How Monalisa Zwambila Took Her Business From R18 Million To R80 Million In Under 4 Years
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There comes a time in a business’s lifecycle when you realise you are through your start-up journey, and if you want to build a high-growth organisation, you need to put the right foundations in place.
For Monalisa Zwambila, founder of Riverbed, a through-the-line communications agency, that realisation happened in 2013, six years after she had launched the business.
“Four years ago I had an epiphany,” she says. “We had 15 employees and a turnover of R18 million. I realised that if we were ever going to get bigger, I needed to find a way to get my vision out of my head, and into the organisation. It needed to be more than just me working towards a goal. It needed to be the whole organisation working together towards a shared dream.”
Today Riverbed employs 40 people and has a turnover of R80 million, with 100% year-on-year growth. These are the foundations Monalisa has put in place to achieve this growth and they remain the foundations of where she plans to take the business.
1. Articulate your vision and get the right people on board
For Monalisa, growth had always been a constant. She had never wanted a two-man operation. But when you’re starting out, it’s not always possible to follow a clear vision. You can have a sense of purpose and fundamentals in place, but you’re also a start-up, and you’ll take what you can get to keep the business operational.
“I was MD of a large communications firm before I struck out on my own,” Monalisa explains. “I had built a reputation based on excellence, hard work and tenacity, and this opened doors for me, and secured our first two clients. Building an ethical and best-of-breed business has always been important to me.
“I’m a firm believer that if you continually give your best work, something will come of it, and this is what I look for in my employees. But when you’re launching a business, you also need to be a realist.
“In the early days it was just me, formulating the firm’s strategy, and helping my clients develop the right PR strategy and events for their brand. But I needed people to implement, and when you’re starting out, you’ll take anyone. The shift happened for me when I realised that I couldn’t do it alone.
“I needed like-minded, great people to get on the journey with me. This would only work if they had a sense of purpose beyond just an ad agency, and I realised that it was up to me to give them that. Once I got it, once I realised that to attract and retain the right people, you need to be able to articulate your vision, it brought about amazing changes, both in the character and the culture of the organisation.”
But articulating your vision is easier said than done, as Monalisa, and countless business owners before her, have learnt. You need to be able to get your vision out of your head and into your employees’ hearts.
Do this: If your goal is growth, having the right people in key strategic areas is vital. To attract and retain the best people for your organisation though, you need a clear vision and culture that they can believe in and add value to.
2. Find a clear growth path
To move from where they were, Monalisa recognised a step change was needed for the business. There is only so much room for growth for a PR and eventing agency, and so the next logical move was to become a through-the-line agency. In PR, billings are capped. The advertising space offers a bigger creative outlet, and combining these capabilities makes it possible to offer the same clients more.
“There are two ways to do this. You can either bring in heavy-hitters with a client base and expertise in a different channel to your own, or make an acquisition, and grow the business in that way,” she says.
This is true of any business, operating within any industry. If you want to grow through additional revenue streams and areas of expertise, you can build them slowly and organically, or bring in experts and an existing client base. Monalisa decided to make a strategic acquisition.
“We weren’t a big name in the world of agencies, and didn’t hold the right appeal for a creative with their own clout in the market. We weren’t attractive enough at that time for the level of talent that I was looking for. The only other option was an acquisition. The timing was perfect.
“The owner of Chillibush Communications wanted to sell the business and exit completely, which suited me well. I didn’t want a partnership; I was looking for new, above-the-line skills and an existing client base. Chilibush had a good reputation in the industry, and a solid client base.”
With the due diligence and an agreement in place, Chillibush and Riverbed merged. Monalisa had achieved her objective of becoming a through-the-line agency, but not without some serious growing pains.
“Chillibush had 30 people, and we had 15. It was a bit like the fish swallowing the whale. I had also debated what we would be called, and I’d settled on keeping Riverbed, instead of Chillibush/Riverbed. I had a very clear vision and purpose, and I didn’t want to dilute that, or lose focus.
“But it did mean that I was making the conscious choice not to keep the name of an agency that had a good industry reputation, and a larger employee base than my own. Ultimately though, I decided that didn’t matter. There would be teething pains — and there were — but it would be worth it. I just had to stick to my vision.
“It was a challenging time. I was clear about the upside, but it was still challenging. Today we are stronger. We’re clear about our purpose, culture and drive, and what we’re trying to deliver on, but we did lose people during the transition.
“I learnt a valuable lesson. Once your vision and culture is clear, people are able to determine if it suits them or not. If it does, you have full buy-in. If it doesn’t, it’s better for everyone to move on.
“It took me time to understand this, and to have the courageous conversations when I needed to. You can’t be everything to everyone. Rather know exactly who you are, and create an incredible space for people who share your vision.”
Do this: Are your decisions short-term money decisions, or long-term growth decisions? From a practical business perspective, Monalisa could have kept the Chillibush name and leveraged it to make money. But even though she believed the acquisition of Chillibush was the best growth move open to her, Monalisa had her own vision — one she worked 16-hour days to achieve. To stay true to this vision, she needed to stay true to the brand she was building. It was a long-term decision, but it’s paid off.
3. Keep your clients happy
When you’re on a growth path, there’s a fine line between landing big deals and keeping your existing clients happy. This is even more true when it comes to a merger. Riverbed’s team identified the key clients from both businesses, and ensured they were kept happy.
“We needed to win Chillibush’s clients over,” says Monalisa. “We promised it would be a smooth transition — and kept that promise — plus we unpacked the value of what they could now tap into with our additional services, which was to their benefit. These accounts were key — we had higher overheads and a much larger staff complement to take care of. We also made sure we didn’t alienate existing clients.”
Do this: When you’re on a growth path, communicate with your clients often and openly. Be transparent about your plans, and any challenges you’re facing. Unpack the benefits to them, and ask for support when you need it, while giving assurances that any upheavals are short-lived. You never want to alienate existing clients that have supported you up until that point.
4. Build your brand
With the right capabilities in place, Riverbed has now focused on brand building. “We’ve been under the radar,” says Monalisa.
“If we want to start securing really big deals, we need to position ourselves in the minds of the right companies. In this industry most pitches are closed tenders, and the process is managed by two or three search companies. We need to be on their radar.”
To achieve this, Riverbed has embarked on its own PR strategy, but this would have been impossible without the ten-year track record that Monalisa and her team have patiently built up.
“The market needs to know who we are. We’re competing against the huge multinationals. We don’t stand a chance unless we get our story out there. We need to let them know that we can do the job just as well, with better local insights, and probably at a better price — but it’s not up to them to find us. I
“t’s up to us to make sure they see us, and can’t ignore us. That takes time — you need to build up a track record. But once you have, it’s time to make use of it, and show your potential clients what you’re made of.”
Do this: Build the right foundations. Most overnight successes are ten years in the making. You need to build credibility and a good reputation. You need the right systems and processes in place to ensure delivery. And you need the confidence to bid for large tenders — and win them.
5. Have a purpose — and share it with the world
“We’ve found that to be considered by clients, you need to share your story. People need to notice you, and want to share your story too because it resonates with them,” says Monalisa.
“For us, we’ve launched an initiative called the Greater Good initiative based on my business philosophies. I’ve always held these philosophies, but it took time and experience before I was able to fully articulate them. People and clients have approached me wanting to work with us because we always strive to do Great things for Good.
“They don’t always remember all the details of what I said, they just know it resonated with them, and that’s the start of the conversation. Ultimately, people do business with people, and so what you care about, and how you do business, matters.”
Monalisa’s path to articulating her vision began with her epiphany four years ago. She realised that all businesses exist within their environments, and impact the world around them. This can either be a force for good or not. “I started thinking about how we can do great things for good,” she explains. “I wanted to align all our campaigns and the clients we choose to work with to this ideal: Where is the good?
“We’ve broken this down into three key areas: Greater good for our clients, which is doing great work and asking what greater good idea can come out of that campaign, and is there a benefit to people? Then we look for the greater good for employees. Is there excellence for its own sake? And how do we build, monitor and recognise greatness?
“Finally, is there greater good in the communities we serve? We quantify the pro bono work we do, and we’ve already put two graduates through university. We’ve found that this philosophy gives us purpose, and keeps us all on the same page. We have a benchmark that we can measure our decisions against, and this keeps us on point and all working towards the same goals, which is essential in a growing organisation.”
Do this: Develop a clear vision and purpose, and align this with your core strategy. This gives you a clear point to benchmark all decisions against. What’s your north star and does the current decision support it? This will help you maintain focus and give you and your team fulfilment.
It’s all about people
When you go through the process of a structured deal, you tend to do a due diligence on the balance sheets and income statements, but you don’t look at the people, and yet that’s what you’re buying. That’s where the skills lie. This was Monalisa’s biggest mistake – she didn’t spend enough time looking at the people.
Leadership is a journey
Recognise that your leadership skills are always a work in progress — and work on them. As the head of your organisation, how you lead your team is essential to your growth prospects.
When you make a decision, own it
Monalisa interrogates everything. However, this means that once she makes a decision, she takes complete ownership of it, and never casts blame if it doesn’t work out as planned.
Learn to be decisive
When you’re growing a business, you have your head down, working, working, working. And then you look up and realise how many people are now following you. This is often a rough transition for business owners, because you have to own your position — including the tough decisions and conversations that come with it. In this position, decisiveness is crucial. You can’t take time making key decisions that affect your team, business and clients. You need to be decisive.