Ten Growth Lessons From R175-Million Business, 99c

Entrepreneur Andrew Brand shares the ten lessons in growth that helped him build a R175-million business.

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For Andrew Brand, founder of 99c, going for their first big client took guts and determination. After landing Checkers' entire retail advertising portfolio, he had ten weeks to hire 30 people, find premises and start working.

Sarah Schäfer

It's an incredible start-up story. But building a business with almost 300 employees and a turnover of R175 million has taken strategic focus and a winning employee culture.

Here are the ten lessons that Andrew and his team have learnt about shaping organisational success.

1. Client relationships are everything

One of the key reasons 99c won Checkers' retail marketing business was Andrew's personal relationship with his client's marketing team. When he left his previous agency, not only did Checkers have no other point of contact, but they trusted Andrew. They had faith in him, his understanding of their business, and the fact that he would put their needs first.

"I built that relationship on open and honest communication, and by always delivering what we promised. I put the client first. When I left, it was a valuable lesson for me going forward as well — business is all about relationships, but that relationship should be with the organisation, and not an individual. We've structured 99c based on this understanding. No client has only one single point of contact with us. They work with a team that always delivers on its promises."

2. Don't be afraid to debate everything and anything with your client

"Successful relationships are built on transparency and respect. We play a key strategic role in the Shoprite/Checkers marketing strategy, for example, and we take this role seriously. We're involved in our client's business and take their success personally, which means we also can't be scared to speak up when we believe a campaign or specific advertising strategy will miss the mark.

"Retail advertising is immediate — you can see the results of your campaign within a day — but the next set of specials comes out a week later, and so you can tweak, adjust and review within days as well. There are so many matrixes to measure and map out, but everyone has to be able to share their views."

3. Fair remuneration and a great culture foster loyalty

"When the agency I previously worked for merged, it became clear that even though retail sometimes bills more than traditional above-the-line advertising, it's not glamorous and it doesn't win awards, so even though the retail creatives and client service team worked longer hours than everyone else, they were often paid far less.

"This never sat well with me. We've created a different remuneration structure that rewards hard work, loyalty and efficiency, no matter the client, product or campaign you're working on. When we do lose people, it's often because they've grown to a point where they need to find their next big challenge, and we support that. There's nothing like watching an individual grow, even if that means they need to eventually leave your nest to spread their wings."

4. Stay on your toes

"Retail is fast-paced. You need to be plugged in to market sentiment and able to respond to it. More than that, you need fast turnover times with no errors. This takes focus and discipline, but it's also testament to what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.

"If you have the right systems and processes in place, and employees who follow them, you can achieve almost anything." In other words, don't rest on your laurels, think you know what you're doing, or that you've found the best solution. There's a real danger in thinking that way. There is always a competitor looking for a way to out-innovate and outperform you.

5. Be pragmatic and realistic

This may be one of the hardest business lessons to put into practice, because it requires business owners to put emotion aside to practically evaluate clients, products, services and the organisation as a whole. "I've never been the greatest creative, but I am pragmatic and practical. I'm a realist.

"This has allowed me to approach every problem from a solutions-oriented mindset, instead of letting fears and emotions hold me back. If I thought too long about what would happen if we landed the Checkers account, we never would have done it. Instead, we focused on the solution, and made it happen."

6. Run a lean organisation

One of the biggest factors separating corporates from small entrepreneurial businesses is cash flow. However, while corporates tend to have healthy cash flows, the ability of a start-up to run lean is invaluable as the business grows, because its built into the company's DNA to be careful with expenditure.

"We needed to hire a team, purchase equipment and find premises. We also couldn't afford to run with fewer people than we needed, and so our first round of hiring was over 30 people. We haven't stopped growing since, and I believe in investing in people. That said, there are so many ways you can run a lean organisation without skimping where it matters. Don't be a bloated, top-heavy organisation.

"Rather invest in the core of your business. What will enable you to offer your clients the best service possible? That's where you should be investing. We were incredibly lucky in that Checkers gave us a really big platform to start from. We launched as a medium-sized agency, with an infrastructure that was working and paying its way from the word go. We used that to grow, but not to add frills and luxuries that the business didn't need."

7. Don't sprint until you can walk

Andrew and his team could have scaled earlier than they did. They had the infrastructure and the experience. But Checkers had taken a big chance on them, and they not only honoured this trust, but chose to use the time to build strong foundations instead of chasing quick growth.

"We had a mutual agreement with Shoprite/Checkers that we wouldn't go out looking for other business for one year. We ended up extending this to even longer.

"We were completely focused on Checkers, and on our internal processes and systems. It was the best decision we could have made. It really gave us the right focus — we could dive deep without distractions."

After 99c's first operational year, they were named Shoprite/Checkers' national supplier of the year. "This wasn't a design award, but a customer award. It was a glowing commendation. It gave us confidence that we were doing something right, and more than that, it was shared by the entire company. It wasn't recognition of one person's creativity. It was acknowledgment that the entire organisation — our ethos, how we do business, how we deliver — is exceptional."

8. Be loyal to your clients, and they'll be loyal to you

In 2014, when Shoprite's agency closed overnight, Andrew received a call from his first and biggest client: They needed 99c to take on all of Shoprite's campaigns — over the course of a weekend. "We immediately jumped into action.

"By that Monday we had inherited it all. We had interviewed 80 people from the old agency and hired 55 of them, and put out the first ad campaign. Everyone, from IT to HR to the design teams activated so quickly. Shoprite was putting all of their eggs into one basket — our basket — with the move, but they knew there would be an enormous dent to their revenue if they didn't get that week's ads out, and so they came to us for help. It's incredible what you can achieve when you put your mind to it."

9. Never stop learning

"Lewin and Rob are our "greybeards'. Technically they're non-executive partners, but Rob's in the office every day. We have an open forum, and they offer me advice, affirmations and points to consider. They also gave our business gravitas when we launched and I was still in my mid-30s and an art director at heart. No one knows everything, not even Stephen Hawking.

"Media moves so fast, and our industry is full of constant flux and changes. You can't know it all, which is why you need to keep learning, and looking for insights and advice. I screw up every day. I make assumptions, some good, some bad. Gut feel can only give you so much.

"I've found that I need honest advice and feedback. They might not have all the answers, but the action of asking often makes you think deeper about the problem and solution at hand. I have mentors and I've had coaches as well. If you want to increase your chances of success, surround yourself with incredible people."

10. Understand the role of a leader

"My key role is to identify business partners to run the business with me, to give people the space to grow and deliver, and to foster a passion to service clients. This isn't my business, it's our business. Operations is a team effort. Our creative director and deputy MD came on board at an executive level to ensure we make things happen. All of the operations partners have shares in the business, because I believe that this is how you find — and keep — the right people.

"Ultimately, success breeds success. Organic growth with a client is a fantastic endorsement of our team. If you price fairly and deliver what you promise, that's the recipe for growth, and you can't do it without the right team in place.

"Along this journey I've learnt that leadership is not what we often think it is. It's not top down. You need to serve the people under you. As a leader you need to be able to roll up your sleeves, help, and get on with it. Our number one priority isn't our clients, but our staff. You can't look after clients if you aren't looking after your staff. They need to be passionate, engaged, growing and given opportunities. If they're happy, your clients are happy. At the end of the day it's a pretty simple equation."