Long haul pays off – in more than just money
Louise is in a good position to reflect on the lives of business owners. CG Consulting, the specialised IT marketing company that she started in her Sea Point garage fifteen years ago, is ripe to be sold to a bigger foreign outfit to use as a springboard into Africa.
Looking back on her career as a business owner, Louise Robinson admits, only partly in jest, that there would have been many easier ways to make money. “By marrying somebody very rich” for instance, she jokes.
But like many other business owners, she was never really in it only for the money. She loves what she has managed to do in fifteen years, and she still loves what she is doing. Her business has allowed her to indulge her passion for travelling. The days are still often long, “but I can choose my own hours,” she says.
Louise is in a good position to reflect on the lives of business owners. CG Consulting, the specialised IT marketing company that she started in her Sea Point garage fifteen years ago, is ripe to be sold to a bigger foreign outfit to use as a springboard into Africa. Quite a few parties are interested in the twelve-employee, multi-million-rand firm. It is virtually debt-free, has a proven track-record of high-quality service and profitability, and at least a five-year head-start over any other IT marketing firm when it comes to knowledge of the African IT scene.
Louise would never have predicted that this would be the outcome of her decision to move down to Cape Town in the late nineties. With no formal business training, she had moved up in the marketing departments of large IT companies in Johannesburg. After a terrifying experience of a robbery, she decided to move out of Johannesburg and the corporate world.
Working from her garage in Sea Point while nursing her infant son, she did any kind of contract work for her Johannesburg corporate contacts who from time to time needed someone to run small marketing projects for them in Cape Town. She remembers organising events – lots of cocktail parties – thinking at the time that it was the most lucrative activity in marketing.
But then Microsoft asked her to do a survey of the local software-development market. She marvels at how paper-based it all was back then. She handed out the questionnaire to friends that she had managed to rope in and together they made hundreds of calls. It was stressful, she remembers, but she pulled it off, and unwittingly launched herself into a highly specialised kind of business-to-business marketing.
She essentially started building an outward-bound call-centre, but she baulks at using that term because her business is so far removed from the image that it evokes – banks of telesales staff flogging cell phone contracts and life insurance policies. “The day that we sell funeral plans is the day I’m out of here. There is no ways I’m doing that,” she says.
CG Consulting do not do direct sales pitches. Rather, they gather information about IT people in the business world, speak to them about their work and needs and inform them about new systems or products. Most of this work is based on campaigns that the likes of Microsoft and Cisco hire CG Consulting to carry out.
In this way, CG Consulting built up tonnes of data about who’s who in the IT industry, and the company moved into the selling of valuable databases. A few years ago, after CG Consulting did a few projects in other African countries, Louise decided to focus on the African IT scene. “People were (saying) ‘you’re absolutely mad’, but of course today everybody is going ‘Africa, Africa’, so we’re kind of five years ahead of the pack,” she says.
At times it has been a bumpy ride. Staffing has always been her greatest challenge, says Louise, because she needs to recruit employees who have a combined interest in people and in IT. In recent years, she has had to make sure that she has at least a couple of French employees to deal with Francophone Africa. She says she has learnt to do all her recruiting on Gumtree, cutting out recruitment agencies altogether.
For Louise, the most difficult period was when she bought two office units in the Cape Town city bowl after her lease expired in Sea Point. First, she struggled to get finance, because the banks all saw her as too much of a risk. But Business Partners agreed to lend her the money based on the strength of her business. Then Louise realised that she had underestimated the levies and rates and taxes on a commercial property. The first bill hit her in December, one of her slowest month.
Just then Microsoft, one of her most important clients, announced that they wanted to pay a visit to the office, which was run down and standing virtually empty because it was way too big for the small CG Consulting team. With no budget for interior decorating, Louise decided to opt for an “advertising agency” look, and bought a lot of trestle tables to bulk up the furniture. The rest was done by painting the office a riot of colours.
As always, the business pulled through, and today Louise is in the enviable position of not only owning a sellable business, but also unencumbered top-rated office space in Cape Town. Today, the trestle tables still line the walls of the bright office, testimony to the creativity that can be achieved when an entrepreneur builds something out of nothing.