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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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Vital Stats


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.


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?


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

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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