An international keynote speaker, digital thought leader, entrepreneur and author, Mike Saunders believes in leading by unlocking potential, nurturing trust and developing narrative.
He also believes that technology innovates a new future, accelerates growth potential and scales business – which is what spurred him into founding DigitLab, which has grown into one of South Afria’s premier digital marketing agencies and was voted one of South Africa’s best digital agencies in 2012.
“Technology unlocks our future and is a fundamental driver of our success,” explains Mike.
His passion for digital marketing, has not gone unnoticed and he has been recognised by Inbassador, an Austrian-based brand ambassador solution provider, on a list of Top Global Digital Marketing Experts & Influencers in 2019 You Should be Following. Thirty digital thought leaders from around the world werre handpicked, with Mike being one of two South Africans being highlighted.
Digital Swarm, a nationwide digital community that fuels the growth of the digital marketing industry is another brainchild of Mike’s. The swarm hosts quarterly events in Durban and JHB and has attracted speakers from SA’s top brands like KFC, AXE and Google.
In 2016, Mike released his first book “The Five Year Mark”. “The Five Year Mark” imparts the lessons Mike has learnt while establishing his businesses and is an inspirational, clear and practical template for entrepreneurs looking for success.
Mike spent 2018 laying down some long term strategic objectives in business. Looking to make a significant impact on the South African economy by expanding DigitLab into Johannesburg with a view for international expansion, he has also founded an education trust to develop young digital talent. Mike was recognised as a Top KZN Leader when DigitLab was announced as one of KZN’s top businesses.
Mike shares some of his lessons learnt during his time of launching and scaling his businesses in a Q&A with ExpertHub:
In hindsight, where would you spend more or less energy on in your start-up journey?
Given hindsight there are a few things I would have spent more time on:
I started out trying to own everything and run everything myself. Over time I have learnt the incredible value of partnerships. Partnerships have helped me share the load, scale-up faster and speed up the growth of our projects. Building great partnerships is a much smarter way of working than trying to do everything on your own.
I am a workaholic and I love what I do. The downside is that my health often takes a backseat. Over the years I have managed to keep burnout at bay, but in 2018 I ended up being booked off work for 2 months due to stress. I needed to get my health back on track if I wanted to keep doing what I loved.
In hindsight, I feel that I would spend less time trying to make toxic relationships work- I’m always keen to make relationships work, which means that I invest heavily in building relationships, even when they may not be the best relationships for me and my business.
What have been your most valuable lessons from start-up mistakes?
1. Don’t spend your cash flow on new projects
As entrepreneurs we are good at getting things started. So once the first business is up and running we want to start on the next one. We usually have tons of ideas and we can’t wait to start them. The difference this time round though is that we have access to money in our business.
The temptation is to use our existing business to pay for and build our next start-up. While this seems like a great idea, I have learnt that this raises a myriad of problems in practice.
Use operational cash instead, or you will suffocate your successful business. Entrepreneurs often make the mistake of using their business cash flow to build their next start-up. They hire people, buy software and licenses to help launch the new startup. This leads to generating lower profits for your original business, depleting cash reserves, and limiting your ability to build your successful business, train its people and provide the best dividend to its shareholders.
There is also a moral obligation to pay people fairly, especially those on profit share, who end up earning less because the owners are leveraging the cash generated by the employees to embark on new ventures instead of resourcing the business properly.
2. You may cripple or delay your future growth
Your successful business will need capital in the future to pay for growth opportunities. In the early years of a business, capital should be saved to build a war chest to handle the growth expenses in the future. When you spend that war chest on a new potential business it leaves your successful business in a place where it’s difficult to grow due to a depleted cash reserve.
You may also end up in a position where the industry you work in slows down and you need those cash reserves to survive the tough times.
3. Over-extending your team
The people, directors and shareholders in your successful business are not necessarily the right people to launch your new start-ups. If you use the same team from your initial start-up to create your new businesses then you may burn your existing team out – stretching them too far or distracting them from your core responsibilities.
Instead, take the time to set up the right business structure to handle your entrepreneurial dreams. One that protects your successful ventures, which provides you with a solid structure to launch your new businesses and attract the right shareholders to the right venture.
4. Learning to delegate
In the beginning of launch DigitLab I would work 20 hour days, spending the daytime selling and doing the work in the nighttime. It was an unreasonable pace and it started to catch up on me. I knew I needed to start hiring people but I was worried about whether I could delegate the work well enough.
A leader always needs people around them who can help make things happen. Often, leaders don’t lean on the experienced people around them and end up focusing more of their time in the business, rather than on the business.
This is a common business problem, which often leads to you simply becoming an ineffective leader.
In your experience, why don’t business owners delegate to those around them?
Over the past five years, I have found three primary reasons why we don’t delegate work to our employees or peers:
1 We don’t trust others to do it
It is that simple: we are surrounded by people we don’t trust to do a good job. Entrepreneurs often don’t spend enough time with their team to build up their skills in doing the work the right way.
The solution to this problem is to hire and partner with trustworthy people. Then, spend a lot of time at the beginning of your journey with them, ensuring that they know and understand how to do what you need them to do.
This often happens when we get into a rut when we initially delegated and the work wasn’t done correctly. When we’re constantly let down by untrustworthy employees or employees who weren’t trained properly, we begin to believe in a lie: “Only I can do this correctly. I just have to find the time to do it.”
This attitude is a recipe for disaster and often ends up in broken businesses, broken lives and possibly a few hospital visits.
As leaders, we need to have some humility. It is possible to coach and lead others to do the same things you do. They may even be better suited to do the job than you.
Often leaders feel that they shouldn’t make their problems everyone else’s problem. They may believe that as a leader, they alone should bear the burden of the challenges, and their employees should just handle the easy stuff.
When you give your employees new challenges, they have the opportunity to prove themselves and grow within your business. The harder the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth will be.
The upside is that when people grow, you, by default, will have to grow. But this will also mean that new roles will need to be created, because the people in your team are driving your business forward.
By default, you will also need to grow in your leadership abilities, so that you are able to keep up with your team members who are stepping up to the challenges you present them.
People want to grow, and growth is possible through delegation. Keep in mind that people might actually want you to delegate.
Can you describe one mistake that businesses owners make in running their businesses?
A few years ago, a friend, Theran Knighton-Fitt, wrote a book called “Re:thingk”. A philosophical book about belief in God, Theran set out to challenge people on their thinking. He wanted them to investigate and discover why they believed exactly what they believed.
Theran wasn’t trying to disprove a belief system, instead he wrote “Re:thingk” to encourage people to actively invest in their belief systems and empower them to understand their reasons for believing.
He encouraged people to deconstruct their belief and reconstruct it again, hoping that the reconstructive process would make their belief stronger and more real than ever before.
I have always liked that approach from Theran – it made him a great teacher and a brilliant creative individual. I also agree wholeheartedly with them, because I meet many people who don’t truly understand why they do what they do.
In starting DigitLab, I bucked against the trend often. I often choose not to adopt any ‘best practice’ technique until we truly understood why we should. I prioritised our cash flow, because I understood the value of cash, because it enabled us to breathe as a business. I chose a flexi-time approach to our workdays, because I believed I needed to respect the time of our employees. I chose a profit-sharing bonus model because I believed it would be the best for the business and the employees.
When we decided to conduct Annual Performance Reviews, we did so because it was a business ‘best practice’ and some people had asked for it. As a system, it failed miserably for us, because it didn’t solve the problems employees were having quickly enough and it made our Human Resources processes cumbersome and ineffective. Once we stopped running annual performance reviews, we designed a mentoring programme that keeps every member of our team accountable, on a bi-weekly and monthly basis.
Similarly, we explored a ‘best practice’ sales process, which resulted in us losing a large amount of capital because we couldn’t transfer valuable knowledge to our sales people quickly enough. Our sales approach is completely different now and has been designed around our unique set of capabilities and resources.
Deconstructing the processes of your business, and the ‘best practice’ techniques you’re told to use, enables you to ensure that you can achieve what you set out to achieve.
Don’t be shaped by the processes of your competitors and peers. Your situation, size, circumstances, resources and abilities are most likely different to anyone else’s. Shape your solutions around your needs and work to solve the unique business problems your company has. Chart your own course and do what is right for your business.