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An (SMS)Portal To The World: How SMSPortal SkyRockets To Success

In March 2013, Entrepreneur profiled SMSPortal, a global messaging powerhouse that had gone from garage-based start-up to international player. Now we look at how the company is taking things to the next level, with top line growth skyrocketing from R300 million in 2013 to R700 million a mere three years later.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital stats

  • Players: James Pearce and Charles Stretch
  • Company: SMSPortal
  • Established: 2002
  • Turnover: R700 million
  • Visit: www.smsportal.co.za

The rise of SMSPortal has been nothing short of astonishing. It had its origins in a garage in the Eastern Cape, where it was launched as a rudimentary SMS gateway aimed at letting students know what was happening in the club scene but quickly evolved from there.

“We realised pretty quickly that the system held potential,” says co-founder James Pearce. “Especially for businesses that were looking for an instant and reliable way of communicating with customers.”

Related: Urban Property Development Brand Blok’s Niche Designs For The Urban Dweller In Mind

Growing Responsibly

Once co-founders James Pearce and Charles Stretch started focusing on this potential, the business took off. And it took off in rather spectacular fashion.

“When the company started out, it was sending 30 000 messages a month. I remember us saying that if we could get to 500 000 a month, we’d really have it made. Now we send out 150 million a month,” Stretch told Entrepreneur back in 2013. Today, the company sends 400 million messages a month, and it has upped its turnover from R300 million in 2013 to R700 million in 2016.

But while the growth SMSPortal has enjoyed has certainly been rapid and significant, it has also been carefully measured and managed. Cognisant of the dangers associated with growing too quickly, Pearce and Stretch made sure that the company didn’t grow so big so fast that they no longer had a handle on things.

Even when they recognised the massive potential in their idea during the early days of the business, they made the decision to start small.

“In the beginning, we just targeted SMEs in Port Elizabeth,” says Pearce. “Keeping things small early on meant we didn’t need to build a large-scale gateway early on. Also, we could find our feet and test our systems thoroughly before we scaled to a point where any glitch or hiccup would mean disaster.”

A great example of a company that scaled way too quickly was Pets.com — one of the most infamous casualties of the dot-com bubble.

Pets.com — which, as its name suggests, sold pet supplies online — was founded in August 1998. It was quickly identified as one of the hottest tech companies around and attracted very significant venture funding (about $300 million).

For a while, Pets.com was everywhere. It spent a lot of money on marketing, including a spot in the 1999 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, and an advertisement during the 2000 NFL Super Bowl. (The $1,2 million Super Bowl ad, by the way, was a huge hit. USA Today ranked it as the best ad of the Super Bowl, and the tagline: ‘Because pets can’t drive’ was seen as a brilliant bit of marketing).

In February 2000, Pets.com listed on the Nasdaq. A mere 268 days later, it was liquidated. So what went wrong?

The company had grown too quickly. It had spent millions to capture the market and build brand recognition before it had really established whether its business model actually made sense. When those in charge did stop to take stock, it quickly became apparent that Pets.com was a house of cards built on a shaky foundation of assumptions.

Its marketing budget alone far outstripped the revenue it was generating, and people were not spending the sort of money online that the company had been betting on. Pets.com, for example, was offering free shipping, but customers weren’t spending enough to justify this.

On 6 November 2000, Pets.com announced that it was closing its doors. When it listed in February of the same year, a share in the company had been worth $11. By the time Pets.com decided to liquidate, a share went for $0,19.

Related: From Simple Idea To Sideline Business: How Nkosenhle Hlophe Spotted An Opportunity

Managing Complexity

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As mentioned earlier, SMSPortal’s turnover has gone from R300 million in 2013 to R700 million in 2016, and it handles about 400 million text messages a month (an increase of 300% in three years).

Now, considering the above, it’s perhaps surprising to discover that SMSPortal only employs around 50 people. Sure, the staff complement has increased quite a bit since 2013 — when the company had a mere 20 employees — but 50 is still a very small number for an organisation that is turning over R700 million a year.

One of the chief characteristics of an eminently scalable business is the ability to reduce its marginal cost to virtually zero. Just consider Facebook, Dropbox or Uber. These tech companies could scale quickly because adding a single extra user cost them virtually nothing in terms of money, time and effort.

SMSPortal is another good example of a company that has managed to scale without allowing size and complexity to overwhelm the organisation. Some of this has to do with the nature of the business, sure, but Pearce and Stretch are quick to point out that the right employees are just as crucial when it comes to scaling.

“We spend a lot of time on recruitment,” says Pearce. “We never hire quickly. We spend time looking for the right people and put everyone through rigorous testing.

“We also make sure that there’s culture fit. It’s important that any new individual fits in with the rest of the team.”

“The IT space is a particularly challenging one,” adds Stretch. “There is huge demand for great engineers and software developers, so you’re competing with lots of large companies. Because of this, we put a lot of time and resources into recruiting the best people.”

SMSPortal also takes on interns twice a year. While interns obviously need a lot of supervision, an internship programme is also a great way to identify young people with excellent potential.

“It’s really worked for us in terms of identifying promising talent,” says Stretch. “We’ve hired quite a few people permanently who started out as interns.”

As SMSPortal has grown from 20 to 50 people, the founders have also put senior managers in place who manage the various teams.

“You can’t try to manage 50 people personally,” says Pearce. “You need to put competent managers in place who can take over the day-to-day management of certain key areas so that you can spend your time doing other things. As a company grows, you have to let go of certain responsibilities and trust that the people you’ve employed will be able to do the job. Your aim should be to empower them and not complicate their lives with red tape. Their focus should be on doing business — not dealing with bureaucracy.”

According to Stretch, it comes down to hiring people who can do the job better than you can.

“A business can’t grow very much if you’re only a handful of people. If you want to scale significantly, you need a larger team. The important thing, though, is to hire people who are very competent and highly skilled. We’ve certainly hired people who are better at their specific tasks than we would be. So we know that they can be trusted with making the right decisions. We know that the business wouldn’t be where it is today without them.”

Related: Why Flame-Grilled Chicken Franchise Galito’s Opened Up Shop Right Next To The Competition

Going Global

Since SMSPortal was last featured in Entrepreneur, the company’s international operations have increased massively. At the moment, the company delivers messages to roughly 700 networks in 150 countries.

How have Stretch and Pearce managed to establish SMSPortal overseas?

“One of the strategies that has worked best for us has been to grow alongside our clients,” says Pearce. “Many of our clients have ventured into foreign markets, and we have joined them in these endeavours — providing our services to them in these new territories.

“Once we’re operating in a new territory, we can then start building relationships and gain an understanding of how things are done in the region. Eventually, we can start working with foreign clients.

“To an extent, this has been a bit of a ’do or die’ strategy. We realised that if we didn’t grow with our clients and offer them our services in other regions, someone else would jump in and do it. It’s been difficult at times, but we’ve learnt a lot through the process.”

“It all comes down to having great relationships,” says Stretch. “We have very good relationships with Vodacom and MTN, for example, and since these companies are very active in other countries and regions, we have been able to expand because of these relationships. So when going into other regions, it’s worth considering how you can leverage existing relationships to do it. Just going into a new region on your own can be very hard.”

The founders also warn against entering markets that are far away from South Africa and in a different time zone.

“We are especially active in southern Africa, the UK and Australia,” says Pearce. “And there is no doubt that it’s easier to manage operations that are in a similar time zone. So trying to enter a territory on the other side of the world as your first form of international expansion is perhaps not the best idea. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is when the time zone is similar.”

Related: 3 Become 1: The Story Of How IS SME Business, MWEB Business and IS Ignite Merged

Key learnings

  • Don’t let growth overwhelm you. Many successful companies have failed because they grew too quickly.
  • Avoid unnecessary complexity. The aim should be to grow as much as possible, without adding too much complexity. The right employees can help you accomplish this.
  • Grow with your clients, especially when it comes to venturing beyond South Africa’s borders.

Do this

Understand that your ability to scale is linked to the quality of talent that you hire and invest in. 

Lessons Learnt

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.

Louw Barnardt

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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:

Leadership

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.

Infrastructure

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.

Market access

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.

People

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.

Strategy

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.

Flawless execution

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.

Finance

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!

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Lessons Learnt

That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room

Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.

Gene Marks

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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.'”

Related: Jeff Bezos: 9 Remarkable Choices That Shaped The Richest Man In The World

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.

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Lessons Learnt

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.

Nadine Todd

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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.

Related: Starbucks Coffee Is All About Culture… For A Reason

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.

Cost Cutting

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.

Related: Wise Words From wiGroup On Building A “Wow” Company Culture

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.

Related: Take Responsibility For Your Company’s Culture To Boost Productivity

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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