doesn’t bet the business on them — not with 7 500 full-time employees relying on his company. But those start-up days were different. He needed to go all in, and the result was that he never lost a case. He made sure he was prepared and up-to-date with all labour legislation.

“There are two things you need to prove in every labour dispute: Was the case procedurally correct and was the sanction substantively fair? If you can prove these two things, you’ll win. If you can’t, you either haven’t followed procedures correctly, or you’re in contravention of South Africa’s labour legislation.”

It was 2011. Labour broking and outsourcing were big business in Europe and the US, and Arnoux’s own experiences showed him the benefits of the industry. However, it was at this point that he realised he needed to go back to the drawing board. In no way should he be considered a labour broker or temporary employment service. In South Africa, labour brokers weren’t yet persona non grata, but the writing was on the wall.

Arnoux firmly believed in the concept that companies should not employ their own employees though. “It’s such a specialist field — managing a workforce involves recruitment, HR, processes, management and so on — these are all highly specialised, and yet managers who are specialists in other fields are tasked with them.”

Time to pivot

Arnoux had another problem as well. There was a loophole in labour legislation that all consultants at the time exploited. The law said that a company employee had to represent the company at a CCMA hearing, so that outside consultants couldn’t. The loophole? Accept temporary employment and handle the hearing anyway.

By 2012 this loophole was closing. Arnoux’s entire business model was built on the fact that he would personally be at each hearing, handling the full process. Add to this the fact that Namibia had outlawed labour brokers, even going so far as to jail some directors, and South Africa was heading in a similar direction, and he knew it was time to radically change his model. The question was, to what?

Ultimately, this question and the sheer volume of mediation and CCMA cases Arnoux was handling for clients would lead to the start-up’s first subsidiary, Innovative Staffing Solutions, in 2013. Assuming the responsibility and accountability for each clients’ labour needs, ISS was not a labour broker, however, it did grow from a labour law consultancy into a full-scale outsourcing company, boosting turnover growth thanks to the pivot.


Start-up Lessons

  • Offer advice and share your expertise freely. The more your clients are educated, the more empowered they will feel, and the more they will view you as a trusted advisor. I gave my clients material to help them develop the best labour policies and procedures. It didn’t make my service redundant — it built trust between us.
  • Don’t hold back when you’re a start-up. You’ll need to change this down the line, but in the early days, you’re building a brand and relationships. You need to give as much of yourself as possible to achieve this. Later you can find ways to build what you do into systems and processes others can follow.
  • Don’t be emotional about your business. Entrepreneurs tend to be very emotional, and this leads to subjective decisions that aren’t always best for the business. Treat employees well, understand their side, but make a business decision and move on. Always ask the question, is this the best decision for what the business needs? Remember, it’s also your duty to support the majority of your employees who rely on the business doing well. Sometimes that requires tough choices.
  • Never stop learning. This is important throughout your business journey, but particularly as a start-up. The more you’re able to build your expertise, the more gravitas you will have with clients and prospects.

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

The pivot

Business is managing your risk – even if that means changing the business

Many large successful businesses have failed because they didn’t see the landscape changing. Technology, legislation and community pressures have all played hugely disruptive roles across various industries over the years, resulting in the now standard business phrase that businesses need to ‘adapt or die’.

Unlike many other businesses, Arnoux did just that. He took his business apart and re-engineered it before he became a casualty of the times.

“I pulled a big white board into my office and started mapping two things. First, how do we ensure that we are truly a staff outsourcing company, and second, what challenges were we facing as a business? Where did these intersect, and how could we develop solutions that addressed both areas?”

The exercise revealed a number of key points that would ultimately help Arnoux develop the business model Innovative Solutions Group has today. Within a year his turnover went from R20 million to R32 million based on the new model, and four years later this has grown exponentially to R780 million.

Re-evaluating your business

The lesson? Never take anything for granted. Arnoux was forced to evaluate his business and industry, which led to real solutions. Too often, businesses do what they’ve always done — or an industry has always done — simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. If you want to grow, you need to start challenging those assumptions.

In Arnoux’s case, the exercise revealed the following key points, some were strengths, and some were weaknesses:

  • CCMA commissioners were becoming stricter about consultants representing companies at the CCMA. The loophole his company relied upon was closing.
  • Arnoux was making large, sweeping promises to protect clients. As the business grew, the risk associated with these promises was no longer acceptable.
  • As an extremely competitive individual, Arnoux wanted to achieve higher growth than the company was currently delivering — he knew he’d need a different model if he wanted to exceed his current results.
  • On the positive side, labour legislation is an ever-growing field of inter-connected laws. Only an expert dedicated to staying up-to-date can understand them all.

Understand your business and your industry

Arnoux didn’t just analyse his own business — key to the exercise was understanding the difference between staff outsourcing and labour broking as a whole.

“I started by researching labour broking internationally. What were the roots of the bad sentiments around labour broking in South Africa, and why had Namibia criminalised an entire industry?

“I realised two main things: Locally, a labour broker is actually recognised as a temporary employment agency. This brings with it a host of problems. First, temporary employers can do what they want. Limited duration contracts don’t need to give you notice. There’s no protection for employees, and this was at the heart of the problem for trade unions.

“I then reviewed what we did — we focused on payroll outsourcing and admin, labour law, and contractor pack outsourcing, which included recruitment. These are specialised, intense functions. I looked at everything relevant to the function, including invoicing and a cost analysis for us and our clients. How could we get employees off the books of employers without the labour broker function, in such a way that employees are protected, companies are protected and we offer a sustainable solution to both parties?”

Ask around to find out all the answers

To answer these questions, Arnoux went out into the field. “I approached one of our engineering clients and played open cards. I knew I needed to understand the problem from all sides. I let him know this was an idea that was still in development phase, and then I asked him if he’d be willing to be our guinea pig. We called it ‘staff management’, and developed a system that ensured we were the employer of a pool of employees rather than our clients. This starts with who an individual takes instruction from, and who they believe they report to.

“In our test case, we took over the full employment of 63 employees. I personally negotiated with their union, so that everyone was on board. We were not temporary employers, but full-time employers — everyone had a permanent contract with all the benefits and legal protections that come with full-time employment.”

Take the time to get the strategy right the first time

This signalled the birth of Innovative Staffing Solutions, and within two months Arnoux’s client referred him to another business. Although the owner was sceptical, he agreed that Arnoux could take over the employment of 103 of his 160 employees.

The third company Innovative Staffing Solutions secured was in Middleburg, and had close to 300 employees in the hospitality and agricultural sectors. Today, Innovative Solutions Group employs 7 500 people based on this model.

“Every site we manage has a contract manager, and in-house IR and HR functions are their responsibility. They also have administrative support based on the size of the site. The contract manager is completely responsible for our employees on the site. The client goes to them. For example, if the client plans to plant 500Ha, they do the ops planning, but the manager gets the employees inducted, ready and briefed on the ops planning.”

Today, the holding company, Innovative Solutions Group, operates in transport, engineering, manufacturing, agriculture, hospitality, retail, admin and labour.

Related: Leadership: Total Commitment To The Purpose Of The Business


Lessons in Pivoting

  • Is it riskier to stay the same or to change? All business is a risk, and we tend to resist change as a result. Often however, it’s even riskier to stay the same. Only 40% of our initial clients moved over to Innovative Staffing Solutions’ model, but the word-of-mouth referrals we received from that 40% based on the new offering skyrocketed our growth.
  • Market your offering in a way that customers understand what you do. It’s easy to come up with fancy terms and names. If your customers don’t understand exactly what you do though, it’s meaningless. We called our solution Staff Management because it let everyone know exactly what we did. We could have used a sexier name, and no-one would have understood what Innovative Staffing Solutions was.
  • Business is all about managing risk. I believe you need to take risks to grow, but you also need to mitigate them as much as possible. You can’t foresee all problems and plan for all eventualities, but you can evaluate all the risk factors within your operations. Based on this, develop a solution to nullify risk functions and implement methods to minimise risk as much as possible.
  • Focus on cash reserves. We’ve always banked a percentage of income to save up for retrenchments. This is a legislative requirement, and it’s essential for all businesses. You never know what’s headed your way, and how cash reserves will protect you.
  • Communication is key, but results are more important. I often hear business owners talking about how important it is to be transparent with clients. I agree. But I also think results are more important. If you make a promise, stick to it. Make it a non-negotiable, instead of thinking that as long as you’re transparent it will all be okay. Your promise influences the operations of your client. Rather plot and plan properly to ensure delivery, and then you won’t need to be transparent about problems.
  • Don’t sell services; sell a solution. When you sell a solution, you’re talking about your client’s needs, instead of what your business does.
  • Operations are the bedrock of any business. We are operationally strong. 60% of what I do today is operationally focused. We plan extensively, which means we are always prepared. I train the contract managers, and I wrote the procedures and training manuals they use.

Scale-up for growth

What do our clients need? What do we need? What do our employees need?

Shortly after the birth of Innovative Staffing Solutions, Arnoux recognised that if he wanted to aggressively scale the business, he would need to offer his clients solutions across the labour spectrum. He didn’t want to do this through Innovative Staffing Solutions alone, but rather through specialist divisions that could work together and share client bases.

“We needed strong foundations in place before we could aggressively start scaling the business, but by 2013 I was confident that we had the right systems in place and the company was running smoothly. It was time to spread our wings.”

At that stage, Innovative Staffing Solutions outsourced its accounting function to a small entrepreneurial accounting firm. “I already knew that I wanted to start a group of companies, of which Innovative Staffing Solutions would be one division. The vision was to offer all labour and human capital related solutions under a roof. However, I recognised that it’s easy to be seen as a jack of all trades and master of none, and wanted to avoid that perception.”

Employee experts to head each division

The solution was to ensure subject matter experts ran each division, and the best way to do that was to purchase existing companies and bring them into the fold, rather than starting from scratch. “In this case our accounting firm already had all the necessary registrations in place as well as an existing client base.”

The firm joined Innovative Staffing Solutions, and Arnoux created a holding company, Innovative Solutions Group, with two divisions: Innovative Staffing Solutions and Innovative Accounting Solutions. Both operated as independent companies with their own client bases, and as entities within a group. By bringing the accounting function in-house, Innovative Solutions Group was also saving on costs — a saving that would increase, thanks to economies of scale.

The next company to join the fold was a small BEE consultancy, and the subsidiary Innovative BEE Solutions was formed.

Ask the questions that keep your business growing

Today there are 17 subsidiaries in the group as a whole. Some offer services to a Innovative Solutions Group client base, others primarily service Innovative Solutions Group. For example, Innovative PPE Solutions was created because it made more financial sense for Innovative Solutions Group to source personal protective equipment for its 7 500 employees itself than to outsource this essential function to another company.

“Our focus has always been three-fold: What do our clients need? What do we need? What do our employees need? That’s how you grow; you need to keep asking these questions.”

Growth does not come without its challenges, and Arnoux’s acceptance of a certain level of risk to scale the company has led to some extremely challenging situations that Innovative Solutions Group has needed to weather. One of the first clients signed to ISS in 2012 ended up costing the business R3,6 million one year later. At the time, the loss was the equivalent of 10% of the business’s annual turnover.

“Our process was simple: We paid our payroll, invoiced clients, and they paid us. One year into the contract, and the client in question cancelled our service — without paying us the final month’s salary bill. We carried the entire R3,6 million payroll ourselves.”

The dangers of one big client

This hit the company hard, but it also raised a very real problem for Arnoux and his general manager, Liza Trollip. “We realised that 40% of our sales came from contracts and subcontracts of our biggest client who insisted everyone he worked with used us. On the one hand this was great and had fuelled our growth. On the other, it was dangerous. We had a lot of eggs in one basket and needed to diversify our client base.”

There was a more immediate problem at hand though: Innovative Staffing Solutions was faced with a cancelled contract, and the employees who were, for all intents and purposes, Innovative Staffing Solutions employees.

“We immediately looped in the trade union. Some staff members wanted to go back to the client. They saw their current jobs as safe. We were happy to agree to that without implementing restraints of trade. We promote job security, and you need to live by that, even if it means losing good employees — the ethos comes first.

Keep everyone in the loop

“We then let the union know that we had some positions we could redeploy people into at other sites, but we didn’t have positions for everyone. The union was clear that they had agreed to our business model in the first place because we promised job security. We knew we had to make this work. That trust is the foundation of our business. You don’t mess around with bargaining councils, and for us, that relationship is sacrosanct. We couldn’t break our word simply because we’d run into an obstacle, even if it was a big one.

“We ended up with 10% of the workforce whom we couldn’t immediately place, and we carried their salaries until we could. That’s 32 employees who we had on our books without positions.”

As it turned out, having 32 staff members who could start immediately worked in Innovative Staffing Solutions’ favour, and today the company always has a few extra people on its books.

Look for solutions to ensure growth

The lesson? If you’re serious about business growth, look for solutions, don’t dwell on the problems — and learn from every challenge you face, it might just provide an unexpected opportunity.

In the case of Innovative Staffing Solutions, this incident cemented trust between the company and the trade unions it works with. It also allowed Arnoux to approach his clients, explain their situation, play open cards that he would be having cash flow issues while the company recovered, but also showed the lengths the business would go to protect its employees and retain good relations with the trade unions. Word of mouth referrals were boosted as a result.

“We started receiving calls from companies we’d never heard of because of the efficiency and professional way we dealt with this. We got smacked to the tune of R4 million, and instead of liquidating, we kept employees on our books and labour relations good; everyone was happy.

“The result was that business owners knew we would protect them, and that we were fighters. We even had to say no to contracts because they were coming in faster than we could open offices around the country to support them. Everything happens for a reason, provided you know how to capitalise on the opportunity.”

Related: 8 Lessons Rugby Can Teach Us On Achieving Peak Performance In Business And Life


Scaling Lessons

  • When you’re challenged, don’t mope. Look to the future instead. It’s easy to get swept away by emotions and rush to solve problems. We took a completely different stance when we had to cover R3,6 million in lost revenue. We focused on the business problem first, instead of rushing to litigation with our ex-client. Focus on the problem, and most importantly, find a solution. If you can do that, you’ll always continue to grow and open new opportunities.
  • With big negatives come big lessons. When we get thrown in the deep end, we look for solutions. We always have, and it’s allowed us to expand beyond our operational depth.
  • Never give up. The uphill battle I faced during my start-up years taught me to never give up, which has been critical in building this business. We suffered three months of hardship, wondering if we were going to make it. But we had worked so hard to build this business, and wouldn’t quit. That tenacity saw us through.
  • What you put in is what you get out. As an employer, we’re strict, but we give back as well. If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be rewarded. For example, we run a regional competition where the best drivers on our books win a Chevrolet Utility vehicle.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

4 Lessons From The Pivotal Group Founders On Growing And Disrupting All At Once

Here’s how they’ve built what they believe to be the foundations of a successful group of businesses in five years.

Nadine Todd




Vital stats

  • Company: Pivotal Group
  • Players: Paul Hutton, Joel Stransky and Bruce Arnold
  • What they do:  Pivotal pioneered voice biometrics in the financial and telecommunications market. Over time, the company has grown to include nine divisions across multiple sectors.
  • Launched: 2012
  • Visit:

How do you build a disruptive business while also focusing on growth? Disruptive ideas are by definition new and unknown to the market. They defy traditional and established solutions and ways of doing business, and they require the market to be educated before you can really onboard clients or even sell your product or service.

The answer is to build parallel solutions: Business units that bring in revenue while the more disruptive ideas are being developed and introduced to the market. Here are the four top lessons the founders of the Pivotal Group have learnt while building their business and pursuing disruptive opportunities simultaneously.

1. Know who your competitors (and potential competitors) are

Great ideas that are economically viable and solve a need that consumers are willing to pay for are few and far between. Great ideas alone are a dime a dozen, but if you’ve spotted a need, chances are someone else has as well. You then need to step back and critically evaluate why someone else hasn’t done this before; if they have done it and they’ve failed; or if you’re entering shark-infested waters riddled with competitors.

Once you’ve determined there is a gap in the market, you need to evaluate who your potential competitors are, and the impact if they suddenly started offering a similar solution to the market.

For Paul Hutton, Bruce Arnold and Joel Stransky, the founders of OneVault, competition was always a factor, particularly as a start-up, and given that potential competitors included Bytes and Dimension Data, this was a very real factor to consider. After careful analysis, however, the founders decided to go for it. Their differentiator was their business model. They wouldn’t be selling OneVault as a software solution, but as a service.

Related: Which Of These 7 Personality Traits Do You Share With The World’s Richest People?

The idea had taken root while Paul was still CEO of TransUnion Credit Bureau. “I came across voice biometrics in Canada. There’s been a surge in identity fraud around the world, and I really understood the value of voice recognition as a verification tool,” he explains. “It can’t be faked, and it’s the only remote biometrics solution available, because you don’t physically need to be there to verify yourself.”

Paul had presented the idea to Transunion’s global board, and while they were intrigued, nothing came of it. “TransUnion’s model is to buy companies that are experts in their specific fields, not launch a new disruptive division from scratch.”

But this meant there was an opportunity for Paul to pursue the idea independently. Joel (former MD of Altech Netstar and CEO of Hertz SA) and Bruce (formerly Group CFO of TransUnion Africa and CFO at Unitrans Freight) were immediately interested in partnering with Paul. Both wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, although neither could do so immediately. The commitment was enough for Paul to get directly involved and start working on the business while he waited for his partners to join him.

In January 2011, Paul and Joel travelled to the UK and started investigating voice biometric solutions. “Voice biometrics was fairly new, but good technology was available, and there were global leaders in the sector,” says Joel.

It was important to choose the right product for the South African market, as this would form the basis of their offering. A contact at Dimension Data (one of whom became an investor in the business) offered this simple and straightforward advice:

When you’re choosing a technology partner, go with the company whose tech you’re confident in, and whose leadership is stable. You’re basing so much on this company and their longevity, so don’t disregard this criteria.

For Paul, Joel and Bruce, a US-based company, Nuance, ticked those boxes. But, from a competitive perspective, OneVault wasn’t the only potential player in the market. “Neither Bytes nor Dimension Data had gone into voice, but they had the potential to do so,” says Bruce. “The products were available to them through their partners.”

To mitigate this very clear risk, the founders made two critical decisions. “Our intention was to sell voice biometrics as a service, instead of a software solution that customers bought and owned, with the necessary infrastructure to go with it. The idea for OneVault was that there would be one place where your voice print lived, and different businesses could plug into our solution.”

The business model of large technology players in South Africa is to sell integrated software solutions, so OneVault’s business model was a differentiator. The next differentiator Paul, Bruce and Joel focused on was becoming specialists in their field.

“This is Paul’s baby,” says Bruce. “We’ve needed to build up a niche, expert team that specialises in voice biometrics. Because we aren’t generalists, 100% of our focus goes into this, instead of 5% or 10%.”

To attract the best in their fields, the founders needed a very appealing culture and a strong recruitment strategy. “We focused on what we wanted from our work environment, and then applied the same rules across the business,” says Joel. “Our goals were to drink good coffee, have no leave forms — ever; be able to take the time to ride our bikes and watch our kids play sports. If someone can’t make it work, or takes advantage without putting in the work, they come and go, but on the whole, we’ve had extremely low churn, and we’ve attracted — and kept — incredible talent.”

This differentiator would prove to be important for two reasons. First, two and a half years into the business, with investors on board and having pumped a significant amount of their own capital into the business, the team hit a major stumbling block. For a few weeks, they didn’t even know if they had a business.

“We had been operating on one major, and as it turned out, faulty, assumption,” says Paul. “We thought South African companies had the right telephony structure to implement our solution. We’d been building our solution on top of Nuance’s software, and were ready to start piloting the entire system with a few key customers, and we found out that in order to meet global voice biometric standards, the telephone technology had to be G711 compliant. South Africa was operating on G729.”

This was OneVault’s make or break moment. The team had six weeks to come up with a solution that ensured it met the necessary levels of accuracy. Without a highly skilled team this would have been impossible.

Even as a start-up, the strategy had been to only bring the best of the best on board. “We didn’t interview,” says Bruce. “We approached people whom we knew. We approached the best in the industry, and convinced them to take a chance with us. There was risk, but there were also rewards.” One of those people was Bradley Scott, a brilliant engineer whom both Paul and Bruce had worked with at Transunion.

Today, OneVault is one of the most specialist companies in the world, and often asked to speak at events in the US.

Being the niche specialists paid off, and OneVault achieved the almost impossible. But this had its downside.

Once you’ve shown something can be done, the bar of what’s impossible moves. Competitors enter your space.

This was the second reason why being such focused, niche experts paid off. “We demo’d the solution for a large local corporate, they loved it, and then went to a ‘then’ competitor  to implement it,” says Paul.

“We always knew this was a real danger. Players like Bytes and Dimension Data have solid, existing client relationships with the same companies we’re targeting.”

18 months later the project still wasn’t working. “This is deep specialist knowledge,” says Paul. “Knowledge we built while we created our offering.” OneVault won the contract, and developed a partnership with Bytes at the same time. Today, OneVault works with all the major software integrators in the market. “We’re a specialist service they can offer their clients, without needing to put the same time and energy we needed to put in to become the specialists.”

Through a focused strategy, OneVault has become a partner, rather than a competitor, of some of the largest players in the industry.

2. Understand the nature of disruption so that you can prepare for it


In today’s ever-changing and fast-paced business world, most business experts are in agreement that as a company, you’re either the disruptor, or you’re being disrupted. The problem is that disruption comes with its own set of challenges.

“Our entire business model was built around a subscription service. Instead of a company buying a software solution, installing it and running it internally, we would do all of that. We would carry the infrastructure burden, and the high upfront cost,” says Joel.

In theory, this sounded like a clear win for businesses that would benefit from a voice biometrics solution. The reality is never so simple, particularly when you’re a disruptor.

“The software is expensive, and so we thought this would be seen as an excellent solution,” says Paul. “Instead, we faced a lot of reticence over the cloud. Businesses didn’t trust it yet.”

On top of that, first movers are often faced with a lag in corporate governance guidelines. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so governance guidelines change — but it’s a slow process, and the lag can impede disruptors.

“You also can’t give proper reference cases, because it’s all brand new to your market,” says Paul. “The best we had was a case study of how well it had worked in Turkey.”

To compound matters, proof of revenue is essential for businesses wanting to trade with large corporates, but non-existent in the start-up phase.

So, what’s the solution? According to Joel, Bruce and Paul, it’s all about being patient, never giving up, building gravitas and getting a few clients on board, even if it’s free of charge to build up your reputation and prove your concept. Finally, you need to bring in revenue from more traditional channels to support your disruptive products and solutions.

“Disruptive solutions are by their nature new and different, which means change management for your customers. This makes the sales cycle long and complex, and you have to be prepared for that,” says Bruce.

Don’t stop laying your groundwork. While disruptors are ahead of the curve, you need to be ready for the uptake when it arrives. “We’ve now concluded a partnership with South Africa Fraud Prevention Services,” says Paul. “When an imposter calls we won’t only  terminate the transaction but we will alert the identity being compromised in the attempt and we will actively prevent fraud by contacting Fraud Prevention. The ultimate vision is for every South African’s voice biometric signature to live in our vault, and we are already receiving imposter information.”

3. Cultivate additional revenue streams

So, what do you do while you are living through the extremely long sales turnaround time of your disruptive, game-changing solution? Bills still have to be paid and investment is needed to develop truly disruptive ideas.

First, the team realised that while an annuity subscription service was their ultimate goal and where the industry was heading, initially they needed to be able to sell and implement the software.

It’s worth noting that one of OneVault’s earliest customers who bought the software has since launched a new business, which is on OneVault’s annuity service model. The shift has just taken time. “The change is happening, but it’s been slower than we anticipated,” says Bruce. “We needed to accept that fact and sell the software to bring revenue into the business while we were waiting for the market to catch up.”

It’s an important lesson. You don’t want to get distracted from your vision, but you need to be bringing in revenue, even if that means your short-term strategy differs from your long-term goals.

“It took three years before we really started seeing a move towards hosted solutions,” he adds. “Outsourced and offsite solutions are opex environments, not capex. They are more cost-effective for customers, but they require a shift in thinking. It’s a move away from how things have always been done, and that takes time.”

But, while Paul, Bruce and Joel were learning the art of patience, they also needed to start bringing revenue into the business.

Related: 8 Inspirational Quotes From Movie Mogul Steven Spielberg

“It was clear that we needed to find other opportunities,” says Joel. The result is the Pivotal Group, a diversified holding company with different businesses that are interlinked and complementary.

The group’s first business outside of OneVault, Pivotal Data, was based on a large call centre contract Joel, Paul and Bruce secured. “You can’t be an expert in everything – when you specialise you will always be more successful. The trick is to partner with other experts,” says Joel. In this case, three entrepreneurs were opening a call centre — this was their area of expertise; they were absolute subject matter experts. What they weren’t experts in was technology or facilities management. Instead of doing it themselves, they were looking for partners.

“We manage everything aside from the people element,” explains Joel. “We found and leased a building, built the bespoke workspace, put in the technology, and managed the facility and IT on an opex basis back to them.”

The business immediately had a good anchor client, and Pivotal Data has built on that. The annuity income has supported further growth.

“This was a base for us, but we’ve acquired a few businesses on the back of this success, and created our own cloud contact centre solution — which also feeds into what we’re doing with OneVault,” says Bruce. “Our vision is to create a technology stack that’s world-class and provides a range of services that no other businesses provide as a single solution.”

Because of this pivot into call centre management, a new opportunity has presented itself, and Pivotal’s ambition has grown to include a solution that calls, authenticates, and then analyses all the data that is collected during those calls.

“Through partnerships, my team has developed a predictive analytics system that gives contact centres deep diagnostic tools. We can predict why agents are having the conversations they have, and what to tweak to improve them. We see the agent’s problem before they do. This isn’t just value add, it’s a revenue generating tool if it improves lead conversion rates and customer service. It’s also all geared to lowering call volumes.

“We know we need to keep looking forward. OneVault is starting to gain real traction, but we need to be working on the next disruptive solution and model. We can’t sit back and relax,” says Bruce.

“Three years ago we said that’s it; no more start-ups or investing in pre-adoption phase businesses. From now on, everything we do will be revenue generating,” says Paul. “We’d stretched three years of runway to five years in OneVault, and we didn’t want to keep doing that. We wanted instant revenue businesses. And the very next thing we did was invest in a start-up. It’s a crazy space, but it’s also very rewarding.”

To sustain it, the group continues to grow, focusing on investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are subject matter experts and therefore already know and understand the market, and then positioning each new business or service to plug into the current offering.

“Data is our golden thread — technology and the disruptive space,” says Joel.

4. Be open to new ideas and opportunities


Integral to the Pivotal Group’s positioning is Paul, Bruce and Joel’s focus on supporting other business owners whose offerings align with the group’s own growth goals, and who would benefit from joining a group.

“If your goal is to be disruptive, you need to be open to all kinds of new ideas,” says Joel. Some will be better than others, and the co-founders have made the decision to focus on the ‘jockey’ rather than the business as a result. Business offerings and ideas need to pivot. If you have the right partners, finding a solution is all part of the challenge.

Pivotal’s move into the world of artificial intelligence is due to one such partnership. “One of our clients approached us with a concept. But he needed a partner to develop it into a proper AI solution,” says Joel.

It’s an augmented intelligence solution that focuses on recruitment, talent management and career guidance. The solution screens, ranks and matches candidates against a job profile, or a number of profiles. It’s a multidisciplinary platform that predicts the performance of the individual in a role.

“Our partner is a former Accenture consultant and a leader in this field. His focus is on the IP and science of the product, ours is on the business component.”

The challenge is how to commercialise and scale the business in as short a time frame as possible. Like many disruptive products, the adoption process is a stumbling block. “We invest at the pre-adoptive curve — not at the revenue generating stage, which means a big focus is always on how we can take an idea and build it into a revenue generating business,” says Bruce.

The business uses capital selectively. “We want to invest in and drive our own agenda,” says Paul. “We’re in charge of our own destiny, but it’s not comfortable or simple. We came from corporate. Big machines that you need to direct and keep on course. This is an entirely different challenge and we are still learning.”

Related: Listen And Learn: Why Podcasts Aren’t Just For Start-up Founders

Listen to the podcast

Matt BrownMatt Brown interviews Paul, Joel and Bruce and discusses what it’s like to invest in pre-adoptive start-ups and staying ahead of the curve.

To listen to the podcast, go to or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Afritorch Digital An Overnight Success That Was Years In The Making

By any standard, local start-up AfriTorch Digital has seen phenomenal growth and traction. But, while the company’s success might seem quick and effortless, there is a lot of hard work behind it.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
  • Company: Afritorch Digital
  • Established: 2017
  • Visit:
  • About: Afritorch Digital assists research agencies in conducting market research through its in-depth knowledge of the African continent and its use of the latest digital technologies.

There is a saying that goes: It takes years to become an overnight success. While a company or individual might seem to enjoy sudden (and seemingly effortless) success, there is often more to the story. The results are usually public and well-publicised, but the years of hard work that came before go unnoticed.

Local start-up AfriTorch Digital is a great example of this. Since launching in May 2017, the business has seen excellent growth. “To be honest, we were very surprised by the level of success. Things progressed a lot quicker than we anticipated,” says co-founder Thabo Mphate.

 “All the goals we had hoped to reach in four or sixth months, we managed to hit in the first month. It was just amazing.”

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

Preparing to launch

While AfriTorch Digital has certainly seen quick growth and success, it would be a mistake to assume that the same is true of the two founders. For them, the creation of AfriTorch was years in the making.

“The goal was always to start our own business,” says Thabo. “I think we’re both entrepreneurs at heart, and we saw an opportunity to create a unique kind of business that offered an innovative solution to clients, but we also realised the value of getting some experience first. Without the knowledge, experience, network and intimate understanding of the industry landscape, getting AfriTorch off the ground would have been incredibly difficult.”

Entrepreneurs tend to dislike working for other people. They want to forge their own path. However, as AfriTorch Digital’s case illustrates, spending time in the industry that you’d like to launch your business in is tremendously useful.

“Finding clients when we launched AfriTorch was relatively easy,” says company co-founder and CEO Michel Katuta. “One reason for this, I think, was that we were offering potential clients a great solution, but the other was that we had established a name for ourselves in the industry. People knew us. We had worked for respected companies, and we had done work for large clients. So, when we launched, we were able to provide a new start-up with credibility in the industry.”

The Lesson: Becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t always start with the launch of a company. Spending time in an established business, gaining experience and making contacts, can be invaluable. Very often, it’s the relationships you build during this time and the knowledge you accumulate that will help make your company a success.

Solving a problem

Everyone knows that launching a successful business means solving a burning problem, but what does that mean in practice? Aren’t all the burning problems already being addressed? And how do you attempt this without any money?

Thabo and Michel identified a small group of potential clients with a burning problem. Crucially, it was a problem that no one outside of the research field could have identified. Having spent years in the trenches, they saw a massive gap waiting to be filled.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

“A decade ago, researchers were still debating whether the future of the field was in the digital space. That debate is now over. Everyone agrees that online is the way to go. What once took months now takes days or hours, and the cost of research can be reduced by a factor of five,” says Michel.

“But researchers are not technology specialists. If made available, they are eager to adopt digital tools, but they aren’t eager to develop these tools themselves. That’s not their area of expertise.”

AfriTorch Digital stepped up to provide these tools. Katuta has a background in software engineering, so he could approach research problems with the eye of a tech specialist. Very soon, research agencies were lining up to make use of AfriTorch Digital’s services.

“We work with research agencies that conduct research on behalf of their clients. We provide the digital tools needed to conduct research online, and we provide the online communities. A big reason for our success is that we understand Africa. A lot of companies want to conduct research in Africa, but traditionally, this has been very hard. There was a lack of access and a lack of infrastructure that made research very hit-and-miss. Thanks to the continent’s adoption of mobile technology, it’s now much easier. If you have the technological know-how and an understanding of the environment, you can do amazing things,” says Michel.

The Lesson: Find a niche and own it. Research agencies might not have seemed like an obvious and lucrative market, but having spent time in the industry, the AfriTorch founders were able to identify clients who would be desperate for their offering. Spending time in an industry will help you see where the opportunities lie.

Take note

Before launching a business, get to know an industry from the inside out. This will give you an unparalleled view into gaps you can service.

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