Connect with us

Lessons Learnt

Karl Westvig On Why Passion And Knowledge Drive Success (Together)

Starting a business is easy. You need a white board, a cool idea, and a small amount of cash to get you started. That’s Karl Westvig’s view of entrepreneurship.

Nadine Todd




“I’m a builder. I view business as a puzzle. I picture it, work out what needs to go where in terms of skills, capabilities and solutions, and then I put it together,” explains Karl Westvig, co-founder of Retail Capital.

In 1999, Karl was instrumental in launching and growing RCS, the Foschini Group’s consumer finance business. “We monetised Foschini’s store-card base by creating personal loan products. Once we’d proven the model, we offered third-party credit to the customer bases of others.”

Then, in 2005, Standard Bank acquired a 45% equity stake in RCS, buying out the management share, and giving Karl and his management team an exit. Karl had a three-year contract to work out, but by 2008 he had a decent bank balance, and a blank piece of paper to fill.

“I could have had a small retirement, but I really wasn’t ready for that. I was in my 30s, and I’d had too much fun building RCS. I wanted to build something new. I took a sabbatical to Lake Como in Italy, and set up an Angel investment fund, Como Capital. I wanted to look for interesting opportunities and build them out, but I didn’t want to be involved in the day-to-day operations.”

He invested in five different businesses over two years — and learnt a host of expensive lessons.

“Lesson one, if you don’t have a deep understanding of an industry, you’re unlikely to be successful,” says Karl. “The credit-related businesses I’m involved in are a success; others have been less successful. You can read extensively, but if it’s not your core industry, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

For example, one of the businesses Karl invested in is a self-service recruitment portal. “Our idea was to cut out the middle man — agencies — which made sense to us. We thought we’d revolutionise the industry with our app. But, good tech and great people aren’t enough if you don’t understand your industry. Recruitment is entrenched in corporates. We needed buy-in from people who didn’t engage with technology, and felt the value proposition of our offering threatened their positions. We couldn’t get traction. Plus, the most successful recruitment platform, LinkedIn, was already happening, mobilising people and data.”

Related: Striata Founder Mike Wright Gives Top Advice On Going Global

Karl’s second big lesson was that it’s easy to start one, even five businesses — but when they all need you at the same time, you have five failing companies. “Start-ups are fun,” he says. “You need a white board, you brainstorm cool stuff, you partner with great people and put some cash in. What’s hard is when things aren’t going well and the business needs you full-time.

“Some of the businesses lost money, one broke-even, one made money, and one’s a great business — that’s Retail Capital. The difference between it and the other four was that as a credit-related business, it was in my wheelhouse. My founding partner also came from a credit background. He spotted the opportunity and we launched together. I was very involved in the start-up — underwriting deals, policies and hiring people, but as the business grew, Dave handled the day-to-day operations. The company didn’t need two bosses.”

For Karl, a successful business needs two things: Passion and knowledge. “We had both. When Dave stepped down and I took over the reins, I knew that to continue feeding my passion as a builder, I had to view the platform we were building as a launchpad for other initiatives. Instead of being involved in other start-ups, I added other products by leveraging the Retail Capital brand, balance sheet and credibility. When you build a business, you create a credit history and a track record. If you leave, you start again from zero. That’s how I continue to tick my personal boxes.”

Karl continues to be a builder within the business. “There are always areas to improve and grow,” he says. “High-growth organisations have different needs to start-ups, but they are still puzzles that need solutions. That’s my focus. Finding ways to continuously build and improve this organisation, for the business and everyone who works for it or does business with us.”

retail-capital-logoIt’s all about the people: The Inner workings of Retail Capital

Here are the top nine lessons Karl Westvig and his team have learnt about motivating, retaining and managing employees.

1. Equity is a misnomer

People place more emotional than economic value on shares. A minority shareholding in a small or untraded business has limited liquidity. The only way you can get something out is if a big buyer comes along.

I believe it’s better to create a structure where top employees participate in the economics of the business and feel like shareholders, but they have an exit opportunity through share option schemes. If you’re using shares to reward or retain top employees, make sure there’s an exit plan.

2. Without net promoter scores, how can you know what’s going on in your business?

We spend a lot of time on our culture internally, and we use net promoter scores for staff and customers to ensure we’re on the right track. At the end of each month we phone every customer we’ve advanced to during the previous month and ask them if they’d recommend us to another company for funding. If we don’t score a 9 or 10, we ask why, and then immediately follow up. We have a full time CRM manager who visits customers to resolve issues.

We run a staff engagement survey biannually, including a net promoter score that asks whether staff would recommend us as a workplace. 9s and 10s are promoters, passives score 7s and 8s, and anyone who scores a 6 and below is a detractor.

Related: 4 Tips To Become A Team Whisperer (And Improve Your Employee Engagement)

3. We take employee experiences seriously

Net promoter scores aren’t just about gauging how happy your employees are. We implemented Gallup’s Q12 survey in 2015, and it’s helped us tackle challenges head-on. The questions are straightforward: Do you understand what’s required of you? Do you have a best friend at work? Do you have all the tools required for you to do your job? Do your peers do as good a job as you do? Have you received recognition in the last seven days from your manager and so on. These questions hone in on your business. We present the findings back to our staff — it’s completely transparent — but we’re also able to pick up on underlying issues that might otherwise be missed.

For example, one of our top sales consultants became a sales manager. Because he was so good, his team kept growing — until it outgrew him. Without this survey, we wouldn’t have realised he needed help until he left or we lost important members of his team. Instead, we were able to scale his team back and put him on a more controlled growth path. This also alerted us to the consequences of outpacing our own growth. There’s always a lag between growth and resources, but if we can see how this affects our employees, we can manage it.

4. Sales is a personal experience, support this

A few years ago, we implemented an ‘explorers’ programme by partnering one call centre agent with two sales consultants. Instead of cold calling, the explorers worked with their sales consultants to set up strategic meetings in specific areas each day, attending some as training. This enabled explorers to develop into consultants.

But something unexpected happened. The number of appointments booked doubled. We realised it was because instead of following a script, hitting a call quota each day and then starting from zero again, the outbound call centre agents were booking meetings for a specific person, and then receiving feedback. The loop was being closed, and it was highly motivating.

5. Think long-term

As we started growing, we needed managers, particularly in sales, and the natural inclination was to promote someone from within. Because we didn’t want to miss out on sales, we let our sales managers continue to sell, competing with their own teams. We soon realised that this was in conflict with the long term value they offered as the team’s support structure.

6. Create a higher purpose for everyone

It’s natural within a sales-driven organisation to have a big sales conference each year and ignore everyone else. We realised this was damaging the company’s morale, and driving a wedge between sales and back-office staff, who needed to work together.

People are scared of changing structures because they fear losing sales people, but by doing so, we reenergised the company. We turned the sales conference into a company conference, bringing everyone together. This led to a marked increase in commitment and overall performance.

When I first arrived, there was unproductive rivalry between sales and underwriting. Sales pushed deals and underwriting said no. By bringing them together at a conference, they started chatting to each other and understanding the process and what would and wouldn’t go through. It broke down barriers and helped deal flow.

As soon as you create a higher purpose, much of that kind of rivalry goes away, and everyone starts looking at the bigger picture, and how things can be achieved together.

7. Belief is half the battle won

We rebranded the business in March 2017. This was the culmination of a lot of changes, and we wanted to pull them all together and give everyone a sense of unified purpose.

Throughout the journey we kept talking about growth. At that stage we were growing at 15% per annum, and we said our aim was 50%. Our sales team said it wasn’t possible. It is, we said. Within two years, instead of doing R15 million a month, we will do R30 million. They still didn’t believe us, and then the metrics started ticking up because of all the other changes we’d made. As the metrics climbed, everyone started believing, and the metrics climbed higher. Belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Related: Why Innovative Employee Benefits Are Your Competitive Advantage

8. Anything is possible

Two years ago, it took five days to process a deal. I asked our executive responsible for underwriting why it couldn’t be one day. He said that wasn’t possible. ‘Of course it’s possible. Your task is to find a way. How long will you need?’ His response was two months. I told him he had one week, but he didn’t need to do it alone. ‘Gather everyone involved in the process into a room and map it out, then figure out what needs to be fixed.’

By that Friday he reported back to me completely excited. ‘We don’t need to do all the stuff we’ve been doing that takes so long,’ he said. The exercise had revealed how many steps in the process were unnecessary, and they were able to cut deal processing down from five days to two days.

Within two months this simple change radically improved customer experience, gave more visibility to sales people who could understand the process, automated a lot of our business, but most importantly, it changed everyone’s mindsets.

When you have unrealistic expectations of people, it’s amazing how they surprise themselves — and then become the biggest advocates of that change.

This is why an organisation’s belief system is so important. You can have great people, but if they don’t believe, you’ll never have the business you can have. Once they believe, it’s amazing what you can achieve.

9. Foster an active culture

Every business either has an active or passive culture. In passive cultures, the business operates and people carry on. Within that environment, a person might be positively impacting those around them, or doing the exact opposite.  In business terms this is known as ‘white anting’, eating the ant’s nest from the inside out. It’s highly destructive. There will always be a passive majority. They don’t hold strong views about the organisation and they just operate. The active minority share their views. These can be positive or negative. If they’re negative in a passive culture, they start controlling the information flow and views within your organisation — like a cancer. But if you’re actively managing your culture, they get exposed.

You can quickly identify who doesn’t want to be there and who is disengaged. Sitting in their office, they won’t be noticed, but on an office breakaway you’ll see who is engaged and who isn’t. Once you’ve identified them you need to determine if you can convert them. These are people with views — if you understand why they are negative and can convert them, you can create a powerful positive influencer within the organisation, but if you can’t you need to exit them.

Whatever you do, foster an active culture. The passive majority will push back at white-anters if you manage your culture. They won’t tolerate negativity in their midst. If you don’t, they take over.

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

Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

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




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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

Continue Reading

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




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

You likely think of, 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

Continue Reading

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




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

Continue Reading



Recent Posts

Follow Us

We respect your privacy. 
* indicates required.