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Lessons Learnt

Striata Founder Mike Wright Gives Top Advice On Going Global

Mike Wright launched Striata in 1999 from his converted garage in Kensington, Johannesburg. He was 30 years old, with limited capital, and had resigned from his job as MD of a leading web design firm to follow his dreams. To get started, he rescheduled his bond and provisional tax payments, and started working on his big idea. These are his lessons in high-level growth, and the do’s and don’ts of international expansion.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Mike Wright
  • Company: Striata
  • EST: 1999
  • Turnover: In excess of $10 million (+-R120 million+)
  • Visit: striata.com

Striata is a R120 million+ business that operates across South Africa, the Americas, Europe from a base in the UK, and Asia. Launched in South Africa in 1999, founder Mike Wright reached a point where the only way he could grow the business further was to go offshore.

Expansion in the US has been extremely successful, and Mike moved to the UK with his family to spearhead European growth. The business’s efforts in Australia have been less successful however, and a second office has since opened in Hong Kong to service Asia Pacific. Here are Striata’s lessons on international expansion — what worked for them, what hasn’t worked, and how to approach new territories to guide your business’s success.

Learning from the ground up

Mike Wright’s first piece of advice to any entrepreneur looking at international expansion is not to rely on statistics. “In my view, statistics don’t work for the individual,” he explains.

“You can be successful and be doing the opposite of what the statistics say should work, or you can do exactly what the stats applaud and still be struggling.

Related: How Travelit Makes Travelling Affordable For Small Businesses

“If you’re thinking of expanding beyond your borders, hopefully you are already successful in your own market. We reached a level of success and maturity in South Africa that led us down this path. Along the way we’ve learnt that when you enter new markets that aren’t in the business landscape you know and understand, all bets are off. Past achievements don’t guarantee future success.

“You need to look at your business, what you offer, your differentiators, strengths and weaknesses, and use those to determine your go-to-market strategy, based on intensive research into the markets you’re entering. You need to know how and why people do business, and who they do it with, in all the territories you’re looking at.”

In each of the three territories they entered (Australia, the UK and the US), Striata sent pioneers — people they knew, who had worked with them or knew them, and who understood who and what the brand stood for — to spearhead the new international offices.

There’s a fundamental choice you have to make when you launch a division in a new territory: Employ a local with an entrenched network, or send someone that you know shares your values and company culture,” says Mike. The most obvious way to tap into an established network is to find a local partner, or purchase a local business. The downside to this strategy is culture. “The bedrock of a successful business is a shared company culture, but fundamentally you can’t change people. If you go the acquisition route, you need to be absolutely sure you have cultural alignment, and too often it’s only once you’re in business together that you realise you don’t.”

Striata opted for door number two: Supporting individuals from within the organisation to spearhead international growth and building networks on the ground.

“Building a network takes time. You need to attend conferences and networking events and make meaningful connections. We saw this in action in the US. Our pioneer was very good at growing his community and leveraging contacts. The US is a large, mature market, and no one cares where you’re from as long as you deliver. We had a product to sell, not just a concept, and a track record. The right person, market, timing and opportunity aligned for us, and our launch and subsequent growth was successful. We didn’t gain traction overnight, but there was a market for our services, which is the biggest hurdle.”

The strategy worked well in the US and the UK — but not that well in Australia. “We learnt the hard way that the Australian business market is built on long-standing relationships, and it’s a difficult market to break into as an expat.”

As a result, Striata invested more in the market that was working. From 2005 to 2008, US growth was a top priority. “We hired more people, attended conferences and ensured we had a good product with exceptional back-up support and account management. Not every decision will be a win — even when you’re accustomed to getting things right. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and focus on what is working.”

Pulling together the threads of success

mike-wright-striata

According to Mike, Striata’s South African success was based on a simple formula: To successfully run (and grow) a business, you need to keep moving forward — hire the next person, make the next contact, add new partners where applicable, run a good business with a good team that’s focused on execution. You also need a good product, back-up support and account management.

“The minimum level of all these parts working together allows you to service your customer. The maximum level creates a customer who loves you and gives you more business,” says Mike.

“There isn’t one secret to success. You need to get lots of little (and big) things right. A minimum level of service requires repeatability, a focus on service, references, and a good product. The problem is that when you think most of them are ticked, you end up finding one you ignored.”

For Striata, that has not been people. The company’s senior team are all veterans of the business. “A business becomes easy to run — and infinitely more scalable, especially across multiple territories — when your core management team have been with you for a long time. We value our team, offer the right rewards, create wealth for them and give them a career path, and we have the foundation of a phenomenal business.”

However, before you can get your people, systems, processes and service right, you need to start with a product and a business model.

“When I launched Striata I knew I wanted a business based on annuity income. I’d been MD of VWV Interactive, a web design company, and in my 18 months there I’d learnt that when your business is built around projects, you’re either snowed under with work, or scrambling for your next project. I did not want to pursue that business model.”

Prior to VWV, Mike was employed as an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand (pre- PwC), where he was part of their Computer Assurance Services. This was the beginning of computer auditing. “The Internet had come along, and we needed a website. I straddled tech and marketing, so this became my project. Next, we developed eTaxman, a form that calculated your tax return online. It went viral before the term viral even existed. I was on TV, at conferences and on the radio talking about eTaxman. Coopers was at the top of the game and experts in the ‘Internet’.”

The exposure brought VWV knocking. A team of brilliant young designers, they decided they needed more structure in the business. Being 28 and tech savvy meant Mike qualified for the position. “They were the best in the business in terms of creative design, but they needed to build a business around those capabilities as the market shifted to eCommerce,” he says. “It was a fantastic 18 months, but I realised I needed more — I wanted to build something of my own.” At the time, Mike was at the forefront of what corporates could do with tech, and how the Internet was changing the way companies did business and interacted with their customers. “I was looking for a gap, and concentrating on where there were — and weren’t — already players in the market.” Paying attention led the young entrepreneur to a key question: Who was handling corporate focused emails?

Related: 21 Inspiring Quotes About Success, Persistence And What It Means To Be An Entrepreneur

“Corporate South Africa caught on to email quickly — it was an excellent way for companies to communicate with customers and constantly tell them what they were doing, and how they were building a better online experience. The problem was that a corporate exchange server can’t handle 100 000 messages in a queue, particularly when that bulk message could delay the CEO’s very important email. We needed to provide a service that could deliver personalised bulk emails.”

With his idea in hand, Mike’s first move was to ‘take a loan from the taxman’ by delaying his provisional tax payments. “I spoke to SARS, acknowledging the debt, and they charged me interest. I wouldn’t recommend this avenue to everyone. You have to be extremely disciplined to pay it off as agreed, and the interest was high, but it worked for me.”

He also reached out to his network, and secured some corporate funding. It was enough to hire a techie who understood email. “We bought a license for ‘list-serving’ software that allowed for personalisation, and entered the market with our solution.”

Since pre-launch, Mike has consistently asked himself these two questions: What do we do/sell? Is there a market for that? “The secret to any business success is being able to take an idea or concept, put it together, connect the dots and get someone else to pay for it. Then you need to ensure you can repeat what you’ve just done, and that you have access to the resources you’ll need to do so. Build it, sell it more than once, and then iterate. That’s where you create value.”

The foundations of growth

There’s a second set of questions Mike asks himself, and these are the foundations for growth: Where are my constraints? What’s stopping me from getting to the next level? “Within our first year, it became clear that not being able to make changes to the licensed software was constraining us. We needed to be more flexible. If you have your own code, you’re in control. Ninety percent of competing software solutions do the same thing. It’s the 10% that gets you the job — you need that 10% to be exceptional, and you need to own it.”

In Mike’s own words, to create the complex and ground-breaking products that Striata is built upon, you need a ‘serious’ rocket scientist. Luckily, Mike knew where to find one — he just needed to wait out the one year non-solicitation he’d agreed on when he left VWV. The second it was over, he approached Nic Ramage to join the business.

“Start-ups generally can’t afford the top experts in their field, even with VC backing, so you need to get creative,” says Mike. “Nic was up for the challenge, but he also came on as a partner and shareholder. If you really want to attract top talent, you need to give them the right incentives.”

From year two Striata started making money. Mike says, “It may be ‘old school’ but whether you have funding or not — or perhaps even more importantly if you do — I believe you must pay your own way by becoming profitable as quickly as possible.” Trained as an accountant, and growing up with a parent in the financial services sector, Mike admits he’s no gunslinger. His approach to business is conservative, and he hates unnecessary risks. But he’s also very focused on growth. “You need to do the work, bill your clients, pay salaries and then put what’s left into R&D. As our development team grew we needed to fund this from normal operations. Perhaps this constrained our growth, but we built a stable base, which worked in our favour when we started focusing on international expansion.”

Striata has chosen to stay focused and niche. “We’ve built up domain experience. It’s tough to be a mile wide and a mile deep — you have to choose between being a generalist or a specialist. We’ve chosen specialist. But, this doesn’t mean we haven’t added new solutions to our overall offering.

“We recently introduced a secure document storage solution in the Cloud — like a document vault. Online archiving and storage is the second leg of our product set. Our differentiator has always been security. All documents we send or store (such as bank statements invoices and insurance policies), are encrypted and password protected.

“We’ve learnt to listen to our customers. That’s how we grew from emails to encrypted documents. Then we realised they needed a way to store documents, so we built a solution to that. We’re also clear on the fact that we do message delivery — not only email. Our model is being ready for the next mode of communication. We need to have solutions before our customers ask for them.

“Our value proposition is to enable communication as an efficient customer service and an engaging customer experience. There’s more interaction between companies and customers than ever before. The actual protocol might change (email, SMS, WhatsApp), but our product is communication. We can go deep within this niche area of expertise.”

Striata’s plan was simple: Develop the secure attachment market in South Africa, until it become a de facto standard. By focusing on a need and creating the right products to address it, while adding functionality customers could benefit from, this is exactly what happened.

“The first time we offered an encryption service was for Diners Club statements. Their parent company, Standard Bank, also liked the idea and issued an RFP.” And this is where Striata moved up a level — its competitors were IBM, who were going to build a similar solution, but hadn’t yet, and an international company, ACI, who had no track record in South Africa.

“We were ahead of the curve, and this secured us the Standard Bank project. We were local and we sold the hell out of our software and capabilities.” Today, Striata counts a number of South Africa’s top banks as clients.

Related: The Mindset Strategy From The “Rock Star” Coach Can Turn Your Beliefs Into Results

International expansion

From 2004, Mike aggressively sought growth avenues. His five-year-old business was established, and servicing much of corporate South Africa. “There are two ways to grow: Add a product to sell to your current clients, or look at new geographies. We did both.”

There are a few major points that work in Striata’s favour. “Our currency gives us a margin that international competitors can’t match.” That said, many other international tech companies, including Amazon, have set up development hubs in Cape Town to take advantage of local skills and the exchange rate.

Second, South Africa operates in the same time zone as the UK and Europe, so tech support is only a phone call or email away.

“When we started looking overseas, we were a relatively young software company that had a software as a service (SaaS) offering. We knew we had the capability to sell anywhere and everywhere, and we had a cost advantage based on the rand exchange rate. We had the ideal business model for international expansion, we just needed to gain traction.”

By 2008 Striata — and Mike in particular — reached a crossroads. The US was growing, the Australian business was struggling, and the UK presented a fantastic opportunity, yet many deals just didn’t close. “I realised I could make a difference in the UK market. South Africa had a strong, established team. I wasn’t needed there anymore to continue the day-to-day operations of the business.” Mike has spent the past nine years in the UK, and travels between all of Striata’s operating territories. “We’ve got a good base, but we’re just getting started. Communication is shifting so quickly; we have to stay on our toes to ensure we’re the ones spearheading new solutions and growing our markets.”

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Managing Staff

Your Team Will Succeed Only If They Trust Each Other

Trust is difficult to establish, hard to maintain and easy to break.

Angela Kambouris

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Bureaucracy exists were trust doesn’t. Excessive process and micromanaging exist because people don’t trust each other to do what’s right and what’s needed. In a digital era where social tools make you more visible and accessible, you make personal and business decisions based on trust daily.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, often identified as the benchmark of trust measurement, recently identified that there has been a “loss of trust: The willingness to believe information, even from those closest to us.”

Trust is difficult to establish, hard to maintain and easy to break. In business, trust is one of the most valuable and complex of all your assets. It solidifies your relationships with all people and leads an organisation to thrive. As Richard Branson often says, “Learn to look out for your staff first, and the rest will follow.”

Let me share with you eight principles that determine whom and how you trust in the workplace.

1. How people handle failure

Within an organisation, when people trust each other, their energy is invested in minimising damage and getting on with it.

The involved parties take responsibility without prompting and lead the conversation to see how the problem will be avoided in the future.

A recent Google study, Project Aristotle, was founded on the premise of understanding why certain teams in the workplace struggle while others thrive. Researchers determined that “psychological safety” is the key to building and fostering successful team.

Related: Daily Practices for Cultivating a Positive Work Culture to Support Your Business

When people don’t trust each other, blame and shame runs rapid through the tapestry of the organisation. Taking responsibility embraces your vulnerability and leads people to move forward together.

trust-is-like-a-flower2. Accumulate trust deposits

Trust is like a flower. Once we step on a flower, it’s difficult to revive it. When you think about trust within a workplace, we know that when members trust each other to execute, teams are inherently productive.

When we want to create and build upon an environment that fosters trust, then what we say we will do, we do. We genuinely are curious and listen.

We are honest in how we provided feedback, without the sugar coating. And we don’t engage in gossip, eradicating the “I shouldn’t be saying this, but…” conversations. When we are visible and transparent in the workplace, we create a platform that invites shared thinking from all.

3. Work together to solve pain points

Most projects take more than one person to accomplish. Trusting colleagues is about letting go of the urge to be a lone ranger. Your team members have to be trusted to accomplish their tasks so you can complete yours.

Autonomy is only possible where there is trust. When you trust, you don’t expend much of your time and energy watching your back. Your energy is directed towards productivity and innovation.

Horst Schultze, one of the founders of the Ritz-Carlton Hotels, epitomised what it meant to be a trust-building leader.

Every employee was provided with an induction to the organisation, coupled with extensive training and a $2000 discretionary fund they could use to solve a customer problem without checking with anyone. He honoured his people by collecting their stories in making a difference for customers.

Related: Team Building Without Time Wasting

A team with high trust inspires its members to retain trust through excellence. Time is spent on identifying and breaking through road blocks, inspiring people to share more and working together to resolve pain points.

4. Small actions over time

Trust is not a matter of technique, but of character. You are trusted because of your way of being, not because of your polished exteriors. Building a culture of trust in the workplace occurs one step at a time. It is the small actions over time.

As a leader wanting to build trust, talk about what you want, not what you don’t want. Lend your voice toward what you want to bring to make it happen. When you operate from a place of trust, you demonstrate a commitment toward trust.

You show others what can be by promoting the ideas, talents and contributions of those you work with. Focus on what people can do and help others succeed. Step toward trust from where you are.

5. Sharing stories

Trust can grow rapidly when someone shares with you something touching that happened earlier in their life. You start to build a shared empathy.

When you want to create trust in teams, initiate conversations or invest in team games that help you tell stories you want to tell.

You control what you want to share with colleagues that can break down the divide between people and teams and lead to more empathy. Sharing stories is one way to connect and build trust.

paul-zaks-ted-talk6. What can mice teach us

A study at NYU Langone showed that when mice were given oxytocin, they started caring for the other mice’s babies as if they were their own. The oxytocin hormone enhances bonding, and even after the mice’s oxytocin receptors were shut off, this behaviour continued.

Oxytocin, the trust molecule, can teach us a lot about working together as a team and building great working relationships leading to more trust in the workplace.

Related: Making The Team ‘Work’

The best way to build your team’s internal trust is to be transparent about the overall vision and progress of the business, showing people how and why their work is important. Leaders must provide guidance, schedule check-ins between colleagues, and make room for conversations that strengthen connections.

7. Monkey see, monkey do

Our brains are wired to place survival as the top priority. In the workplace, any person who can demonstrate that they can reduce or eliminate threats to other’s survival is deemed trustworthy.

When we watch someone else, our brain is activated in the same way that the brain of the person you are observing is activated, effectively through what is called “mirror neurons.”

This means you may unintentionally transfer your own feelings of distrust to others. The trick is you can’t fake trust. You must believe that your colleagues are trustworthy to transmit this signal to them. In return, their brain will start feeling trust towards you as a result.

8. https://cm.g.doubleclick.net/pixel?google_nid=adaptv_dbm&google_cm&google_scEmotions impact trust levels in the workplace

There are many ways to treat your colleagues well, but one of the most important initiatives is creating a culture that makes it safe to make mistakes and openly debate and discuss issues without fear of retribution. Your colleagues will trust your ability to help them grow if they know that failures will be treated as teachable moments.

In a time of crisis, how you act in difficult times is the greatest measure of your integrity. Don’t wait to talk about a mistake that happened until everyone finds out about it on social media, and don’t sugarcoat what happened. Take swift action to right a wrong. Taking responsibility preserves trust.

Atlassian, a global software giant, built a culture where articulating why certain decisions are made is important in how they have built trust.

Related: 4 Strategies To Build Trust – Through Trusting Your Team

An “open company, no bullshit” value within the company has provided teams with access to information as quickly as possible, allowing employees to share and express their opinion without feeling they are going to get judged or pulled down. The company supports an environment where individuality is celebrated.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Are You Suited to Entrepreneurship

Going It Alone In Business? 5 Reasons That’s A Really Bad Idea

Being a solopreneur sounds great, but it’s actually a poor choice for your business.

Luis Congdon

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When we read about Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and all the other business giants – we immediately see a single champion. Much like old literature traditions where the hero triumphantly wins alone, our legends in business are often portrayed as the singular hero.

Steve Jobs reigning over Apple, Bill Gates towering over the giant that is Microsoft and Richard Branson stylised in his cape throughout the veins of Virgin – this kind of mythology and idealisation of the single hero in business has spurred a new wave of entrepreneurs who call themselves “solopreneurs.” We idealise the entrepreneur who does it alone and doesn’t need a team or support.

If you’ve been doing it alone or aspire to become a solopreneur, let me share with you five reasons to not be a solopreneur – and why the myth of any singular hero, whether in literature or business, is a misnomer and will only hold you back from having the most significant successes.

1. You’ll become a jack of all trades and a master of none

When you are a solopreneur, it’s practically impossible for you to master every skill needed to substantially grow.

Running a business takes a lot of capabilities: Mapping out content, creating it, sharing it, building a tribe, sending out emails, doing sales, attending events and growing the network, coaching, consulting and building out products is a small list of what a profitable business requires.

If you’re weak in some of these areas, it will hamper your business growth and fun.

Related: The Foundations Of Growth

Trying to do it all will soon see you doing low-level activities that pull you away you from making sales, doing projects for your high-end clients and doing the things that help keep the business growing.

2. You can’t scale or grow

business-strategist-jay-abrahamBusiness strategist Jay Abraham says there are only three ways to grow a business. You either get more clients, increase the cost of each transaction or you service your clients with more products. Two of these methods will mean more work.

If you increase clients or increase the number of products you sell, you will most likely need to increase your output.

Since there are only so many hours in a day, you’ll either become your own bottleneck and slow business down – or decide to outsource some of the tasks to your team and ensure business runs smoothly.

3. You won’t have time to do everything you want to do

When you’re overworked and doing it alone, you have no one to relieve the pressure. You have no team to support you, and you have no partners who can take some work off your plate. That means when there are emergencies, you won’t be available.

If a client needs you, your kids need you and a new client wants to pay you a lot for a new project – you’ll have to decide which is most important.

While having a team may not save you from making hard decisions, ideally you aren’t so thinly spread out that you find yourself saying no to more clients, family emergencies and serving current clients to the best of your abilities.With a team, you’ll be able to free yourself more, and you can say yes to more opportunities.

4. You’re more vulnerable to mistakes

Imagine if didn’t have spell check your documents and emails. Or what if this magazine didn’t have editors and any article got through? I’m sure you’d agree, the quality would be lost, and it’d likely result in many lost customers.

Related: The Case For A Business Partner Who Makes You Uncomfortable

In my life, I’m lucky to run a business with my wife and my team. Having a team helps me to not only “cut once and measure twice,” it also relieves some of the pressure to be perfect. It helps me to do my work, knowing my team will help me, and that inspires me. Doing it alone would be too stressful.

Having a team will allow you to call upon a support network, hand off jobs and have an extra set of eyeballs when you’re delivering a service.

If you’ve aspired to be like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington or any highly successful entrepreneur – take some time and study them and you’ll find they love building and being a part of a team. Soon you’ll find out all these legends have a team, an incredible support system, and they don’t do it alone.

5. You can’t ever sell your business

In most entrepreneurs’ minds, the idea of selling isn’t there until decades after starting the business. But, it’s something that if given the opportunity most of us would do.

Related: Why Partnerships Will Make Or Break Your Business

Even if you wouldn’t sell your business, isn’t nice to know that if you wanted you could take your business and get paid one lump sum equaling years of work?

Or if you don’t want to sell your business, maybe you want to step out of business but collect payments and keep it in the family – well, if you’re a solopreneur it’s tough to ever to work yourself out of a job.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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