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How a Small-town Business Became the Big Boomtown

PE-based ad agency Boomtown has grown into one of the top 30 in the country, weathering worldwide hard times with a consistent 20% year-on-year growth over the past two decades. Here’s how founder Glen Meier and business partner Neil Hart did it.

Monique Verduyn

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Globally, ad industry award season is known as a time when agency people get together to marvel at the world’s ‘best’, ‘most innovative’, ‘game-changing’ ideas and congratulate each other in a frenzied vanity fest.

When Neil Hart, chairman and founder, launched Boomtown in 1994, the young graphic designer and his business partner Glen Meier, MD of the Eastern Cape office, were burning with the desire to do great creative work and bring those awards home.

Fast forward 20 years, and their strategy has taken a different turn, one that has seen the agency and its team of more than 70 people maintain unfailing growth and expansion into Johannesburg.

Related: Top Secrets For A Successful Business

On top of that, their profit has doubled over the last five years. Not bad for a pair of small town boys. They attribute their success to the results they have achieved for their clients, firmly believing that there is no business that is not about the customer.

What have been some of the challenges of starting a business in a small town?

Starting a business in a town like Port Elizabeth comes with its own set of challenges.  There is less competition, but there are also fewer potential customers, and the budgets may be smaller. On the other hand, we had little competition, which gave us a big advantage. But this is the Eastern Cape – no-one came running to us.

Two decades down the line, and we are one of the very few agencies based in this region that have survived. Steady expansion has seen the business grow by around 20% each year. The big, exciting stories of businesses with 500% growth are great, but those ventures are not always sustainable.

We chose to do it slowly and put measures in place to help us manage growth without imploding, and always with the client at the centre of the business. One of our key clients is the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), with which we have had a relationship for 18 years.

On top of that, we have always been driven by a hunger to succeed – our business has never been bound by a small town mind-set. Our vision is driven by what is happening nationally and internationally and we measure ourselves against global standards.

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What caused that early strategy re-think?

Within the first year or two of launching the business, we realised that awards are more about creativity than effectiveness.

As in any industry, we had to be able to offer our clients effectiveness that can only be measured by return on investment: How much do you make for each advertising rand that you spend? It required a different approach to how we would position and grow Boomtown into the strategic brand agency it is today and helped us to get the clients we wanted.

Related: How To Take Your Business To R8 Million And Beyond

How did you build your client list?

We used direct marketing to build the client base. However, we were very specific about the clients we wanted to work with.

The objective was to be the right agency for the right client – it’s a tenet that we live by. If there is no fit, we cannot add value, and we will not target that client. We carefully built a list of the clients we wanted, including ten key accounts.

Today we have most of them as clients. Yes, they are good clients for our business, but we have focused strongly on how we can do well for their business. Failure to do that can result in damaging your reputation which, in any sector, can be fatal.

Ten years ago we were able to forecast for the year ahead based on about 30% of the clients; today that figure is 70% because of the relationships we have nurtured and the clients who spend with us consistently as a result.

Why direct marketing?

It goes back to building that ‘dream’ client list. Early on, we created a really compelling piece of direct marketing which took a lot of work, given that we were graphic designers with no experience in direct marketing principles. We chose direct marketing because it builds a direct, close relationship with customers.

This has proven to be a cost-effective way of expanding our market share. It also has the great advantage of being relatively easy to monitor as we have always been able to measure the results and work out how effective a campaign has been.

Our direct marketing initiatives talk to clients in a language they understand, and they are extremely targeted and tailored for the audience we are aiming at. We also ensure that the right decision-makers receive our communication. It’s a step-by-step process.

For example, we decided several years ago that we wanted to enter the mining and engineering sector. We wrote down the names of the clients we wanted, and we went after them, identifying who we needed to speak to – always the decision-makers – and what we had to offer in line with their needs. We bagged one of them and won an Assegai award for the campaign we created for the company.

You’re both strong proponents of PR. How has it helped you?

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Our PR strategy has helped us to build the brand nationally. From the early days, as the business started to pick up and we had good stories to tell, we spoke about our successes. In many ways, our own business started to evolve as our offering to clients became more sophisticated and strategic.

As our reputation grew, so our services developed into a strategic business offering. Also, because we used direct marketing as our primary marketing tool, we had to build our brand at the same time, or we would risk not being taken seriously. If done intuitively, PR infuses marketing and communication with believability.

Related: Stuck? 5 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Gain a Fresh Perspective.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to learn?

Eight years ago we started an agency in Nigeria. Unfortunately, we were not prepared for the operational challenges involved.

We found a partner to represent Boomtown in the country; he brought in some great business and we did some good work, but we had huge problems with debt collecting and were simply not strong enough in the region to get it right.

Eventually we started charging deposits, but that made us feel uncomfortable and we pulled out. We still have a desire to expand into Africa. This was probably too early for us. It was a failure, but not a waste. If we had to do it again, we might look at countries that are a bit tamer than Nigeria. Also, you cannot do business on the continent without being immersed in the local culture.

How has your strategy developed over time?

Over the last 12 years we have become more strategically minded around marketing and branding. We sit with clients and discuss where they are, where they need to go and how we are going to get them there.

We have a clear strategic process. We meet with them at the beginning of their financial year and plan what needs to be done for them to achieve certain results. That encompasses: How we grow their brand, how we grow their sales, and how we strengthen their customer relationships.

Related: 7 Ways To Make Your Company a Great Place To Work

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

Lessons Learnt

7 Pieces Of Wise Advice For Start-Up Entrepreneurs From Successful Business Owners

Launching a business is tough, but with perseverance, a willingness to learn from mistakes and a focus on the future, you can turn your dream into a reality. Seven top South Africa entrepreneurs share their hard-won start-up lessons.

Nadine Todd

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“What seems like an expensive lesson is actually the best thing that could have happened to you.” 

So you want to start a business? Seven successful entrepreneurs share their words of wisdom for start-up entrepreneurs

1. Offer advice and share your expertise freely

The more your clients are educated, the more empowered they will feel, and the more they will view you as a trusted advisor. I gave my clients material to help them develop the best labour policies and procedures. It didn’t make my service redundant — it built trust between us. — Arnoux Mare, Innovative Solutions Group, turnover R780 million

2. Stop planning and start doing

We all tend to complicate business with planning and processes. These shouldn’t be ignored, but you need to also just start — start your business, start that project, start walking the path you want to be on. — Gareth Leck, co-founder, Joe Public, turnover R700 million

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

3. Play your heart out and the money will follow

I learnt this valuable lesson when I was a student and busked at Greenmarket Square. You don’t stand with your hat, waiting for cash and then play — you play your heart out and the bills pile up in your hat. It’s the same in business. You can’t look at the bottom line first; it’s the other way around. — Pepe Marais, co-founder, Joe Public, turnover R700 million

4. Love learning lessons

What seems like an expensive lesson is actually the best thing that could have happened to you. I wasn’t paying attention to my partner or my books in our early days, and I didn’t realise the debt he was putting us into. We ended up owing R1 million. In hindsight, it was a cheap lesson to learn. Imagine if that happened today? The fallout would be much greater. We have 19 stores and nearly 100 staff members. It would hurt everyone, not just me. — Rodney Norman, founder, Chrome Supplements, turnover R100 million

5. Landing an investor starts with your story

A great story and data are the two golden rules of attracting an investor. You need both if you really want to access growth funding that will take your business to the next level. — Grant Rushmere, founder, Bos Ice Tea

Related: Watch List: 15 SA eCommerce Entrepreneurs Who Have Built Successful Online Businesses

6. Offer solutions

If you’re not solving a problem and creating value, don’t ship it — throw it away. That’s cheaper than selling a bad product. — Nadir Khamissa, co-founder, Hello Group

7. Small, clever decisions lead to big profits

One of the most important lessons any business owner can learn is that success on profit is nothing more than the accumulative sum of rand decisions. Lots of small, clever money decisions lead to big profits, and without the disciplines of frugality, money gets lost. It’s that simple. Question every single line item on a quote. Do we need it? Can we get it cheaper? This is what it’s about. — Vusi Thembekwayo, founder, Watermark

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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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