|Jonty Fisher, Bletchley Park|
Jonty Fisher started Cape-based Bletchley Park with a workforce of three and no fixed address. His initial vision was to provide a fully integrated marketing solution for smaller clients but his ultimate goal was to become best known for bringing strategy back into executional marketing communications.
Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I grew up needing to make my own pocket money, so whether it was coaching sport or running a stand at the Greenmarket Square, I had ways and means in my early years. Myself and a business partner started an agency in my Honours year at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and we didn’t look back, so I guess that would qualify me as always having an entrepreneurial side. To be honest, I’ve never talked about myself as being entrepreneurial, I just took decisions at certain times that were the right ones for me at that stage.
What were you doing before starting your business?
I was studying Business Science at UCT and was never interested in the beauty parade rolled out with all the big marketing or consulting firms. Mark Shuttleworth gave a guest lecture in our business strategy class (before he sold Thawte) where he made the statement that South Africa was in a small window period where conditions were excellent for entrepreneurs. He said that if we had any consideration of doing something by ourselves, that now was the time to do it. That was my final nudge.
What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
To be honest, you learn the most by doing, especially when you’re starting from a young age with your own capital. When you’re older and wiser and certainly if you’re looking for external funding, then something like a business plan is critical, but when you’re young and just starting out, I’d certainly advocate planning a bit less and just being immensely action-orientated. That bias towards action and trying loads of different approaches (when you can take those risks) is a lot more valuable than a business plan on a piece of paper. Be clear on what outcomes you want, and what type of business you want – from enviroment to colleagues etc – but give yourself the freedom to explore. I know a lot of people that hide behind business plans of what they’re “going to do”. I’m more interested in those that don’t talk about it; they just go towards it and get started.
What was your start up capital?
Initially we had no capital and worked between my business partner’s flat and the Golden Spur in Newlands, depending on the time of day!
What was your big dream for this venture?
The focus when we started was on providing a fully integrated marketing solution for smaller budget clients. It was more client-side thinking focused than purely executionally focused. Our aim was to start at objectives and solve marketing problems in a one-stop-shop – thinking of broader objectives first, and then taking a channel neutral approach, rather than executing purely in terms of what channel specialty we offered. Our tagline was “On time. On budget. As agreed.” (Cringe!). The bigger dream was to become famous for bringing strategic thinking back to executional marketing communications.
How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Initially, we tapped a lot of known networks – family, friends, school contacts etc, which carried us through the first few months, and then referral was our big driver for the first few years as we made our way up the client scale. The profit came from ensuring that we sat so close to the client on their challenges, really walked the walk with them, that we became indispensable. That’s where the profit was drawn from. We weren’t suppliers, we were true partners.
How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
I think there are two sides to it. Naturally you’re going to have a position or thought on what makes you different. You need to express that in various forms and then just get in front of clients and test it out. Don’t wait until it’s perfect, just go and try it. You’ll very quickly learn what is turning the lights on and what’s not. The other side is always try to get close to your customer so that you can learn what is relevant about what you think is valuable to them and what is not. There are always shortcuts. Ask people for advice. People right at the top of companies that you will look to pitch to. In our experience, people are incredibly willing to help young entrepreneurs trying to get started. We learned the most in areas we knew nothing about by just picking up the phone to marketing managers, sales directors and MDs and just asking them to help us out for 30 minutes. Almost all of them obliged.
How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
Various industries can offer broad benchmarks for billing, but ultimately you have to let the market advise you. Start at a median and keep increasing your pricing until your losing at least 15% of your proposals for price reasons. Then you know where you’re sitting. Underquoting is one of the biggest traps enterpreneurs fall into when starting a business and it can hold you back for years. You have to put a value to your belief, and have the confidence to stick to it.
What was your most epic fail in the early days?
In our first year we were running the closing event for the House & Leisure Young Designer’s Awards in Cape Town, which was probably our biggest client at the time. It was a very flashy affair with loads of celebrities and journalists there. We had this beaten up old IBM ThinkPad that we were running this Flash presentation off on a big screen, which carried the announcements and introductions to the winners. Halfway through, while all the guests were glued to it, the old ThinkPad gave up - “there is not enough disk space to run this application” - and it crashed, leaving the guests looking at the desktop with a hundred client files on it! Not much we could do but laugh it off!
What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Undervaluing what they do and trying to do grow too fast. Cashflow is king.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
Family naturally plays a big role, but I’m a big believer in building an entrepreneurial network too. There are challenges that you face as a young business owner that are so different to corporate environments and it really helps to share knowledge, learnings and commiserations with fellow entrepreneurs. Personally, you have to remind yourself why you started in the first place. If you’re being true to that, then it will get better and tough times will pass. If you’re not, change it.
Did you have a mentor?
I’ve been lucky to have various great mentors over my career, in various different spheres of business focus. They’re incredibly valuable and can fast-track your journey. The single most valuable piece of advice I have ever received is to give myself the freedom in my work to be absolutely true to myself. It sounds immensely simple, but it is something that very few people do, and especially given the pressures of running your own business, you often feel like you have to compromise. I’ve learned that each time you compromise, and try to chameleon your way to a piece of work, or a client relationship, or whatever, you subconsciously chip away at your own confidence and focus. Always be true to yourself and your own dreams; do what you need and want to do, not what you think people expect you to do, or how they expect you to act. That freedom can truly build category-breaking businesses.
How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think it’s very diverese in different industries, at different ages, and naturally with different funding platforms, and I don’t think there’s a standard benchmark here. However, I’d say it’s time to shut up shop when you’re not feeling the love anymore, which goes without saying. Building a business is often a thankless, highly stressful and demanding journey, and you have to build an armour of love for the business to handle it. If you fall out of love, you’ll be burnt out quickly.
Which three character traits do all entrepreneurs possess?
Belief, tenacity and self-awareness.
Do you believe in internships for your business?
I do, for both talent scouting and more philosophical reasons too. I think we work in a business environment where “work experience” is seen as a non-negotiable, which can be a huge barrier to entry for young people. Internships can help them to bridge this divide. I also think internships are really important for young people to really find their meaning in their work – is this really what I want to do? We encourage interns to explore different areas and will give very honest feedback as to whether we think this is their game or not. If someone would like to intern at Bletchley Park, they just need to email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Focus. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. The fastest growth comes from focus.
* Just try it. Don’t wait until you think something is perfect. Fail fast.
* Don’t be afraid of anyone, believe in yourself and back yourself. You’re good enough.
* Find mentors early
* Be true to yourself. Always.