27 August 2012

Mitch Marescia: Is your service significantly sexy?

Mitch Marescia, Camargue
Underwriting Managers
Mitch Marescia is CEO and co-founder of Camargue Underwriting Managers, one of South Africa’s most successful niche insurance underwriting agencies, which he started from an idea hatched in a gym steam room in 2001. From two staff and big dreams, Marescia now employs 35 people and runs a sustainable business that's transformed the insurance industry.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Can you grow an entrepreneur or are they born? I’d like to think that people can acquire many of the entrepreneurial skills needed to run a business as they mature, and as they become more confident in themselves and find their place in the world. I definitely think there are certain characteristics of being an entrepreneur that you can identify in people from a young age though. Take a look the kid at school who makes sweets at home to sell to his peers, or offering to carry an elderly woman’s shopping bags for money… and often that kid grows up to be an entrepreneur. I was certainly one of those kids; I always saw a buck around every corner. I’d work in our neighbours’ gardens and do almost anything to earn a few bucks.

What were you doing before starting your business?
Blessings and direction often come in many disguises. Some of my best motivators have often stemmed from very negative experiences. Whether it was an employer that I disagreed with, or a business partner who let me down, these situations became good spurs for me to do something different. So prior to starting my first business, MGM Corporate Solutions, I was the Vice President of operations for AIG Africa. Although I learned a tremendous amount while with AIG, I quickly reached a point where I couldn’t stomach the internal politics that come with being part of an international corporation, and so started my own consulting business which was reasonably successful… and it was a big risk. Camargue’s birth came about when I tried to help a friend who needed work.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture? Big business plan or none?
That’s a good question. People often make the mistake of thinking that a business plan is going to be the magic answer to running a successful business. But the plan is only one element. Whether it’s a plan written down on one page or it’s a 21-page document, a plan is essential. But more important than having an idea is having vision and passion. Often the passion around the idea is more important than the plan. If you have both, you’ll definitely survive a lot of initial start-up trauma. A plan is important, but you need to work your plan with passion.

What was your start up capital and where did you set up office?
We started up in a little office at home… on my couch to be more accurate. In fact, truth be told, the entire idea of Camargue was conceived in a steam room at the Virgin Active in Bruma! So space, and place and geography aren’t always important to starting up a successful business. From the couch, we migrated to a “broom cupboard at Hollard”… Hollard, who were our very first big supporters, gave us a little office that we squeezed into. We literally had zero start-up capital, but did have a loan account that peaked at about R2.3 million, and that was paid off after three years.

What was your big dream for this venture?
We wanted Camargue to be an idea – not a place, not a physical space, not a product. We started with the idea of living differently, engaging with your society differently, operating in the economic space differently and aimed at bringing something of value to the market. This ultimately became our sustainability approach. When we looked at insurance, we realised that we wanted to turn it on its head. I came from a business empowering consulting background, and although I was very familiar with insurance, my business partner was the underwriter. I suggested putting the business empowering element ahead of the insurance – with insurance being the final part of the jigsaw – and that approach lead to our success. Our approach was later known as the “blue ocean strategy” by some industry gurus, but we were using it way back then.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Door-to-door. You’ve got to just keep knocking on those doors! You actually have to pound the pavement and then resole your broken shoes and continue knocking door-to-door. Whether it’s meeting people in a coffee shop, or knocking on a client’s business door, you have to do whatever it takes to meet as many people as possible and one lead will eventually lead to another.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
It’s such a personal journey. We were very fortunate to have started our business within a niche market of the insurance industry. So it’s a case of identifying what you want to be; do you want to offer a service or product to the mass market or do you want to be in a niche – offering a value-added service and product, where these are less price sensitivity? This decision will often dictate how unique you are and how unique you can afford to be. You know what you want to bring to market, so the question is – how do you make it unique?

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?     
Be serious about what it’s going to cost you to produce your product or develop your service, and don’t forget to include your time! A lot of people forget to add their own time to the cost of developing their product or service. Once you’ve established those basic costs, add on what you feel is a comfortable mark up, and this will be based on your projected volumes to make a living out of. Then you have a reality check and you find out what your competitors are charging for the same thing. If your product or service is significantly different and sexy – you can then afford to be less tolerant of price. So, you have to look at all your costs and add 100% mark-up – maybe more – and then look at what the rest of the market is doing.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top wisdoms?
If you asked somebody 10 years after starting a business: “If you’d known what you were going to go through, would you have commenced on the journey?” their answer might be “no”. I believe that blissful ignorance and raw passion upfront is often what gets you to start something and it creates a momentum. If you knew the pain you were going to go through in year two and even in year three – you might not choose to embark on your journey. That’s also how you discover – through pain, friction, conflict and trauma – your tenacity and that’s how you grow. So, I’d want to stay blissfully ignorant. The most important wisdom for any entrepreneur is to choose your principles and your ethics… choose how you want to operate your business. There are all sorts of challenges and temptations out there, just like the classic “tenderpreneur”. Today people are so desperate to get work and business… you have to decide if you’re going to make that first bribe or not. You have to decide where your value system lies and whether you’re willing to compromise and lastly, do not confuse motion with progress!

What was your most epic fail in the early days? How did you work through/solve it?
The person I backed to start the business with was not the correct partner for me and vice versa. That was my biggest fail. That being said, if that person hadn’t presented, I wouldn’t have taken up the business and turned it into the success it currently is. Today 35 people have permanent jobs, we’ve just started up an internship programme that will no doubt change many more lives, we’re contributing to the development of skills within the industry through our academy programme for brokers, and then there’s our people development drive where we’re actively involved in various charity works. Our network of people and partners across the globe is just so encouraging and none of this would’ve happened if it wasn’t because of that epic fail.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Many entrepreneurs confuse cashflow with profit, and they battle to separate their personal finances from business finances.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
When I first started the business somebody said to me: “When you put yourself out there, when you take a risk and take a chance and you’re feeling purely motivated – you put something in motion – and the universe has a way of rewarding you”. That little piece of wisdom kept me going during the lonely moments. But I also noticed that when I walked down the aisles in a supermarket, and while I was sitting around the airport, I’d find far more people like me on this planet, who had taken a chance… and that’s ultimately how you start forming natural networks of people who are going through similar challenges. Often, this newly acquired network of entrepreneurs keeps you motivated and then there’s your personal “stuff” – and I say stuff loosely, because it includes everything that constitutes you.

Did you have a mentor?
We definitely all need mentors and they come in different forms. A mentor doesn’t have to be a business associate or somebody that you met in business; they could also be your church minister or a teacher. The big thing about being an entrepreneur is that it’s a lonely space and a lot of focus is put on personal management. You can either choose to be a person who sits on the couch and watches DStv all day long, or you could be the other extreme and be up at 3am doing reports. So it’s very important to learn how to properly manage yourself – so that you’re performing at your best. A phrase that was put to me early on by somebody was as follows: “At any point in time, do the most productive thing possible”. When you’re in the waiting room at the doctor, or in the car, wherever… use that time to do something productive. This is definitely the best time and personal management advice you’ll get. This of course includes rest. Every driven entrepreneur needs rest. If you’ve chosen to rest – go and rest! To rest is often the most difficult thing for entrepreneurs to do.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
I think three years is a good time to get a business off the ground. Within two to three years you’d know whether you’ve got relevance in the market or not. You might not be making money, but if your offering is valid, you should be approaching break-even by year three. By year five you should start enjoying the cream of all your hard work. If things aren’t going to plan by year three – you should consider tweaking your business strategy, and start questioning if you’re in the right business at all. In some cases, it’s obvious after six months that your venture isn’t going to work… like selling ice to Eskimos.

Is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
No! Dreams are what keep us inspired beyond the everyday, and it’s often when the biggest dreams are pursued that they produce the most amazing results for you and for society. If anyone told the Wright Brothers that they shouldn’t be flying – it was their dream to fly like birds – then today we wouldn’t be able jet-set around the world! And there are many more examples like that. If it wasn’t for Steve Jobs we wouldn’t have touch-screen technology.

Do you believe in internships for your business?
We certainly believe in internships. There’s nothing better than learning a craft by sitting next to a professional who’s done it before. You can’t replace that experience. In fact we’ve just started an internship programme here at Camargue! Interested candidates are welcome to approach the Camargue Academy, which is headed up by John Stebbing who will conduct an interview.

Get in touch with Mitch Marescia from Camargue Underwriting Managers, email: mitch@camargueum.co.za, visit: www.camargueum.co.za, find him on Facebook: and on LinkedIn.

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