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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.


25 Of The Most Successful Business Ideas In South Africa

Find out who’s making waves in numerous industries and how they managed to differentiate themselves in local and international industries.

Nicole Crampton



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“Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there,” says Richard Branson.

South Africa has its fair share of innovative and disruptive businesses taking both local and international industries by storm. From cutting edge space technology to reimagined logistics, and innovative business models, here are 25 of the most successful business ideas in South Africa:

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Colin Timmis Says ‘Position Yourself For Success By Starting With The Numbers’

People pay first who they feel pressure from, so people will pay you when they feel pressure from you.






Entrepreneur Colin Timmis founded South Africa’s first cloud accounting practice in 2011, Real Time Accounting. Then, a few years after being appointed as South Africa’s first Xero partner Colin became Xero Country Manager South Africa. Xero is the emerging global leader of online accounting software that connects small businesses to their advisors and other services.

Related: Pat Pillai On How He’s Helped Over 5000 Entrepreneurs Using 3 Key Steps

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Company Posts

Two 20 Year Olds Reshape Entrepreneur Landscape With New Social Investment Platform

The Merge vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

Merge Connect




Vital Stats

It’s no secret that finding the right investor for your venture is a challenge that most entrepreneurs face. The current process of finding investment is one that is outdated, and limits entrepreneurs due to a lack of time, and network that is needed to find the right investor. But, this doesn’t have to be the case in today’s digital society, says Zander Matthee and Brandon Bate, co-founders of Merge.

“By making the Internet the middleman, we are able to connect with each other much simpler and faster than before” was Zander’s response. “We have taken advantage of this, and have created a digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors” added Brandon.

Merge is a social platform that connects entrepreneurs and investors. It aims to simplify, refine and accelerate the process of finding investment for entrepreneurs, and the process of finding investment opportunities for investors. From idea to developed, the platform allows entrepreneurs to present a brief outline of their venture to a network of all investor types. While doing this, entrepreneurs are able to browse through, and connect with investor profiles that suit their requirements.

Related: 8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

From Private Investors to Venture Capital, and everything in between, Merge allows all investor types to join. Investors have the opportunity to personalise their feed to suit their investment preferences, and will be able to connect with innovative businesses – that are looking for investment – at their fingertips. Only once there is a mutual interest in each other, are users able to enter a secure private chat where they can discuss further and share documents under the protection of a digital NDA.

The two boys became good friends during their time in high school at St Stithians Boys College. However, it was only in their last year, 2016, that they decided to pursue their dreams and create the platform. They didn’t know how to code, so rather ironically, they needed some form of investment to get the platform off the ground.


“We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we believed in our vision and that we were really trying to make a difference, and if we could get others to see that, they would be onboard.” said Zander.

Related: Lessons From The Rich And Famous: Manage Your Money Like Oprah To Avoid Going Into Debt Like Nicholas Cage

Chris Peters is one of these individuals that bought into their vision, and became Merge’s first investor. As a successful entrepreneur and part time investor , Chris saw how much value the platform could bring to all entrepreneurs and investors alike. His marketing and strategic background gave him insight into how Merge could play a vital role in a lucrative space, Brand involvement.

“Entrepreneurship and SME development are two key factors that drive economic growth in developing countries like South Africa. That is why brands are currently getting involved, and looking to support entrepreneurs through various means. We have built a platform that allows these brands to successfully market, and execute on the programmes they have created to assist entrepreneurs.” said Chris

Merge was created to assist all entrepreneurs and investors in finding exactly what they are looking for, regardless of age, race, sex, financial position or social status. That is why anybody can sign-up as an entrepreneur. As long as you are determined and willing to work for your dreams. For too long has the investor space been seen as an “elite club for the select few”, and Merge is here to change that. Whether you’ve gotten your bonus at the end of the year and looking for new investment opportunities, or are an active investor, you can sign-up. Whether you’re currently working, or a retired industry leader, you can join as a mentor.

Their vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

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