- Player: Hasnayn Ebrahim
- Position: Executive Director
- Company: Africa International Advisors (AIA) and Strategi.exe
- About: An advisory practice that focuses on end-to-end strategy in the multinational, public sector and mid to large corporate space. AIA’s offering is integrated with its human capital and training offerings, and a new software division, Strategi.exe
- Visit: www.africaia.com; strategiexe.com
“When you really start to scale, you often experience 100% year-on-year growth. Your turnover is doubling, your staff complement is doubling or even tripling — if you don’t have systems in place to manage this growth, you will stumble and fall.”
As start-ups, most SMEs run instinctively, rather than strategically. It’s a critical element of their success. The ability of founders and their teams to see opportunities and pursue them gives SMEs the agility to take shape and grow. But this also means that the business is responding to stimuli in the economy and through networks, rather than shaping its own strategy.
Every successful SME reaches a point where a more systematised approach to business must be implemented, or the company will stumble at the growth phase. In other words, the ability to scale requires a strategy. This is hardly a ground-breaking revelation. Where many businesses fail however, is in the execution of that strategy.
“Strategy is only as good as a management team’s capacity to execute it,” confirms Hasnayn Ebrahim, Executive Director at Africa International Advisors (AIA), and an ex-consultant at a top-tier international firm. “Strategy alone is fantasy. You need to capacitate your organisation to be able to implement and achieve your strategy. Unless you do that, you will always be a victim of circumstance, instead of riding the wave of opportunity.
“Execution begins with your people, from employees right through to management and your executive level. Businesses succeed and fail with their people.”
Here are the five rules of strategic growth, based on Hasnayn’s years of experience in management consulting, and building AIA and its subsidiaries.
1. Understand yourself and your core competencies
What sets you apart from the competition? How will you compete in the market? How big is the market? Unless there are clearly defined opportunities to pursue in a highly competitive industry, what is your ability to scale?
“Not every business is geared to scale,” explains Hasnayn, “which is why you need to begin with these questions. In many cases, a business is actually better off not scaling, at least in its current form. Either the market won’t support them, or short-term contracts that require capacity can actually hurt the business in the long run, when the project is over and you’ve got more staff and higher overheads than your customer base can support.
“Growth must be rooted. You can’t lose sight of your present reality. That doesn’t mean your aim shouldn’t be to scale — it just means you need to be very strategic about where your opportunities lie, and how to pursue them.”
Have you critically and strategically evaluated your market? Is there room for growth in your present market? “It’s important to understand your core when you’re answering this question,” says Hasnayn. “Your core isn’t necessarily a product. It could be your customers. Who are they, and what else do they need, that you could deliver? What is adjacent to your core that you can pivot to?
“As AIA, we developed a consulting solution for clients in the public sector, and then realised they lacked the capacity to deliver our solutions. This led to a training division for us. Between 2006 and 2011, 5 000 mid- to senior-level managers went through our five-day training and consulting programmes.
“Our software division began in the same way. We realised our clients were trying to execute sophisticated strategies with outdated performance management solutions, and so we developed a product to help them. It’s created annuity income for us, and it delivers on a need for our clients.
“The subsequent acquisition of a training company has also allowed us to integrate our system with a learning platform, extending our solutions even further, but still within our core competencies and market.”
So, where do you begin? “If there is a market, you need to determine how you can compete,” says Hasnayn. “What are the specific market opportunities, and what is your unique value proposition and competitive advantage?
“We all want to play in a space where there’s no competition. That might take three different ideas, and bringing them together is what gives you your advantage. You need to understand the market, your competitors and the best way to compete based on the resources available to you — what do you have? Where are your gaps? What do you need to do to fill, close and enhance those gaps?”
2. Be prepared to grow
As the founder of your organisation, you need to be the first person to grow. The first gap to fill is yours. This could be through business and executive courses, through a coach, a mentor or joining an entrepreneurial organisation — whatever it takes to grow and develop yourself for the good of your organisation.
“Founders have such a vital role to play in the success of organisations,” says Hasnayn. “The best performing companies globally are founder-led. Just consider Amazon, Facebook, Google and Tesla, or locally, Discovery. In each case the founder plays a critical role. But an organisation is also not a single individual. It’s a group of people who have banded together. Sustainable growth is achieved when all parties are nurtured and grow.
“You have to ensure you get the right people for the right jobs, keep them by your side and capacitate them — and then as their leader you need to grow, evolve, change and adapt as well — if you don’t, you’ll miss opportunities too. Your most important role is to cultivate a willingness to change, which will allow you to see opportunities as they arise, and to be able to make the hard decisions that will be required to change your organisation and align it for growth.”
3. Evaluate and capacitate your people
What do you need to do to achieve your vision? What resources do you need, and how should they be deployed? These are key questions to ask, but understand that you cannot execute even the best strategy without your people. They are the drivers of your organisation. Success comes down to the right staff, in the right positions, adding the right value.
“Is your early staff right for growth? You need to look at this objectively from the view of the organisation. Know yourself — critically understand the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your staff,” says Hasnayn.
“Where are the opportunities to close gaps through training and capacity building? Not all gaps can be resolved, but many can be. If you’re completely transparent about the process, your team will trust you, and everyone will work towards the same goal: The growth of the organisation.
“It’s important to evaluate and understand who is the best fit for each role though. For example, engineers are excellent product developers, but that doesn’t mean they can take what they’ve built to market, or manage teams. If you have an upfront conversation about what the organisation needs, individuals can determine whether they’d like to work at closing specific gaps or not. You can’t have those conversations if you don’t understand your skills base and competencies though.”
In Hasnayn’s experience, transparency throughout the process of scaling an organisation is key. “If you don’t understand what you need, or you’re unwilling to communicate effectively with your staff, whatever change you’re aiming for is more than likely going to fail,” he warns.
“Be as transparent as possible, and give internal staff the opportunity to develop — but understand that marketing and sales is a fundamentally different skill set to tech consulting. If the inclination and willingness is there to adapt and grow, support it. New skills can be learnt, as long as a particular threshold is passed in terms of natural ability. But if an employee is resistant to change, or doesn’t believe the changes are right for them, respect that as well. It is possible to part ways on good terms if the right conversations have been held at the right times. It starts with clear and transparent communication though, and a willingness to invest in your employees.
“Remember, the DNA and culture of your organisation are a key factor of your success. As you scale and need to add employees, your culture is effectively under threat. Upskilling people who are part of the fabric of your SME is a good way to ensure the longevity of your culture, rather than simply replacing everyone with more experienced or skilled staff, who don’t necessarily suit the culture you’ve created.”
4. Put the right processes and structures in place
“When you really start to scale, you often experience 100% year-on-year growth. Your turnover is doubling, your staff complement is doubling or even tripling — if you don’t have systems in place to manage this growth, you will stumble and fall,” says Hasnayn.
“You cannot not have structures in an organisation expecting to scale. You need to recognise this and invest in it. There are a number of tools that can assist you to be more organised and structured, and most importantly, to assist you in managing the new complexities that are being added to your organisation on a daily basis.
“Our central view is that you have to ensure you transition from a purely instinctive entity to a more holistic organisation that has a degree of structure. Too much structure is also bad — both can prevent you from growing — but you do need a foundation of structure and processes to handle the changing nature of your business.
“The problem is that there is always significant resistance to change at first, which is why it’s so important to communicate the reasons why you are doing something. If you don’t, you’ll quickly create a disconnect between your executives and the rest of your staff. You need to manage and bridge those gaps or destroy value.”
5. Gather momentum
The success of your strategy lies in one key area: Your ability to deliver on it. If your organisation can’t gather momentum in this regard, you’re doomed to fail.
“Remember, you formulated your strategy for a specific reason,” says Hasnayn. “Either you wanted to grow, or your market was under threat. You considered all your options and formulated a strategy. The problem is in the follow-through. We’ve seen it on numerous occasions — an organisation formulates a plan, and the moment something happens, they’re forced back into their comfort zone and the strategy is forgotten. Maintaining momentum is therefore critical.
“There’s often a lot of talk around strategy — ‘this is what we’re going to do, this is how and this is why.’ If you don’t translate that strategy into tangible measures though, and put a mechanism in place to track them, it remains just talk. This creates an expectation within your organisation that you’re good at talking, but not following through on real change, and you lose the key executors of your strategy — your staff.
“To counter this, you need a performance management framework that is aligned to your strategy. You should have a monthly process that tracks how you’re doing against it. Have you developed your new product? Have you entered your new market? You need to align your strategy and action, and then communicate these results regularly. That’s how you close the strategy execution gap.
“The beauty of it is that once people are part of the momentum they will keep it up. There will always be initial resistance to change — that’s why it’s so important to track and measure what you’re doing. Tangible results engage employees. They become a part of the process and the wins — and then they become your strategy’s champions. And that’s when real success and scale is achieved.”
Play in a space where there’s no competition
All business owners want to be in space where there’s no competition. Sometimes, the way to achieve this is to take three different ideas or capabilities, and bring them together in a unique way that benefits your customers.
Be willing to change
As the founder of your organisation, your role remains critical in the growth phase of your business. But in order to continue to lead effectively, you need to be willing to change. This is how you’ll still be able to spot opportunities as they arrive, and make the hard decisions required to align your organisation to growth.
Could you handle 100% year on year growth?
It sounds like a dream, but what would you do if your workload and turnover suddenly doubled? Would your customers still receive the service levels they are accustomed to? Would you be able to deliver on all those additional orders? Scale is impossible without the right structures and processes in place.
Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right
So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.
You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.
On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:
The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.
The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.
Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.
Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.
It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.
It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.
Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.
Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.
Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.
The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.
Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!
That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room
Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.
When you think of Jeff Bezos, a lot of things probably come to your mind.
You likely think of Amazon.com, a company he founded more than twenty years ago, that’s completely disrupted retail and online commerce as we know it. You probably also think of his entrepreneurial genius. Or the immense wealth that he’s built for himself and others. You may also think of drones, Alexa and same-day delivery. Bezos is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a cutthroat competitor and a game changer. He’s unquestionably a very, very smart man. But sometimes, he can be…well…stupid, too.
Like that time back in 1995.
That was when Amazon was just a startup operating from a 2,000 square foot basement in Seattle. During that period, Bezos and most of the handful of employees working for him had other day jobs. They gathered in the office after hours to print and pack up the orders that their fast-growing bookselling site was receiving each day from around the world. It was tough, grueling work.
The company at the time, according to a speech Bezos gave, had no real organisation or distribution. Worse yet, the process of filling orders was physically demanding.
“We were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor,” Bezos recalled. “I said to the person next to me ‘this packing is killing me! My back hurts, it’s killing my knees’ and the person said ‘yeah, I know what you mean.'”
Bezos, our hero, the entrepreneurial genius, the CEO of a now 600,000-employee company that’s worth around a trillion dollars and one of the richest men in the world today then came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “You know what we need,” he said to the employee as they packed boxes together. “What we need is…kneepads!”
The employee (Nicholas Lovejoy, who worked at Amazon for three years before founding his own philanthropic organisation financed by the millions he made from the company’s stock) looked at Bezos like he was — in Bezos’ words — the “stupidest guy in the room.”
“What we need, Jeff,” Lovejoy said, “are a few packing tables.” Duh.
So the next day Bezos – after acknowledging Lovejoy’s brilliance – bought a few inexpensive packing tables. The result? An almost immediate doubling in productivity. In his speech, Bezos said that the story is just one of many examples how Amazon built its customer-centered service culture from the company’s very early days. Perhaps that’s true. Then again, it could mean something else.
It could mean that sometimes, just sometimes, those successful, smart, wealthy and powerful people may not be as brilliant as you may think. Nor do they always have the right answers. Sometimes, just sometimes, they may actually be the stupidest guy in the room. So keep that in mind the next time you’re doing business with an intimidating customer, supplier or partner who appears to know it all. You might be the one with the brilliant idea.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
How Sureswipe Built Its Identity By Building A Strong Company Culture
Culture is unique to a business, it’s the reason why companies win or lose.
A company’s culture is its identity and personality. Since this is closely linked to its brand and how it wants to be viewed by its employees, customers, competitors and the outside world, culture is critical. The challenge is understanding that culture contains unwritten rules and that certain behaviours that align to the culture the company is nurturing should be valued and cherished more than others.
At Sureswipe, the core of our culture is that we value people and what they are capable of. We particularly value people who are engaged, get on with the job, take initiative, are happy to get stuck in beyond their formal job descriptions, and who sometimes have to suck up a bit of pain to get through a challenge.
We include culture in everything we do, so it’s a fundamental element in our recruitment process. In addition to a skills and experience interview, each candidate undergoes a culture fit in the form of a values interview. We look for top performers who echo our core values (collaboration, courage, taking initiative, fairness and personal responsibility) and have real conviction about making a difference in the lives of independent retailers. If we don’t believe a candidate will be a culture fit, we won’t hire them.
If we make a mistake in the recruitment process, we won’t retain culture killers, even if they are top performers. This is such a tough lesson to learn, but it liberates a company and often improves overall company performance.
Culture should be cultivated, constantly communicated and used when making decisions. At Sureswipe, we often talk about what it takes to win and have simplified winning into three key elements: A simple, yet inspirational vision; the right culture; and a clear and focused strategy. The first and third elements can be copied from organisation to organisation. Culture on the other hand is unique to every business and can be a great influencer in its success.
Catch phrases on the wall are not the definition of culture
A strong culture is purposeful and evolving. It’s what makes a company great, but also exposes its weakness. No company is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad. Without it, we cannot ensure that we are protecting and building on the good and reducing or eradicating the bad.
Mistakes happen. That’s okay. But we are very purposeful about how mistakes are handled. Culturally we’re allergic to things being covered up or deflected and have had great learning moments as individuals and as an organisation when bad news travels fast. It’s liberating to ‘tell it like it is’ and almost always, with a few more minds on the problem at hand, things can be rectified with minimal impact.
Culture should be built on values that resonate with you and that you want to excel at. In our case, some are lived daily and others are aspirational in that we’re still striving for them. In each case we genuinely believe in them and encourage each other to keep living them. This increases the level of trust within the team, as there is consistency in how people are treated and how we get things done.
We are always inspired when, after sitting in our reception area, nine out of ten visitors will comment on the friendliness of staff. We hear their remarks about how friendly the Sureswipe team is or a potential candidate will talk about the high level of energy and positivity they experience throughout the interview process.
These are indicators that our culture is alive and well. It’s these components of our culture — friendliness, helpfulness and positivity — that cascade into how we do business and how we treat our customers and people in general. Being able to describe your culture and support it with real life examples is a great way to communicate and promote the type of behaviour that is important and recognised within the organisation.
Culture doesn’t just happen
We are fortunate that culture has always been important to us, even if it wasn’t clearly defined in our early days. As we grew it became important to be more purposeful in the evolution of our culture. About four years ago, the senior leadership team and nominated cultural or values icons were mandated to relook all things cultural.
A facilitator said to us, “You really love it when people take the initiative, and get very frustrated when they don’t.” That accurate insight became core to our values. We love to see people proactively solve problems, take responsibility for their own growth, initiate spontaneous events, change their tactics or implement new ideas. It energises us and aligns to the way we do business.
We celebrate growth and love to see our staff getting promoted due to their hard work and perseverance. We recently had one of our earliest technicians get promoted to the Regional Manager of Limpopo. It was one of the best moments of 2018.
Be purposeful with culture, describe it, communicate it and use it in all aspects of business. Culture should change. Don’t allow phrases like ‘this is not how we do things,’ or, ‘the culture here is changing,’ to stifle the growth and development of your culture. When done correctly change is a good thing. Culture is driven from the top but at the end of the day it’s a company-wide initiative. Design it together with team members from different parts of the organisation to get the most from it. And then make sure everyone lives and breathes it.
The best ROI is achieved when you stop wasting money.
Peter Drucker once said that businesses have two main functions — marketing and innovation — that produce results. “All the rest are costs.”
If you agree, that means that the average business has a lot of fat to trim. Obviously you can go overboard trying to cut costs too. My philosophy has been to look at some of the general areas where you can add some efficiency but not at the expense of impairing your most valuable resource — your focus.
The following cost-cutting measures will do that. Think of these as adding value to your company, whether it’s time, creativity or a closer connection to your consumers.
Uncover inefficiencies in your process
This is where I begin. In fact, it was analysing the inefficiencies of legal communication and knowledge sharing that led me to create Foxwordy, the digital collaboration platform for lawyers. I noticed that attorneys in our clients’ legal departments were drafting new documents from scratch when they could pool their knowledge and save time by using language that a trusted colleague had employed in a similar document. Business is all about process. When you create a new process, or enhance an existing process, you will drive cost efficiency.
Refine your process, then automate
If existing processes are lacking, it is time to create process. If you have processes, but they are not driving efficiency, it’s time to redefine your process. Either way, a key second step is refining processes that are needed in your business. Only then can you go to automation, since automating without a process will result in chaos — and won’t save time or money. Similarly, automating a poor process is not going to give you the cost-saving results you are looking for.
Thanks to the Cloud, there are very accessible means of automating manual processes. For instance, you can automate bookkeeping functions with FreshBooks and use chatbots to interface with clients — for very basic information. If you’re a retailer, a chatbot on your site can explain your return policy or address other frequently asked questions. Automating such processes allows you to spend more time focusing on clients and customers. Technology alone isn’t a panacea for all business functions, but if you find something you’re doing manually that can be automated, take a look and consider how much time and process definition automation would save you.
Rethink your outreach
Marketing and outreach are usually big and important challenges for an organisation. In my experience, there are two main components to successful marketing — knowing your customers and using the most effective media to spread your message. For the first part, I recommend polling. There are various online survey services that offer an instant read on what your customers are thinking. You may think business is humming along, but a survey could reveal that while consumers like your product, a few tweaks would make it even better.
For the second part — marketing messaging — once you have a firm idea of your marketing messaging, Facebook is a great vehicle for outreach. The ability to granularly target customers and create Lookalike audiences (from around 1 000 consumers) can help grow your business.
Scrutinise your spend history
There are tools that can help you assess spend history and find cost-cutting opportunities. For example, you might be able to take advantage of rewards or loyalty programmes to reduce common business expenses, like travel, or consolidate vendors for a similar function. If you have a long-standing relationship with a vendor, negotiate better pricing.
The most important elements to keep in mind are resources that make your company special. Your company may be built on one person’s reputation and expertise. Guard against tarnishing that reputation with inappropriate messaging in advertising or social media. If your company’s special sauce is intellectual property, protect that too. But everything else — ranging from physical property to salary and benefits — are costs and should be considered negotiable. — Monica Zent