Mike Sharman, founder of marketing communications agency Retroviral, is a seasoned serial entrepreneur. Sharman recently added the moniker 'best selling author' to his resume, after his debut book "The Best Dick" flew to the Top 10 at book outlets across the country. Prior to Sharman's MC gig at Heavy Chef's end of year celebration event, featuring SA's 5 Most Exciting Startups, we chatted to him about his thoughts on entrepreneurship, creativity, the process of writing a book and the South African entrepreneurial scene.
Mike, you're a polymath. A student of business, social media and... comedy. How have these things combined to propel your career?
From all the reading and experiences that I have been exposed to during my entrepreneurial journey, I've learnt that there is a definitive obsession within one's startup space. It's this obsession that feeds the jockey. My obsession is storytelling, entertaining and developing brand narratives for consumers to become emotionally connected with.
Stage performance and script writing requires observational insights to develop premises and truths that various audiences can relate to. This is similar for social media tactics whereby communities are being built with both like-minded and contradictory target audiences.
In retrospect, all of the storytelling lessons I've invested in, and personally dived into, have paved a way for me to combine insights plus creative plus business to develop a boutique social media ad agency with a difference - one that punches above its weight - and an offering that I can confidently say has made more brands 'go viral', globally than any other agency in Africa.
"It's this obsession that feeds the jockey."
You've achieved something most of us business owners dream of doing. You've written a book - and by all accounts, a pretty good one. Why did you do it? What was your process in getting it done? Was it hard? Was it worth it?
It was more insanity than anything else. I interact with a variety of entrepreneurs at different stages of their business life cycles and there are common themes that keep us up at night - cash flow, hiring new employees, and the need to innovate, to name a few. There are also different expectations and desires for people who start businesses. Some are keen on building a lifestyle business, and some want to be the biggest - which goes hand in hand with ego. I never want to be the biggest, but I want to be the BEST.
I, personally wasn't great at being an employee - I knew it was a necessary stepping stone, but ultimately, I used experience as a launchpad for launching a startup.
The Best Dick is a combination of universal premises of startup challenges, coupled with personal anecdotes of navigating the various challenges and wins along the journey. Tracey McDonald from I Love Books approached me to publish the book - which combines research, insights and humour to convey my message - and it has been one of the most incredible social experiments I've ever embarked on. There were times when I hated it, loved it, and it's been pretty surreal seeing it no the shelves of SA's leading bookstores and the press and social media feedback I've been receiving.
You've chosen the route of having your book published by a publishing house. In an age where everyone is screaming "self-publish!" why did you go this route?
I'm not a publishing expert, and there are huge gaps in my knowledge of how one goes about getting a store to list a book. By working with an expert on getting the book out there, I could focus on the tactics that I am a specialist in - making content 'go viral' ;)
You have built your career creating viral campaigns for iconic brands such as Nandos and RocoMamas to name a few. These types of campaigns, containing funny, challenging, thought-provoking content, have become a critical component of ongoing communication in business. What is your advice to entrepreneurs who see content strategy as key to success? How does an ambitious startup founder become the next Dollar Shave Club?
Always strive to produce remarkable content. Develop your Hero's Journey that tells the fairytale of why you are the champion of your industry and how you are Daviding the Goliaths who are mistreating their customers. Virgin is incredible at being a customer champion and each time Sir Richard launches into a new industry he positions himself as the brand of the people.
Whether you are tweeting or making Insta Stories, be remarkable and be different before you obsess over product or service plugs.
Heavy Chef believes that entrepreneurship is critical to stimulating the economy and providing sustainable solutions to developing nation challenges. You're MCing Heavy Chef's end of year event on Thursday 14th December where we're trying to shed some good news in a depressed South African state. What's your thoughts on the current environment in South Africa - do you think it's a good idea to start a business here? Are you positive about our future - with your business hat on?
SA has its challenges but holy shit she is an exciting place to do business. Our degrees of separation are few, our ability to innovate to solve real world problems ranks up there with the best businesses in the world, and we are an attractive destination for outsourcing - we're cheaper than developed markets and we have a suitable time zone with a powerful command of the English language for Europe and the US.
Regardless the politics, I'm still proudly SA.
Thank you Mike!