Connect with us

Lessons Learnt

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




[box style=”gray,info” ]

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

Taking It To The Malaysian Market – Karl van Zyl Of Antipodean Café

Karl van Zyl approach has always been logical and simplified and he highlights three principles that he believes to be critical in the food and beverage industry.

Dirk Coetsee




Karl van Zyl has a 17 year history in the food and beverage industry in South-Africa and now applies his skills and knowledge in the extremely vibrant and competitive Malaysian market. I had a very interesting conversation with him to explore both similarities and differences of both markets and to share his accumulative learning of this industry to those entrepreneurs considering to open a restaurant or café.

He has a history working for the Mikes’ kitchen and Fishmonger groups in South-Africa fulfilling a range of roles from being a General Manager to Operational Manager. Currently he both manages an well-known Café called Antipodean and facilitates the opening of new cafes’ in Klang Valley, Malaysia.

Karl shared that his approach has always been logical and that applying sound basics has always served him well. Would you eat the food served at your restaurant and really enjoy it? Posing questions such as the aforementioned to yourself as a restaurant owner or manager helps you to be aware of the quality of your operation and to always keep the customer in mind when making decisions.

One of the key learnings that he shared was to get a very good and experienced team of waiters together that has previous restaurant or hospitality industry experience. He strongly advises quality over quantity when it comes to waiters and fondly remembers one of the waiters that he managed whom could take orders from a group of twenty people and remember each order from the top of his head.

It is not only about quality of service to the customer but also when there is a small but quality team of waiters operating then their earnings are much higher and they will feel valued and happy as opposed to a large group of waiters competing for relatively small rewards.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

Karls’ approach has always been logical and simplified and he highlights three principles that he believes to be critical in the food and beverage industry:

  1. Quality of food
  2. Quality of service
  3. Pricing.

He adds that in addition to the above principles your location should of course be in area with very good ‘foot traffic’.

When the entrepreneur venturing into the food and beverage market considers the right suppliers it is a critical factor to go and visit their facilities, thoroughly check their quality and enquire which other quality brands they are supplying in addition to buying at good prices.

In his view comparing the Malaysian food and beverage market to the South African market there are a lot more Malaysians eating at restaurants than in South Africa. One of the reasons for this is that there are a lot of ‘street café/restaurant’ options with quality food at a very low price due to the restaurant not being air-conditioned and making use of for example plastic chairs and tables.

Personally the author has found much more twenty four hour food options and countless varieties of food compared to the South African market. If you are awake and hungry at 3 am in the morning in Kuala Lumpur, no problem! You also will not be limited to only 24 hour fast food options, almost any type of food that you desire will be available that is if you know where to go off-course.

Related: Don’t Be ‘Outside Standing’ On Your Own Exponential Growth Says Serial Investor, Jimmy Phoon

As a matter of interest Karl regards the prices of restaurants in general in Kuala Lumpur to be better than in South Africa and holds the service levels in KL in higher esteem due to it being more ‘personal’ and customer orientated. He believes that South African food matches the quality of Malaysian food but that there is however much more variety of food available in Malaysia.

Karl pointed out that it is possible to have people from all five continents represented in one night at a restaurant as the food culture in Malaysia is very diverse and so is the cultural phenomenon in general in Kuala Lumpur.

Continue Reading

Lessons Learnt

What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

Zac Liew was offered to be CEO and Co-founder of Curlec at the age of twenty six and took up the offer knowing that he would be engaged in a steep learning curve. Curlec is a FinTech company that is redefining the customer experience for Direct Debit.

Dirk Coetsee




Botanica Deli, Bangsar South, Malaysia a vibrant environment where a number of entrepreneurs and office workers go to meet and have great food and coffee. I walked into the Deli to meet a man that might just possess the ‘entrepreneurial gene’ if indeed that gene exists.

Zac Liew always wanted to venture onto the exciting yet challenging playing field of entrepreneurial ventures having his dad and mother as examples. His father a lawyer, whom ventured into property development and his mother whom started the first chain of liquor stores in Malaysia.

His parents’ ventures interested him from a very young age and helped to ignite the entrepreneurial fire in this very young CEO and co-founder of Curlec. Zac is a qualified lawyer whom also did a stint in the banking industry but at all times he had a burning desire to do something entrepreneurial and always had an interest in tech.

To him tech was always logical and simply made sense within this ever changing business environment within which we as entrepreneurs launch our start-up ventures. He also enjoys the challenging demands that the tech environment places upon his problem solving skills.

Related: Brian Tan Of – Bridging The Knowledge Gap Through Social Learning

The Creation of Curlec

curlec-malaysia-mobile-appZac Liew was offered to be CEO and Co-founder of Curlec at the age of twenty six and took up the offer knowing that he would be engaged in a steep learning curve. Curlec is a FinTech company that is redefining the customer experience for Direct Debit. They are the first Malaysian software company to enable online Direct Debit payments in Malaysia. One of the core principles that Curlec was founded upon is to Build great tech that solves a basic need.

Zac together with his co-founders Steve Kucia and Raj Lorenz found a simplified and effective solution to collecting money on a recurring basis. Normally recurring billing and collections is a big issue for SMEs’ and other options were exceptionally costly and timeous.

Zac pointed out that the size of the issue of recurring collections exceeded all expectations and that is one of the reasons that their start-up phase has been successful and gained very good traction in the market.

Curlec has a razor sharp focus on only two products which enables them to focus on giving a great service and customer experience. Curlec cuts through the normal levels of bureaucracy of big companies and has a laser focus on their customers.

How does this apply to start-up entrepreneurs?

Create a product or a system that is simplified, very user friendly, cost and time effective, and more importantly that solves a very challenging issue within the market place that adds great value to customers. Underpin this by being customer centric.

I asked Zac to enlighten me on the key learnings of his journey thus far and also share success principles that has served him well in business and in his life in general. He pointed out that he believes that every entrepreneur should get comfortable with being uncomfortable and venture outside the boundaries of their own comfort zones.

‘Be comfortable with making mistakes’ he says. Get feedback learn from it and integrate the useful feedback in your thinking and in practically applying solutions.’

As business and life has a natural and general ebb and flow to it persistence is a key factor to your success. Accept challenges as they occur and realise that the mind of the entrepreneur should always have a problem solving focus. As a fan of combat sports, Zac shared the following quotes that resonates with him:

“The more you seek the uncomfortable the more you will become comfortable” – Conor McGregor


“I have been training under the dark lights so that I can shine in the bright lights’ – Anthony Joshua

Related:  Zac Liew Channeling The Fire Of Authenticity: Asia’s’ Top ‘YouTuber’, Joanna Soh

As a writer I have always been fascinated by the wisdom imparted by philosophers and masters of their respective fields. I am even more excited and hopeful for our future when I hear wisdom ‘rolling of the tongue’ of a twenty six year old entrepreneur:

‘Be idealistic in your ideas but be pragmatic in actualising them. If things are not working out do not be stuck in that. Take what you can learn from your experiences and move on.’

Tech has the inherent power to reach the far ends of the world seamlessly and when we have more and more tech entrepreneurs solving big consumer issues and thereby making this world a better place we can be more and more hopeful of a better future.

Continue Reading

Lessons Learnt

Don’t Be ‘Outside Standing’ On Your Own Exponential Growth Says Serial Investor, Jimmy Phoon

Serial investor Jimmy Phoon is proud of his and his team at Alps Global holdings in achieving a $300 million valuation.

Dirk Coetsee




It was a usually warm and humid afternoon in Malaysia as I walked into the foodbar at Fashion library in Kota Damansara, to meet a man who has a deep understanding of leveraging capital mechanisms in order to achieve exponential business growth.

Serial investor Jimmy Phoon is proud of his and his team at Alps Global holdings in achieving a $300 million valuation. He doesn’t speak to the ‘wrongs and rights’ of investments as he believes there are many ways in approaching an investment opportunity. He does however, firmly believe in the MOC (Miracles of Capital) organisations’ (of which he is a senior alumni member) approach to exponentially grow a company and having a clear exit strategy such as selling at a desired price or publically listing the company.

Jimmy enthusiastically highlighted the difference between them, as he names it a ‘feasible’ and a ‘bankable’ business investment. In offering a simple differentiation between the two terms he explained that ‘feasibility’ simply means that the business is making money, whilst ‘bankable’ means that the business is not only making money but that there is a clear succession plan and exit strategy in place.

As an experienced international entrepreneur and investor he recognises that a vast number of entrepreneurs are very well versed in the market mechanisms of their respective industries yet not equally adept at the capital mechanisms that underpins the exponential growth of companies. He points out that when a company has very good management in place, has a clear and attractive dividend policy to its shareholders, and in addition a well-defined and practical exit strategy it will increase the appetite of investors in general.

Related: Business Leadership – Learn How To Embrace Change

He describes the MOC to be an international platform to teach the mechanisms of Capital to entrepreneurs and investors. The MOC is the trifecta of business incubation, acceleration, and investment. One of the core principles of business investment that the MOC teaches and which Jimmy firmly believes in is collaboration between companies and entrepreneurs.

This means the willingness and openness to merge your unique skills as an entrepreneur, the unique offering of your company, profit and loss, with the skills, products and offerings of other companies with the end goal of exponential growth of a newly formed company. This approach can create a big win for all involved.

But what is ‘Outside Standing’?

The aforementioned discussion led to Jimmy sharing one of his favourite sayings:

“Be outstanding or outside standing” – a tongue in the cheek way of saying that by truly understanding and applying both the mechanisms of the market and capital you can experience the exponential growth of your company or alternatively by not fully applying both mechanisms it is then highly likely that you will be a witness from the ‘outside’ to the exponential growth of other companies and unfortunately not your own.

Jimmy’s’ accumulated learnings allows him to assist his team in building an ‘IPO’ compliant company that is formed with a collaborative approach towards a planned and well executed exit. That is part of his mind-set which is to do ‘big things’ and keep a distance from ‘small things’ for as an investor this man is always after exponential growth. He fosters a creation mind-set which is to create a bigger picture through leveraging and combining market and capital mechanisms.

One of the key ‘take always’ for me as an entrepreneur is to be much more open to collaboration in order to add value to others and in turn receive value such as exponential growth. Understanding the market mechanisms within your industry is not enough to multiply business performance, taking a keen interest in the capital mechanisms at play will take major strides towards actualising your bigger picture.

Read next: Entrepreneurship: How To Develop Your ‘Great Idea’

Continue Reading



Recent Posts

Follow Us

We respect your privacy. 
* indicates required.