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Retroviral: Mike Sharman

A small online agency working on big brand campaigns shows how social media is done.

Juliet Pitman




Small entrepreneurial companies are proving over and over that you don’t have to be big to be successful – or to land big-name corporate clients.

What online communications consultancy Retroviral lacks in size it more than makes up for in creativity, innovation and the ability to provide clients with exactly what they need. Started just two years ago by Mike Sharman, the company has carved a niche for itself as an agency that gets people talking about brands.

Using tactics like design, blogger relations, community management and viral video production and distribution, it has helped some of the country’s foremost brands achieve powerful presence on the web.

Go viral

“Social media means that when people start talking about your brand, the results can be game-changing. We want to encourage discussions about a brand, to personalise it and have others champion it. So our aim is simple: develop remarkable content, seed it to the right influencers and maximise a brand’s chances of experiencing viral results,” Sharman explains.

The viral results he’s referring to speak for themselves. Take the company’s work on the Nando’s Last Dictator Standing campaign for example. It landed a brief to amplify the impact of the traditional campaign by creating hype around the content prior to it being aired on TV.

“Our objective was to maximise the brand’s exposure and to dominate headlines and online conversations during the month of December, with the ultimate goal of increasing sales during the campaign period,” says Sharman.

As part of the social media teaser campaign, Retroviral identified 50 key ‘netizens’ or digital media influencers in its network, to whom three Mugabe lookalikes delivered campaign details and Nando’s YouTube content links.

A microsite,, was set up where fans could post the five people they’d most like to have dinner with in order to enter a daily Nando’s voucher draw.

The campaign was the first in South Africa to attract one million YouTube views in less than one week. Some of the biggest international blogs and websites, including Huffington Post, Boing Boing and Time, posted the Last Dictator Standing content, and celebrity tweeter Stephen Fry who has over 4,5 million followers on Twitter, tweeted, “Well, that’s one way to sell chicken!”

Nando’s original Facebook fans increased by 90 000. There were 9 530 tweets tracked about the campaign and more than 1 000 blog and website posts. The combined advertising value equivalent exceeded R22 million in online mentions alone, delivering a 500% return on investment to the client.

Leveraging your online network

Most importantly, however, Nando’s sales spiked during the two-month period (numbers are confidential and therefore undisclosed) and promotional sales targets were surpassed.

This is a campaign of which Sharman is justifiably proud, but he’s also keen to make the point that one successful campaign does not a successful agency make. “It’s very important that every campaign we run has a similar reach and impact – our acid test is whether we are able do it over and over again and be new, fresh, and innovative every time,” he says.

It’s a test they’ve passed, pulling off similarly successful campaigns for SAB’s No Regret Friday campaign against drinking and driving, and the ShoesOnFeet campaign for the Put Foot Rally to provide disadvantaged children with school shoes, to name but a few.

There are a number of keys to pulling off such successful campaigns. “Being able to leverage the Twitter and blogging activity of our online influencer network is a key differentiator for us and allows our clients access to highly influential people in the online media space,” says Sharman.

The ability to come up with campaign content that is relevant, topical and gets people talking is another key factor, and doing this requires having the right people in place and empowering them to make decisions fast.

Agile responsiveness

“In the online space there’s a real need for quick responses and turnaround times. Lead times are incredibly short.

We don’t believe that the traditional agency model of account executive reporting into account manager reporting into business director is conducive to quick decisions being made, so we’ve adopted a model similar to the one used in investment banking where you have a two-man team of a senior and junior consultant working on an account. This allows for much quicker decision-making, agility and the responsiveness needed to be successful in the online space,” he adds.

Sharman’s also aware of the importance of building the company’s own brand. An active member in the online community, he has 4 500 followers on Twitter and 10 000 readers on his blog. He says, “We’re small now but we have plans for growth, among them an expansion to Cape Town next year.

And I think we’ve proved that you don’t need to be huge to be successful or effective. In fact the opposite is often true. Looking back on the last two years, I’m proud that we’ve turned a profit and done some groundbreaking work that has delivered for clients. There’s lots more to do, but I’m pleased with what we’ve achieved thus far.” With good reason too.

Vital stats
Player: Mike Sharman
Company: Retroviral
Launched: 2010
Contact: +27 (0)11 807 2508;

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.


Watch List: 11 Teen Entrepreneurs Who Have Launched Successful Businesses

These teens are proving that you don’t need a driver’s licence – or the ability to vote – to create and execute a successful start-up.

Diana Albertyn



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In South Africa youth entrepreneurship is encouraged as the best way to build the economy. Teens are no longer relying on tertiary education to jumpstart their careers, as many high school students become budding entrepreneurs. From make-up to confectionary and tech-centred ventures, youth entrepreneurship is taking the business world by storm.

“It’s easier than ever to become an entrepreneur, and technology has a lot to do with it. You’re a tech-savvy millennial, and Internet and mobile technologies make it easier to connect and identify with people, based on shared values and ideals,” says Michael Freestone, founder of the MJF Group. “All entrepreneurs wonder if their companies will succeed, but you don’t really know until you try. So, do it while you’re young and have little or nothing to lose.”

And that’s exactly what teenagers across the country are doing. While being a teenager is stressful enough, without worrying about marketing and your bottom line – these young entrepreneurs thrive on success, which must be their secret sauce to their winning business ideas.

  1. Rabia Ghoor
  2. Cory Nieves
  3. Nathan Woodrow
  4. Isabella Rose Taylor
  5. Mikaila Ulmer
  6. Moziah Bridges
  7. Tony McPherson
  8. Anthony Veck and Malvin Musanhi
  9. Reabetswe Nkonyane, Phumla Mvila, and Thandokazi Mtshakazana
  10. Omphile Sekwele and Didintle Nkambule
  11. Fisokuhle Lushaba and Wendy Nkosi
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10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

The future of entrepreneurship has never looked so bright…these young entrepreneurs share their wisdom around building a successful business.

Nicole Crampton



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Natural Talent Can Become Your Success


Thabo Khumalo

Thabo Khumalo – ToVch

“I learnt to design and sew while assisting my mother who was a seamstress, and that is when I realised that I had a talent to create,” Thabo Khumalo explains. “But I never knew I was an entrepreneur.” Thabo Khumalo started his company ToVch in 2010 and has since appeared in South African Fashion Week, Soweto Fashion Week and Mpumalanga Fashion Week.

Khumalo has a small but engaged audience, who he communicates directly with. “The brand has a dedicated audience, and the social media presence also allows me to continuously scan the fashion environment to keep up with external forces.”

The Lesson

One of the most challenging aspects of launching his businesses was marketing the brand with limited funds. He used social media and word-of-mouth to market. “On social media, people share your brand with others simply because they want to,” says Khumalo. “It’s a powerful platform, and it does not cost anything.” Khumalo built up his company using support from a strong online network, which became his marketing strategy.

Read more on How Fashion Start-Up ToVch Built A Brand Presence With Only A Little Budget.

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For Founder Of National Tekkie Tax Day Having A Higher (Business) Purpose Keeps Her Driving Forward

The NGO space isn’t easy. It’s a constant uphill battle to connect scarce resources with the vulnerable. Annelise de Jager has persevered in this space because she’s tapped into her personal purpose and values.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

  • Player: Annelise de Jager
  • Initiative: National Tekkie Tax Day
  • Launched: 2013
  • Visit:

Use your purpose to drive you forward

Connect your purpose with what you do, and you’ll find untapped reserves of perseverance and the discipline needed to achieve your goals.

Purpose before profit is not a new concept in business. In fact, it underlines the motivations behind some of the most successful entrepreneurs. It’s also not reserved for social enterprises alone.

However, it is in the social entrepreneurship and charitable spaces that living one’s purpose first found a foothold, mostly because without a strong purpose, the work would just be too hard, and many would give up.

Annelise de Jager, founder of National Tekkie Tax Day, unpacks how she’s used living her purpose to drive her forward, even when she’s faced almost insurmountable challenges and disappointments.

Make ‘living a life that matters’ intrinsic to everything you do.

“I was lucky in that I didn’t ever need to sit down and say, ‘I want my life to matter, so I need to do x, y, z’,” says Annelise. “It was intrinsic for me. However, in the past five years I’ve become acutely aware of it, and I’ve seen how important the ability to look beyond oneself is when you’re facing disappointment and challenges.

“It helps you look beyond the now, find a solution and keep pushing on, because there is a bigger goal at stake. The biggest revelation for me has been that anyone can figure this out and use it as a tool to achieve their dreams and purpose — you just need to trigger your intrinsic motivators.

Related: ReWare Did One Crucial Thing That Most Entrepreneurs Are Too Afraid To Do

“Figure out what’s really important to you, and then align this with what you’re doing, in both your business and personal journeys. Robin Bank’s Mind Power and Shaping your Destiny courses are a great place to start.”

Don’t be afraid to ask what’s next

Critical to Annelise’s journey has been the realisation that when goals are met, we need to ask ourselves: What’s next? “Too many people achieve their goals and then feel adrift. You should meet your goals. Your ultimate vision should change. That’s growth, and it’s critical if you want to keep moving forward.

“Our experiences inform our knowledge base and world views, and so as you live and run your business, that view should be changing, bringing with it new challenges and perceptions. Don’t be scared of it; embrace it.”

Annelise went to Potchefstroom University to study social work where she joined the university’s musical revue group, the Alabama Student Company. “Alabama was given the opportunity to tour Taiwan, but I was about to graduate. Travel is high on my personal values list, so I started a second degree in communications to stay in university — and — in Alabama.”

New experiences can be the source of great ideas and strength

Studying communications opened Annelise to a new discipline that she loved. “Marketing and communications are so filled with energy — an energy social work didn’t possess. I loved both, and I wanted to find a way to meld them together. This would ultimately shape my business, The Marketing Team, after I’d been a social worker for a few years. Don’t be afraid to adjust your plans based on new experiences; they can be the source of our greatest ideas and strengths.”

Related: Reel Gardening Warns That Innovation Is Never Easy

No experience is ever wasted

“We spend too much time trying to plan exactly what we should be doing, where and when, instead of following our hearts and instincts,” says Annelise. “No experience is ever wasted. Once I discovered my love for communications, I questioned whether I’d wasted four years studying social work. I hadn’t.

“Both disciplines became the bedrock of how I would assist the charitable space in South Africa. Experiences open our eyes, our hearts, and our understanding. They give us empathy and patience. They allow us to view things from other perspectives. If you want to really make a difference in other peoples’ lives, these traits are invaluable.”

Be open to finding answers in unexpected places

“By 2004 I felt rudderless,” says Annelise. “I’d been running my own business, handling communications and marketing for NGOs, developing campaigns and even assisting NGOs to run more as businesses than under-funded organisations, but it didn’t feel like I was doing enough.

“Part of the problem was that you can only give people the tools to work with, you can’t make them use them. Another problem was under-funding. Corporates spend billions each year on CSI projects but they don’t like to fund salaries and basic operational expenses.

“It’s frustrating because volunteers can’t do what needs to be done — most households need two breadwinners, which limits the availability of volunteers to assist.

“I was looking for a way to add more value. Should I start my own NGO? Where could I make the biggest impact? I’d been offered an excellent coaching position, which would allow me to walk away from the problems this sector deals with daily. It was tempting, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

“At that time I attended the Global Day of Prayer in Argentina on behalf of a client. It was at that conference that I had an almost supernatural experience. I left knowing exactly what my purpose was.

“How these realisations come to you is less important than the fact that you’re open to them. Deep down I knew what I wanted and needed — I just needed the courage and fortitude to follow my path. My experience in Argentina gave that to me because I allowed it to.”

Always find the strength to persevere.

Nothing worth doing is ever easy. In the NGO space, this is particularly true. “I developed the idea for National Tekkie Tax Day because NGOs constantly asked me to help them develop funding campaigns. I developed this fundraising model when I launched Casual Day and ran the project successfully for 18 years.

“But I also believe the NGO space can benefit from a more unified mindset to overcome donor confusion and fatigue. This is my new focus, but it’s difficult to get organisations to shift their mindsets. National Tekkie Tax Day is a step in this direction.

“It encompasses 12 national NGOs and 1 000 regional organisations across five categories — but there’s one product and one national marketing drive. Donors can choose a category to support.

Related: How Fintech Zoona Is Solving Customers’ Real Problems

“I’ve needed to persevere to help NGOs see the benefits in working collaboratively, and corporates to see the benefits of supporting the operational costs of NGOs.

“I don’t have a high profile job at a top company. People don’t call you back in my world. And yet you need to keep pushing forward against incredible headwinds.

“I wake up each morning and repeat the mantra that my success helps everybody; my failure helps nobody. There won’t always be easy wins, but with the right purpose you can persevere. You can make a difference.”

Support National Tekkie Tax Day on 26 May 2017

12 national charities | 1 000 local charities | 5 sectors to support

Animals, Bring Hope, Children, Disability, Education

Available at Toys R Us, Clicks and Babies R Us or online at

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