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How Robert Brown Achieved Next Level Growth And Long-Term Success

It’s not often that an individual manages to bootstrap a business, substantially grow it over two decades, and then successfully negotiate an acquisition by an overseas company. DRS CEO Robert Brown managed exactly this — so successfully, in fact, that he is now also the CEO of Nasdaq-listed company, Cognosec.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Robert Brown
  • Position: CEO and founder
  • Company: DRS (Dynamic Recovery Services)
  • Est: 1997
  • About: DRS is an ICT company that specialises in information security, IT risk management and IT governance services and solutions. The company was launched more than two decades ago with just R2 000, but today counts many listed companies amongst its clients. It was acquired a few years ago by Swedish company Cognosec AB. In January 2016, Robert Brown was appointed as CEO of Cognosec.
  • Visit: www.drs.co.za

When it comes to bootstrapping a business how important is cashflow? What role does it play?

Cashflow is everything. If you want to be successful, you need to know exactly what’s going on in your business’s bank account.

  • How much is coming in?
  • How much is going out?
  • Who owes you money?
  • Who do you owe?
  • When will they pay?
  • When do you need to pay?

These questions are all crucial. Many people see money coming into a bank account and assume that the business is profitable. Of course, this is not the case. Only when more is coming in than is going out is the business actually profitable. Unfortunately, if you want to know what is really going on in your business, you need to pay attention to the paperwork. Many entrepreneurs hate paperwork and are pretty bad at it, but it can’t be ignored.

You have to sweat the details. You can bring on a bookkeeper or accountant, but that doesn’t absolve you from all financial responsibility. As the founder or CEO, you should have detailed knowledge of the company’s financial situation at all times.

Related: 8 Valuable And Inspirational Web Series You Should Check Out

Where does budgeting feature in this?

Budgeting is very important. You need to create a detailed budget. However, the budget is useless if it doesn’t reflect reality. Don’t exaggerate income and minimise expenses. Entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic people, but this is one instance in which a serious dose of reality is very useful. In fact, don’t just be realistic — assume that a disaster will hit. Create a ‘worst case’ scenario.

As the saying goes: Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

What would you identify as one of the DRS’ key inflection points?

Probably when the company passed that 50-employee threshold. In my experience, once a business grows beyond 50 people, things change fundamentally. Systems and processes that worked well until then, suddenly start breaking down.

So, once your business reaches that size, I think you need to be willing to reevaluate the basic structure of the organisation. Chances are, some big things will need to change. When the business is growing quickly, it’s easy to blow past this point without giving it much thought, but you’ll end up paying for it down the line. Once again, sweat the details. The earlier you start implementing the necessary systems and processes, the less painful the experience will be.

How did you manage the growth of DRS? How did you know that the time was right to enter that next cycle of growth?

In my opinion, you should find the work, and then find the people needed to do that work. In other words, you don’t want to be over capacity. If you do this, you run the risk of spending more than you’re making. Instead, go out there, find work, and then expand.

Don’t expand and then hope that you’ll be able to find work to keep everyone busy. Also, landing a couple of good long-term contracts can give you the breathing room needed to grow.

If you know that some steady money will be coming in over the next couple of years, you have more freedom to grow.

Related: Which Of These 7 Personality Traits Do You Share With The World’s Richest People?

How do you minimise risk when growing a company? How do you set it up for long-term success?

Never have one product and never have one customer. Too many companies become over reliant on a single product or a single large client. That’s incredibly risky. Instead, you want multiple revenue streams. You want to sell multiple products to lots of clients.

There are plenty of examples in history of companies that built an empire on a single piece of technology, and when that technology became obsolete, these companies disappeared. Similarly, young companies sometimes land a huge contract that becomes the engine for massive growth. When that contract suddenly disappears, the company folds. If you want to create a company that thrives in the long term, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

DRS became a Cognosec AB subsidiary a few years ago. What made you decide to sell?

If you want your company to grow and prosper beyond you, the founder, you need to be willing to accept change. The last thing you want is to remain central to the success of the company decades after the launch. You need to think about your exit, even if you don’t plan on leaving the company in the near future.

Even if you don’t intend to exit at all, you still don’t want to be responsible for every decision.

That’s not how you create a large and healthy organisation. Start putting the people and structures in place that will allow you to exit as soon as you can. For me, Cognosec AB made a lot of sense. It was a company that I believed would increase the options available to DRS and its people. By joining an international organisation, we really went to the next level.

Related: 15 Great TED Talks For Sparking Creativity (Infographic)

What is the key to long-term success?

It’s the people. A lot of business leaders say this, of course, but that just proves how true it is. Without great people, you cannot build a great business. You might enjoy some short-term success, but the business won’t last for decades. When your business grows, especially if it’s growing quickly, it’s all too easy to hire the wrong people or to lose control of the culture. When you do this, the business suffers.

One of our greatest achievements as a company, and what I believe has been key to our success, has been our ability to help individuals grow and prosper. We have many long-time employees who have worked themselves up from incredibly junior positions into leadership roles. That’s given us a depth of knowledge and a feeling of family that have been instrumental in our success.

GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.

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

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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.

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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

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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 FutureLab.my – 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

And

“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.

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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

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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’

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