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Spark Schools: Adapting At The Speed Of Scale

SPARK Schools is a disruptive educational business model that has garnered so much investor interest, its founder, Stacey Brewer, has secured R200 million in funding. Here’s how she’s turning a traditional, entrenched industry on its head to solve real problems and bring about systemic change.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Stacey Brewer
  • Co-founder: Ryan Harrison
  • Company: SPARK Schools
  • No of schools in network: 15
  • 2019 goal: ± 12 000 students and 20 schools
  • Est: 2013
  • Visit: www.sparkschools.co.za

In 2012, Stacey Brewer raised R4,5 million in her first round of funding. It gave her an 18-month runway to focus on launching her low-fee private school model, SPARK Schools. This was followed by R28 million from an international fund, the Pearson Group’s Affordable Learning Fund. The business’s most recent round of funding was a Series B round that raised R150 million in 2016, taking SPARK’s overall funding to R200 million.

“We’ve committed to having 20 schools by 2019, which will enable us to educate 12 000 children,” says Stacey. “Our investors still expect a 10X return, but it’s ‘patient’ capital, designed to support impactful business models. Educational companies are highly valued. They provide a good annuity income, but investors also love what we do because we’re focused on achieving systemic change, and funds are looking for that. More and more, funding mandates are focused on the greater good.

“This is still a business though. One school is not a business — you can’t scale it, and so there’s no growth opportunity. If you can build a network of schools however, you can benefit from economies of scale.”

Here’s how Stacey and her team are turning the traditional education model on its head, and in so doing, are providing value for children, parents and their funders alike.

If that’s how it’s always been done, it’s time to do things differently

spark-schools-growthAs a low-cost private school, SPARK aims to make a quality private school education accessible to parents who cannot afford traditional private school fees. What Stacey and her team soon learnt however, is that everyone is looking for quality, irrespective of social and economic status.

“When we started, we thought our price would be a huge selling point. We soon realised it actually switched people off. There was an assumption that you get what you pay for, and that low fees mean a poor-quality education,” says Stacey. “South Africa is very aspirational, and people want the best for their children.

Related: 4 Leadership Lessons You Won’t Learn In Business School

“We needed to reposition what we were doing and focus on the fact that our schools have a modern, aspirational look and feel, and that we deliver a quality education. Once we had driven those points home, we could discuss price. Now that we’re becoming known and our kids are our ambassadors, this is a different story, but it was very important when we launched.

“Parents vote with their feet — just being cheap isn’t enough. We’ve received the investment we have because we’ve developed a model that’s both affordable and can compete internationally.”

A full year’s tuition at SPARK for 2018 is R21 000. How do you provide a quality educational experience at a fraction of the traditional price? To start with, you need to embrace a disruptive mindset.

Stacey says ‘no’ to doing anything the traditional way, as this will immediately drive up the school’s price point, and the business will lose its ‘why’.

So, what’s the solution? “You need to embrace your constraints. It takes a special person to be involved in our team. We need individuals with a high level of accountability, and who can focus on being lean and agile. But it’s amazing what we come up with when we’re forced to think out the box. Raising our fees is the easy answer, and once you go that route it doesn’t stop. Instead, we need to be excited by the opportunity to come up with solutions given the constraints we’re faced with.

“If I hear the words ‘because this is how we’ve always done it’ or ‘that’s how it works’, I immediately know I have to change it. Too much is done simply because it’s always been done that way. If you want to change an industry, you need to find completely new solutions to the same problems.”

The big idea

Let’s take a step back to how the idea for SPARK Schools originated. Stacey was studying an MBA in Entrepreneurship at GIBS (the Gordon Institute of Business Science). During her economics lectures she discovered that although a high percentage of South Africa’s budget is allocated to education, South Africa still ranks amongst the worst education systems in the world. “I wanted to understand what was going wrong, and to research what the solution could be,” she says.

Stacey wasn’t planning on launching a new and disruptive education model, but she did need a theme for her thesis, and she wanted to address a real problem.

“I believe that all entrepreneurs should be advancing the human race. We need to question what we’re doing to change society. What problem are you solving? How are you making the world a better place? How are you making it more sustainable?

“This view meant I gravitated towards one of the biggest problems I believe we face as our country. One of my professors agreed. She liked the thesis topic, and advised me to start networking in that space. I needed to get on the map and speak to other like-minded people who were interested in education.”

Stacey took her professor’s advice, and started networking. “This was how I met our first angel investor, David Gibb, who was on sabbatical after resigning from his position as head of research at STANLIB. At the time I had no plans to start this business, which meant funding wasn’t even a thought, but I found a very supportive mentor who is very passionate about business and education.

“Dave and I had incredible discussions around the problem, and what the solution needed to take into account. I still had no concrete ideas of actually launching a school, but I was on a path that clearly showed we needed to create something completely new. Tweaking the current model wouldn’t be enough.

“The MBA and my thesis also forced me to take a deep dive into my research. I’m not sure start-ups always do this, and certainly not to the level I took it. But it’s been a very important success factor for us. The research I conducted while completing my thesis has allowed us to position ourselves very well within our market. More importantly, it helped us get from ‘what?’ to ‘how?’”

Related: Why You Need A Million-Dollar Pitch Before Your Start a Business

Thanks to Dave and Stacey’s own tenacity, she was also developing a strong network in the educational space. “Dave introduced me to the blended learning model in the US. He then offered to fund a trip overseas so that we could evaluate if the tech the blended learning model is based on would be feasible in South Africa.”

It was at this stage that Stacey asked Ryan Harrison, a tech-savvy friend from university, to join her on the trip. “I understood the educational landscape, but not the tech — I asked Ryan to join me so that he could evaluate whether or not it suited our local conditions.”

Stacey and Ryan returned to South Africa, and she knew this wasn’t just an idea or a thesis anymore. “I knew I was going to open a school. Ryan was also excited by the concept and wanted to join me. Our trip introduced us to Rocketship Public Schools, who have pioneered blended learning in the US. They were very open to us, and shared everything they’re doing. This feeds back to purpose — they want to change education and solve a real need, and they’re supportive of anyone who shares that passion. Two of their staff came and joined us when we launched, and one is still with us today.”

The lesson: Stacey didn’t start out thinking she wanted to launch a business and trying to figure out what that would be. Instead, she found something she was passionate about — something she knew was broken and needed real, innovative solutions to fix. That passion led her down a path where she learnt as much as possible about the topic, met other passionate people with ideas and solutions to share, and finally developed a model that would help her solve a societal need and drive systemic change.

Matching problems with solutions

spark-schools-logoOnce Stacey and her co-founder Ryan had their big idea, they needed to launch. A school (or more specifically a network of schools) requires capital. You can’t bootstrap a school. This is one more reason why you need an idea that will drive real change (and returns) — something investors are increasingly looking for.

“David Gibb gave us some seed funding and bridged the gap to find formal investment, and GIBS introduced us to a network of angel investors. This was how we raised our first round of funding of R4,5 million to launch our first school.”

Interestingly, raising funding isn’t just about pitching your business to investors — it’s also a dialogue between the entrepreneurs and their investors. At the end of the day, it’s in everyone’s best interests for the business to do well.

“At that stage, we were looking at buying or building a school,” says Stacey. “Our investors disagreed. Their advice was that we prove the model instead of focusing on property. We needed to focus all of our attention on the problem at hand. What makes education expensive?”

The basic premise of all innovation and disruption is starting with the problem. If you can clearly define the problem, the solution will often start to present itself.

In the case of education, particularly providing low-income earners quality but affordable education, the problem is cost. “Infrastructure and salaries are the two biggest costs. To bring down fees, you need fewer teachers and smaller spaces. You also need to achieve both while improving quality. That’s the benchmark. Once we knew that, we just needed to figure out how to do it.”

An added element was the investment component. Funders are interested in businesses that can scale. As we’ve already mentioned, one school is not a business. But a network of schools is. Once you have a network, you can leverage economies of scale, which is when investors start seeing their returns.

“Once we were introduced to the blended learning model, we realised it was exactly what we were looking for. The traditional model doesn’t support low fee solutions. We needed a different solution. I did not want to rely on donor funding.

“NGOs become too dependent on donors and end up struggling over time. They’re also constantly needing to raise cash. I want SPARK to live far beyond me. If we built it properly from the beginning, with decent margins and a sustainable price point, we knew we’d get investors on board — particularly because so many funds are now interested in creating systemic change as well.

“We quickly realised blended learning was the solution we were looking for. It’s a model that drives cost efficiencies by focusing on the utilisation of assets. It’s also data rich, which drives quality. Most importantly, it can be scaled.

“At first, we were fast followers, now we’re evolving into leaders in this space. Our delivery of quality at our price point is one of the best in the world. We never, ever throw cash at a problem. Instead, we rethink and redo the system — that’s where we know we’ll find the solutions we need.”

The lesson: Start with the right problem and you will find a solution. If you aren’t clear on the problem though, you’ll be working around it, either following existing solutions or making assumptions about what people need. You need to dig into the detail. The problems that really need solving are often complex, so learn to interrogate things from every angle.

Forget IQ and EQ, what you need is AQ

Stacey is a firm believer that the success of SPARK is rooted in her team’s AQ, or Adaptability Quotient. “We’ve gathered a team of smart thinkers who are able to adapt quickly to new challenges, based on the ingrained idea that the old solutions won’t work. The problem is that you’re unlikely to be adaptable if you don’t also have passion.

“The name for our schools comes from William Yates, who said that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. It’s about igniting passion, and we needed that same passion to really start solving our education crisis. We want to spark a change across the country.

“I bring passion, and my team has passion and common purpose — when you have these ingredients, you figure things out,” says Stacey. “When you’re constrained, both in terms of cash and human capital, you need to be smart. We call it ‘frugal’ innovation. If you don’t throw people or cash at a problem, you really find solutions. You can also seldom cut back costings once they are there. I love a constrained environment — I see it as an opportunity.

“We had one major advantage: We didn’t have an education background, which meant we questioned everything. More importantly, it means we’re not precious about anything. We’re willing to try new things to see if they work, and if they achieve our objectives. I’ve learnt that too often, people don’t even know why they do things — they just do them because that’s the way it’s always been done.

“Infrastructure and salaries are the two highest costs we need to solve. We’ve combined two blended learning models to address this. The first is lab rotation. From Grade R, our students are in and out of learning labs. Our teachers introduce a concept in the classroom, and then the students rotate to a learning lab, where they practically work through problems related to the concept on computers. Data is gathered during these sessions and addressed. Our teachers see multiple students based on this rotation. The learning labs are run by facilitators, not teachers. At full capacity it’s a highly operational schedule, and our students are always in small, flexible groups of four to six children. Our staff cover multiple classes and are experts within specific areas.”

The lesson: What skills and attributes does your organisation need most? This may change as you start scaling, but in order to know who you need in which positions, you need to understand your organisation.


KEY INSIGHTS

Don’t do what’s always been done                       

Following an accepted industry or business practice will only help you achieve more of the same. If you really want to radically improve your business, a sector or the lives of your customers, you need to question everything.

Start with the problem                     

If you can’t clearly define your problem, you’ll never come up with a solution that suits your target market.

What’s your AQ, or adaptability quotient?                       

Forget IQ and EQ — businesses that are looking to scale need to be highly adaptable.

Scale fast, but learn faster

You’d think that finding a model that solves the cost versus output problem South Africa’s education system currently faces would have been Stacey’s biggest challenge. It wasn’t.

“Our biggest challenge has been scale. We’ve doubled our network of staff and kids every year since we launched our first school in 2013. In 2017 we had 4 000 students and 450 staff. This year we are educating 7 000 kids with a staff of over 700.

“We understood 4 000 kids, but towards the end of last year we needed to seriously consider what 7 000 kids would look like. You have to think about it before you get there. What does 20 000 kids look like? You’re going from a village to a city. There are changes, and you need processes and systems to cope.

“I personally need to grow faster than the organisation. I need to reinvent myself and my role every six months and stay ahead of everyone else. It’s imperative that leaders of organisations are self-aware and willing to improve themselves.

“I have mentors and coaches. I’ve built a network of people that I can reach out to when I have questions or challenges. I love feedback, and I’m always asking ‘what’s next?’ What does the company need from me? Today I’m less operational and more focused on strategy. What are we doing? How do we start leading our industry? Are we engaging other stakeholders?

“These aren’t only local questions. What are people doing and thinking globally? We can’t solve this by ourselves. We need other people to open schools, to offer more choice for families. People vote with their feet, and that’s good for business. I’m all for competition. The people who benefit from healthy competition in this sector are the families and their children, because it puts the power in the family’s hands in terms of choice and accountability. The problem is also so big, there’s room for multiple players.”

A big part of Stacey and SPARK’s success is the team she’s built around her. This frees her up to focus on strategy, but it also gives the business a growth foundation.

“Hiring the right people for their specific roles has been essential for us. You need to understand your organisation and its needs to get this right. At head office, we need two different types of people: Those who can build and improve schools, and those who can focus on operations and structure.

“Scale is tough on people. Things break when you’re scaling, and you want them to break quickly so that you can fix them. If you’re too slow you’ll actually miss stuff, but it takes a very specific type of person who can operate at that pace.”

The lesson: Organisations that are in scale-up mode are changing quickly. Does your team have the tools and skills they need to handle that change? Do you support them? Does everyone understand why changes need to happen quickly so that you can solve problems sooner rather than later?

Lessons Learnt

The Daily Schedules Of 10 Famous Business Billionaires

Get inspired by the daily schedules of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey and other seven-figure leaders.

Entrepreneur

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What do some of the world’s most famous billionaire business leaders have in common? Clearly, they’re all intelligent, driven, hard-working and have lots of digits in their account balances, but the similarities mostly stop when you compare their daily routines.

If you want to know how long you should sleep, when you should wake up, how long and whether you should work out or other lifestyle choices, you won’t find a consensus among the business elite. What you will find is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of individuals who have more money than most of the people on Earth combined.

Click through the slides to read about the daily routines of billionaires including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey, as gleaned from clues they’ve dropped throughout the years in interviews and speeches.

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Lessons Learnt

Critical Lessons Dan Newman Took From CEOwise Interviews And Applied In His Own Business

When I reached the point in my business where I realised I needed to make a change if I wanted to achieve real scale, I turned to other successful entrepreneurs. What I learnt has changed my business, and helped me launch new companies with stronger foundations.

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After running my agency, Druff Interactive for over 15 years, I came to the stark realisation that I should have been in a different position with my business. It should have been bigger, more successful. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a bad business — quite the opposite. But it could have been more.

Determined to become a better entrepreneur, I decided to start learning from the best. I figured the best way to access the knowledge, experience and lessons I was looking for was by interviewing successful entrepreneurs with the goal of implementing what I learnt in my own business. The result is CEOwise, a collection of interviews and videos that not only document my journey of learning, but lessons I can share with fellow entrepreneurs as well.

Living up to potential

I began my entrepreneurial journey in 2001 when I launched my web and design agency, Druff Interactive. From the very beginning I thought my business would grow organically. I believed my turnover would increase each year, as would my profits, and that I would keep moving forward, year on year, until I reached 40 and could retire comfortably. In this rosy future, I’d never have financial stress again. I couldn’t have been more off the mark.

Being an entrepreneur is like being a new parent. In the beginning, it’s all excitement and butterflies. But then you get home from the hospital and realise you’re living with much more responsibility on less sleep. Such is a new business, and the reality is that you just have to deal with it and make it work.

In our first eight years, Druff grew from just me working from a spare room in our townhouse to a staff complement of 11 by 2010. I was growing organically (as planned), but in a lot of ways, that was actually a risk, at least when it came to growth. Entrepreneurs who do experience organic growth often become complacent. Although Druff was a successful business, I wasn’t pushing it as much as I should have and we began to stagnate.

The very first entrepreneur I interviewed for CEOwise, Rich Mullholland, said that “Success is only important when measured on potential, and the company has not grown according to potential at all, therefore it’s a failure.” He was speaking about his own company, Missing Link, but the lesson really struck a chord with me. I too believed that Druff hadn’t lived up to its potential.

It was one of my biggest issues. When times were great I should have been innovating and pushing my business into different areas. Allon Raiz, founder of Raizcorp, says that he’s seen too many entrepreneurs take their foot off the pedal, become complacent and their success becomes the seed of their failure.

Related: How Dinesh Patel Pivoted OrderIn Into A Successful Food Delivery App

Focused on growth

These were lessons I only started articulating after I began CEOwise, but the truth of them was already becoming apparent to me before I launched the series. Between 2010 and 2016 we worked with great clients and built an awesome portfolio of work. I was proud of what we’d achieved. And yet I knew that after 15 years the business should have been in a different position.

In hindsight, another mistake I made was not having a proper sales force to bring in the clients. We relied mainly on word-of-mouth referrals and Google Adwords to bring in sales and grow organically. Adwords was great in the beginning and the cost per click (CPC) was cheap, but as more companies got on board, CPC became more costly and less effective. And yet I didn’t adjust my strategy. Allon also says that 10% of your team should be dedicated to sales full time. Mine was not.

By December 2016 I reached the decision to start making major changes in my business. I knew I needed to learn from the best of the best, which meant tapping into South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs. I also realised that if I was in this position, perhaps many other entrepreneurs were too. CEOwise documents my journey of learning, but it also allows me to share it. My vision is to help more people become CEO ‘wise’, so they can become wiser CEOs.

My idea was never to have a boring sit-down, boardroom interview. When I started, I wanted each interview to be centred around an activity. I contacted my first entrepreneur, Rich Mullholland, whom I’d known for many years, and asked him if he’d go SCAD free falling with me, while doing an interview on all the insights on entrepreneurship he’s learnt over the years. He was in! We ended up suspended inside one of the Soweto towers, dropping 50 metres into a net, discussing entrepreneurship. It was a complete win. At the time, Rich was just about to launch his own vlog called ‘The Get Rich Quick Show’, which I still follow to this day (and suggest you do too).

Related: Benji Coetzee Never Worked In Logistics, Find Out How She Launched Empty Trips A Successful Logistics Marketplace

Finding solutions

Since launching CEOwise in March 2017, I have interviewed over 30 entrepreneurs, each with their own story and advice. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that there are many ways to solve a problem. This led to the creation of a segment called ‘CEOwise Advice’, in which I ask each entrepreneur to answer the same question. The variety of answers to the same question is fascinating, and proves that there are many ways to approach a situation. I’m now in the process of creating CEOwise Mentors, which asks five entrepreneurs the same question.

Over the past two years I’ve learnt even more than I hoped for. I’ve been inspired to make changes in Druff, and I’ve also started new businesses that I’ve brought my new-found knowledge into, with the goal to do things correctly from the beginning.

I’ve also fallen in love with learning, which is why I’ve read more books in the past year than I have in my entire life. I’m on a mission to become a raging success. I know I’m going to make mistakes along the way. That’s how we learn. But I’m also a better entrepreneur since I started this journey.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is not to be scared of competition, but to embrace competitors instead. When I met Gary Leicher, founder of Smudge, at a Suits & Sneakers networking event, I decided to put this particular lesson into action. Smudge had been a competitor of ours in the web design and development space for many years. Gary said he’d wanted to meet me for a while and I suggested we get together for a coffee the following week. We sat down for lunch and four hours later, after discussing the industry and processes we used, we swopped notes and left wiser than when we arrived. Don’t be scared of competition, embrace it. There is always something to learn from your fellow entrepreneurs. You just have to be open to the lessons.

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Entrepreneur Erik Kruger On The Importance Of Clarity And Embracing Failure

Erik Kruger has walked his own personal development journey, and now he’s helping other entrepreneurs find their ‘best’.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

How does a physiotherapist who dreamed of touring the world with sports teams become a mental performance coach for high-impact entrepreneurs? Ask Erik Kruger and the term he’ll use is ‘accretion’, the process of growing and adding layers through experiences.

The point is key: No journey is ever a straight line from point A to point B. Most of us spend years figuring out what we want to do through a process of elimination. It’s by doing that we figure out what we like and don’t like; what ignites passion in us, and what we’re good at.

Erik’s journey began in physiotherapy. He graduated in 2007 and started his own private practice with a friend in 2009. He was quickly realising that his dream wasn’t aligning with reality though. “My goal was to be the physio who toured with the springboks. Instead, I was locuming at hospitals and travelling two hours a day to reach my private practice offices,” says Erik. “I couldn’t see my future in it.”

It’s an interesting lesson: Until you do something, you won’t always know if it aligns with your expectations and goals. But no experience is ever a waste. “Physiotherapy ended up allowing me to have a side hustle. I could pay the bills while I figured out my entrepreneurial journey, because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started. I registered 45 domain names before I settled on Better Man, and Better Man led me to the Mental Performance Lab and my coaching business.”

Launches and lessons

While he was still in private practice, Erik met fellow entrepreneur and Shark Tank investor, Marnus Broodryk. “Marnus was still in his own start-up phase. We were at FTV and he was handing out business cards for his accounting business, The Beancounter, to everyone he met. I took one, but only ended up contacting him months later because I needed to set up a website, and I thought he’d be able to give me some guidance.”

The website was for the practice, and Marnus helped Erik via skype to set up his first WordPress site. In Erik’s own words, it was a terrible website, but the bug bit. From that moment onwards, Erik’s newfound love affair with the digital space began.

“I liked the idea that you could just create something and people would come,” he says. “I found out very quickly that’s not how it works at all, but by then I was playing around with as many website ideas as I could think of.”

Related: Erik Kruger Explains How You Can Become A BetterMan And What That Means For Your Business

Marnus and Erik played around with some ideas, and settled on directory sites. “The idea was that people would pay a monthly retainer to be on the website and that’s all you’d need to create annuity income. You also wouldn’t need advertising revenue, which requires ongoing sales.”

Because of his own area of expertise, Erik thought a directory for physiotherapists would work well — one of the regulating bodies disagreed. They viewed the monthly retainer as a kickback, which is illegal in the medical profession.

So, Erik moved on to his next idea. “I was doing everything over eLance and Odesk, from web development to graphic design. I started thinking that we needed a local freelance community that entrepreneurs could tap into. My brother agreed to invest in the idea and we hired developers from India to build the site. I directed them to a few sites I liked and briefed them on what we wanted.”

Six months and R70 000 later, Erik received a cease and desist call from one of the big players in the freelance space. “He was furious. It turned out that the developers we had hired had copied his website, section for section, header for header. I had been focused on client acquisition, not the development of the site — I hadn’t even checked what they were doing. I’d only focused on the feedback from beta testing. Faced with being sued for infringement, we took the site down immediately. I was trying different things and failing miserably, but I was also okay with that.”

Finding a niche

erik-kruger

Erik didn’t let his failures deter him. “I was trying to figure out how to make money from digital assets. I registered 45 domain names, and for every one of them I built a WordPress site and developed a marketing strategy. I’d go to work, get home and just do digital for the rest of the day.”

To upskill himself, Erik also took courses on digital marketing, Facebook, Google marketing, WordPress and DNS set-ups. “I created a fitness website for brides-to-be, a mentor site for models and websites for girlfriends to help them run their businesses. Each website would be up and running for a few weeks, and then I’d lose interest, close it and move on.”

And this is where the foundation of Erik’s journey really begins. The fact that he hadn’t yet found what he was looking for was a lesson in itself. “Clarity is a process; I can see it with my clients all the time,” he says. “I didn’t know it then, but I can see it now. Clarity only really comes from wanting to find clarity, trying to find clarity. We often talk about evolution in entrepreneurial circles, but the reality is that evolution can only happen when something already exists, which means you have to be out there trying new things to find your purpose, or big idea.

“When I started coaching, what I was doing with my clients back then versus now is vastly different. No matter how much I read about coaching, thought about what coaching should be like, or listened to different coaches and how they do it, I would never have reached the point I’m at now, if I hadn’t been doing it myself. That’s how we learn and evolve.”

For Erik, the 45 websites he created led him to Better Man, and that’s where his journey started to pivot. “Better Man was the idea I stuck with. Up until that point, I’d been looking for things to do and ways to monetise them, but they were all external and not what really came naturally to me. There’s no such thing as a lightning bolt idea that hits you and that’s it. Amazing, masterful ideas are the result of trial and error.

“People think clarity is a switch, illuminating everything. But it’s actually like striking a match, and that match keeps burning, and you strike another and another and another, and slowly the room fills with light. Even then, you have clarity for a moment, and then the matches burn out, and you have to start again.”

In the case of Better Man, Erik was tired of trying to find something that would work, and instead decided to create something for himself. “I’ve always been into self-development and the idea evolved from there. I decided to create a website based on interviews I’d do with successful South Africans — I’d learn from them, and share the interviews online.”

Erik’s first interview was with Maps Maponyane, followed by Tim Noakes. The site wasn’t getting a lot of traction, but Erik was having fun. “It was the first thing I’d done where I didn’t have any real plans to monetise the site. I was just doing something I enjoyed and figuring it out.”

Erik did want to grow a community though, and so he concentrated on Facebook and email marketing to build up a Better Man database.

“I wanted to experiment with different mediums of communication,” he explains. “The two things that really moved the needle were the group, which was 18 000-strong, and the daily emails I started, which quickly reached 16 500 people.”

Through the community he had built up, Erik then found a way to monetise the business through events. “I was sharing content and ideas that struck a chord with me, which meant they were valuable to other people. That’s how I built up a community, and from there I could offer access to that community to brands.”

For 18 months, there were regular Better Man events, all sponsored by top lifestyle brands. The business was doing well, but through the platform and the community, Erik discovered a new direction: Coaching.

“Once I’d built up the community, I played around with a few different ideas, looking for ways to monetise the platform over and above events. We launched a fitness eBook, an apparel line and partnered with brands for events, but the one thing the community kept asking for was coaching. The events worked as marketing platforms — the next morning I’d sign up clients — and even though I hadn’t known that this was where Better Man would lead, I discovered it was a direction I wanted to explore.”

Related: Fear As Foe And Friend: How To Master This Important Relationship

Focused direction

Up until that point, Erik had been trying a lot of different avenues to see what stuck. He also admits he had shiny object syndrome — even with Better Man. “I was too responsive to every question and query. You can’t just jump around and hope you’ll find success; you need focus and direction.”

Interestingly, even coaching didn’t offer that at first. Erik tried group coaching and Mastermind groups before realising he needed to really focus. It meant stopping the events and even pulling back from the community he’d built, although his daily emails continue, and all group members are the first to hear about workshops and seminars.

“Finding my path required me to sit down and take a long look at what was — and wasn’t — working for me personally. You can try and figure out what people want, and that’s important, but you also need to understand your personal drivers, or you’ll never stick with something long enough to make it a success.

“I was trying out mentor calls through the Better Man community, and I realised that they weren’t working for me. They felt superficial; like I wasn’t driving results. When I spoke to someone, I’d get off the call and I wouldn’t feel good. I’d feel like I’d just spent time telling someone what to do, but where were the results?”

Once Erik made the decision to be a coach though, his focus shifted to being the best coach in South Africa. It was that decision and direction that made all the difference. “I went out and bought every book I could find on coaching. Then I wrote all the models that spoke to me up on white boards and started creating my own coaching framework.”

From there, Erik, signed up for his Master’s Degree in Management, with a focus on business and executive coaching. By 2017 he was coaching full time.

“I had to build up my confidence, which is evident in my early pricing models, but my masters has been the biggest game-changer for me. It shifted a few fundamental things for me, from my coaching approach to developing better listening skills. Ultimately though, internal drive is the biggest differentiator. I want to be the best coach I can be, and that’s making all the difference.”

Because of that drive, Erik has also found his niche. “I want to have a big impact on the world, which means I need to help people who in turn impact the lives of others. CEOs and entrepreneurs are my focus area. My influence and impact are amplified when I’m coaching a CEO of 500 people.”

Since finding his niche, Erik has worked with a number of high-calibre clients, including some of South Africa’s top executives and entrepreneurs.

Action, not words

Better Man gave Erik the platform he needed to launch his coaching business. Although the journey has been organic, once he made the decision about what he wanted to focus on, each step forward has been far more intentional. “I believe in visualisation and intention. Intention is determining where you want to go and then breaking that down into goals. My intention is to become the most sought-after speaker and coach in South Africa. Everything I do works towards that goal.”

In line with this goal are Erik’s own experiences. “Everything we do and think is the culmination of our experiences. In my case, it’s personal experiences as well as what I learn from my clients. Coaching is a gift for me. I can spend time with the CEO of a multi-national and come up with solutions and insights that I can then share with the owner of a 30-man business. With an outsider’s perspective you can start seeing patterns. Coaching is practical, and it draws on the human experience, even in a business context.

“It’s easy to believe that you’re too busy for a morning routine for example. When I see someone who does have the time and still isn’t following a routine, I ask why. What is the deeper value or belief that they aren’t tapping into or living? What experiences of highly busy people who still find the time can I draw from and share? Every experience that is shared broadens our collective exposure.”

Personally, Erik follows many of these practices himself. “I learn about them and implement them. It makes me a better coach. We’re all human, but at the top of the business ladder, we need to perform optimally. There’s a metrics side to business, and a human side, and you can’t ignore either.

“Founding the Mental Performance Lab has been about developing a high-performance state of mind. It’s not just about smashing metrics, but functioning at an optimal level. You need to do the right thing at the right time, and to achieve that, mindfulness is key. You can function flat out, always racing ahead, stressed and busy, or you can function optimally. That’s my focus.” EM


acta-non-verba-book

Read This

Acta Non Verba: The Playbook For Creating, Achieving And Performing At Your Highest Level

Erik Kruger’s first book is a collection of 160 thoughtful reflections on what it takes to live a life of action and not words. Acta Non Verba’s purpose is to get people moving, creating, and generating an unstoppable drive in both their business and personal journeys.

This is not a book to read from cover to cover, in one sitting. Each day there is a new chapter waiting to be read. Put this book on your bedside table, and read a new chapter with your first cup of coffee every morning. Each message is short so you can read it quickly, in the moment, and then reflect and act on it for the entire day. It’s a book that demands action.

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