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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




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.

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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

Nicolas Bereng Is Creating An Industry Where None Exists in SA

Nicolas Bereng is a young entrepreneur with dreams of creating not only a new company, but a brand new industry as well. Here’s his advice on pursuing big, audacious (and scary) goals.

GG van Rooyen




Vital Stats

  • Player: Nicolas Bereng
  • Company:Brand LAIKI
  • Est: 2015
  • About: Brand LAIKI aims to combine education and entertainment in order to create an interest in books and reading amongst South African schoolchildren. One of the company’s chief aims is to organise events where reading and learning can be promoted. These events will make use of modern technologies like virtual and augmented reality.
  • Visit:

Nicolas Bereng is trying to create an industry that doesn’t really exist in South Africa.

“We’re trying to establish the concept of edutainment locally,” says Nicolas. “It’s really not something that exists or that people understand at present. Even people who I would define as ‘edutainers’ don’t necessarily call themselves that.”   

So how do you create a new industry?

“It isn’t easy,” he says. “It’s driven me to tears at times, but ultimately, I’m so passionate about the  idea that I’m incapable of abandoning it. If you really care about something, it carries you through the hard times.”

Here is Nicolas Bereng’s advice on cultivating a winning mindset and pursuing audacious goals:

Passion breeds passion

I’ve managed to get buy-in from some large businesses and partners, despite the fact that I’m young and the company is still new. I think the reason people have been willing to meet with me is largely because of my passion. They might not quite ‘get’ the concept of edutainment yet, but my passion is infectious. They can sense that this isn’t a business idea I’ll simply abandon when things get hard. I’m determined to make this work, and people can see this, which increases their passion for it as well.

Related: 3 Questions To Guide You To Success In 2018

Change your perspective

My parents moved overseas in 2006, and after I finished school in South Africa, I spent quite a bit of time with them in Europe. Although I loved South Africa and knew that I wanted to return and build a business here, the experience was still immensely valuable. Travel changes your perspective — it makes you look at things in a new way. It’s easy to get trapped in your own environment and to believe that there is only one ‘correct’ way to do things.

Changing your environment can spark creativity, and can even make you think on a big scale.

In the age of information, ignorance is a choice


Thanks to modern technologies like the Internet, we have access to unimaginable amounts of information, so I always tell kids that there is no excuse for ignorance. We all have the tools needed to gain knowledge, we just need to embrace them.

Reading is everything

To me, reading is one of the most important activities anyone can engage in, which is why Brand LAIKI is focused on inspiring kids to read more using urban music and new technologies. Like travel, reading has the ability to broaden your horizons and to make you look at things in a new light. We might not all have the ability to travel regularly, but we can all read.

After school, I spent about a year just reading. I went through dozens and dozens of books. The knowledge I gained has proved invaluable. As an entrepreneur, you can’t afford not to read. There are so many brilliant books out there that can help you along your journey.

Related: What You Put In Is What You Get Out – Create Your Own Success

Be committed but flexible

I’m very passionate about the business, so I always say that I don’t have a ‘plan B’. I’m completely committed to making this work. However, I still try to be flexible in certain ways. I won’t abandon my dream, but I’m open to change. Business ideas change and evolve over time. You have to be willing to adapt. If you’re too married to your specific concept, you’ll struggle.

Be willing to walk away from opportunities

While it’s very important to be flexible and to adapt your ideas as necessary, you should also be able to walk away from opportunities when they become too constricting. Don’t allow your ideas to be watered down or changed entirely. This often means saying no to short-term success, which can be hard, but it’s important to focus on your long-term goals.

If you understand people, you understand business

When you get right down to it, business is ultimately about people. When you’re doing business, you’re dealing with people. Because of this, it’s important to try to understand people. What are their aims? What are their concerns? How can you help them? I think empathy is incredibly important. You can’t just use people. That’s not how you create a successful business in the long term.

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Lessons Learnt

How To Build A Billion-Dollar Brand

Being an entrepreneur is one of the most difficult tasks you can take on.

Lewis Howes




Being an entrepreneur is one of the most difficult tasks you can take on. In fact, some people find it soul crushing if not done right. When done properly though, it can be the greatest thing you can do in your life.

Starting as an entrepreneur means knowing what you really want to do, what your passion is and how to deliver that to consumers. It’s not about pushing it on them but listening and seeing how you can serve them.

Most entrepreneurs stop as soon as they hit success and sell off their company, but not all of them. On this episode, we are joined by Michael Mente, who has been a massively successful entrepreneur since 2003 when he helped create the incredibly popular clothing company: Revolve.

Michael Mente dropped out of an entrepreneur program at the University of Southern California to become an entrepreneur by profession. He’s Currently the CEO and co-founder of Revolve and is set to bring in $400 million in sales this year. His company is considered the one-stop shop for clothing items designed by some of the hottest emerging designers.

Over the years, Michael began developing organic relationships with bloggers to represent the brand on a more realistic level. To do so, Revolve regularly holds trips for influencers to gather, relax and recreate the lifestyle of an ideal Revolve customer.

Related: How DJ Dimplez Built His Brand And Business From A Passion

Michael saw a gap between affordable and high end items, which provided grounds for him to create an online shopping experience that falls in the middle. Supporting up-and-coming designers and digital influencers has become the core of Revolve’s growth and they decided to expand their digital offerings by launching a sister company, Forward, in 2008. Since then, Forward has grown to become a fashion powerhouse and go-to place for premier luxury fashion.

I loved Michael’s humble wisdom about what it has taken to create this kind of success in such a competitive industry.

Discover all of that and much more, on Episode 583.

This article was originally posted here on

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Lessons Learnt

What Top Venture Capitalists Are Looking For In Your Start-Up

Keet van Zyl, one of South Africa’s top Venture Capital investors unpacks what he looks for in a start-up, what your pitch deck should include, and the red flags that investors walk away from. Would your start-up make the cut?

Nadine Todd



keet van zyl

Vital Stats

  • Player: Keet van Zyl
  • Company: Knife Capital
  • Claim to fame: Keet is a Venture Catalyst with extensive high-growth investment experience. In 2010 he co-founded growth equity fund manager Knife Capital.
  • What they do: Knife Capital is an independent growth equity investment firm focusing on innovation-driven ventures with proven traction. By leveraging knowledge, networks and funding, Knife Capital aims to accelerate the international expansion of entrepreneurial businesses that achieved a product/market fit in a beachhead market. They have offices in Cape Town and London and invest via a consortium of funding partnerships, including SARS section 12J Venture Capital Company: KNF Ventures and Draper-Gain Investments.
  • Visit:

Why would you choose to back Gazelles over Unicorns, and what does this investment strategy mean for start-ups looking for investment in South Africa?

Unicorns are start-ups (sometimes without an established performance record), valued at $1 billion or more, normally pre-public listing (IPO).

Gazelles are young post-commercialisation phase businesses that are able to scale and maintain a high revenue growth rate off a decent base over a prolonged period. In the US, this is usually well in excess of 20% year-on-year for a period of three to four years or more, starting from a revenue base of at least $1 million. My view is that in South Africa this range should be a sustainable year-on-year growth rate of 30%+ for three years or more off a revenue base of at least R5 million.

Related: Is Venture Capital Right For You?

If I could know for sure that a start-up was going to turn into a Unicorn, I would obviously choose to back it over a Gazelle. But that is just the thing: The risk/return ratio of chasing mythical African Unicorns with a very low probability of actually achieving Unicorn status is not necessarily a viable investment strategy. There are enough entrepreneurs out there who are building sustainable high-growth businesses requiring opportunity funding to accelerate growth through access to knowledge and market access networks.

Many South African start-up investors require businesses to have proven traction to de-risk investments to some extent (and many of those who don’t, do so after gaining a few battle-scars). Start-ups looking for investment should first bootstrap to some extent or get enough funding from the so-called ‘three Fs’ (friends, family and fools) to gain some momentum in one or more key traction verticals before approaching the more formal early-stage investors.

As an investor, do profitable businesses that solve real, meaningful problems attract your interest? Why?

Absolutely — profitable businesses that solve real, meaningful problems attract our interest for investment as long as they are still in their growth phase (as opposed to maturity/ harvesting phase). At the core of any successful start-up lies a good product/service and a large addressable market for that product/service. This enables a start-up to grow or scale and become sustainable. Businesses that solve real, meaningful problems have a better chance of aggressively penetrating their identified target market and profitability is a great traction milestone. Too many start-ups focus on building a solution looking for a problem to solve — instead of the other way around.

What separates a good pitch from a great pitch?

I’ve seen thousands of start-up pitches through the years, and unfortunately most of them miss the mark by a long way. The better ones contain all the key components of a pitch, but the really great ones tell a brief but engaging story that follows a ‘Hearts — Minds — Wallets’ narrative in a true authentic way.

This includes first appealing to the ‘hearts’ of potential investors by taking them through a journey to get them excited about the opportunity. Then the entrepreneur has to augment the story with facts and a solid business case to win their ‘minds’, concluding with a clear ‘ask’ of the funding requirements and how this investment could positively affect their ‘wallets’.

How can an entrepreneur determine whether their business is funding ready or not?

Venture capital should not be the go-to funding choice for everyone starting a business. It is an inspirational metaphor at the bleeding edge of entrepreneurship. There are many other credible funding mechanisms out there across the debt/equity spectrum, and entrepreneurs should assess the criteria based on where they are in their business growth cycle, and then gauge their funding readiness.

A venture backable business has a high growth trajectory of at least 30% to 40% year-on-year for the foreseeable future with a clear exit strategy for investors to realise returns of at least five to ten times the money invested (in South Africa this is most likely a trade sale to a large strategic investor that can scale the product, intellectual property or team by utilising its already established distribution channels).

Entrepreneurs have to ask themselves whether their growth goals can be achieved without venture funding — in which case bootstrapping is the way to go. And lastly whether the current founding team can embrace trading ownership (and thereby some element of control) in the business for a financial partner.

In order to facilitate the funding process, it is advisable for entrepreneurs to always have the following elements at hand: A one-page teaser document containing a summary of the business and funding requirements; and a business pitch deck, with a detailed financial model and a virtual data room containing key business documentation for investor scrutiny. (See table)


Related: The Truth About Venture Capital Funding

What do so many start-ups not understand about funding?

The largest deal origination sources of start-up funding in South Africa come through warm referrals. It is simply not good enough to find the email address of a venture capitalist and send through a cold email expecting a positive outcome. Study the investment mandates of potential funders, build an investor universe of preferred partners and do some homework to figure out a way to get referred.

And then: The 8020 principle is as alive in entrepreneurship today as it was in Pareto’s pea garden. 20% of start-ups have 80% of the disruptive solutions and will receive 80% of the funding. One only has to watch one episode of Idols to realise that many people have an inflated sense of their own abilities. There is a very fine line between a tenacious entrepreneur who does not take no for an answer where success is inevitable despite the setbacks, and a lost cause. Start-up entrepreneurs need to figure out on which end of this spectrum they are.

Lastly: Like it or not, at some level all roads lead to the assumptions behind your financial model. We’ve heard it all from the ever-present ‘these projections are conservative’ to ‘real life won’t mimic excel anyway so what’s the point of building a model?’… Build a model! And make it granular. We know there will be pivots, delays, underestimation of costs, corporates who pay late, and so on. But we need to agree on the basic set of metrics that reflect the commercial DNA of the business at this point in time.

Do you believe most businesses can be bootstrapped?

Yes and no — to some extent and at certain stages of the business. The one thing that start-ups who believe in themselves must jealously guard is the management team’s equity ownership in the business. Risk funding will generally result in the start-up founders having to share this equity with outside parties. The more one can bootstrap while increasing value, the better in the long run for the founders — but not to the detriment of the business.

What is the role of bootstrapping versus funding in a vibrant market?

Bootstrapping is a viable option for most lifestyle businesses where growth is slower, but a start-up is a high growth potential company in search of a repeatable and scalable business model. If the business solves a real, meaningful problem and the business model is scalable, it’s a question of time before competitors establish themselves in the market. This means that the window of opportunity for growth and market penetration is closing, and while bootstrapping could be ideal, by the time the start-up gets to ‘Point B’ — the goalposts may have moved. Funding in a vibrant market can accelerate growth and ensure that windows of opportunity are not missed.

Related: How To Get Venture Capital

What red flags immediately warn you off investment opportunities/start-ups?

My number one red flag is a culture clash. Either between us as investors and the entrepreneurs, or subtle politics within the entrepreneurial team. We’ve learnt the hard way that the one thing that you can’t fix with money is a toxic corporate culture. Most other fundamental business gaps can be closed with enough investment. Knife Capital has an internal [subjective] measure for assessing corporate culture in companies called the ‘Speed of Climbing Stairs Index’. The theory is that there is a direct correlation between staff morale/corporate culture, and the speed at which employees will climb a proverbial staircase at the office. If it’s not fast enough, we will not invest.

Other red flags include questionable ethics, lack of product/market fit, cash flow management issues and entrepreneurs betting on a product as opposed to building a multi-product sustainable business.

What specifically do you look for in your investments?

  • A Solid Investment Case: This comprises a good product/ service with a competitive advantage; a large addressable market for that product, a strong management team, a scalable business model, funding to accelerate growth and an achievable realisation strategy.
  • Awesome People: Start-up investment is a long journey to success and we feel that we may as well embark on that journey with amazing people.
  • Strong Culture: The company culture needs to be solid in order to celebrate the successes as well as survive the setbacks.
  • Execution Capabilities: The value of an idea without execution capabilities is zero. So we look for the ability to execute.
  • Proven Traction: There needs to be some element of momentum that can be demonstrated or quantified.

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