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Lessons Learnt

Dial-a-Nerd: Staying on Top While the Market Changed

Over the past 15 years Dial-a-Nerd has grown from a novelty concept employing students to a trusted name in IT.

Nadine Todd

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Founder Colin Thornton is quick to point out that the brand’s growth is largely because of the management team’s willingness and ability to keep relearning the basics and adapting to change.

“If we didn’t evaluate who we were and what we do on a regular basis, particularly with market changes in our industry, we wouldn’t still be going,” he says candidly. It’s this ability for self-reflection and above all, change, that marks Dial-a-Nerd’s propensity for success – and continued growth.

One of the biggest lessons we have learnt over the years is to never become complacent. Business is about constantly reviewing what you are doing and how you’re doing it, from your business model and the products or services you offer, to what staff and management structures you have in place.

When we launched in 1998, extending our footprint was the most important thing to me. I wanted a branch in every main (and not so main) centre in South Africa. Our model was based on doing onsite work, and so the more satellite offices we had, the wider our reach.

I concentrated on opening offices and getting technicians within those areas and didn’t even question this logic. We needed to be everywhere to grow our brand.

In hindsight, this was definitely the right strategy at the time. We managed to grow a national brand, and we had technicians across the country. And then the market changed. New technology enabled us to do most of our work remotely.

Suddenly, we didn’t need to be onsite, and we certainly didn’t need offices in far flung places. Maintaining those offices is expensive, and so are travel expenses. It’s far more cost-effective and efficient to work remotely, particularly since in many cases we were sorting out problems remotely anyway, and the offices were just sitting there costing us money.

It sounds so obvious, but if you don’t pay attention to the numbers, you can often miss the obvious.

If I could go back, it would be to have realised this earlier and begin our consolidation sooner than we did. You can’t close offices overnight, and so we are still carrying some unnecessary costs. On the other hand, if we hadn’t realised this at all, we wouldn’t still be going. We’ve gone from 14 to ten offices in the last year, and are aiming for eight.

From budget solution to premium service

The technology changes that affected how we operated also changed our market. For many years the average client needed to see us every three to six months, and our market was 80% consumer and 20% corporate. Over the past year and a half though, technology has improved to such a degree that home-based tech doesn’t need fixing.

Again, this sounds obvious – we all know tech has improved substantially over the past few years – but when your whole business is based on helping non-tech savvy people fix their hardware or instal and troubleshoot software, it’s problematic when the problems go away.

A large part of our business also focused on training, and again, as people have become far more comfortable with technology, this market has also shrunk. We could have stuck to our guns and tried to approach more people, expanded our marketing and sales efforts or simply accepted a shrinking business, but that’s no way to run a sustainable business.

We needed to change our business model instead. There’s no sense in holding on to something that’s no longer working.

Our solution was the corporate market. The consumer market for training and after-sales support might be shrinking, but the corporate market is growing. More and more businesses are using tech – particularly smaller companies that could not previously afford to.

The difficulty for us was understanding the difference between the two markets.

Consumers want to pay less, but they are happy to wait a few days for assistance. The corporate market will pay more, but demands immediate service. Their own businesses are based on their tech – everything needs to be running smoothly, at all times.

We have adjusted our offering accordingly. It’s meant a number of shifts. First, the students we employed for consumer work are not suited to the corporate market. In many cases students have grown with us, and years later are ideal for this market, but it has changed our hiring practices.

We need technicians who are comfortable working in a corporate environment, work well in high-stress, high-pressure situations, and intimately understand bigger and more complex corporate systems.

Our entire model has shifted to 80% corporate and 20% consumer. As a result, we need far more technicians as well. Our corporate clients can’t wait for assistance. We need to be addressing their problem within four to six hours at the most, which means we need a surplus of technicians who are actually sitting around, waiting for a call.

To be able to afford this model and offer this level of service, we need to charge a premium price to take into account the fact that we have capacity that is not being used. Interestingly, this has not been a problem. We originally started out as a budget solution.

Today, we offer a premium service, and as long as we are able to deliver on our client service agreements, it’s a premium price our clients are happy to pay for the value we are adding to their businesses.

Our strategy over the past year has been to grow the business side as quickly as the consumer side shrinks. It’s been a challenge, but because we keep re-evaluating the way we operate, we’ve been able to streamline a lot of our processes along the way, which has alleviated cost pressures during the transition.

Know your profit generators

The trick with both pricing and watching the bottom line is understanding where you make your money. It sounds like a cliché, but in my opinion it’s the single most important part of running – and growing – a business.

Hardware and software have become so commoditised that you need to make your margins on service offerings. Since our model was already based on charging premium prices for excellent service, this could have been the end of it, with an assumption we were making a tidy profit.

Instead, each year we do an extensive overview of where we are making money, and where we’re spending it. We take nothing for granted.

Through the exercise we could clearly see how much the 14 branches were costing us, but also how our system gave a false impression of how well some of the branches were actually doing.

A branch manager would report a profit of R100 000 for example, but not take into account that head office administrative and accounting support cost R300 000. Without balancing the books, you end up with essentially false margins, and branch managers who don’t have a strong picture of how their deliverables are impacting the business as a whole.

Similarly, we needed to determine what was making us money, and these are not necessarily the jobs that offer the biggest margins. Let’s take network cabling as an example. On paper this offers a 60% margin, which is great. What you don’t factor in are the hours of upfront consulting and management hours. These are indirect costs, but they add up.

Compare this to a job that only has a 20% margin, but no additional costs for time and manpower. At the end of the day you end up with a higher profit, even though the margins are lower.

What we learn each year from this exercise is that you can’t assume you know where your money comes from, and that the highest paying contracts aren’t always the biggest profit jobs. As a business owner, I regularly sit down and question how well I know and understand the inner workings of my own business, and I make sure I’m as informed as I can be.

Keep a constant watch

The most important job description that I have though is managing people. Someone from every branch reports directly to me, and although our branch managers are empowered to make their own decisions and manage their own teams, I get regular updates on what’s happening in each branch so that I have a strong handle on where the business is.

It’s my job to motivate my managers, support them, train them and help them solve issues. When we receive a complaint, it’s not about assigning blame. It’s about asking what went wrong, determining the best way to resolve the issue, and then putting systems in place to ensure the same mistake never happens again.

Everyone is involved in the process, and we all learn from it, across the branches.

Customer service is our entire business. If we relax, this starts slipping, so I keep a constant watch on how we are delivering on our mandate and receive monthly reports on client interactions. I am also very conscious of the fact that I need to lead by example.

If a client wants to speak directly to me, I make sure I’m available. One of the things that has always driven me nuts is companies whose MDs are inaccessible. You have a problem and you’re passed from manager to manager and never feel like your issue is being addressed or taken seriously.

This isn’t the business we want to be. Our differentiator is service, and I can’t insist on that with our employees if I’m not willing to follow suit with my own time.

Achieving sustainable growth

  • Never become complacent

If you assume you’re making a profit or your pricing is spot on, chances are you’re missing something. We regularly take a long, hard look at what actually makes us money, and we’ve realised that higher margins don’t necessarily relate to higher profits – sometimes it’s even the other way around.

  • Focus on your market

What previously worked might not work today. Stay on top of market trends and relate them to your business model. If we had stuck to our consumer model because that was the way we had always worked, we wouldn’t be around today.

  • Find your differentiator

It sounds clichéd, but when you are offering a non-commoditised service, the value you offer your clients determines your price point. Understand what value you bring to your clients’ lives or business.

The higher the value, the more you can charge – and no, value is not the quality of your service or product, but what you bring to the client. In our case, we give our clients the gift of minimum down time. They don’t care how great our technicians are, as long as they don’t feel the pain of tech that doesn’t work.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Phillipa Mitchell

    Apr 3, 2013 at 09:57

    Great article on a real entrepreneur with his head set squarely on his shoulders!

    I met Colin back in 1998 when he had just started Dial-a-Nerd, and he was a service provider (him personally at the time) to my business, Red Pepper Books, which had also just started up.

    I always admired his professionalism and expertise, and it’s wonderful to read about how he has grown and he lessons he has learned along the way. These are all lessons that many entrepreneurs face but don’t always address.

    May Dial-a-Nerd continue to grow from strength to strength under the leadership of this great leader!

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Lessons Learnt

Here’s How Bosses From Hell Helped 6 Entrepreneurs Grow

From control freaks to being unco-operative, founders share what they learned from their worst boss.

Entrepreneur

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In business, sometimes the most valuable lessons come from the worst teachers. We asked six entrepreneurs: What’s the greatest thing you learned from a bad boss?

1. Bring everyone in

“A former boss was very hierarchical and discouraged collaboration. Everyone reported directly to her, and interdepartmental meetings were practically prohibited. It meant that only our boss had the full picture – we missed a lot of opportunity for alignment and cooperation. Today at our company, it’s a priority to hold regular team meetings and foster a strong culture of collaboration. It’s crucial that our team members weave collective sharing into the fabric of their day-to-day interactions.” – Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder and CEO, Indagare

2. Be vulnerable

“Don’t be afraid to show your emotions! I worked for a partner at McKinsey who was an incredible person but an awful manager because he kept his feelings bottled up. After a client presentation went awry, our team didn’t know where we stood with our manager. It was tense, awkward and demotivating. Showing vulnerability and letting others know when you’re genuinely upset can help everyone externalise their emotions, build trust and reassure employees that they aren’t alone. It sends a clearer message than stone-faced silence.” – Leo Wang, founder and CEO, Buffy

Related: 5 Factors That Make A Great Boss

3. Lend a hand

“I worked for someone who would never help out the junior staff with their work, even if he was finished with his own – he’d simply pack up and leave early. I now make an extra effort to ask my staff if they can use a hand when my own workload is light. It’s created a culture that feels more like a tight-knit team and less like a hierarchy.” – Adam Tichauer, founder and CEO, Camp No Counselors

4. Move as a group

“When I was a nurse manager, I had a boss with no experience in healthcare. She wanted to change our process for keeping patients from getting blood clots. I knew it was a mistake, but she insisted. Ultimately, the change failed. It taught me the importance of empowering staff to speak up. At Extend Fertility, we collect feedback from customers via surveys. Results are shared with our staff, and together we develop action plans to address negative experiences. It’s the employees who interact with patients on a daily basis who have the best solutions.” – Ilaina Edison, CEO, Extend Fertility

5. Trust your team

“I once worked for a woman who joined our team after I had been working there for a while. Every time I stood up, she’d ask me where I was going, whether it was to the bathroom or to the printer. She had a fear of not having control over my time and work. As a young adult, this behaviour really demoralised me, especially since I had excelled at the job for years prior. My leadership style is less neurotic. Once my team members have my trust, I’m pretty hands-off.” – Denise Lee, founder and CEO, Alala

Related: 5 Leadership Questions Every Boss Should Ask

6. Respect others’ time

“Early in my career, I had a project manager who’d wait until the very last minute to review work, then convey lots of new information and requests. This happened at the end of the day or, worse, after hours, when I was home. It was demoralising, inefficient and disrespectful. In my career, I’m conscious about reviewing work in a timely and complete way so my team can successfully incorporate my feedback without generating a last-minute crisis – or lingering resentment.” – Kirsten R. Murray, principal architect and owner, Olson Kundig 

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

11 Things Very Successful People Do That 99% Of People Don’t

Consistency is a big part of succeeding. The top 1% of performers in the world know this is the secret to their success.

John Rampton

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Becoming wealthy and leaving an impact on the world is not an easy feat. If it were, everyone would go around doing it. At that point, it would not be much of an accomplishment at all.

Rather, being extremely successful requires an extreme amount of work. Especially when there is nobody looking. The best people have developed habits that help them reach their goals. These routines are not necessarily challenging to form, but they take consistent effort over extended periods of time. Creating these tendencies in your own life will propel your success.

Here are 11 things, that 99% of people (myself included) do not do, but really should.

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Lessons Learnt

Brian Tan Of FutureLab.my – Bridging The Knowledge Gap Through Social Learning

Brian Tan a young Malaysian Entrepreneur whom has built the largest social learning platform in South-East Asia.

Dirk Coetsee

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“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away” – Pablo Picasso

As a keen observer of the behaviour of successful entrepreneurs I have learnt that:

“You do not attract what you want but you attract what you are”

Brian Tan truly believes in what FutureLab stands for and therefore has attracted the belief of key partners such as Cradle whom has invested in his ground-breaking project.

Brians’ gift is to solve big problems. In unison with his two other co-founders he is giving this gift away in the Form of FutureLab, a company obsessed with learning and more specifically bridging the gap between education and careers.

Brian wants to play a role in making humanity better by applying his knack for solving unique problems and firmly believes that quality and ongoing education is a powerful catalyst for positive change. FutureLab is a social learning platform featuring diverse applications that not only connects mentees to mentors but also empowers several companies to track their employees utilising Futurelabs’ technology as they navigate through development and talent development programs.

Slowly but surely FutureLab is becoming much needed feedback loop between university and industry and brings exposure to people who have not had it before. Brian believes that a lot of people have not fullfiled their potential due to low standards of education in general.

Related: Channeling The Fire Of Authenticity: Asia’s’ Top ‘YouTuber’, Joanna Soh

I fully realised that I was engaging a modern entrepreneur as he described his company culture as:

‘Geeky, awesome & badass.’

He elaborated on that by explaining that his team do not follow trends, that they authentically like what they like, and do what they love in their unique way. When you act according to the Leadership principle of Authenticity you avoid having regrets as you did not apply unnecessary energy to attempt to become someone that you are simply not.

This unique company is founded upon three core values which flows through all the activities that they engage in:

  • Giving back to society
  • Continuous Learning
  • Creating your own reality.

The FutureLab team does not only pay lip service to these values but instead actualise them as a matter of regular practice. Brian gives his team ‘homework’ in terms of things that they need to learn and the CEO of FutureLab himself is engaged in a lifetime commitment to learning. Regular ‘Stand up meetings’ are held were team members give feedback and hold each other accountable.

Brian is a Biochemist by trade whom constantly seeks opportunity to learn more about business and has completed several business programs to learn how to build a company which included spending 3 weeks at Stanford University studying entrepreneurship and meeting teams from Google, Apple, Facebook and Pinterest as part of a government initiative for the top 25 Malaysian start-ups. This young entrepreneur believes that his passion for teamwork has helped him a great deal to transform from being a biochemist to being an entrepreneur. He finds joy in ‘pushing a team forward’, as he puts it and loves seeing his team members grow in self-confidence and belief in the vision of the company that he co-founded. He has a keen knack for finding potential and then helping his team members to unleash their inherent talents.

What follows is Brians’ clear description of how Futerelab obtained cradle funding and how they managed to secure the top universities in Malaysia as clients, in his own words:

“We wanted to prove that FutureLab was solving an actual problem before applying for Cradle funding so what we did was to invite mentors from specific industries (at this early ideation stage of FutureLab it was our own personal networks).

“We started with mentors from Management consulting and posted a google form up on Low Yat and Facebook to see whether anyone wanted to speak to them. Within a couple of days, we had 20 people signup to meet our mentors. At this point, we decided to close the google form since we didnt know what kind of people would show up. We set the meet up at a local coffee shop and only spent RM 50 on buying coffee for the 5 mentors from Accenture, BCG, PWC, Ethos Consulting and Deliotte. We split the mentees into mini groups and they cycled from one mentor to the next, the last stop for each mentee group was with me telling them what we are trying to build, how much we are thinking of charging and how would the system work. We got really good feedback from the participants and the mentors.

Related: Meet Jan Grobler: Serial entrepreneur, Advocate, And Job Creator

Me being a scientist by training, I like to see whether results are repeatable so we organised 6 of these meet-ups over the whole year inviting mentors from different industries, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs, doctors and we even tested on online mentoring session using google hangouts. At this point, we were convinced that FutureLab should exist. This is when we applied to Cradle for Funding along with all the evidence we collected on why FutureLab should exist.

When FutureLab was first launched, we already had 40 mentors and 60 mentees that were waiting to use the platform that we were building. Mentees really enjoyed speaking to our mentors and vice versa for mentors, our growth has been mostly from word of mouth from mentors and mentees eventually universities started being aware of our mentoring community and started asking us to get more involved with their students. Our mentors are big advocates for our platform and they are based in large companies around the world. So they play a big role in opening doors for us.

Yet another key business learning he has acquired is to always guard against complacency and this knowledge is encapsulated by the following quote that he shared:

“What got you here cannot get you there”

Meaning that the same behaviours and habits that got you to this point will not be enough to move you forward, you have to keep on evolving to remain relevant and successful.

Brian is passionate about FutureLab and business in general and reminds us that:“When you are passionate work is the fun part of the day”. His advice to other entrepreneurs is to truly find a project that you are passionate about and truly believe in. He is most certainly passionate about the future of his projects and wants to build an eco-system that generates high volumes of cash that will empower his company to invest in start-up projects.

In general he wants to invest in entrepreneurs that are solving ‘big problems’ and wants FutureLab to become an innovation company. He poses this challenging question to those thinking on starting their entrepreneurial journey:

‘Are you merely attempting to do what others are already doing or are you really solving a problem?”

He finds that many entrepreneurs overthink and then do little. The more you do and if done at a rapid pace the more you learn to become adaptable and will find that there are many ways to solve a problem.

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