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The Popimedia (Mega) Success Story

The three founders of Popimedia started a Facebook marketing company before most ad agencies even knew (or cared) what Facebook was. Today it is a social media trendsetter, and has just been sold to the Publicis ad network for more than R350 million.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital Stats

“’What is Facebook?’ This was a question that often came up during the early days of Popimedia. Ad agencies didn’t know anything about it,” says company CEO Daniel Levy. “We even started putting a slide into our presentations just to give people a basic understanding of what Facebook was.”

Eight or nine years ago — a veritable eternity in technological terms – the whole ‘Facebook thing’ hadn’t quite caught on yet. Sure, people had created profiles on the platform — they were sharing pictures, stalking exes and sending each other Facebook Gifts (remember those?), but the site hadn’t become the digital leviathan it is today.

Today, Facebook is deeply embedded into our global culture, with more than a billion people using the site every day. Back then, though, things were very different.

Related: David Perel Of Obox On Chasing Multiple Dream

Early Adopters

Interestingly, South Africans were eager adopters of the platform, with the country quickly showing a very high number of users relative to its size. But what you couldn’t find on Facebook, were brands.

This wasn’t a purely South African phenomenon. For a long time, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was very reticent about allowing brands onto the platform. This would obviously change, but change would be slow.

Yet, even before Facebook had decided to take the plunge, Popimedia had found a way to post interaction with a brand in a Facebook news feed. The hacker amongst the trio of founders, Gil Sperling, had found a way during the Dark Ages of 2007 to cobble a few lines of code together that would allow this.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Popimedia boasts a cutting-edge ad-tech platform and a long list of blue-chip clients. Moreover, the company has recently been acquired by advertising juggernaut Publicis — making it the first ad-tech company to ever be purchased by a traditional ad network.

How did the founders of Popimedia accomplish this? And what lessons did they learn along the way?

Find your niche

“We had some great early successes,” says company COO Ryan Silberman. “So, we were pretty impressed with ourselves. However, when we went looking for funding, everyone turned us down. No one wanted to invest.”

Why didn’t VCs want to invest, despite the fact that the Popimedia team had clearly struck upon a very promising concept?

“Someone who we approached for funding eventually levelled with us and explained that we were too scattered. At that time, we hadn’t really defined who we were and what we did. We had all sorts of interests — from magazine distribution to vehicle wrapping,” says Levy. “We were hedging our bets, not truly committing to anything.”

The Popimedia team realised that they needed to find focus. They were throwing the net wide. Instead, they needed to focus and refine their business model. Growth would lie not in expanding their interests, but instead by focusing on what they did best.

Related: How AutoTrader Anticipated Change

Bootstrap your way to success

Popimedia-marketing

Popimedia is a tech company that created a great piece of software, grew quickly, and was then sold to a large company. So, at first glance, it seems like a perfect local example of the sort of Silicon Valley start-up that’s often lauded by the likes of Y Combinator and TechCrunch.

But the founders of Popimedia warn against buying into fables of angel investors, gargantuan valuations and bullish venture capitalists.

“I often go to California on business, and I’m always amazed by the start-up culture there,” says Sperling. “The focus is purely on software and coding, not on running a viable business. The aim is to build something quickly that can be sold at a huge profit.”

According to the Popimedia founders, this isn’t a model that can easily be transplanted to South Africa.

“We don’t have the culture of VCs and angel investors and huge valuations that you see in Silicon Valley. Building a company with the sole aim of selling it as quickly as you can doesn’t work as easily here. You need to find a viable business model and usually bootstrap quite a lot,” says Levy.

Popimedia’s meedee8 — a social platform for agencies and brands — is the engine that has driven a lot of the company’s success. In the early days, it was very simple, but today it is a powerful tool that allows clients to manage social media campaigns easily and track results reliably.

“When I conceived of the new and improved platform, I initially thought it would cost loads of money to develop. By working hard, however, I realised we could develop it with the limited resources that we had. I worked with our developers, juggling projects and freeing up time that could be used to work on the project. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to create the platform with the relatively small team that we had. It showed us what you can do when you don’t just throw money at a problem,” says Sperling.

Related: Quick Shift Deva Kate Emmerson On Crowdfunding

What has made the platform so successful?

“When it came to ad tech, a lot of our competitors were charging a massive fee for their services, meaning that clients received very little for their money,” says Silberman. “A lot of agencies and brands didn’t really understand the technology, which made it easy to take advantage of them. Our platform provided value. Clients were suddenly getting a lot more for a R100 000 spend, which meant that the platform was very enticing.”

But it wasn’t just the value on offer that made meedee8 so attractive. Right from the start, Popimedia knew how to demonstrate that value in terms that would impress clients.

“We realised that clients love graphs and shiny dashboards. Right from the start, we created an interface that would excite clients. A cleverly-designed dashboard allows a client to get a real understanding of the impact a campaign is having,” says Sperling. “Offering real value is obviously important, but it is equally important to demonstrate that value in terms that are easily understood.”

Hire slow, fire fast

With success came growth, and before long, Popimedia needed to start hiring more staff. As three founders who had spent most of their time developing a platform and bootstrapping a business, functioning as managers was new to them. Hiring competent staff turned out to be particularly tricky, with many of their hires ending in disaster.

“We grew too quickly and hired the wrong people,” says Levy. “We hired young people who had no experience and couldn’t be relied upon. We suddenly had a team of 40, but they weren’t being terribly productive.”

Learning from their mistakes, the founders started being more selective in who they hired.

“We took more time when interviewing and hiring someone, and started focusing on people who had good track records at reputable institutions,” says Silberman. “We became very selective in who we would allow into the company.”

They also started thinning the herd. “Today, we have a team of 35, yet our turnover has grown 10-fold,” says Levy. “The difference is, everyone who’s working here now is making a real impact — everyone is adding real value.”

An added benefit of being highly selective during the hiring process is that it has created a self-policing system. “Our staff is very protective of the culture that’s been created here, which means that they are quick to weed out the people who don’t fit in. We rarely need to fire anyone these days.”

Empower staff

Hiring the right staff has been one part of the battle, empowering them to do their best has been the other. Like many founders, the owners of Popimedia were reluctant to let go of the reins and adopt a more hands-off approach.

“Staff can’t be truly productive and add real value if you don’t empower them to do so. At some stage, you need to stop trying to do everything yourself and allow your staff to take over,” says Silberman.

“Even if someone can’t do something precisely as well as you can, you need to let go,” adds Sperling. “If they can do it 80% as well as you can, that’s good enough.”

“Your staff will surprise you,” says Levy. “If you place your trust in them, they will rise to the challenge.”

Lessons Learnt

7 Pieces Of Wise Advice For Start-Up Entrepreneurs From Successful Business Owners

Launching a business is tough, but with perseverance, a willingness to learn from mistakes and a focus on the future, you can turn your dream into a reality. Seven top South Africa entrepreneurs share their hard-won start-up lessons.

Nadine Todd

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“What seems like an expensive lesson is actually the best thing that could have happened to you.” 

So you want to start a business? Seven successful entrepreneurs share their words of wisdom for start-up entrepreneurs

1. Offer advice and share your expertise freely

The more your clients are educated, the more empowered they will feel, and the more they will view you as a trusted advisor. I gave my clients material to help them develop the best labour policies and procedures. It didn’t make my service redundant — it built trust between us. — Arnoux Mare, Innovative Solutions Group, turnover R780 million

2. Stop planning and start doing

We all tend to complicate business with planning and processes. These shouldn’t be ignored, but you need to also just start — start your business, start that project, start walking the path you want to be on. — Gareth Leck, co-founder, Joe Public, turnover R700 million

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

3. Play your heart out and the money will follow

I learnt this valuable lesson when I was a student and busked at Greenmarket Square. You don’t stand with your hat, waiting for cash and then play — you play your heart out and the bills pile up in your hat. It’s the same in business. You can’t look at the bottom line first; it’s the other way around. — Pepe Marais, co-founder, Joe Public, turnover R700 million

4. Love learning lessons

What seems like an expensive lesson is actually the best thing that could have happened to you. I wasn’t paying attention to my partner or my books in our early days, and I didn’t realise the debt he was putting us into. We ended up owing R1 million. In hindsight, it was a cheap lesson to learn. Imagine if that happened today? The fallout would be much greater. We have 19 stores and nearly 100 staff members. It would hurt everyone, not just me. — Rodney Norman, founder, Chrome Supplements, turnover R100 million

5. Landing an investor starts with your story

A great story and data are the two golden rules of attracting an investor. You need both if you really want to access growth funding that will take your business to the next level. — Grant Rushmere, founder, Bos Ice Tea

Related: Watch List: 15 SA eCommerce Entrepreneurs Who Have Built Successful Online Businesses

6. Offer solutions

If you’re not solving a problem and creating value, don’t ship it — throw it away. That’s cheaper than selling a bad product. — Nadir Khamissa, co-founder, Hello Group

7. Small, clever decisions lead to big profits

One of the most important lessons any business owner can learn is that success on profit is nothing more than the accumulative sum of rand decisions. Lots of small, clever money decisions lead to big profits, and without the disciplines of frugality, money gets lost. It’s that simple. Question every single line item on a quote. Do we need it? Can we get it cheaper? This is what it’s about. — Vusi Thembekwayo, founder, Watermark

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Lessons Learnt

Here’s How Bosses From Hell Helped 6 Entrepreneurs Grow

From control freaks to being unco-operative, founders share what they learned from their worst boss.

Entrepreneur

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In business, sometimes the most valuable lessons come from the worst teachers. We asked six entrepreneurs: What’s the greatest thing you learned from a bad boss?

1. Bring everyone in

“A former boss was very hierarchical and discouraged collaboration. Everyone reported directly to her, and interdepartmental meetings were practically prohibited. It meant that only our boss had the full picture – we missed a lot of opportunity for alignment and cooperation. Today at our company, it’s a priority to hold regular team meetings and foster a strong culture of collaboration. It’s crucial that our team members weave collective sharing into the fabric of their day-to-day interactions.” – Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder and CEO, Indagare

2. Be vulnerable

“Don’t be afraid to show your emotions! I worked for a partner at McKinsey who was an incredible person but an awful manager because he kept his feelings bottled up. After a client presentation went awry, our team didn’t know where we stood with our manager. It was tense, awkward and demotivating. Showing vulnerability and letting others know when you’re genuinely upset can help everyone externalise their emotions, build trust and reassure employees that they aren’t alone. It sends a clearer message than stone-faced silence.” – Leo Wang, founder and CEO, Buffy

Related: 5 Factors That Make A Great Boss

3. Lend a hand

“I worked for someone who would never help out the junior staff with their work, even if he was finished with his own – he’d simply pack up and leave early. I now make an extra effort to ask my staff if they can use a hand when my own workload is light. It’s created a culture that feels more like a tight-knit team and less like a hierarchy.” – Adam Tichauer, founder and CEO, Camp No Counselors

4. Move as a group

“When I was a nurse manager, I had a boss with no experience in healthcare. She wanted to change our process for keeping patients from getting blood clots. I knew it was a mistake, but she insisted. Ultimately, the change failed. It taught me the importance of empowering staff to speak up. At Extend Fertility, we collect feedback from customers via surveys. Results are shared with our staff, and together we develop action plans to address negative experiences. It’s the employees who interact with patients on a daily basis who have the best solutions.” – Ilaina Edison, CEO, Extend Fertility

5. Trust your team

“I once worked for a woman who joined our team after I had been working there for a while. Every time I stood up, she’d ask me where I was going, whether it was to the bathroom or to the printer. She had a fear of not having control over my time and work. As a young adult, this behaviour really demoralised me, especially since I had excelled at the job for years prior. My leadership style is less neurotic. Once my team members have my trust, I’m pretty hands-off.” – Denise Lee, founder and CEO, Alala

Related: 5 Leadership Questions Every Boss Should Ask

6. Respect others’ time

“Early in my career, I had a project manager who’d wait until the very last minute to review work, then convey lots of new information and requests. This happened at the end of the day or, worse, after hours, when I was home. It was demoralising, inefficient and disrespectful. In my career, I’m conscious about reviewing work in a timely and complete way so my team can successfully incorporate my feedback without generating a last-minute crisis – or lingering resentment.” – Kirsten R. Murray, principal architect and owner, Olson Kundig 

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

11 Things Very Successful People Do That 99% Of People Don’t

Consistency is a big part of succeeding. The top 1% of performers in the world know this is the secret to their success.

John Rampton

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Becoming wealthy and leaving an impact on the world is not an easy feat. If it were, everyone would go around doing it. At that point, it would not be much of an accomplishment at all.

Rather, being extremely successful requires an extreme amount of work. Especially when there is nobody looking. The best people have developed habits that help them reach their goals. These routines are not necessarily challenging to form, but they take consistent effort over extended periods of time. Creating these tendencies in your own life will propel your success.

Here are 11 things, that 99% of people (myself included) do not do, but really should.

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