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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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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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paul-hutton-joel-stransky-and-bruce-arnold-of-pivotal-group

Vital stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pivotal-group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Cultivate additional revenue streams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: 8 Inspirational Quotes From Movie Mogul Steven Spielberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Be open to new ideas and opportunities

pivotal-group-south-africa-founders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Listen to the podcast

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

To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Afritorch Digital An Overnight Success That Was Years In The Making

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

GG van Rooyen

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michel-m-katuta-and-thabo-mphate-of-afritorch-digital

Vital stats

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing to launch

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

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

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

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

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

Solving a problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Take note

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

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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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Vital stats

  • 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.

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