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Virgin: Richard Branson

Richard Branson – innovator, philanthropist and the ultimate entrepreneur – has developed a powerful business philosophy that generates opportunity from conflict and contradiction.

Greg Fisher

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Richard Branson of the Virgin Group of Companies

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, is the only person in the world to have built eight billion dollar companies from scratch in eight different sectors. One of those companies, Virgin Mobile USA, reached a billion dollars in revenue faster than any other company in history, faster than Google, Microsoft and Amazon. So how does he do it? What mindsets, tactics, strategies, practices and philosophies have enabled this extraordinary entrepreneur to build a privately held business empire of over 200 companies operating in over 15 countries and across multiple industries (travel, publishing, retail stores, gyms, telecommunications, entertainment, financial services, healthcare, beverages), all proudly carrying the Virgin brand?

 
This article draws on insights from three books: Losing my Virginity (1998); Screw It, Let’s Do It (2004) and Business Stripped Bare (2008) to unpack what makes Branson and the Virgin brand so successful.

Richard Branson was never educated in a business school or university; in fact he did not even finish high school. He learned his business lessons “on the street”. Action, experimentation and adaptation are central to his development of a powerful and practical business philosophy – a philosophy from which we can all learn a great deal. Central to his philosophy is his ability to deal with paradox – he has learned to become comfortable with ambiguity and he has developed a mindset that enables him to effectively develop innovative new businesses within the context of contradiction and uncertainty. Many people regard Branson as a flamboyant, attention-seeking prankster/adventurer billionaire with a high-flying playful lifestyle. Yet, when you examine more closely how he does things you soon discover that he is very deliberate and reasoned in the way he uses his time to maximise his impact in different areas of his business empire. He pays very close attention to detail when necessary; making copious notes about what needs to be improved. He is dedicated to execution and delivery and he still has an active hand in managing many aspects of his business empire. Thus, although he does some wild and crazy things that attract a great deal of media attention, these antics most often have a clear purpose and contribute effectively to the expansion of the Virgin empire. Here are seven specific paradoxes that appear to have contributed significantly to the business success of Branson and to the growth of the Virgin Brand.

The Branson mindset

  1. Be gutsy but protect the downside risk

Branson is nothing if not gutsy. Calculated risk lies at the core of what he has achieved as an entrepreneur. He has shown guts and bravado in the small things and the big. His idea to launch an airline came when he and his wife, Joan, were stranded in an airport in the Virgin Islands on route to Puerto Rico after an American Airlines flight was cancelled. “The terminal was full of stranded passengers. I had had enough,” he says. “I called a few charter companies and agreed to charter a plane for
$2 000 to Puerto Rico. I borrowed a blackboard, divided the charter cost by the number of people stranded, and wrote down the number. We got everyone to Puerto Rico for $39 a head”.  In addition to small nervy things he also did massive, sometimes scary things.  He took on a number of the world’s super brands, including Coke and British Airways. In some instances Virgin came out on top and in the other instances Branson was left licking his wounds. Yet he was never discouraged and has always been keen for the next big business adventure. He makes the point that “to be a serious entrepreneur, you have to be prepared to step off the precipice. Yes it’s dangerous. There can be times, having jumped, when you find yourself in free fall without a parachute. There is a real prospect that some business ventures will go smashing into the ground. It has certainly been very close at times throughout my own business life. Then you reach out and grab a ledge with your fingertips – and claw your way back to safety.”

Yet whenever Branson has taken on risk, he always sought to protect the downside and was clear on what he was putting in and what he was willing to lose. “What’s the most critical factor in any business decision that you will ever have to make?” he asks. “Basically, it boils down to this question: If this all crashes, will it bring the whole house tumbling down like a pack of cards? One business mantra remains embedded in my brain – protect the downside”. He protected the downside in every venture that he went into: when he bought his first plane he negotiated a deal with Boeing to sell it back to them in the first year if things did not work out; when he went into mobile phones, he used others’ networks instead of building his own to avoid the massive capital investment and when he went into cola he set aside what he was willing to spend (and lose if necessary) so that he would not be drawn into pouring more and more money into a venture with an uncertain future.


  1. Simplify things but appreciate complexity

Branson almost always seeks to understand and describe issues in their simplest form. Most people in business seek to make things more complex – consider the international accounting standards, or Porter’s Five Forces1, or a description of the reasons underlying the recent financial crises. All these things require a deep level of analysis and an examination of intricate detail just to understand what is going on. Yet, when Branson looks at a new business or a problem within an existing business, he always strives to explain it, for himself and for others, as simply as possible. He says: “It is vital to think clearly, reducing business to its essentials…Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make things more complex. It is hard to make things simple”.

 
Making things as simple as possible allows him to appreciate the essence of an issue or a business model and to evaluate a proposal or a problem based on gut feel and intuition, without getting too wrapped up in numbers, analysis and calculations. His simple approach to business helped him make quick and efficient decisions when deciding on an approach to get into mobile telephony, when making decisions about setting up a consumer finance arm and when first making a call about setting up an airline. In all cases he merely considered key issues from the customer’s perspective and came up with simple solutions to solve a clear customer need. Yet, while Branson is all about simplicity, he does not shy away from complexity. Although he will often, in a humble way, try to describe himself as a simple person, he takes the time to understand the intricate key details of an issue when he realises that simplification will not give him the answers he needs. He has therefore educated himself on key, complex details pertaining to global warming. He has researched and tried to get into the gritty detail of the social and scientific factors driving the Aids pandemic and he educated himself on banking regulations in the process of trying to make a bid for Northern Rock (the massive banking institution first hit by the mortgage crisis in the UK). Thus, Branson is neither simple nor complex, he is both. He first tries to simplify issues and if that does not give him the solution he needs, he delves into the complex details, often with the help of experts.

    3.  Listen to experts but make your own decisions 

Branson has always surrounded himself with brilliant people. A large part of his success can be attributed to his uncanny ability to quickly and easily tap into the collective wisdom of those around him. He has never once been a specialist in any area where he has set up a business – he knew nothing of journalism and publishing when he first started a magazine called Student as a sixteen year-old school pupil yet he asked lots of questions of anyone in the know and hired people who had worked for a magazine before. After a few months of running the business as a high-school pupil, using the school’s pay-phones to call advertisers, he dropped out of school to focus on the business full time and continued to learn from others who were willing to share their business knowledge and insight with him.
 
When creating Virgin Atlantic he tapped into the experience and wisdom of Sir Freddy Laker, the founder of Skytrain, a no frills, low cost airline offering transatlantic flights that was launched in 1977 and squeezed out of the market by the major airlines in 1982. In 1984 Branson had meals with ‘Freddy’, called him numerous times and unashamedly asked him for help and advice. When making a bid for Northern Rock, he convinced Sir Brian Pitman, “the leading banker of his generation and a man of huge know-ledge” to become the chairman of the committee making the Virgin bid. This did not come easily, says Branson, “But I pestered him and eventually he relented. He would at least hear us out”. After hearing them out and agreeing to come on as chairman, Branson had the most knowledgeable and credible person possible to help him understand the risks and rules related to banking.
 
Yet, in spite of always looking for the best people to help provide information and insight, Branson is adamant that the final decision must belong to the person taking the risk. Entrepreneurs cannot outsource the important decisions and the development of big ideas. He says: “You need to flesh out your own ideas. You need to do your own research. You need to take responsibility for how you plan to turn an idea into action. That way when you approach the experts – the accountants and the legal brains – they have something to get their teeth into.” 

         4. Tackle adversity head-on but have a plan B

In the first week that Virgin Atlantic flights were flying from London to New     York and back again, Branson got a visit from the bank. Virgin was “insolvent” they told him. The company had used its three million pound facility and he was told he would need to shut the airline down and cut his losses. Branson spent an anxious few days literally hiding from his bankers while he put arrangements in place to extend his overdraft facility with another bank. He could see that Virgin was in a temporary bind yet others told him he had failed and should shut the thing down. If he had believed them we may never have had Virgin planes flying all over the world today. He says that in every one of his businesses there were moments of extreme challenge, where doubt set in and he questioned whether the initial grand idea would ever work. The true entrepreneur must be able to “distinguish between real and apparent danger… you need to understand the challenges to your enterprise and face up to them. Equally you have to resist the temptation to overreact at the first sign of trouble.” He goes on to say, “ If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get up again.
 
If you’ve given it your absolute best, it’s time to move forward … as I write this the economy is deteriorating; it may be that some of you will be faced with this task in the near future.” Although Branson is a big proponent of persistence, he has also learned to recognise that it is important to have a plan B. One cannot just press on down a particular path if something significant changes. When Branson set up Virgin Records, his LP mail order business in 1970, he took out adverts in many music magazines to say that Virgin would be selling LPs via mail order. Everything was in place and orders were flowing in but a few days later “the post men and women of Britain began a bitter dispute for more pay. The strike lasted forty-four long and desperate days for us – and our business dried up. We needed to diversify the brand. Fast,” says Branson. “Here I learned another key fact about running a business: try to have a plan B.” A few days later they had secured a short-term rental on some retail space in Oxford Street and a few weeks later they had opened a music retail store, giving the company an alternative distribution channel.

      5. Be yourself but learn from others

In his most recent book, Business Stripped Bare, Branson is very explicit about his understanding of entrepreneurship: “It’s about turning what excites you in life into capital, so that you can do more of it and move forward with it. I think entrepreneurship is our natural state – a big adult word probably boils down to something much more obvious like ‘playfulness’. I believe that drudgery and clock-watching are a terrible betrayal of that universal, inborn entrepreneurial spirit.” Therefore, at its core, entrepreneurship is about being yourself and doing what you want to do the way you want to do it. But while Branson believes it is important to be true to oneself, he also embraces the opportunity to learn and borrow ideas and insights from other entrepreneurial legends. In the book he goes into great detail about what he has learned from Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, from Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, from Sergy Brin and Larry Page, the Google founders and from Nelson Mandela (no explanation necessary). He has carefully examined the mindset and practices of these people and adopted what he believes will work for him and for the Virgin group of companies.  

   6. Diversify but know what’s core

Branson points out that diversity of the Virgin Group is one of the brand’s key strengths. The diversity of revenue streams, industries and geographies will give it the ability to endure in the economic downturn. “Right now everyone in battening down the hatches and preparing for the twenty-first century’s first really big global recession. Virgin turns out to be ready for the storm as well, because its risks are spread; the failure on one part – even a major part – will not ruin the whole.” Although Branson sees this as a strength of the group, many times Virgin has been accused of being a disparate group of companies with no common core and no real focus. Yet, despite the group’s diversity, Branson is absolutely clear about the group’s focus and what binds its many companies together. He says: “Contrary to appearances, Virgin is as focused as any great company. Its oddness comes from what it focuses on. We might have hit upon the exception that proves the rule: our customers and investors relate to us more as an idea or a philosophy than as a company… Virgin’s success seems to contradict the wise rule that you should stick to what you love… I have never made any secret of what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s the challenge. It’s the brand…. what gets me up in the morning is the customer, the idea of giving the customer a good time. ” 


  7. Be patient and observe but take bold action

Branson is most often depicted as a person who takes quick, risky decisions, many of which have paid off, making him very rich over time. Yet he explains that he and the managers in the Virgin group are often more watchful and cautious than depicted in the press. “This is the unseen part of the business,” he explains, “the part that nobody ever discusses because, to be fair, there’s not a lot to discuss. The secret to success in any new sector is watchfulness, usually over a period of many years. It’s hard to spin waiting and watching into a vibrant business lesson, but if there’s one thing you take away let it be this: that Virgin’s sudden emergence as a leader in cutting edge industries was decades in the making. You need a huge amount of sheer curiosity to make it in a new sector.” While being watchful one does need to come to the point of taking action and this is where one’s entrepreneurial inclinations play a key role.
 
Branson describes an entrepreneur as a person who has “the dynamism to get something started. They view the world differently from other people. They create opportunity that others don’t necessarily see and have the guts to give it a go.”

These seven paradoxes capture the healthy tension that any entrepreneur needs to embrace and Branson has done a remarkable job of recognising paradox and developing a business philosophy for making the most of conflict and contradiction. He is the ultimate entrepreneur and an inspiration and voice for other entrepreneurs, as reflected in this bold statement: “Entrepreneurship is business’s beating heart. Entrepreneurship isn’t about capital; it’s about ideas. A great deal of entrepreneurship can be taught, and we desperately need to teach it, as we confront the global challenges of the twenty-first century. Entrepreneurship is about excellence – not excellence measured in awards, or other peoples’ approval, but the sort one achieves for oneself, by exploring what the world has to offer. I wrote to someone recently who, like me, is dyslexic. I said that it is important to look for one’s strengths – try to excel at what you are good at. What you’re bad at actually doesn’t interest people, and it certainly shouldn’t interest you. However accomplished you become in life, the things you are bad at will always outnumber the things you are good at. So don’t let your limits knock your confidence. Push them to one side and push yourself toward your strengths.”

Branson: A man of many milestones

For Sir Richard Branson, getting the most out of life has come from a combination of business and pleasure–though this guy’s idea of pleasure tends to be a little warped. Hot air balloon crash landings in the ocean. Boats sinking out from underneath him. Fighting arctic wind and temperature in ’round-the-world attempts. What follows are the highpoints from Branson’s life–so far.

1950–Richard Branson is born in Blackheath, South London. No word on whether he was the first baby to leap from crib to crib on his way to a record.

1967–Branson set up a charity called Student Advisory Centre, which came on the heels of his first successful business, a magazine called Student.

1970–Branson, barely 20 years old, founded Virgin, which operated out of the trunk of his car for a time and then was established as a mail-order record business.

1977–Bucking other record labels’ conventional wisdom, Branson signed the Sex Pistols to his Virgin Records music label, which the budding entrepreneur had founded in 1972. Virgin Records is now part of EMI.

1984–In a move that led to a protracted lawsuit with British Airways, Branson founded Virgin Atlantic Airways. He eventually prevailed against British Airways and received a hefty settlement.

1986–No longer content solely with the buzz of starting new businesses, Branson unleashed his adventuresome side. In 1985, he made an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Atlantic by boat in world-record time. He had better luck in ’86, breaking the record by a couple of hours in the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, successor to a waterlogged Virgin Atlantic Challenger.

1987–Eschewing the water for the air, Branson became the first human–and, presumably, the first creature of any kind–to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon, the Virgin Atlantic Flyer, the largest balloon ever.

1991–Not to be outdone–by himself–Branson crossed the Pacific Ocean in another, even larger, hot air balloon, establishing a record for some other adventuresome soul to chase.

1997–In a move that may seem odd to Americans and their car-centric culture but makes perfect sense to Europeans, Branson founded Virgin Trains.

1998–Branson made his last attempt to circle the globe in a balloon, coming up short with an unscheduled stop in Hawaii. (Even the guy’s letdowns lead to sunny places.)

2004–Not content to leave behind the trappings of sea and land, Branson founded Virgin Galactic, with plans to provide sub-orbital spaceflights for those willing to spend $200,000 or more to leave behind the trappings of gravity.

2007–The merger of several media companies with different media interests led to the founding of Virgin Media Inc., a provider of television, mobile phone, internet and land-line phone services.

Greg Fisher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Management & Entrepreneurship Department at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. He teaches courses on Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Turnaround Management. He has a PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle and an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He is also a visiting lecturer at GIBS.

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

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

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  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit: relate.org.za

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting a brand

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

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

Supporting growth

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

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

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

The business

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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

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

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

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

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

Start small, but dream big

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

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

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

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

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

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

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

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Find people to inspire you to reach success

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

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

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

Build your success, one step at a time

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

Be your own biggest cheerleader

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

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

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

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

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

Drive a movement with your business

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

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

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

Pivoting to further growth

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

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

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

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

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

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

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

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

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

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

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

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

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

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

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


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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

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

Nadine Todd

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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?

suits-and-sneakers

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

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

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

R1 million in debt at 25

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

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

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

Share your insights with your clients

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

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

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

Related: 5 Answers From Digital Kungfu On Why Podcasts Are Your Best Self Development Tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get people excited about your offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big risk, big reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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