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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

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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