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How Renay & Russell Tandy Have Survived 2 Recessions And Built A Successful Agency

In a tough market, Renay and Russell Tandy have weathered two recessions and continued to grow by focusing on being a niche agency.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

  • Players: Renay Tandy and Russell Tandy
  • Company: Ngage
  • Launched: 2006
  • Visit: ngage.co.za

As a niche marketing communications agency, Ngage’s founders Russell and Renay Tandy have had to think out the box to find and retain talented staff, win large clients and accounts, and compete against their much larger counterparts.

Here are their top five tactical lessons in building a business that has weathered two recessions while continuing to grow and prosper.

Related: How Flick Visual Foundry Found High Rewards By Taking A Narrow View

1. Leverage awards to build your reputation

Most industries have some form of industry award programme. Russell and Renay encourage all SME owners to enter every award programme available to them. “It’s a time consuming process, but it’s well worth the effort,” says Renay.

“We won Best Small PR Agency at the Prism Awards in 2013, and it made a huge difference to the business. It got our foot in the door with Afrox, which led to securing them as a client. Corporates like working with award-winning agencies.” They also want to see that you have a track record with large corporate clients, which means one large account usually leads to more.

In addition, Renay’s personal win as Best PR Professional in the same year, as well as a special mention for a project, meant that the company was able to attract a higher calibre of staff.

“An employee value proposition is incredibly important,” explains Russell. “The PR industry is very competitive, and it’s tough for smaller agencies, particularly one like ours, which works with industrial clients and not glamorous consumer brands, to compete on an equal footing with much larger agencies. The awards put us on the map as far as our industry is concerned. People suddenly knew who we were, and young PR professionals wanted to work with Renay, who they saw as a mentor. Best PR Professional is a coveted award that all PR execs should be aiming for, and so the chance to work with someone who has won it is a big draw.”

There’s another important reason to be involved in awards programmes though — they allow you to benchmark yourself against the industry standard. “Being involved in the Prism Awards gave us an unmatched opportunity to see how the industry as a whole is performing,” says Russell.

“We’ve also had years where we’ve won nothing, and that has shown us that we’ve needed to up our game.”

This drive to do better has led to results as well, as the team’s 2014 Gold Award for a Client Campaign can attest to. “This is such a tough category or us. Our clients are B2B, and in this particular case the campaign was a Hyundai Excavator, going up against consumer brands — and we won,” says Renay.

“That wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t constantly benchmarking ourselves and pushing to improve everything we do.”

Related: Turnover Doubling Every 10 Months – Honeybee Has Set Its Sights To Scale Speedily

2. Find a niche

ngage-commitment-to-customers

“We’ve become known as the agency for industry,” says Russell. “It’s been tempting to diversify over the years, and we did fall into the trap of adding products and services that the market didn’t want or need. We needed to learn that lesson and close a few things down. Ultimately though, we’ve learnt that the biggest power a business can have in terms of growth is a niche focus. We’re extremely good at helping industry clients grow brand awareness. We’ve added verticals like social media and multimedia to help our clients do this, but we’ve stuck to our core.

“There are so many industries that are new to PR, and multiple sub-sections in each. In many ways it’s an untapped market. Our patience in growing a niche brand is paying off though; we’re the go-to agency in this sector.”

3. Grow existing business

It’s a well-established business truth that it’s more cost effective to grow existing accounts than to find new clients. Ngage has done this by expanding its product offering and educating clients on the benefits of new media avenues.

“Social media started out as quite a hard sell for us,” says Renay. “South African industry didn’t see how it was relevant to them.” And so Renay and her team started researching what international companies were doing.

“We wanted to stay within our niche but expand our offering, particularly for existing clients. Social media and multi-media solutions were the obvious choice, but only if they were relevant and provided our clients with real return on investment,” explains Russell.

The research paid off. According to a Jonathan Wichmann case study, Maersk Line, one of the biggest shipping companies in the world, had at the time one of the largest social media presences, with over one million Facebook followers. “Your first response would be, ‘why does a commercial shipping company need a social media presence?’” says Renay.

“And yet they have this incredible content to share. Their ship captains are very involved, and people are interested in great, informative content that’s well curated.”

As Ngage saw it, South Africa’s industrial sector also has incredible content that no-one is hearing about. “We do so much R&D locally. There is a great deal of innovation happening in our industrial sector that no-one knows about.”

Even armed with this knowledge, Renay and Russell still had to offer it to their clients for free to get the ball rolling. “Instead of a hard sell, we decided to let the channel prove itself. The power of social media isn’t in sales. It’s in building brand awareness and creating connections. Prospective employees are finding out about the companies they want to work for online. Social media is an excellent way to show who you are, and what your brand stands for,” says Russell.

“The biggest challenge we faced was our clients saying that their clients aren’t on social media,” adds Renay. “But that’s not true. Companies might not be on social media, particularly in the South African B2B space, but people are. The CEO of your top account — or your top prospect’s account — is probably on Facebook or Twitter at night. This is the perfect way to engage their interest outside the ‘busyness’ of the office.

“This has been a powerful gap for us. Social media agencies aren’t PR agencies. We’re all about content, so we just needed to educate our clients and prove it worked, and it’s opened a whole new channel for us.”

Multimedia has worked in a similar way. Short videos say much more than pages of dry documents heavy in ‘industry-speak’ can do. “We’ve upskilled ourselves and keep everything in house, and again, we’ve built the division up slowly,” says Russell.

“We’re taking our clients on a journey, and we want everything we do to have strong foundations and be sustainable.”

Related: 3 Become 1: The Story Of How IS SME Business, MWEB Business and IS Ignite Merged

4. Create a working environment that others can’t match

Despite becoming an agency ‘on the map’, staff churn remains an industry-norm. “Getting noticed and attracting top talent just meant that now we had staff for other agencies to poach,” says Renay. Over the years, the entrepreneurs have tried a number of staff retention tactics.

“We even separated the business into divisions, and placed someone in charge of each division,” says Russell.

“They had part ownership, and we thought that would keep them motivated and loyal.” Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that you can’t force someone to think entrepreneurially. “When things were good it worked really well,” says Renay. “But when things got tough, it stopped working. No one was willing to take the hit with the wins.” Back to the drawing board then.

“We eventually realised that we needed to create an environment that other companies weren’t willing to do. We can’t compete on benefits, but we can offer something even more valuable: time and flexibility.”

Ngage’s core work day for senior staff is from 10am to 2pm. Employees are expected to work after hours as well, but they never sit in traffic, and they’re able to go to crossfit at 3pm or spend more time with their kids. “We’ve had to be completely transparent to make it work,” says Renay.

“If someone isn’t pulling their weight, they lose the privilege of flexi-time. Most will do anything to maintain it, and so you actually get better performing employees.” Junior and admin staff get one admin day off a month.

There is a caveat though: Don’t employ someone whose benefits were better than you can offer. “We interviewed someone who was a perfect candidate, except she was coming from a large corporate that offered an on-site masseuse for free, among other things. As much as we loved her, we knew we wouldn’t hold on to her. She was used to an office environment that we could never offer. To secure loyal employees, you need to be hiring individuals who are stepping up; not the other way around. We always dig into what their current office environment is like.”

5. Make it easy for clients to fire you

This is perhaps the most important tactic that Russell and Renay have used throughout their ten years in operation. “We don’t lock clients into their contracts. Agencies typically have long cancellation periods,” says Russell.

Related: ReWare Did One Crucial Thing That Most Entrepreneurs Are Too Afraid To Do

“You have teams working on an account, and if it’s a large account then those resources are 100% dedicated to that client. The problem is that these terms leave a bad taste in a client’s mouth, particularly if they need to cancel to save costs. No one likes admitting that they’re trimming their budgets, or that times are tough. The result is uncomfortable and often unpleasant conversations and bad breaks within the client/agency relationship.

“We’ve always approached it completely differently. Our smaller accounts have a 30-day notice period, and our large accounts three months, although if we can redirect those resources we will let them out of their contracts as soon as possible. We always say no problem if someone needs to cancel, we give them all their data, and we stay in touch. Our aim is to be as easy as possible to work with, and to maintain a good relationship so that it’s easy for them to come back to us, which they often do. We never burn bridges. It’s a short-sighted way to do business.”

Take note

People do business with people, not companies. The easier you make it for clients to work with you, the more they’ll want to give you their business — even if they’ve had to cancel a contract in the past.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Lessons Learnt

Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right

So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.

Louw Barnardt

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You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.

On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:

Leadership

The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.

Infrastructure

The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.

Market access

Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.

Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.

People

It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.

Strategy

It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.

Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.

Flawless execution

Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.

Finance

Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.

The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.

Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!

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Lessons Learnt

That Time Jeff Bezos Was The Stupidest Person In The Room

Everyone can benefit from simple advice, no matter who they are.

Gene Marks

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When you think of Jeff Bezos, a lot of things probably come to your mind.

You likely think of Amazon.com, a company he founded more than twenty years ago, that’s completely disrupted retail and online commerce as we know it. You probably also think of his entrepreneurial genius. Or the immense wealth that he’s built for himself and others. You may also think of drones, Alexa and same-day delivery. Bezos is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a cutthroat competitor and a game changer. He’s unquestionably a very, very smart man. But sometimes, he can be…well…stupid, too.

Like that time back in 1995.

That was when Amazon was just a startup operating from a 2,000 square foot basement in Seattle. During that period, Bezos and most of the handful of employees working for him had other day jobs. They gathered in the office after hours to print and pack up the orders that their fast-growing bookselling site was receiving each day from around the world. It was tough, grueling work.

The company at the time, according to a speech Bezos gave, had no real organisation or distribution. Worse yet, the process of filling orders was physically demanding.

“We were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor,” Bezos recalled. “I said to the person next to me ‘this packing is killing me! My back hurts, it’s killing my knees’ and the person said ‘yeah, I know what you mean.'”

Related: Jeff Bezos: 9 Remarkable Choices That Shaped The Richest Man In The World

Bezos, our hero, the entrepreneurial genius, the CEO of a now 600,000-employee company that’s worth around a trillion dollars and one of the richest men in the world today then came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “You know what we need,” he said to the employee as they packed boxes together. “What we need is…kneepads!”

The employee (Nicholas Lovejoy, who worked at Amazon for three years before founding his own philanthropic organisation financed by the millions he made from the company’s stock) looked at Bezos like he was — in Bezos’ words — the “stupidest guy in the room.”

“What we need, Jeff,” Lovejoy said, “are a few packing tables.” Duh.

So the next day Bezos – after acknowledging Lovejoy’s brilliance – bought a few inexpensive packing tables. The result? An almost immediate doubling in productivity. In his speech, Bezos said that the story is just one of many examples how Amazon built its customer-centered service culture from the company’s very early days. Perhaps that’s true. Then again, it could mean something else.

It could mean that sometimes, just sometimes, those successful, smart, wealthy and powerful people may not be as brilliant as you may think. Nor do they always have the right answers. Sometimes, just sometimes, they may actually be the stupidest guy in the room. So keep that in mind the next time you’re doing business with an intimidating customer, supplier or partner who appears to know it all. You might be the one with the brilliant idea.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

How Sureswipe Built Its Identity By Building A Strong Company Culture

Culture is unique to a business, it’s the reason why companies win or lose.

Nadine Todd

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A company’s culture is its identity and personality. Since this is closely linked to its brand and how it wants to be viewed by its employees, customers, competitors and the outside world, culture is critical. The challenge is understanding that culture contains unwritten rules and that certain behaviours that align to the culture the company is nurturing should be valued and cherished more than others.

At Sureswipe, the core of our culture is that we value people and what they are capable of. We particularly value people who are engaged, get on with the job, take initiative, are happy to get stuck in beyond their formal job descriptions, and who sometimes have to suck up a bit of pain to get through a challenge.

We include culture in everything we do, so it’s a fundamental element in our recruitment process. In addition to a skills and experience interview, each candidate undergoes a culture fit in the form of a values interview. We look for top performers who echo our core values (collaboration, courage, taking initiative, fairness and personal responsibility) and have real conviction about making a difference in the lives of independent retailers. If we don’t believe a candidate will be a culture fit, we won’t hire them.

If we make a mistake in the recruitment process, we won’t retain culture killers, even if they are top performers. This is such a tough lesson to learn, but it liberates a company and often improves overall company performance.

Culture should be cultivated, constantly communicated and used when making decisions. At Sureswipe, we often talk about what it takes to win and have simplified winning into three key elements: A simple, yet inspirational vision; the right culture; and a clear and focused strategy. The first and third elements can be copied from organisation to organisation. Culture on the other hand is unique to every business and can be a great influencer in its success.

Catch phrases on the wall are not the definition of culture

A strong culture is purposeful and evolving. It’s what makes a company great, but also exposes its weakness. No company is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad. Without it, we cannot ensure that we are protecting and building on the good and reducing or eradicating the bad.

Mistakes happen. That’s okay. But we are very purposeful about how mistakes are handled. Culturally we’re allergic to things being covered up or deflected and have had great learning moments as individuals and as an organisation when bad news travels fast. It’s liberating to ‘tell it like it is’ and almost always, with a few more minds on the problem at hand, things can be rectified with minimal impact.

Related: Starbucks Coffee Is All About Culture… For A Reason

Culture should be built on values that resonate with you and that you want to excel at. In our case, some are lived daily and others are aspirational in that we’re still striving for them. In each case we genuinely believe in them and encourage each other to keep living them. This increases the level of trust within the team, as there is consistency in how people are treated and how we get things done.

We are always inspired when, after sitting in our reception area, nine out of ten visitors will comment on the friendliness of staff. We hear their remarks about how friendly the Sureswipe team is or a potential candidate will talk about the high level of energy and positivity they experience throughout the interview process.

These are indicators that our culture is alive and well. It’s these components of our culture — friendliness, helpfulness and positivity — that cascade into how we do business and how we treat our customers and people in general. Being able to describe your culture and support it with real life examples is a great way to communicate and promote the type of behaviour that is important and recognised within the organisation.

Culture doesn’t just happen

We are fortunate that culture has always been important to us, even if it wasn’t clearly defined in our early days. As we grew it became important to be more purposeful in the evolution of our culture. About four years ago, the senior leadership team and nominated cultural or values icons were mandated to relook all things cultural.

A facilitator said to us, “You really love it when people take the initiative, and get very frustrated when they don’t.” That accurate insight became core to our values. We love to see people proactively solve problems, take responsibility for their own growth, initiate spontaneous events, change their tactics or implement new ideas. It energises us and aligns to the way we do business.

We celebrate growth and love to see our staff getting promoted due to their hard work and perseverance. We recently had one of our earliest technicians get promoted to the Regional Manager of Limpopo. It was one of the best moments of 2018.

Be purposeful with culture, describe it, communicate it and use it in all aspects of business. Culture should change. Don’t allow phrases like ‘this is not how we do things,’ or, ‘the culture here is changing,’ to stifle the growth and development of your culture. When done correctly change is a good thing. Culture is driven from the top but at the end of the day it’s a company-wide initiative. Design it together with team members from different parts of the organisation to get the most from it. And then make sure everyone lives and breathes it.

Cost Cutting

The best ROI is achieved when you stop wasting money.

Peter Drucker once said that businesses have two main functions — marketing and innovation — that produce results. “All the rest are costs.”

If you agree, that means that the average business has a lot of fat to trim. Obviously you can go overboard trying to cut costs too. My philosophy has been to look at some of the general areas where you can add some efficiency but not at the expense of impairing your most valuable resource — your focus.

The following cost-cutting measures will do that. Think of these as adding value to your company, whether it’s time, creativity or a closer connection to your consumers.

Related: Wise Words From wiGroup On Building A “Wow” Company Culture

Uncover inefficiencies in your process

This is where I begin. In fact, it was analysing the inefficiencies of legal communication and knowledge sharing that led me to create Foxwordy, the digital collaboration platform for lawyers. I noticed that attorneys in our clients’ legal departments were drafting new documents from scratch when they could pool their knowledge and save time by using language that a trusted colleague had employed in a similar document. Business is all about process. When you create a new process, or enhance an existing process, you will drive cost efficiency.

Refine your process, then automate

If existing processes are lacking, it is time to create process. If you have processes, but they are not driving efficiency, it’s time to redefine your process. Either way, a key second step is refining processes that are needed in your business. Only then can you go to automation, since automating without a process will result in chaos — and won’t save time or money. Similarly, automating a poor process is not going to give you the cost-saving results you are looking for.

Thanks to the Cloud, there are very accessible means of automating manual processes. For instance, you can automate bookkeeping functions with FreshBooks and use chatbots to interface with clients — for very basic information. If you’re a retailer, a chatbot on your site can explain your return policy or address other frequently asked questions. Automating such processes allows you to spend more time focusing on clients and customers. Technology alone isn’t a panacea for all business functions, but if you find something you’re doing manually that can be automated, take a look and consider how much time and process definition automation would save you.

Rethink your outreach

Marketing and outreach are usually big and important challenges for an organisation. In my experience, there are two main components to successful marketing — knowing your customers and using the most effective media to spread your message. For the first part, I recommend polling. There are various online survey services that offer an instant read on what your customers are thinking. You may think business is humming along, but a survey could reveal that while consumers like your product, a few tweaks would make it even better.

For the second part — marketing messaging — once you have a firm idea of your marketing messaging, Facebook is a great vehicle for outreach. The ability to granularly target customers and create Lookalike audiences (from around 1 000 consumers) can help grow your business.

Related: Take Responsibility For Your Company’s Culture To Boost Productivity

Scrutinise your spend history

There are tools that can help you assess spend history and find cost-cutting opportunities. For example, you might be able to take advantage of rewards or loyalty programmes to reduce common business expenses, like travel, or consolidate vendors for a similar function. If you have a long-standing relationship with a vendor, negotiate better pricing.

The most important elements to keep in mind are resources that make your company special. Your company may be built on one person’s reputation and expertise. Guard against tarnishing that reputation with inappropriate messaging in advertising or social media. If your company’s special sauce is intellectual property, protect that too. But everything else — ranging from physical property to salary and benefits — are costs and should be considered negotiable. — Monica Zent

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