Grenade: Small agency, big boom
by Herman Manson (@marklives) You know the story. Creative meets suit, and they launch an agency. It’s rare for a team to emerge from the media world to do the same — as happened with two friends with extensive experience in publishing launching digital agency, Grenade, in 2012.
Colin Daniels was digital strategy manager at Times Media Group (then Avusa), later becoming the publisher of TimesLIVE; he also served as head of digital at Trader Media Group. While completing his MBA, Daniels launched his own digital publishing consultancy, More Than Media. This was the forerunner of Grenade. His business partner, Robin Pietersen, had worked with Daniels at Times Media Group as a designer and developer before joining him at Trader Media Group. He was also a partner in More Than Media.
Once Daniel’s MBA was done, the duo decided to build up their business and Prefix (today Everlytic, recently acquired by Vox Telecom) was brought on board as a shareholder and partner. Their primary product was a propriety content management system (CMS) called Predator. which provided the business with a revenue stream. But within a year of their launching, WordPress, the free open-source CMS, had become a dominant force, and the business had to reorient itself as its model became increasingly obsolete.
Initially, Daniels and Pietersen had thought they could build Predator into a product well-suited for challenges facing publishers in emerging markets. They had also started building a mobile publishing solution. When you can’t beat them, join them, says Daniels, and soon the agency was building client sites using WordPress, evolving into a custom WordPress design-and-development agency. Ironically, it was now helping publishers move their sites from systems such as Predator to WordPress.
Today, its client list includes Naspers, MultiChoice (including Idols, Mzansi Magic, kykNet, Africa Magic and Carte Blanche, among others) to Times Media Group (Sunday Times, BDLive, TimesLIVE and SowetanLIVE), Cerebra, the Mail & Guardian, Creamer Media, VOX Telecom and Fedhealth.
Grenade today offers WordPress design-and-development services, setup of ecommerce stores, mobile development, newsletter strategies, broader digital strategy, branding and SEO. It is also building custom apps for WordPress which it will be releasing commercially in the near future. Its white-labelled mobile publishing offering, AmplyFire, is doing well for the agency both in SA and several other African markets.
Even though its a small agency (employing seven people), its clients tend to be large companies and active in the media business. Grenade effectively competes with much-larger agency businesses (a fight it seems to be winning, thanks to the founding partners’ expertise in publishing and content). According to Daniels, the agency is lean but employs senior, multi-skilled personnel to manage projects.
The agency is currently driving WordPress app development which it wants to release into the international marketplace; what with exchange rates in dollar-dominated app marketplaces favouring SA developers, he hopes this will make the business less-reliant upon project revenue. The agency is also focusing upon building its credentials in the mobile and ecommerce space.
Daniels’ five tips for agency entrepreneurs
- Networks: “We relied heavily on existing relationships and networks for business when we launched Grenade and it’s unlikely that we would have survived without this. Networks, referrals, and word of mouth are still big drivers of new business for us.”
- Cashflow: “This is a critical and well-known aspect of running any business, especially during the first 12–18 months of operation. It’s particularly important for agencies and companies who are dependent on project revenue to manage their cashflow with an iron fist as this can sink you quickly.”
- Diversification: “There are many experts who believe that you should rather focus on delivering one or two products/services exceptionally well in order to be a successful business but we’ve found that having multiple revenue streams has helped us to get through tough times and capitalise on growth opportunities. As an agency, it also allows you to retain a direct relationship with your customers; with the only caveat being that you need to be able to deliver on all your promises, otherwise you risk damaging your reputation with customers.”
- Company culture: “This is something that is often snubbed by companies outside of Silicon Valley but, if you want to attract and retain the best talent, you need to have a great company culture where people look forward to coming to work in the mornings, during the good times and the bad. We focused on building a strong company culture from the outset and it has resulted in a low staff turnover. which has helped us to punch way above our weight as a small agency.”
- Innovation: “This has become a rather clichéd word but we’ve found that constantly looking at new ways of improving your business operations, optimising your existing products and services, and identifying opportunities to develop new products and services keeps you moving forward and allows you to compete with much larger companies where bureaucracy and red tape often make this difficult.”
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com. He was the inaugural Vodacom Social Media Journalist of the Year in 2011 and has, over his 20-year-plus career, contributed to numerous journals and websites in South Africa and abroad, including AdVantage magazine, Men’s Health, Computer World and African Communications.
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