For Andrew Brand, founder of 99c, going for their first big client took guts and determination. After landing Checkers’ entire retail advertising portfolio, he had ten weeks to hire 30 people, find premises and start working. It’s an incredible start-up story.
But building a business with almost 300 employees and a turnover of R175 million has taken strategic focus and a winning employee culture.
Here are the ten lessons that Andrew and his team have learnt about shaping organisational success.
1Client relationships are everything
One of the key reasons 99c won Checkers’ retail marketing business was Andrew’s personal relationship with his client’s marketing team. When he left his previous agency, not only did Checkers have no other point of contact, but they trusted Andrew.
They had faith in him, his understanding of their business, and the fact that he would put their needs first.
“I built that relationship on open and honest communication, and by always delivering what we promised. I put the client first. When I left, it was a valuable lesson for me going forward as well — business is all about relationships, but that relationship should be with the organisation, and not an individual. We’ve structured 99c based on this understanding. No client has only one single point of contact with us. They work with a team that always delivers on its promises.”
2Don’t be afraid to debate everything and anything with your client
“Successful relationships are built on transparency and respect. We play a key strategic role in the Shoprite/Checkers marketing strategy, for example, and we take this role seriously. We’re involved in our client’s business and take their success personally, which means we also can’t be scared to speak up when we believe a campaign or specific advertising strategy will miss the mark.
“Retail advertising is immediate — you can see the results of your campaign within a day — but the next set of specials comes out a week later, and so you can tweak, adjust and review within days as well. There are so many matrixes to measure and map out, but everyone has to be able to share their views.”
3Fair remuneration and a great culture foster loyalty
“When the agency I previously worked for merged, it became clear that even though retail sometimes bills more than traditional above-the-line advertising, it’s not glamorous and it doesn’t win awards, so even though the retail creatives and client service team worked longer hours than everyone else, they were often paid far less.
“This never sat well with me. We’ve created a different remuneration structure that rewards hard work, loyalty and efficiency, no matter the client, product or campaign you’re working on. When we do lose people, it’s often because they’ve grown to a point where they need to find their next big challenge, and we support that.
“There’s nothing like watching an individual grow, even if that means they need to eventually leave your nest to spread their wings.”
4Stay on your toes
“Retail is fast-paced. You need to be plugged in to market sentiment and able to respond to it. More than that, you need fast turnover times with no errors. This takes focus and discipline, but it’s also testament to what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.
“If you have the right systems and processes in place, and employees who follow them, you can achieve almost anything.” In other words, don’t rest on your laurels, think you know what you’re doing, or that you’ve found the best solution. There’s a real danger in thinking that way. There is always a competitor looking for a way to out-innovate and outperform you.
5Be pragmatic and realistic
This may be one of the hardest business lessons to put into practice, because it requires business owners to put emotion aside to practically evaluate clients, products, services and the organisation as a whole. “I’ve never been the greatest creative, but I am pragmatic and practical. I’m a realist.
“This has allowed me to approach every problem from a solutions-oriented mindset, instead of letting fears and emotions hold me back. If I thought too long about what would happen if we landed the Checkers account, we never would have done it. Instead, we focused on the solution, and made it happen.”
6Run a lean organisation
One of the biggest factors separating corporates from small entrepreneurial businesses is cash flow. However, while corporates tend to have healthy cash flows, the ability of a start-up to run lean is invaluable as the business grows, because its built into the company’s DNA to be careful with expenditure.
“We needed to hire a team, purchase equipment and find premises. We also couldn’t afford to run with fewer people than we needed, and so our first round of hiring was over 30 people. We haven’t stopped growing since, and I believe in investing in people. That said, there are so many ways you can run a lean organisation without skimping where it matters. Don’t be a bloated, top-heavy organisation.
“Rather invest in the core of your business. What will enable you to offer your clients the best service possible? That’s where you should be investing. We were incredibly lucky in that Checkers gave us a really big platform to start from. We launched as a medium-sized agency, with an infrastructure that was working and paying its way from the word go. We used that to grow, but not to add frills and luxuries that the business didn’t need.”
7Don’t sprint until you can walk
Andrew and his team could have scaled earlier than they did. They had the infrastructure and the experience. But Checkers had taken a big chance on them, and they not only honoured this trust, but chose to use the time to build strong foundations instead of chasing quick growth.
“We had a mutual agreement with Shoprite/Checkers that we wouldn’t go out looking for other business for one year. We ended up extending this to even longer. We were completely focused on Checkers, and on our internal processes and systems. It was the best decision we could have made. It really gave us the right focus — we could dive deep without distractions.”
After 99c’s first operational year, they were named Shoprite/Checkers’ national supplier of the year. “This wasn’t a design award, but a customer award. It was a glowing commendation. It gave us confidence that we were doing something right, and more than that, it was shared by the entire company.
“It wasn’t recognition of one person’s creativity. It was acknowledgment that the entire organisation — our ethos, how we do business, how we deliver — is exceptional.”
8Be loyal to your clients, and they’ll be loyal to you
In 2014, when Shoprite’s agency closed overnight, Andrew received a call from his first and biggest client: They needed 99c to take on all of Shoprite’s campaigns — over the course of a weekend. “We immediately jumped into action.
“By that Monday we had inherited it all. We had interviewed 80 people from the old agency and hired 55 of them, and put out the first ad campaign. Everyone, from IT to HR to the design teams activated so quickly. Shoprite was putting all of their eggs into one basket — our basket — with the move, but they knew there would be an enormous dent to their revenue if they didn’t get that week’s ads out, and so they came to us for help. It’s incredible what you can achieve when you put your mind to it.”
9Never stop learning
“Lewin and Rob are our ‘greybeards’. Technically they’re non-executive partners, but Rob’s in the office every day. We have an open forum, and they offer me advice, affirmations and points to consider. They also gave our business gravitas when we launched and I was still in my mid-30s and an art director at heart. No one knows everything, not even Stephen Hawking.
“Media moves so fast, and our industry is full of constant flux and changes. You can’t know it all, which is why you need to keep learning, and looking for insights and advice. I screw up every day. I make assumptions, some good, some bad. Gut feel can only give you so much.
“I’ve found that I need honest advice and feedback. They might not have all the answers, but the action of asking often makes you think deeper about the problem and solution at hand. I have mentors and I’ve had coaches as well. If you want to increase your chances of success, surround yourself with incredible people.”
10Understand the role of a leader
“My key role is to identify business partners to run the business with me, to give people the space to grow and deliver, and to foster a passion to service clients. This isn’t my business, it’s our business. Operations is a team effort. Our creative director and deputy MD came on board at an executive level to ensure we make things happen. All of the operations partners have shares in the business, because I believe that this is how you find — and keep — the right people.
“Ultimately, success breeds success. Organic growth with a client is a fantastic endorsement of our team. If you price fairly and deliver what you promise, that’s the recipe for growth, and you can’t do it without the right team in place.
“Along this journey I’ve learnt that leadership is not what we often think it is. It’s not top down. You need to serve the people under you. As a leader you need to be able to roll up your sleeves, help, and get on with it. Our number one priority isn’t our clients, but our staff. You can’t look after clients if you aren’t looking after your staff. They need to be passionate, engaged, growing and given opportunities. If they’re happy, your clients are happy. At the end of the day it’s a pretty simple equation.”
Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right
So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.
You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.
On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:
The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.
The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.
Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.
Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.
It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.
It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.
Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.
Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.
Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.
The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.
Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!
That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room
Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.
When you think of Jeff Bezos, a lot of things probably come to your mind.
You likely think of Amazon.com, a company he founded more than twenty years ago, that’s completely disrupted retail and online commerce as we know it. You probably also think of his entrepreneurial genius. Or the immense wealth that he’s built for himself and others. You may also think of drones, Alexa and same-day delivery. Bezos is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a cutthroat competitor and a game changer. He’s unquestionably a very, very smart man. But sometimes, he can be…well…stupid, too.
Like that time back in 1995.
That was when Amazon was just a startup operating from a 2,000 square foot basement in Seattle. During that period, Bezos and most of the handful of employees working for him had other day jobs. They gathered in the office after hours to print and pack up the orders that their fast-growing bookselling site was receiving each day from around the world. It was tough, grueling work.
The company at the time, according to a speech Bezos gave, had no real organisation or distribution. Worse yet, the process of filling orders was physically demanding.
“We were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor,” Bezos recalled. “I said to the person next to me ‘this packing is killing me! My back hurts, it’s killing my knees’ and the person said ‘yeah, I know what you mean.'”
Bezos, our hero, the entrepreneurial genius, the CEO of a now 600,000-employee company that’s worth around a trillion dollars and one of the richest men in the world today then came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “You know what we need,” he said to the employee as they packed boxes together. “What we need is…kneepads!”
The employee (Nicholas Lovejoy, who worked at Amazon for three years before founding his own philanthropic organisation financed by the millions he made from the company’s stock) looked at Bezos like he was — in Bezos’ words — the “stupidest guy in the room.”
“What we need, Jeff,” Lovejoy said, “are a few packing tables.” Duh.
So the next day Bezos – after acknowledging Lovejoy’s brilliance – bought a few inexpensive packing tables. The result? An almost immediate doubling in productivity. In his speech, Bezos said that the story is just one of many examples how Amazon built its customer-centered service culture from the company’s very early days. Perhaps that’s true. Then again, it could mean something else.
It could mean that sometimes, just sometimes, those successful, smart, wealthy and powerful people may not be as brilliant as you may think. Nor do they always have the right answers. Sometimes, just sometimes, they may actually be the stupidest guy in the room. So keep that in mind the next time you’re doing business with an intimidating customer, supplier or partner who appears to know it all. You might be the one with the brilliant idea.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
How Sureswipe Built Its Identity By Building A Strong Company Culture
Culture is unique to a business, it’s the reason why companies win or lose.
A company’s culture is its identity and personality. Since this is closely linked to its brand and how it wants to be viewed by its employees, customers, competitors and the outside world, culture is critical. The challenge is understanding that culture contains unwritten rules and that certain behaviours that align to the culture the company is nurturing should be valued and cherished more than others.
At Sureswipe, the core of our culture is that we value people and what they are capable of. We particularly value people who are engaged, get on with the job, take initiative, are happy to get stuck in beyond their formal job descriptions, and who sometimes have to suck up a bit of pain to get through a challenge.
We include culture in everything we do, so it’s a fundamental element in our recruitment process. In addition to a skills and experience interview, each candidate undergoes a culture fit in the form of a values interview. We look for top performers who echo our core values (collaboration, courage, taking initiative, fairness and personal responsibility) and have real conviction about making a difference in the lives of independent retailers. If we don’t believe a candidate will be a culture fit, we won’t hire them.
If we make a mistake in the recruitment process, we won’t retain culture killers, even if they are top performers. This is such a tough lesson to learn, but it liberates a company and often improves overall company performance.
Culture should be cultivated, constantly communicated and used when making decisions. At Sureswipe, we often talk about what it takes to win and have simplified winning into three key elements: A simple, yet inspirational vision; the right culture; and a clear and focused strategy. The first and third elements can be copied from organisation to organisation. Culture on the other hand is unique to every business and can be a great influencer in its success.
Catch phrases on the wall are not the definition of culture
A strong culture is purposeful and evolving. It’s what makes a company great, but also exposes its weakness. No company is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad. Without it, we cannot ensure that we are protecting and building on the good and reducing or eradicating the bad.
Mistakes happen. That’s okay. But we are very purposeful about how mistakes are handled. Culturally we’re allergic to things being covered up or deflected and have had great learning moments as individuals and as an organisation when bad news travels fast. It’s liberating to ‘tell it like it is’ and almost always, with a few more minds on the problem at hand, things can be rectified with minimal impact.
Culture should be built on values that resonate with you and that you want to excel at. In our case, some are lived daily and others are aspirational in that we’re still striving for them. In each case we genuinely believe in them and encourage each other to keep living them. This increases the level of trust within the team, as there is consistency in how people are treated and how we get things done.
We are always inspired when, after sitting in our reception area, nine out of ten visitors will comment on the friendliness of staff. We hear their remarks about how friendly the Sureswipe team is or a potential candidate will talk about the high level of energy and positivity they experience throughout the interview process.
These are indicators that our culture is alive and well. It’s these components of our culture — friendliness, helpfulness and positivity — that cascade into how we do business and how we treat our customers and people in general. Being able to describe your culture and support it with real life examples is a great way to communicate and promote the type of behaviour that is important and recognised within the organisation.
Culture doesn’t just happen
We are fortunate that culture has always been important to us, even if it wasn’t clearly defined in our early days. As we grew it became important to be more purposeful in the evolution of our culture. About four years ago, the senior leadership team and nominated cultural or values icons were mandated to relook all things cultural.
A facilitator said to us, “You really love it when people take the initiative, and get very frustrated when they don’t.” That accurate insight became core to our values. We love to see people proactively solve problems, take responsibility for their own growth, initiate spontaneous events, change their tactics or implement new ideas. It energises us and aligns to the way we do business.
We celebrate growth and love to see our staff getting promoted due to their hard work and perseverance. We recently had one of our earliest technicians get promoted to the Regional Manager of Limpopo. It was one of the best moments of 2018.
Be purposeful with culture, describe it, communicate it and use it in all aspects of business. Culture should change. Don’t allow phrases like ‘this is not how we do things,’ or, ‘the culture here is changing,’ to stifle the growth and development of your culture. When done correctly change is a good thing. Culture is driven from the top but at the end of the day it’s a company-wide initiative. Design it together with team members from different parts of the organisation to get the most from it. And then make sure everyone lives and breathes it.
The best ROI is achieved when you stop wasting money.
Peter Drucker once said that businesses have two main functions — marketing and innovation — that produce results. “All the rest are costs.”
If you agree, that means that the average business has a lot of fat to trim. Obviously you can go overboard trying to cut costs too. My philosophy has been to look at some of the general areas where you can add some efficiency but not at the expense of impairing your most valuable resource — your focus.
The following cost-cutting measures will do that. Think of these as adding value to your company, whether it’s time, creativity or a closer connection to your consumers.
Uncover inefficiencies in your process
This is where I begin. In fact, it was analysing the inefficiencies of legal communication and knowledge sharing that led me to create Foxwordy, the digital collaboration platform for lawyers. I noticed that attorneys in our clients’ legal departments were drafting new documents from scratch when they could pool their knowledge and save time by using language that a trusted colleague had employed in a similar document. Business is all about process. When you create a new process, or enhance an existing process, you will drive cost efficiency.
Refine your process, then automate
If existing processes are lacking, it is time to create process. If you have processes, but they are not driving efficiency, it’s time to redefine your process. Either way, a key second step is refining processes that are needed in your business. Only then can you go to automation, since automating without a process will result in chaos — and won’t save time or money. Similarly, automating a poor process is not going to give you the cost-saving results you are looking for.
Thanks to the Cloud, there are very accessible means of automating manual processes. For instance, you can automate bookkeeping functions with FreshBooks and use chatbots to interface with clients — for very basic information. If you’re a retailer, a chatbot on your site can explain your return policy or address other frequently asked questions. Automating such processes allows you to spend more time focusing on clients and customers. Technology alone isn’t a panacea for all business functions, but if you find something you’re doing manually that can be automated, take a look and consider how much time and process definition automation would save you.
Rethink your outreach
Marketing and outreach are usually big and important challenges for an organisation. In my experience, there are two main components to successful marketing — knowing your customers and using the most effective media to spread your message. For the first part, I recommend polling. There are various online survey services that offer an instant read on what your customers are thinking. You may think business is humming along, but a survey could reveal that while consumers like your product, a few tweaks would make it even better.
For the second part — marketing messaging — once you have a firm idea of your marketing messaging, Facebook is a great vehicle for outreach. The ability to granularly target customers and create Lookalike audiences (from around 1 000 consumers) can help grow your business.
Scrutinise your spend history
There are tools that can help you assess spend history and find cost-cutting opportunities. For example, you might be able to take advantage of rewards or loyalty programmes to reduce common business expenses, like travel, or consolidate vendors for a similar function. If you have a long-standing relationship with a vendor, negotiate better pricing.
The most important elements to keep in mind are resources that make your company special. Your company may be built on one person’s reputation and expertise. Guard against tarnishing that reputation with inappropriate messaging in advertising or social media. If your company’s special sauce is intellectual property, protect that too. But everything else — ranging from physical property to salary and benefits — are costs and should be considered negotiable. — Monica Zent
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