For some people owning their own business is a lifelong ambition. Dale Hefer is one such person. As a university student she dreamed of having her own company. “It was an itch I just had to scratch,” she says, elaborating on some of the many business ventures she has embarked on, which include importing second hand clothes and selling them out of a hut, to selling made-in-China radios on the side of the road.
Today she owns and runs Chillibush Communications, boasts a list of big-player clients as well as a nomination for the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Awards.
Taking on the unknown
What’s remarkable about Hefer’s story is that she took on an industry notorious for its competitiveness, without knowing much about it. “I got a job with a media monitoring company and for the four years that I was there I was thinking ‘I want my own business’, but I realised there wasn’t much scope in that industry.
Advertising sounded glamorous and sexy and I thought ‘How difficult can it be?’,” she remembers. But in spite of that early naivetÈ, Hefer was not lacking in determination or practical sense. She joined an advertising agency to learn all she could about the industry. “I told myself I would be there for a year, which I was – to the day. I just sucked up every piece of knowledge I could and when I left I started Chillibush,” she relates.
A vision of something different
What Hefer took away from that year was a sure sense of how not to do things. “What I had experienced was enormous frustration at the fact that agencies seemed to operate in silos. I was in client service and we were hardly allowed to talk to the production manager. The studio was in another building. So you’d do your component of work for a client and then that would be the last you saw of it. An enormous media plan would be put together but the people who did this hadn’t even seen the creative.
Or strategic people would put something together without communicating to the creative guys,” she says, adding that this is still the way many of the larger agencies operate. “I just knew we were losing opportunities in the value chain,” she recalls. Finding an easier and more effective way of doing things was the early vision that drove Chillibush.
“I vowed that I would start an agency that had no silos, where there was an open and constant stream of communication. I vowed there would never be a door except for the loos and the boardroom and that no one would have an office,” she explains from the glass-walled boardroom overlooking an entirely open plan office space.
Getting to that place took time and hard work, however. Hefer started off in what she describes as “a dingy little garage” which she rented from a friend in Parkhurst. Her biggest initial challenge was funding, as it is for countless start-ups. She remembers the early days: “My boyfriend had given me a computer and loaned me R10 000, my sister had given me R5 000 and my parents had said they would pay for my petrol for two months. That’s how I started.”
But that money didn’t get her very far. As an unaccredited agency she had to pay upfront for advertising space and then bill clients. “The cash flow implications were enormous and I had to have an overdraft facility. But in those days, it was really difficult for a woman to open a business bank account with no record or credentials of any kind, let alone to borrow money.
I went to the banks with my big business plan but they all just laughed at me,” she says. It was Hefer’s parents who provided a lifeline, putting up their R60 000 life savings as surety for an overdraft facility. “I’ll never forget one call I got from my bank manager,” she remembers, “I had probably been going for about two months and he called to say that I was R50 000 over my overdraft limit but that I had until 15:00 that afternoon to put the money in.”
In spite of having her back against the wall, Hefer managed to keep a good business head even when applying to an ex-boyfriend for help. “He wanted a stake in the business but I said no, I’d rather pay him a higher interest rate,” she says, adding that she very quickly set about getting accredited.
As a small one-woman agency operating out of a garage, Hefer didn’t exactly have clients banging down her door. It was her characteristic proactivity that helped her land her first accounts.
She wrote personalised letters to everyone she knew, both personally and in business, promising a service that was better than any other agency could offer. A friend’s brother who happened to be marketing director of a brewery company gave her a chance to pitch on a beer aimed at the black market. Determined to land the account, Hefer took samples of the beer around to a number of construction sites owned by her then-boyfriend.
“I got a whole lot of data about their impressions of the brand, the logo and the beer and pulled it together into a report. I begged a freelancer designer to do some work for me on spec and when we presented, we landed the account,” she recalls.
It’s a job she is still proud of and one that saw the business through some of the early quiet periods. “Another thing that really helped was some advice I received from a friend of mine who was very successful.
I proudly told him I had an action plan of what I was going to do every week and he told me that wasn’t good enough, that I needed an action plan of what I was going to do every five minutes. That was the best advice I received – I would break my day down into writing four letters, cold calling two potential clients etc and that saved my bacon until I became busy enough,” she relates.
She also adds that it was very important to have a corporate identity ready from the word go. “I’d got a freelance designer to do my logo and stationery, which I think is so important if you are starting a communications company,” she comments.
After six months Hefer hired her first employee, someone else with a client services background. “The garage arrangement wasn’t working out and it certainly wasn’t sustainable so we hired premises in Randburg,” she says.
In the second year, the business was employing five people and needed new premises. Ever passionate about property, Hefer heard that the building which currently houses Chillibush was on the market. “It was way out of my league but I thought I’d just go and look. When I walked in here I knew I just had to have it,” she remembers.
The fact that she managed to secure the bond from Rand Merchant Bank with relative ease was testimony to how far the business had come since its inception. “We were doing well and had a good track record,” she says.
Although it started out offering advertising and design, Hefer admits that she made mistakes in the early days by taking on jobs that the business was not properly geared for. “I realise now it was a mistake because it got me into some hot water and so I decided that any service we offered had to be headed up by experts in that field,” she explains.
Today, Chillibush has advertising and design, media, public relations and most recently, investor relations divisions. “I was always neurotic about not being a fly-by-night agency so I waited five years before launching into PR,” she says. And although she weathered industry criticism about diversifying into different areas, Hefer is adamant that offering a one-stop integrated communications service is precisely where the business has innovated most. “People told me to focus on one offering but I knew that clients definitely wanted a one-stop facility and this is definitely a key differentiator.
We have also started the different offerings from scratch and that has meant the culture is pervasive. A lot of agencies are buying up PR firms and adding on other divisions in this way but that contributes further to those pre-existing teams operating in silos. We’ve identified the people to head up our individual divisions and grown them from scratch, so our clients get the same ethic, feel and creativity across all operations,” she explains.
She’s also afforded each divisional head the opportunity of gaining equity in their division once they reach targets. “It’s a model that ensures sustainability because people have a personal investment in the success of the business,” adds Hefer.
Empowerment – both broadly speaking and of individuals – is something she firmly believes in. When asked what single factor contributed to her rise from a small-time agency to a significant industry player she replies, “People were very sceptical at the time but I embraced BEE right from the word go. I realised that if I didn’t I would be a five-man show forever.
Doing so is what enabled me to jump the hurdle and go big.” After one BEE partnership failed, she approached long-time university friend, Victor Dlamini who is now a very hands-on chairman in the business.
Getting through tough times
Although she wasn’t to know it then, Hefer’s ability to embrace change would be tested in an experience that nearly broke the back of the business. “Two years ago I exited the business – I decided I’d had enough after eight years. At that stage one of my empowerment partners was running the show and I just couldn’t work with him,” she recalls.
Within five months of leaving, the business started haemorrhaging staff and losing clients. “The company was on its knees. The finances were in tatters – we were about to run at a one million rand loss for the year and we lost our biggest client because they couldn’t work with this particular person,” she relates. She and Dlamini took the decision to get rid of the person in question and she came back to the business. But it was far from easy, as she relates. “Bringing things back from the brink was very tough.
I used to walk up those stairs every morning and plaster this grin on my face and just try and get the culture back. He’d created this culture of terror – people were terrified of doing anything wrong. Then we had to get rid of staff who were loyal to him and who were creating havoc in the business, at the same time as shoring up leaking accounts, patching up relationships with clients and trying to entice good employees back. At the end of each month we’d wait for the resignations to come in and we lost about 30 staff in total.”
“I learned something important from that experience,” says Hefer, “I thought I could exit the business without fall-out but I now know that this is impossible. One of my mistakes was not realising my own value in terms of keeping the culture going.” She achieved what few businesses can in such desperate circumstances, slowly but surely restoring the culture and getting things back on track. Now, a year later, Chillibush is once again thriving. Projected turnover for 2007 is R30 million and profits and morale are high. Hefer is philosophical about what she’s achieved but there’s no denying that she’s more than earned her stripes.
Things I would have done differently
- Challenge: Numbers are not my strong point and I never focused enough on the financial side of the business. Although I’ve never been the victim of fraud, I couldn’t check up that things were being done in the most financially efficient way.
- Solution: I always leveraged off partners and friends to ask their advice and have employed financial people who were top of their game.
Tips for would-be ad and media agency owners
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a glamorous industry or that you don’t need to knuckle down and get your hands dirty – you do!
- Ensure that your business is not too top heavy – so may agencies are being toppled by directors drawing salaries that are too large
- Embrace change and use it to look for opportunities. The industry is reinventing itself every day so try to be ahead of the curve in terms of trends.
- Have a very detailed action plan – the five minute To Do list gets you through the first months
- Don’t panic if things don’t happen quickly
- Make sure you have enough money to keep you going without any income for six months
- Get a good financial person to help you
- Make sure that your client service is central – make sure you are in their face and proactive