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Special Effects: Rafi Leigh

Staff development, knowledge sharing and a bold share option programme allows one entrepreneur to take his business to the next level of growth.

Juliet Pitman



Rafi Leigh of Special Effects

Like many entrepreneurs, Rafi Leigh, founder and MD of Special Effects, knows that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. But he’s also discovering that there are different types of growth – and that not all of them involve chasing prospective clients. Recently he’s learned that an investment in the growth of employees can provide just the kind of tipping point the business needs to take it to the next stage.

Reaching a growth ceiling

As its name suggests, Special Effects started out servicing the film industry doing in-camera special effects. “Initially we serviced this industry almost exclusively and developed a reputation as the ‘go-to’ company in our field,”

says Leigh. But while this had obvious positive spin-offs for the business, the market pool was small and Leigh realised that the business needed to diversify into other markets if it was to grow. “We branched out into doing special effects, digital graphics and specialised devices for brand activation and point-of-sale, particularly for below-the-line campaigns servicing the advertising industry,” Leigh explains.

The shift proved successful and today this work accounts for the lion’s share of Special Effects’ market. The company boasts an impressive client list that includes the likes of Nike SA, SAB Miller and Outsurance, to name but a few.

But in spite of the additional new business opportunities that his diversification strategy afforded the company, Leigh quickly realised that there was a limit to the growth it could deliver. “It would allow us to grow organically, a little bit every year, but I really wanted to see the business ramp up in a big way,” he says.

Learning the value of letting go

In trying to find a way to make that happen, Leigh found himself tackling one of the most common challenges facing entrepreneurs – how to find the tipping point that will move the business into a whole new profit zone.

“When you talk about growing a business, most of us immediately look outwards to the market and start considering how we can get more of it,” Leigh says. But in the end, his answer came from inside the company. “I realised what I suppose many entrepreneurs come to realise – that if you want to grow a business, you need to start by growing the people inside it, because doing so allows them to take ownership of more, and leaves you to focus your energy on the future direction and expansion of the company,” he says.

All well and good, but handing over significant parts of their business is something most entrepreneurs battle with, and Leigh is no exception. “It didn’t come naturally. I’m a control freak and handing over that control to other people is obviously scary, but I realised if I didn’t do it, we’d continue with the status quo. And that wouldn’t get us anywhere,” he says.

Handing over

In what Leigh describes as the most exciting and rewarding period of his career, he embarked on a programme to hand over first knowledge and then shares to staff.

“Fortunately I have always played ‘open cards’ with the people in the organisation, so they’ve been party to things like what our costings, margins and profits were, and of course they were already responsible for the output and the work we produced.

“I simply tried to share additional knowledge about costing mechanisms, business management and client relationship management,” Leigh explains. This ensured that staff were able to manage both the client and project management side of their accounts. Leigh’s second step was to change the business from a CC to a Pty (Ltd) in order to be able to offer staff the opportunity to buy different classes of shares. “I strongly believe that it’s important for staff to actually own a vested interest in the business in order for them to feel a true sense of ownership, one that inspires and motivates them to take decisions that are best not just for the job at hand, but for the future of the company as well,” he says of his decision.

The next step

But while these are big changes for the company, Leigh is quick to point out that they are not a precursor to him making an exit. “I’m still 100% involved – I’ll just be free to focus on taking the business where I want it to go, which is into a new realm of growth,” he says.

Company: Special Effects

Player: Rafi Leigh

Est. 1996

Contact: +27 11 493 9666

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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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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