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Howard Blake Stays Hungry With His Innovation Strategy

Staying agile and innovative isn’t easy, especially when you’re running a large and established operation that’s been around for decades. Howard Blake, however, has managed it. Entrepreneur finds out how he stays hungry and keeps his finger on the pulse of innovation.

Paul Smith

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Key Learnings

  • Stay at the edge of innovation. Disrupt your own operation before someone else does it.
  • Don’t treat risk as a dirty word. The key to growth often lies in embracing calculated risk.
  • Diversify without losing focus. Create verticals that complement and feed off each other.
  • Innovation and execution are not the same. They need different approaches.

Howard Blake started his business when he had nothing more than a typewriter and a scooter to his name. He would work from his kitchen and visit clients on his scooter. But those days are far behind him. Today, Blake owns a large international company that’s been in operation for more than 25 years and is worth around R350 million.

This is not a bad position to be in — who wouldn’t want to grow their business so successfully? But it does bring its own challenges.

Like an aircraft carrier or cruise ship, a large company has the size and heft to survive stormy waters, but it also turns very slowly. Change is not instantaneous, and in our modern business world, this is becoming increasingly problematic.

While large operations find themselves stuck in a whirlpool of corporate governance and risk management, small, agile operations are leapfrogging over them and disrupting established industries. One need only look to companies such as Uber and Airbnb for examples of this. Taxi operations and hotel chains all over the world are being threatened by companies that they failed to even identify as competitors.

Related: 5 Things Warren Buffett Does After Work

How does one safeguard against this? For Howard Blake, the answer is simple: Never allow yourself to become complacent.

Disrupt yourself

When Blake started his business, he did so by innovating and disrupting the way things were done.

“When I started in 1990, if you had a fax machine, you were at the leading edge of technological innovation. Most businesses weren’t utilising computers properly yet. I looked at the way people were processing legal documents, and I thought it should be automated. At the time, collecting debt was slow and laborious, so I developed a computer-based system that sped up the process,” recalls Blake.

Now, the rate of innovation is much faster, which makes it harder to stay on top of new technologies. And the fact that Blake is managing a large operation with thousands of employees can make it tricky to roll out new systems and technologies.

So, to bring about constant change and innovation, he forces his company to ‘disrupt itself’. “We take nothing for granted,” says Blake. “Every six months, we reassess the business. It’s like an airplane teardown. We take everything apart for inspection. We used to do it every 18 months, but the rate of change is now too rapid for that.”

The aim is to find ways in which things can be done in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. “We don’t mind disrupting our own services and product offerings. If there’s a better way to do something, we pursue it.

“You need to open your mind and put your prejudices behind you. It’s almost a philosophical thing — you need to fundamentally question what you’re doing. Don’t believe you’re doing things in the best way. Humility is important.”

Blake is also weary of processes that become routine. “Nowadays, as soon as something becomes routine, the profit line tends to take a dip. Your product or service won’t exist in its current form in five years’ time. If you’re not innovating, you’re dying.”

Embrace risk

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For Howard Blake, risk is not a bad thing. In fact, he believes embracing risk is an important component of long-term survival. Companies have become exceptionally risk averse, and this is impeding their ability to innovate and grow.

“Risk has become a dirty word in the business world, something we all take great pains to avoid. We hire risk management companies and take out risk insurance to help us minimise risk,” says Blake.

“The problem is that many enterprises take an extreme approach to minimising risk, pigeonholing themselves in the process. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the benefits of constantly moving out of your comfort zone and taking calculated risks. Rejecting the status quo is one of the main reasons that Blake Holdings has grown from a one-man show to a R350-million business over the course of 26 years.”

He does not, however, suggest that companies adopt a laissez-faire approach to risk management.

“As the skeletons of many failed start-ups can attest to, it’s all about calculated risk. From the start, we employed a scientific approach to the collection business in order to create better default prediction models. This approach saw us secure important clients such as Foschini and Truworths.”

You want to avoid what Opsware founder and angel investor Andy Horowitz calls ‘stupid risk’. Good risk brings with it the potential for tremendous reward. Stupid risk offers little chance of corresponding reward. 

Related: How To Build Your Business Like A Boss

Diversify

Diversification is notoriously tricky. While embracing multiple verticals can certainly result in more revenue streams, it can also lead to a loss of focus and the relinquishing of a hard-won market position.

Once one of the stalwarts of the American business world, the RCA Corporation (originally the Radio Corporation of America) decided to diversify in the 1960s and 1970s. RCA wanted to become a conglomerate, and therefore decided to acquire companies that focused on industries as diverse as carpeting, frozen foods and car rentals. Things did not go well. These endeavours had a disastrous effect on the company’s bottom line.

Frustrated employees purportedly even started referring to RCA as Rugs, Chickens and Automobiles. This attempt at diversification was one in a long list of bad decisions – decisions that ultimately resulted in RCA being purchased and broken up by GE.

But there are countless examples of companies that managed to diversify very successfully: Disney was once just an animation studio, today it has its fingers in countless pies, including a list of theme parks. Once purely a maker of computers, the bulk of Apple’s revenue now comes from cellphones. One of Amazon’s biggest money makers, meanwhile, is its cloud-computing service, which boasts a long list of large companies as clients.

“Diversifying successfully requires a careful balancing act,” says Blake. “You don’t want to lose focus completely.”

It also helps if there is some cross-pollination between your various ventures.
In the case of RCA, the company was throwing the net too wide. Apple applied
its technology and flair for design to a related field.

“While Blake Holdings may have begun as a collections company, it utilises its technology — alongside its already-existing databases — to render services across the verticals of contact centres, customer service, customer analytics, WiFi, marketing and data analytics, to name a few,” says Blake.

“These specialties all build and feed off each other, making it easier to not only launch successful new ventures, but also to hone the innovation capabilities of the existing ventures. With the advent of the digital age, previously distinct verticals have now become converged business solutions.”

Think like a start-up

The Virtual Agent is a recent addition to the Blake family of companies and an excellent example of the organisation’s approach to diversification.

“The Virtual Agent is a realty solutions company that has emerged from our experience in database services. And, like many of the successful ventures we’ve undertaken over the last decades, it wouldn’t have come to be if not for a curiosity to seek out new ways of making things better and improving industries,” says Blake.

Getting The Virtual Agent off the ground wasn’t easy, though. The Blake organisation was sailing into unchartered waters, and not everyone was convinced it was a good idea.

Related: Work Smarter Says Matsi Modise

To push the project through, Blake adopted a lean start-up approach. With Debbie Leo-Smith (an ex-estate agent) heading up product development, creation of The Virtual Agent offering was kept small and cost-effective.

“We brought The Virtual Agent to market very quickly. It was an industry ripe for disruption, and we acted decisively. The venture broke even five months after we came up with the concept. That’s the speed at which you need to operate, even within a large organisation. There’s a hunger, a desire to innovate that tends to fade into the background the more resources a business has access to. If you want to be successful, you need to find a way of holding onto that hunger.”

Paul Smith is a writer and startup scientist. He currently manages an accelerator, Ignitor, which helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Ignitor has developed a new model that significantly improves early stage start-ups odds of success. His primary research interests include understanding the behaviours of expert entrepreneurs, as well as, how to most effectively support high potential start-ups. Follow him on Twitter and visit his website.

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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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