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What The Concept Phase Really Means To Alex Van Tonder

Wanting it all is one thing — making it work is another. Alex van Tonder manages to balance her work as a brand expert, a social media doyenne, and a gutsy thriller writer.

Monique Verduyn




Vital Stats

  • Player: Alex van Tonder
  • Company: The Concept Phase
  • Claim to fame: Author
  • Other endeavours: Alex van Tonder worked as a senior creative in advertising for more than 11 years. She has created work for clients such as Johnnie Walker, Levi’s, Allan Gray, Microsoft, Virgin Active, Sanlam and Woolworths.
  • Visit:

Time is one of the biggest constraints we face. In an endless race to achieve our goals, it’s often a lack of time that hinders us. Alex van Tonder is determined to squeeze so much into life, that mastering time is an essential skill.

She speaks so fast it’s difficult to keep up with her. Her sentences are succinct and clever, often quotable. It’s not difficult to understand why she has the ability to do many different things at the same time, and to do them well.

She started out as an advertising copywriter, and worked as a senior creative for more than ten years. An early adopter of social media, she is a powerful influencer and has created viral and social content for some of the country’s biggest brands.

She’s also well-known for her satirical blogs, My Branded Life and Cape Town Girl. In 2011, she was named one of South Africa’s most influential women on Twitter by Memeburn. In 2013, she won the Woman & Home short story competition with a thriller titled The Drive. Two years later, her debut novel This One Time was published. There’s another in the pipeline. She’s got a lot on the go, and it would be easy to let things slip through the cracks or remain unfinished. Instead, she’s meeting every one of her goals.

Related: 5 Lessons From tashas Founder Natasha Sideris

How did it happen?

Where does this rare ability to do so many different things at the same time, and to do them well, come from?

“South Africans like to box people,” she says. “But I’m a true millennial, and I see myself as a creative polymath. Someone who knows a lot about a lot and does a lot. I’m at my best when I turn my mind to many things.”

When Van Tonder entered the ad industry, the social media phenomenon was in its infancy. Her bosses weren’t interested in this new fad, but she was fascinated and read a lot about how brands were using it overseas.

“I started developing that stream of my career independently,” she says. “At just 25 I was promoted to creative group head, mostly because they thought I was a weird copywriter who liked Myspace, and they let me get on with it.”

It’s a powerful lesson for anyone with ambition — never stop learning. In her own time and at her own expense, Van Tonder made sure she was becoming a master in something that was still in its infancy. She made time to read and watch online videos when she could have been relaxing and watching TV. It’s a dedication that has
paid dividends.

The power of words


Image credit:

She’s a fiction addict which has always added to her skills as a creative person. It took a decade for her to find a publisher interested in her writing, but she didn’t let how long it took her to achieve this goal derail her plans. In a sea of ‘no’s’, it takes just one yes to achieve success, a lesson that many successful entrepreneurs have learnt over the years.

She used her experience in the social media world to craft a psychological thriller about a man who creates an online persona that represents everything awful about social media — revenge porn, trolling, machismo, fake celebrity — until he gets his comeuppance.

“I’ve had a particularly unconventional career, but all these different perspectives and contrasting insights have added to my expertise, allowing me to continue to develop my creativity.”

She cites Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as an important read on self-actualisation. To live creatively, Gilbert says, does not necessarily mean “pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts,” but “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. Creative entitlement,” she adds, “simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that — merely by being here — you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”

She talks about reaching consumers through all social touch-points by means of storytelling. “In the past, an agency would launch a three-month campaign to get a brand out there. Nowadays, with mobile, the brand’s story never ends, and people are carrying it around in their pockets.”

That’s why she’s recently launched her own business, The Concept Phase, which focuses on writing, copy, social and storytelling solutions for brands.

Related: 27four Investment Managers Aren’t Afraid Of The Big Boys

“As an archetypal millennial, the stories I am most interested in telling are those about genuinely good causes, such as creating awareness about the critical importance of sustainability.”

One of her most recent projects was Woolworths’ ‘Are you with us?’ collaboration with Pharrell Williams, which saw the superstar and the business align their values and actions to make a difference in the lives of people, and the planet. “It was great to be part of an initiative that encourages people to change their behaviour,” she says. The initiative was all the more powerful because it wasn’t just Woolworths telling a story, but inviting a community to join that story, share it and even own it themselves.

Ways to build a personal brand

“I have never passed myself off as a ‘brand expert’,” says Van Tonder. “What I love is building brands online and understanding what works, and what doesn’t. As I moved from project to project, I gained traction in the market and that is how I built my own brand. I never set out to become a brand, but by applying the principles of branding to my online persona, I did.”

Adding that she is a ‘serial auto-didact’, Van Tonder says she learns something new every night. How to run a business, how to start a blog, how to do basic accounting — these are all topics she has explored online. “I find key mentors and then I watch every interview they do and devour everything they write.”

It’s this approach that has allowed her to develop a signature image. “The more you learn, the more you create your unique voice — one that your fans, readers, and customers can recognise.”

Remember this

Wearing different hats isn’t easy. Success often lies in being able to compartmentalise. When working on a specific task, you need to be really focused on it. If you can’t give something a lot of time — give it your focused attention when you do work on it.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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




“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.





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

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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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