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Transman: Angela Dick

Angela Dick, MD of Transman, and one of South Africa’s leading entrepreneurs, lets us in on what it’s like to be at the helm of a R400 million business and tells us how she got there

Monique Verduyn



Angela Dick of Transman

Mention Transman and people’s eyes flicker with recognition. “Oh yes, the company with the Beetles.” Managing director Angela Dick says the highly visible yellow, red and black vehicles were chosen specifically to position the brand strongly in people’s minds. She likes to make a statement. As if placing 10 000 people from previously disadvantaged communities into the workplace daily were not enough, the somewhat eccentric 2006 Business Women’s Association Entrepreneur of the Year has driven her company’s revenue from R85 000 in 1983, to R400 million today. She lets Entrepreneur in on how she waves her wand and brandishes her whip.

Angela Dick trained as a teacher, the only profession other than nursing open at the time to a bright young girl from a conservative Natal background. “I could not see myself working behind a counter as a sales assistant, and bedpans and blood were too horrific a thought, so teaching it was,” she says.

The daughter of renowned portrait photographer Norman Partington, Dick was raised to “marry well”. It was a path she resisted. “I knew that if I trained as a teacher, I would at least have a piece of paper that says I can do something.” She made it though college despite being bored, and was surprised to find that she enjoyed teaching. “The psychological aspects of education drew me, particularly the ability to impart information to young minds and to reap the rewards that come with witnessing their development,” she says.

Dick learnt much from teaching. “It taught me to look at the entirety of work requirements, to set objectives over a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour, and minute by minute. That was an invaluable lesson.” She also gained a great deal of experience in dealing with different groups of learners with varying skills. “We had two options: to educate by rote; or to look at the best way of ensuring understanding. I chose the latter, and my teaching was based on establishing comprehension.”

Being a speech and drama teacher taught her the skills of persuasion which today she sees as fundamental to her sales ability. “It’s about getting people to accept what you are saying – that is the essence of sales.”

After six years in teaching, she moved to the Edward College of Education in 1975, where she lectured a range of students, from school leavers to middle-aged men. Here she had to hone her presentation skills even further and she also had to assess student teachers on their abilities in the classroom. Again, it was the perfect sales training arena.

In 1980 she moved to Johannesburg and joined 3M’s audiovisual division, where she went through a sales training course. “I was taught to cold call, but I spent a week at my desk too petrified to pick up the phone. Then I talked to myself, as I always do, and convinced myself that if millions of other people could call on customers every day, I could do it too.” She was very successful and, in addition to earning the same basic she was paid as a teacher, she also had a company car and an excellent commission. There was no going back. Dick says this environment taught her how to sell a tangible product in a defined geographic area.

Subsequently, she moved to a company that sold computer-based training programmes across a wide range of disciplines. “Here I learnt how to sell an intangible service, persuading companies to part with huge amounts of cash upfront for training courses. Also, because I had to understand what I was selling, I completed a number of the courses, teaching myself management, human resources, marketing and a variety of other skills.”

Dick was ready to go into her own business. Four days after her son was born, she and her husband Graham started Transman. The company’s first contract was to write a training manual sponsored by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for drivers of heavy vehicles.

In collecting the information and creating the lesson plans, the two looked at going into driver training. “Graham was conducting the training; I was going out and selling it. During this time I noticed how many people would stand around outside big companies hoping for a job. In 1983, a client asked me to find a driver for his company. I placed an advert in the paper and received 1 200 applications. At the same time, one of our other clients in the dairy industry was experiencing a strike. They turned to us for help, so we screened and recruited a further 300 people from the list of applicants. That was how the business started.”

Dick registered Transman as a labour broker with the Department of Transport and the National Bargaining Council for the Road Freight Industry. Soon after, she began to negotiate wages and additional benefits for Transman workers. Today the company places people across almost every industry.

Entrepreneur: When you started Transman, what was your vision for the company? Were you addressing specific gaps in the market?

AD: Business at the time was unable to successfully source and maintain a temporary labour force that was able to add value to their operations. Our role was to screen people and match who we had to the specifications of the job. As a result, our workers were far more productive. We could also provide continuity, which is critical.

On the surface, these were people with less than three years of schooling who had little to offer. We were able to get them trained and, by moving them from place to place on an ongoing basis, to up their skills levels significantly. In some cases they have become valuable permanent team members.

E: How did you finance the company?

AD: I saved every cent I could while I was working, and we also inherited some money from a relative.

E: What were the most difficult obstacles you faced as a start-up?

AD: I was a female in the transport logistics environment in the early 80s. Undoubtedly, the greatest challenge was gaining acceptance. Prospective clients did not expect me to understand their issues, and were surprised when I came back to them with a solution.

The length of the sales cycle was also a challenge. When money started to run low I fed my children on two loaves of bread a day. We went without paying the bond on our house for six months and sold our possessions so we could pay for petrol to come to work. It’s one of the reasons why I truly understand what it is like to have nothing. As a result, no matter what happens, my workers are paid their wages every Thursday without fail. I employ 10 000 breadwinners, all of whom support 10 to 12 family members. The fact that my decisions affect a potential 120 000 every day keeps me very focused, and very motivated.

E: How did you build your client base?

AD: Through hard work and discipline. I focused on geographical areas and walked the streets to find potential clients. I was like a terrier – once I got the scent of a potential sale, I just wouldn’t let go. To this day, I set the highest benchmarks for myself. If I do not close a sale, I have to find out what I did wrong, what I did not do, and learn from that.

E: What have been the key elements of your success over the years?

AD: You have to take your heart to work. You must have passion, commitment, loyalty, integrity and ethics. I believe we all have a contribution to make to advance our society and grow our country.

Transparency is also key; my clients and employees know that my word is good.

I think about the business all the time and about ways to improve it. I am constantly aspiring to be better, cleverer, more efficient. This business is about bringing together workers and companies with job opportunities as efficiently as possible. It’s a tripartite relationship in which we must all win: if I have a happy worker, I have a productive worker; if I have a productive worker, I have a happy client; if I have a happy client, I am happy.

As a white, female CEO in a largely blue collar sector, I’ve had many life threatening experiences that none of my competitors have had. The result is I can be as hard as steel. On the other hand, I write cards to each staff member at the end of the year, taking time to think about that person and what their year has been like.

In my office, I have a wand and a whip given to me by my youngest son – they remind me of the balance required to run a business.

E: What are the major issues around recruitment facing SA business today?

AD: We have a huge number of unemployable people and a massive dearth of skills. Training is the biggest challenge: who do we train, how do we train, who pays? Motivating the workforce is another challenge: they need to understand the role they play in their homes and their country as breadwinners.

The relationship of companies like ours with Cosatu is tenuous as the organisation is critical of our structures and practices, despite the fact that we bring work to so many people.

E: You have resisted several buy-out offers. Why is this?

AD: I am very proud and very independent. What is someone out there going to bring to this company that I do not already have? I’m not interested in big cheques. If they can bring something of value besides cash, I might be curious, but Transman is unique. We have our own culture and we will not easily convert.

E: What are the most important components of a successful recruitment and placement company?

AD: The ability to handle diversity in all senses of the word is vital. From personalities to skills to job categories to legislation, you have to be able to handle it all. You also have to be flexible and creative in your approach.

If you don’t have a strong infrastructure to support the business, you will fail. To develop that infrastructure requires long-term strategic planning and a solid management team. Support from financiers is also vital. Clients take time to pay and sometimes we carry more than R12 million for them. But because we have such a transparent relationship with our bank, we are given the support we need.

E: What distinguishes Transman from other companies in the recruitment sector?

I maintain that workers have a right to choose where they want to work and for how long. We pioneered changes in legislation that have improved conditions for workers. We were the first to implement open and transparent costing in 1989; other agencies followed us eight years later. We were also the first to provide a provident fund for short-term employees. We may not be the biggest, but we are certainly the most courageous.

E: What are the next big goals you have set for Transman?

AD: We will soon be launching a unique franchising concept that will focus on small to medium enterprises and the black economic empowerment sector. We plan to expand the company through this franchise base.

Transman has its own management information system that has been developed over eight years. The software is able to calculate in any language, currency or legislation and is streets ahead of any other solution aimed at our market. We are planning to launch the product internationally.

E: What about succession planning?

AD: I have excellent managers who are skilled in many disciplines and who have the ability to run this company. I don’t expect we will easily find someone with the slightly maverick, unconventional approach I have, but I am aware that change will happen.

E: How big is your management team?

AD: I have 28 managers countrywide and 54% of them are female.

Advice on starting a business in South Africa:

Understand exactly what skills, products and services you offer

Never be satisfied that your offering is the best it can be

Always have courage, commitment and confidence

Whatever you want to achieve, intense discipline is the basis for success

If you don’t have sales, you don’t have a business

E: How is your management team structured?

AD: The management team comprises national, regional, and key accounts managers. They have a strong sense of responsibility and a work ethic that is close to mine: I am available 24 hours a day, and I expect the same of my management team. That said, this is a well-run business and there are few crises. I manage by exception.

E: How would you describe your management style?

It is fairly relaxed and I am always open to different opinions. Occasionally I will put my foot down when I need to. All the employees have parameters within which they function – as they grow and come to understand the business, so too do the parameters broaden. My staff all know that the buck stops here – I take responsibility for everything that happens in the company.

How have you structured your sales team?

We have recently restructured our sales team. There are two different camps: the hunters, who are out there looking for new business; and the gatherers, who take care of our existing clients.

Hunters and gatherers are motivated by different things, so the rewards and incentives for each are different.

Advice on growing a business:

Think long-term and keep a steady focus

Take a hard look at your product and service offering and how it is performing in the market

Make sure you find ways of differentiating that product or service so that it is unique

E: Give us an insight into your annual sales strategy planning. When, how, what?

AD: We conduct sales strategy planning all the time. As the market changes, so we change our sales plan. We have a basic skeleton that includes plan outlines from the bottom up, and from the top down. If I get a budget that’s unrealistic, I make sure it’s changed. I know all my areas well, so I know what to expect and when. Also, I continue to deliver sales presentations so that I am always in touch with my clients.

E: What are your primary sales tools?

AD: We use PowerPoint presentations. I don’t believe that anything can improve on talking to the prospect directly.

E: Does your team have any particular sales techniques that set them apart?

AD: They are taught to question and to listen.

E: How do you do your sales training?

AD: I conduct all the sales training myself. I have years of experience in this business, so to outsource our sales training to an external company would just not make sense. I always know exactly what is happening in the market and I keep my managers up to speed.

E: How do you manage your time?

AD: I am a creative person and I keep myself occupied all the time, even when I am not at work. I love what I do, so I never feel the need to shut myself off from the company in any way. Art is a great interest of mine and I am an ardent collector. I also enjoy gardening and I read whatever I can, whenever I can. One of my favourite pursuits is walking in the mountains. I find it calms me and helps me to be in touch with my spirit.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

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






Vital stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting a brand

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

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

Supporting growth

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

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

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

The business

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd





Take note

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

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

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

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

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

Start small, but dream big

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

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

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

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

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

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

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

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Find people to inspire you to reach success

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

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

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

Build your success, one step at a time

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

Be your own biggest cheerleader

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

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

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

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

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

Drive a movement with your business

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

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

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

Pivoting to further growth

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

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

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

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

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

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

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

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

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

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

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

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

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

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

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

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

Nadine Todd




Vital stats

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

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

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

Keep up the momentum

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

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

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

The 3 goals of Suits & Sneakers

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

R1 million in debt at 25

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

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

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

Share your insights with your clients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get people excited about your offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big risk, big reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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