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21 Tanks: Don Packett and Richard Mulholland

Solving business problems the unconventional way, with wide-ranging perspective and a fanatic’s devotion to execution.

Juliet Pitman



Don Packett and Richard Mulholland

Richard Mulholland, heavily tattooed and sitting with 21 Tanks co-founder Don Packett in an office that includes a toilet, a skateboard and a bunkbed, is not what you’d typically expect from someone who services the blue-chip corporate market. But you’d be making a mistake if you didn’t take him seriously. His clients do, and they include the likes of Nissan,  Media24, Liberty, Nokia, FNB and Hollard. It’s not only his unconventional approach, almost tangible energy or the fact that his mind is quite literally fizzing with ideas — Richard is smart. Smart enough at the very least to recognise when he’s wrong — which is how 21 Tanks came into existence.

While working with Absa on a presentation project landed by his other company, Missing Link, Richard (ever happy to let people know how he really feels) got into an argument with the client. “They wanted to do the presentation one way and I didn’t agree so I told them to do it, but I wasn’t happy putting our name to it and would refuse to charge them. Anyway, it went ahead the way they wanted and I was roundly shocked to discover that it was really successful,” he explains.

His response was to go straight back to his office and set a new rule. “I call it the 10% rule and it goes like this: there is always a 10% chance that the way we do things at Missing Link is wrong. So if you feel strongly enough about doing things a different way, you can invoke the 10% rule.”

Getting perspective

What he realised is that every good thing that started coming out of Missing Link was the result of people invoking the 10% rule. “It got me thinking about perspective — about how the more specialised and expert you become, the narrower your field of perspective. We’d become experts at innovative presentation, but somewhere along the way I’d lost an important perspective. So I wanted to create a space where businesses could step outside themselves and get the kind of perspective that would drive true innovation, innovation that happens not when you start doing things a new way, but when you stop doing things the old way.”

The result was 21 Tanks. “Simply put, we want to blow a great big hole in the consulting model,” he says. 21 Tanks organises what Mulholland calls ‘perspective labs’, workshops made up of people from different industries who get together to solve clients’ problems and map out a way forward for execution.

“We have a brain’s trust made up of top thinkers from the other companies we’ve worked with and part of their payment to us is to make these people available for our labs. You find that people want to be involved — they like being part of something that finds workable solutions, even if those solutions don’t benefit their own business
directly,” he explains.

Beyond ideas

By bringing together people from across different industries, the labs provide just the kind of broad perspective that Mulholland believes is necessary to solve business problems.

“It’s very difficult to read the label from inside the bottle, so outside perspective is essential. And very often you’ll find that a cellphone company has struggled with the same kind of problem that an insurance company is battling with. So why not bring the two together to share ideas and find a solution,” he says.

But, Mulholland believes, it’s not just ideas that are needed. In fact, to his mind ideas are in abundance. “What’s really missing is execution,” he says, “Great ideas are thrown around in workshops but afterwards everyone goes back to their jobs and no one ever executes them.” Part of 21 Tanks’ model is to devote a portion of each lab to identifying what needs to be done, who needs to do it and, importantly, how work will be allocated in such a way to free up the people needed to execute the job.

“Ideas need to be nurtured like children,” he says, “and people need to learn how to become better idea parents. We focus on getting people to take ownership of the ideas that the labs generate, and then making sure the business creates a space for them to roll these out.” And once ideas are entrenched in the business, you can start to break old habits and open the way for innovation. “They say it takes 21 days to break a habit, hence 21 Tanks. We’re weapons of mass construction,” he concludes.

Overcoming the challenge of scaling up

21 Tanks’ offering is unique and compelling, but it relies heavily on the personal facilitation of Mulholland and Packett, a problem common to many entrepreneurs. “Our biggest challenge has been how to scale the business,” says Mulholland.

One of the solutions they’ve come up with is an online brainstorming tool, currently in production. Packett explains: “Modelled on our problem-solving methodology, the tool helps companies solve problems by inputting data into a system, which is a flow of events rather than the problem solver itself. Once the client is comfortable with running it themselves, they can subscribe to the service and run brainstorms using the online service from their own offices.” The service also allows for remote logins, so many computers can be working on the same brainstorm project simultaneously.

Vital Stats

Players: Don Packett and Richard Mulholland

Company: 21 Tanks

Started in: 2008

Contact: +27 (0)11 795 2323

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.


27 Of The Richest People In South Africa

Here are 27 of South Africa’s richest people, but how did they achieve this level of wealth? Find out here.

Nicole Crampton



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Learn the secrets of SA’s most successful business people, here is the list of the 27 richest people in South Africa:

In a world with growing entrepreneurship success stories, victory is often measured in terms of money. The feat of achieving a place on this list is, however, years of hard work, determination and persistence. “One has to set high standards… I can never be happy with mediocre performance,” advises Patrice Motsepe.

From the individuals that made the 27 of the richest people in South Africa list, actual entrepreneurs and self-made business people dominate the list; while those who inherited their fortunes have gone on to do even bigger and better things with their wealth. Over the years, some have slipped off the list, while others continue to climb higher and higher each year.

  1. Elisabeth Bradley
  2. Sharon Wapnick
  3. Bridgette Radebe
  4. Irene Charnley
  5. Wendy Ackerman
  6. Paul Harris
  7. Wendy Appelbaum
  8. Mark Shuttleworth
  9. Desmond Sacco
  10. Giovanni Ravazzotti
  11. Markus Jooste
  12. Gus Attridge
  13. Gerrit Thomas Ferreira
  14. Cyril Ramaphosa
  15. Adrian Gore
  16. Raymond Ackerman
  17. Michiel Le Roux
  18. Lauritz Dippenaar
  19. Jannie Mouton
  20. Stephen Saad
  21. Patrice Motsepe
  22. Allan Gray
  23. Koos Bekker
  24. Ivan Glasenberg
  25. Christoffel Wiese
  26. Johann Rupert
  27. Nicky Oppenheimer
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Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

South Africa needs more entrepreneurs to build businesses that can make a positive impact on the economy. These up-and-coming black entrepreneurs are showing how it can be done.

Nicole Crampton



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Early-stage South African entrepreneurial activity is at an all-time high of 11%, according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, and entrepreneurial intentions have also increased to 11.7%. With both activity and intentions growing significantly year-on-year, there are more businesses opening up around South Africa than ever before.

The increase in entrepreneurship has seen the rise of more black entrepreneurs across numerous sectors. From beauty brands to legal services and even tech start-ups, these are 50 top black entrepreneurs to watch:

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Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

Keep your finger on the pulse of the start-up space by using our comprehensive list of SA small business to watch.

Nicole Crampton



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Entrepreneurship in South Africa is at an all-time high. According to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), total early-stage entrepreneurial activity has increased by 4.1% to 11% in 2017/2018. This means numerous new, exciting and promising small businesses are launching and growing.

To ensure you know who the innovative trailblazers are in the start-up and small business space, here are 50 of South Africa’s top establishing companies to watch, in no particular order:

  1. Livestock Wealth
  2. The Lazy Makoti
  3. Aerobuddies
  4. Mimi Women
  5. i-Pay
  6. AfriTorch Digital
  7. Akili Labs
  8. Native Décor
  9. Aerobotics
  10. Quality Solutions
  11. EM Guidance
  12. Kahvé Road
  13. HSE Matters
  14. VA Virtual Assistant
  15. Famram Solutions and Famram Foundation
  16. BioTech Africa
  17. Brand LAIKI
  18. Plus Fab
  19. LifeQ
  20. Organico
  21. 10dot
  22. Lenoma Legal
  23. Nkukhu-Box
  24. Benji + Moon
  25. Beonics
  26. Brett Naicker Wines
  27. Khalala
  28. Legal Legends
  29. The Power Woman Project
  30. Aviro Health
  31. AnaStellar Brands
  32. Data Innovator
  33. Fo-Sho
  34. Oolala Collection Club
  35. Recomed
  36. VoiceMap
  37. ClockWork
  38. Empty Trips
  39. Vula Mobile
  40. SwiitchBeauty
  41. Pineapple
  42. The Katy Valentine Collection
  43. OfferZen
  44. KHULA
  45. Incitech
  46. Pimp my Book
  47. ART Technologies and ART Call Management
  48. Prosperiprop
  49. WAXIT
  50. The Sun Exchange
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