Ms Therese Lethu interviews Mo Dhaliwal and Michael Parks directors of Skyrocket, a company that offers digital services to markets of South Africa focused upon small businesses.
Sirs, could you tell us about your partnership and your backgrounds?
We came together some years ago on a small project. Soon after we incorporated the company potentially as a means to bring together my background in strategy and technology and Mike’s background in creative and design, and to start a new digital branding concept.
I also understand that Michael Parks has a South African connection; that he lived in South Africa, and in the UK and also Canada.
Yes I grew up in Johannesburg SA and I studied in Cape Town then moved to London where I was for 7 years after which I moved to Vancouver Canada.
And you established your agency in Canada which has more than 10 employees; tell us about the services that you currently offer?
Our services include creating websites and APPS. But the real core to our work is to lead with strategy. We start with the strategy and objectives of the company, and more often that takes us into branding and creating the message right. And working to convey that company’s purpose to a specific audience; and then we look at what schools can best achieve those objectives, whether that is with website apps or some kind of campaign. We do all of this.
And you are now looking to establish in Cape Town South Africa. Are you looking to offer the service just to the South African market or is it going to be across all of Africa?
Yeah I mean it’s kind of early for us to answer that for sure, but our initial plan is to create opportunities for South African talent and to build a team of talented designers and developers and creative people. Obviously we now offer services to our North American clients but will our guys in South Africa an opportunity to work on some of these companies in North America. Further down the road, we do want to look at the opportunity in Africa. I was actually with my partner talking about supporting the core, and South Africa will be where we are based but we will at a later stage going to be looking at opportunities across the continent.
Alright you are looking to explore the talent that is currently in South Africa but have you already started to investigate those talents?
Yes for sure! I went to the Red and Yellow school in Cape Town. A lot of major talent came out of that school. It has changed a lot since I was there, but it offers training and there is a lot of digital component in the training. South Africa and Africa now, has always had amazing creative talent. So I think there is definitely opportunity there in terms of pooling a real strong creative team to work on some cool stuff in North America.
The reason I ask this question is because its digital technology that you offer which is already widespread across South Africa. How do you feel that it will contribute to your services, I mean will you be partnering with other organization there for example?
I think we are going to source individuals who are really talented and we have a contract with a couple of guys who we already work with in South Africa; a developer already is in place so we are looking to grow that existing base of talent. And in terms of the skills set, I think guys graduating from the schools there know some technology stack that is different to what we are using in North America. But the core training and technology is definitely there and the opportunity to bring people along is huge, and even the opportunity to work on slightly different technical stack is quite exciting for those guys I believe.
And in terms of your growth strategy in South Africa in the shorter term for example, how is it going to impact upon SMEs and in particular African owned small businesses?
That’s part of our offering, which is very much focused on that and the impact upon those companies, I will let Mo jump in on and speak more on this.
One of the questions you reported before was whether there is a niche or what type of category do we fit into. And the interesting thing about Skyrocket is that we don’t necessarily distinguish what industry or niche or category the company is in. For us it is important to look at the stage of growth of the company.
We adapt to working with companies that are ready for growth. So this tends to line us up with working with a lot of start-ups; and even in some cases to work with very established corporations that have been around for some time but are looking for a new relevance to their audiences. They are looking to create new connections and kind of break through to the next global growth. And it’s these points of the company’s life cycle that are sweet spots for us to come in and bring some innovative thinking to help them to move up to the next level.
In terms of the current employees in the Canadian office and their skill sets, are any of them from the African continent?
Only I am from Africa. We do have a very diverse group with people literally from every corner of the planet. But from Africa it’s only me. But that’s only because there isn’t a lot of South African people in Vancouver. Many people emigrated half a generation before me. But the influx has kind of picked up again. I hardly meet any African people my age; it’s interesting.
Interesting! I do know that you have a special interest in social technology – in particular social media and this is an area that has been growing in Africa quite significantly over the last decade. I want to know how you could contribute to that growth in social media in terms of technology, adding value to businesses in South Africa and maybe later on in Africa
For us it’s just another platform to engage people’s services. For us social media is about building communities. Whether it’s a cause or a movement or some sort of NGO, or even more conventional corporate entities say with consumer products? We encourage them to build a community around their product because there is no better litmus test to how well aligned your brand is or how well your product fits your market place than if you are able to build your community around it. So where ever possible, whether it’s the technology of a website or web application commerce or a mobile app, we look towards the open ground and try to develop a strategy that can integrate the best and most relevant social media tools? If we are working with a client in the interior design space we would look towards interests and other channels that are relevant to that space for integration and for influence building stronger ties e.g. Instagram. And if we are looking towards a company that has more of a business to business strategy we might look to LinkedIn and like channels that could be relevant to them for building communities. Another benefit from us is that I have worked with various industries in South Africa but have been away for a long time. I am now coming in with a fresh perspective which is definitely going to be a benefit to customers. For example, you know the way that mobile has exploded in Africa is huge, so there’s going to be a lot of difficulties, restraints with browser performance and the speed of the internet in Africa. There will then be some learning for us to do initially. But we have had a lot of learning on community building and how to really grow an audience in a different space with a fresh perspective. And in the light of our experience gained in North America and in Europe, we can apply some of that thinking for African markets. I think it’s going to be good for them and Africa.
Part of your strategy is also to reinvest into the community. How would you be doing that in South Africa and maybe later on in Africa?
We talk a lot about what our social impact is going to be and really our opportunity to do it is to amplify the impact upon organisations we work with. What we do on an annual basis is to find worthy start-ups or causes, or some NGO or cultural institution trying to improve the quality of life in the community or improve the world in some way. We’ll essentially offer them a whole slew of professional services. In the past this has ranged from “pro bono” contracts of six months of work and provide them with 40,000 dollars of public utilities for example a Hello Tractor start up in Nigeria. And so our way is to find worthy companies and end up giving back by helping them be better versions of themselves so that they can increase their impact.
And would there be other branches of your organization in other South Africa cities or maybe other SADC nations eventually?
Yeah absolutely; we’ve never really taken a regional perspective with our company because I sometimes joke to Mike that being in Vancouver we’re not likely to even drive 2 or 3 hours to go and see a client so it’s like our clients are either in Vancouver or they are global. Whether they are the other side of Canada or whether they are on the African continent. A small percentage of our business comes from Canada or locally. The remainder is from the United States and the rest of the world. So it’s not to say we would need a fixed presence in every nation we are working with in the continent. It’s more to say we are establishing a hub somewhere and we would service them locally.
Although your niche is smaller businesses what services could you offer major investors? Do you have any services for internal investors targeting the African region?
The best we do in this regard is getting the message right for our clients. So part of our brand positioning is working with start-ups helping them to put together their initial investor materials because that first step they takeout of the gate is so critical. It is so important that their positioning is very well established and is able to very quickly and concisely communicate their value to an investor first and foremost. So in that regard we basically enable start-ups to connect to their investors through communications.
I think more than anything we are just really excited, there is so much opportunity and interesting stuff happening in Africa today that we think “as outsiders” we’re really positioned to help companies in Africa actually to develop strategies and innovation and out of the box thinking that sometimes you’re not necessarily looking for when you are working within marketing. So as an “outsider” I think we can really provide a fresh and divergent perspective and help start-up companies and established corporations to take advantage of all the opportunities that are coming to bear on the continent.
Finally, the world seems set on a global economic downturn and indeed I’m sure that you are familiar with the falling commodity prices adversely affecting Africa? I just wanted to know why you chose this moment to be setting up in South Africa.
Even Skyrocket itself was launched during a down market in Canada. So as much as it might not be seen as an opportunity because the economy isn’t hot right now, it is also a great time to have those conversations and get the balls rolling. Because when things do start taking off in a big way, which we believe they will, we would already be equipped and ready. We would have already mapped the territory and understand how to work in this space. We would be much better poised to take advantage of the opportunity. Even when we started Skyrocket in Canada the first year might have been a little slow but we were poised to take advantage of the opportunity when it arises.
Michael Parks and Mo Dahliwal thank you so much. Thank you for your time.
By Therese Lethu
Corporate Africa, London.