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There Was Quirk: How Rob Stokes Brought Digital to Life

Before we loved all things digital, Before Facebook ruled our lives, Before the words ‘social media strategy’ existed… There was quirk

Juliet Pitman

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The guys at Quirk say the company was ‘born digital’ – but its entrance into the world of e-marketing wasn’t an easy one. There were hiccups. There were cock ups. There were bad websites. Rob Stokes talks Juliet Pitman through the company’s labour pains.

“We bought and sold hardware, did some network stuff and made really bad websites. We quickly ditched the hardware thing, slowly ditched the network thing and in time got better at the website thing. And here we are today.”

For Rob Stokes, ‘here’ is leader of Quirk Marketing Agency which this year will turn over R150 million. With offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London and around 300 employees, it’s a far cry from its humble beginnings, and looking at the company today you’d never guess the hurdles it’s had to cross. But Stokes is nothing if not candid about how accidental some of his success has at least seemed.

Necessity is the mother of invention – even if it’s bad invention

“I’d love to be able to tell you it all happened according to some grand vision, some master plan – but frankly it didn’t. My last job was Christmas Day 1998 as a waiter. I was asked to do something that really went against my grain and I quit that day. Six weeks later I ran out of money. It was my twentieth birthday. I was lying on the couch at 3am and I decided to start a business. I thought, ‘I like marketing. I like technology. How can I put them together to make some cash?’ Three weeks later Quirk was born – out of necessity,” he says.

He’d read somewhere about Michael Dell cutting the door of his dorm room in half to create a counter-top over which he could sell computers and thought, “Hey, if he can do it, why not me?”

Stokes was still at varsity, studying a Business Science degree, but he was used to multi-tasking, particularly when it comes to starting businesses. He’s been an entrepreneur “since forever.”

“I ran an ice-pop cartel when I was in primary school. I was the smallest guy in the school and entered into a mafia relationship with the two biggest guys. They would hold all the other little guys back when the break bell rang and I’d run to the tuck shop to buy up the ice-pops which I’d then sell at a 3c mark-up,” he says. He started 17 different businesses while at school, all of which were banned for being, as the school powers-that-be put it, ‘disruptive’.

But disruptive is where you want to be when you find yourself starting a business with no capital, at 3am in the morning, on a couch.

Stokes’ idea was to leverage email for marketing purposes. “A group of us started building South Africa’s first and worst email marketing software – at least, they built it mostly. I had to write exams so I took a break while they got grumpy with me and got on with the work,” he recalls.

While the software was “an absolute maintenance nightmare,” it worked. They made some money. But the product, although clunky and unwieldy, was still ahead of its time. A bit too ahead.

It sucks when you‘re ahead of your time

“When you’re ahead of your time, no one knows that they need what you’re selling. So no one buys it. People tell you it’s a good thing to be ‘ahead of your time’ but trust me, it’s not,” says Stokes, as he talks about the first seven “really, really tough” years of business.

There was simply no money. “On five or six occasions we were on the verge of bankruptcy and then a deal would come along that would buy us another month or two,” he says.

The Quirk team realised early on the power of search engine optimisation (SEO), which determines the relative ranking of search results in search engines. “We worked out how to get companies to the top of Google but everyone was like ‘Why would we want to be at the top of Google?’ We were just too early, I guess,” he says.

At 20 Stokes admits he had no instinct for timing when he started the business. “I thought the market would wake up to the power of e-marketing about six months after we started. As it turned out, that change took years,” he explains.

But when the turn eventually happened, all the pain, hard work and sleepless nights about paying salaries paid off. Quirk found itself in exactly the right place at the right time with a foundation and track record of real experience. As Stokes puts it, “We were more ready than anyone else.”

They had also revamped their software system, a mammoth but necessary task that fell to chief technology officer, Craig Raw.

“We locked him in a room for three weeks and fed him yoghurt and ProNutro,” says Stokes. The pressure to deliver a better system was intense. A large call centre client had indicated Quirk would win a major contract if it could meet their service level agreement (SLA) standards. “There was absolutely no way our old system could have met the SLA so we had no choice but to up our game. This was in 2003 and we were still struggling – the market hadn’t quite turned yet and we needed the work,” he adds.

This mixture of energy and desperation spurs many young entrepreneurs to achieve against the odds. With a new software platform, Quirk was well-placed to pick up big business when big business finally decided the Internet might be a marketing tool worth investigating.

“The tipping point came in 2007. Of course, by that stage other marketing agencies had also wised up to e-marketing but I think what made us different is that we were born digital. We were digital natives from birth so we were never trying to retrofit the Internet into our existing marketing ethos,” says Stokes of Quirk’s initial differentiator.

Because e-marketing was metrics driven, Quirk had an opportunity to prove itself and work on a performance basis, which was attractive to clients. Once it got going, it really took off. The company has never grown by less than 50% year on year and most years its growth has been at 100%.

But, as Stokes points out, having a digital offering could only make the company stand out for so long. As more and more marketing companies acquired digital agencies, Quirk needed to evolve to stay ahead.

“Our currency is intellectual property and our differentiator is our ability to birth unique ideas. We know that the best marketing ideas are not born of a particular marketing channel. We don’t say ‘We need a big TV idea’. We say, ‘We need a big idea for a brand’,” he says.

Retaining this edge is – to his mind – closely tied to driving a particular culture, but as Quirk has grown, keeping it young, hungry and entrepreneurial has become more challenging. It takes up a lot of Stokes’ headspace.

My biggest fear is Quirk becoming a corporate

Stokes describes his role as that of a ‘culture captain’. “Culture is the flowerbed of talent. People need to have fun. They need to be encouraged to be creative and inspiring, to be passionate about ideas.”

With a growing workforce in three offices spread between South Africa and London, achieving this is easier said than done. “Over the past five years I’ve become unavoidably detached from the day-to-day operations of the business. What I’m really obsessed with is the culture. I really believe it’s an extension of the founder’s personality and that it’s my obligation to spearhead it in the business,” Stokes adds.

He believes it is possible to retain an entrepreneurial culture, even in a big business, but he doesn’t claim it’s easy: “When a company is run by the founding entrepreneur they have a good idea of what’s going on in the business. But when they leave, you end up with professional managers running the business.

Because the shareholders sit externally, the only way for them to protect their investment is to ensure systems and processes are in place. These are not always bad things, but a large overly-bureaucratic and systems-driven business can encourage ‘corporate coasting’. What you end up with is a ‘safe place to work’. I never want us to be that. I always want us to be restless.”

One of Quirk’s culture cornerstones is a tendency not to take itself too seriously. As Stokes says, “This applies to me. I have no office. I sit with the interns in reception. I learn from them. After all, I’m almost already three or four years too old for this game.”

If that’s the case, how does he see his role in Quirk’s future?

“My job is to keep us relevant in five year’s time,” he says simply, adding that his real skill lies in “piecing together bits of information and predicting an outcome.” That outcome, he believes, will precipitate a need for the company to move ‘beyond digital’.

“In ten year’s time, digital agencies won’t exist. Even now, I really don’t believe clients are looking for a ‘digital agency’ and a ‘traditional agency’. What they want is a trusted partner. At the moment, we’re a full service digital agency with a little bit of non-digital stuff, but we need to grow that. That’s where our future lies. There – and in Africa. That’s what keeps me busy at the moment,” he says.

  • Founder: Rob Stokes
  • Company: Quirk Marketing Agency
  • Launched in 1999
  • Day job while launching Quirk Business Science student and erstwhile waiter
  • Start-up capital None
  • Peak annual turnover R150 million
  • Contact +27 (0)21 462 7353
  • Web: www.quirk.biz

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Jason English On Growing Prommac’s Turnover Tenfold And Being Mindful Of The ‘Oros Effect’

Rapid growth and expansion can lead to a dilution of the foundational principles that defined your company in its early days. Jason English of Prommac discusses how you can retain your company’s culture and vision while growing quickly.

GG van Rooyen

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  • Player: Jason English
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: Prommac
  • Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
  • Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
  • Visit: prommac.com
  • About: Prommac is a construction services business specialising in commissioning, plant maintenance, plant shutdowns and capital projects. Jason English purchased the majority of the company late in 2012, and currently acts as its CEO. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a small business to an international operation.

Since Jason English purchased Prommac in 2012, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. At the time he took over as owner and CEO, it was a small operation that boasted a turnover below R50 million.

Today, Prommac is part of a diversified group of companies under the CG Holdings umbrella and alone has grown it’s turnover nearly ten fold since Jason English took over. As a group, CG Holdings, of which Jason is a founder, is generating in excess of R1 billion. How has Prommac managed such phenomenal growth? According to Jason, it’s all about company culture… and about protecting your glass of Oros.

Jason English

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

“As your business grows, it suffers from something that I call the Oros Effect. Think of your small start-up as an undiluted glass of Oros. When you’re leading a small company, it really is a product of you. You know everything about the business and you make every decision. The systems, the processes, the culture — these are all a product of your actions and beliefs. As you grow, though, things start to change. With every new person added to the mix, you dilute that glass of Oros.

“That’s not to say that your employees are doing anything wrong, or that they are actively trying to damage the business, but the culture — which was once so clear — becomes hazy. The company loses that singular vision. As the owner, you’re forced to share ‘your Oros’ with an increasing number of people, and by pouring more and more of it into other glasses, it loses the distinctive flavour it once had. By the time you’re at the head of a large international company, you can easily be left with a glass that contains more water than Oros.

“Protecting and nurturing a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Prommac has enjoyed excellent growth, and I ascribe a lot of that success to our company culture. Whenever we’ve spent real time and money on replenishing the Oros, we’ve seen the benefits of it directly afterwards.

“There have been times when we have made the tough decision to slow growth and focus on getting the culture right. Growth is great, of course, but it’s hard to get the culture right when new people are joining the company all the time and you’re scaling aggressively. So, we’ve slowed down at times, but we’ve almost always seen immediate benefits in terms of growth afterwards. We focus heavily on training that deals with things like the systems, processes and culture of the company. We’ve also created a culture and environment that you won’t necessarily associate with engineering and heavy industries. In fact, it has more in common with a Silicon Valley company like Google than your traditional engineering firm.

“Acquisitions can be particularly tricky when it comes to culture and vision. As mentioned, CG Holdings has acquired several companies over the last few years, and when it comes to acquisition, managing the culture is far trickier than it is with normal hiring. When you hire a new employee, you can educate them in the ways and culture of the business. When you acquire an entire company, you import not only a large number of new people, but also an existing organisation with its own culture and vision. Because of this, we’ve created a centralised hub that manages all training and other company activities pertaining to culture. We don’t allow the various companies to do their own thing. That helps to manage the culture as the company grows and expands, since it ensures that everyone’s on the same page.

“Systems and processes need to make sense. One of the key reasons that drove us to create a central platform for training is the belief that systems and processes need to make sense to employees. Everyone should understand the benefits of using a system. If they don’t understand a system or process, they will revert to what they did in the past, especially when you’re talking about an acquired company. You should expect employees to make use of the proper systems and processes, but they need to be properly trained in them first. A lot of companies have great systems, but they aren’t very good at actually implementing them, and the primary reason for this is a lack of training.

“Operations — getting the work done — is seen as the priority, and training is only done if and when a bit of extra time is available. We fell into that trap a year ago. We had enjoyed a lot of growth and momentum, so we didn’t slow down. Eventually, we could see that this huge push, and the consequent lack of focus on the core values of the business, were affecting operations. So, we had to put the hammer down and refocus on systems, processes and culture. Today Prommac is back at the top of it’s game having been awarded the prestigious Service Provider of the year for 2017 by Sasol for both their Secunda and Sasolburg chemical complexes.

Related: Establishing The Wheels Of Change In Business

“If you want to know about the state of your company’s culture, go outside the business. We realised that we needed to ‘pour more Oros into the company’ by asking clients. We use customer surveys to track our own performance and to make sure that the company is in a healthy state. It’s a great way to monitor your organisation, and there are trigger questions that can be asked, which will give you immediate insight into the state of the culture.

prommac

“It’s important, of course, to ask your employees about the state of the business and its culture as well, but you should also ask your customers. Your clients will quickly pick up if something is wrong. The fact of the matter is, internal things like culture can have a dramatic effect on the level of service offered to customers. That’s why it’s so important to spend time on these internal things — they have a direct impact on every aspect of the business.

“Remember that clients understand the value of training. There is always a tension between training and operational requirements, but don’t assume that your clients will automatically be annoyed because you’re sending employees on training. Be open and honest, explain to a client that an employee who regularly services the company will be going on training. Ultimately, the client benefits if you spend time and money on an employee that they regularly deal with.

“For the most part, they will understand and respect your decision. At times, there will be push back, both from clients and from your own managers, but you need to be firm. In the long term, training is win-win for everyone involved. Also, you don’t want a client to become overly dependent on a single employee from your company. What if that employee quits? Training offers a good opportunity to swop out employees, and to ensure that you have a group of individuals who can be assigned to a specific client. We rotate our people to make sure that no single person becomes a knowledge expert on a client’s facility, so when we need to pull someone out of the system for training, it’s not the end of the world.

“Managers will often be your biggest challenge when it comes to training. Early on, we hired a lot of young people we could train from scratch. As we grew and needed more expertise, we started hiring senior employees with experience. When it came to things like systems, processes and culture, we actually had far more issues with some of the senior people.

“Someone with significant experience approaches things with preconceived notions and beliefs, so it can be more difficult to get buy-in from them. Don’t assume that training is only for entry-level employees. You need to focus on your senior people and make sure that they see the value of what you are doing. It doesn’t matter how much Oros you add to the mix if managers keep diluting it.”

Exponential growth

When Jason English purchased Prommac late in 2012, the company had a turnover of less than R50 million. This has grown nearly ten fold in just under five years. How? By focusing on people, culture and training.

key-insights-from-jason-english

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Who’s Leading Your Business Billy Selekane Asks – You Or The Monkey On Your Back?

You’re either a change-maker, or someone who is influenced by the shifting conditions around you. The truly successful know how to determine their own destinies. Here’s how they do it.

Nadine Todd

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  • Player: Billy Selekane
  • Company: Billy Selekane and Associates
  • About: Billy Selekane is an author, internationally acclaimed inspirational keynote speaker, and a personal, team and organisational effectiveness specialist.
  • Visit: billyselekanespeaks.com

We live in a world of disruption. We live in a world where Airbnb’s valuation is $31 billion, but the Hilton’s market cap is $30 billion. Airbnb doesn’t own one square kilometre, and yet they’re worth more than the world’s biggest hotel chains with enormous assets. We live in a world where things have been turned upside down.

In this brave new world, you can either thrive, or fight to survive. As a leader in your organisation, the choices you make, the mental mind-space you occupy and how you engage with those around you, will determine your personal success, as well as that of your entire organisation.

“The business of business is people. You can’t just pay lip service to the idea that they are your most important asset. You need to live it. Leaders must be intelligent and honest. You can’t just push people to meet the numbers,” says Billy Selekane, personal and business mastery expert and international speaker.

The problem is that great leaders need to first find balance within, before they can successfully lead their organisations.

“Things can no longer be done the same way,” says Billy. “Success today is defined by people who are driven, are inspired by their own lives and goals, and have the power and capability to inspire others.” But before you can achieve any of this, you need to rid yourself of the monkey on your back.

Related: Billy Selekane

The monkey on your back

“If I continue doing what I’m doing, and thinking what I’m thinking, I’ll continue to have what I have,” says Billy. “That’s the definition of insanity. Are you doing things by default or design?”

Billy’s analogy is a simple one. It’s something we can all relate to, and it’s the single biggest thing stopping us from clearing our minds, focusing on the positive and achieving success. He calls it the monkey on our backs.

“Every one of us is born with an invisible monkey on their shoulder,” says Billy. “Your monkey is always with you. Sometimes they’re the one speaking, and you need to be careful of that.” What you need to be even more aware of than your own monkey though, is everyone else’s monkeys.

“Every interaction we have is an opportunity for what I call a monkey download. You have an argument with your spouse before work, and you end up getting into your car with not only your monkey, but theirs as well. Your irritation level has doubled thanks to the extra monkey. Now you get irritated with a pointsman, another driver or a taxi on your way to work. You’ve just added three monkeys.

“By the time you walk into the office, you’re bringing an entire village of monkeys with you. They’re clamouring, clattering, arguing with each other, and the noise is deafening. Not only does everyone get out of your way, but you can’t hear yourself think. And the more your mood drops, the more monkeys you download from the people around you. This is not the path to focus, achieving your goals or being happy. It’s certainly not the path to great leadership.

“Great leaders know how to keep all those monkeys out. They know how to control their moods, and regulate their own positivity. They understand that they are the architects of their own success.”

Getting out of the monkey business

To be a great leader — and personally successful and happy — you need to start by getting out of your own way, and as Billy calls it, ‘getting out of the monkey business.’ You need to not only shake your own monkey, but everyone else’s as well.

According to Billy, there are four simple areas you can begin focusing on today that will help you become the person (and leader) you want to be.

First, honesty is the foundation of everything else you should be doing. “Be clear and straight. Speak to people simply and honestly, but with respect. Connect with them, not through the head, but with the heart. Don’t play tricks.”

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

Next, be authentic. All great leaders are authentic, and recognised as such. Aligned with this is integrity. “This is sadly out of stock, not only in South Africa, but the world,” says Billy.

“There is nothing as disturbing as a leader without integrity, and on a personal level, you won’t achieve emotional stability if you aren’t a person of integrity.”

Finally, you need to embrace love. “Wish your employees well. Wish your family, friends and connections well. When we are given love, and trusted to perform, we take that and pay it forward. In the case of business, this means your employees are giving the same love to customers, but if everyone showed a little more love, the world would be a better place. When people feel cared for, they show up with their hearts and wallets, and they pay it forward.

“Great leaders understand this. They don’t only focus on making themselves better, but adding to everyone around them. Remember this: In every business, there are no bad employees, just bad leaders. Employees are a reflection of that.”

If you want to build a better future, business or life, you need to start with yourself.


Do this

Stop letting negative thoughts and minor irritations derail you. You are the master of your moods and thoughts, so take personal responsibility for them.

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Shark Tank Funded Start-up Native Decor’s Founder on Investment, Mentorship And Dreaming Big

Vusani Ravele secured offers from every single Shark in the first episode of Shark Tank South Africa, eventually settling on an offer from Gil Oved from The Creative Counsel. Entrepreneur asked to him how this investment has changed his business.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital stats

  • Player: Vusani Ravele
  • Company: Native Decor
  • Established: February 2016
  • Visit: nativedecor.co.za
  • About: Native Decor creates visually pleasing products from sustainable timber. The company’s designs are innovative and functional, with its creations mostly inspired by South African cultures, landscapes and wildlife.

It all started with a cordless drill. In February 2015, Vusani Ravele received a drill from his girlfriend as a Valentine’s Day gift. He immediately became obsessed.

“I couldn’t stop drilling holes in things,” Vusani laughs. “I just loved working with my hands.”

Unlike most people, who lose interest in a Valentine’s Day gift by the first day of March, Vusani’s passion for his cordless drill didn’t dissipate. Instead, it had reignited a spark. Thanks to that cordless drill, he rediscovered a love for design he’d first felt in high school. And one year later, he had started a company called Native Decor.

Related: 6 Great Tips For A Successful Shark Tank Pitch

As a start-up he then made the bold move to enter the inaugural season of Shark Tank South Africa. He was funded by Gil Oved on the very first episode. It was a life-changing experience, but Vusani is keeping a level head. The money helps, but he’s trying not to let it change his approach too much.

I’m doing my best not to think of Native Decor as a funded start-up. The money has allowed me to do certain things, like buy a new CNC machine, but I still try to think like a founder without money. Once you have a bit of money in the bank, the temptation exists to throw it at every problem, but that’s not how you create a successful business.

You need to bootstrap and pretend that you don’t have a cent in the bank. With a bit of lateral thinking, you can often come up with a solution that doesn’t require money. It might require more effort, sure, but I believe it creates a stronger foundation for your business. If a business can carry itself from early on, its odds for long-term success are much higher. You also need to fight the urge to spend money on things like fancy premises or extra staff. The longer you can keep things lean, the more runway you create for yourself.

Vusani Ravele of Native Decor

I didn’t enter Shark Tank just for the money. The money was important, of course, but there was more to it than that. Looking purely at money versus equity, Gil Oved’s offer wasn’t the best, but I knew that I wanted to work with Gil. Stepping into the room, my primary aim was to attract him to the business.

He wanted 50% equity for R400 000 of investment. I wanted to give away 25% for the same amount. We settled on 40% for R400 000 with an additional R3 million line of credit. It was more of the company than I initially wanted to give away, but I was okay with it, since I saw it as the cost of Gil’s involvement, which I knew would add bigger value to the business than just the cash injection.

Related: Shark Tank’s Dawn Nathan-Jones: How Leaders Who Focus On Growth Will Build Successful Companies

Investment comes in many forms. I wanted Gil to invest in the business because I realised that investment isn’t purely about money. I didn’t just want him to invest his cash in Native Decor, I also wanted him to invest his time and energy. You can get money in different places. You can create a business that funds its own growth, for example, or you can get a loan from a bank.

What an investor like Gil offers, however, is knowledge and access to a network. Money can help a lot with the growth of a business, but a great partner can help even more. By giving Gil 40% of the business, I’ve ensured that he has skin in game. He has a vested interest in seeing Native Decor succeed, and that’s worth more than any monetary investment.

True mentorship can be a game-changer if you’re running a young start-up. A great advantage that often comes with investment is mentorship from someone who knows the pitfalls of the entrepreneurial game. With a new business, it’s easy to be sidetracked or to chase an opportunity down a dead end.

Gil is visionary, and he has helped me focus on the long-term goals I have for Native Decor. He has also helped me to think big. As young entrepreneurs, I believe we often think too small. We don’t chase those audacious goals. Someone like Gil, who has seen huge success, can help you push things further and to dream bigger.

You need to dream big, but act small. It’s important to have big dreams for your business, but you should also chase those easy opportunities that can help you build traction. When I started, I wanted to try and get my products into large retail stores, but the fact of the matter was, as a start-up, I didn’t have a strong negotiating position.

There was a lot of bureaucracy to deal with. Gil advised me to focus on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ — those small gift stores that would be keen to carry my products. By doing this, I’m gaining traction and building a track record for the business. Also, I realised the importance of aligning myself with the right kind of stores. Perhaps being in a large retailer isn’t a good idea, since this is where you typically get cheap items produced overseas. Unless you’re purely competing on price, that’s probably not where you want to be.

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


Take note

Funding is great but it’s not all about the money. If that’s what you’re chasing you’re doing your start-up an injustice.

Watch the Shark Tank investment episode here:

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