Prudence Spratt is the founder of Spratt Consulting, Prudence is extremely passionate about “all that is tech”. Armed with a number of qualifications and considerable experience, her passion for eCommerce and Digital Project Management led her to start her own consulting company in 2013
She left a successful corporate career after completing her MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science to launch her own business because she spotted a need and realized that despite moving up the corporate ladder, corporate life wasn’t for her.
These are the top five start-up lessons she’s learnt while building her ecommerce project management firm.
1. Find and meet a need
If, like Spratt, you know that you’re not cut out for the corporate world (or at least, as someone with a boss in the corporate world), then the first step is figuring out what you have to offer your potential customers. What do they need?
Spratt’s background was project and programme management, and she had worked for some of the biggest networking companies in the business, including Internet Solutions, Dimension Data and Cisco, and was the ecommerce product manager at Vodacom.
“Working within large organisations, I realised there was a need for smaller firms that are ecommerce project management experts who understand corporate needs and systems, and yet are not subject to the same red tape and bureaucracy. Big digital consultancy firms can take up to a year to complete a project. There’s a lot of red tape on both sides. If you take that away you can execute faster.
“Consultants that are experts in managing these projects are highly specialised and very expensive. The result is that agencies often end up doing that component of the project as well, even though it’s not their area of expertise.
“By analysing the situation I could see that there was a big gap for a consultancy that can do what big firms can do, but at a more affordable rate. Plus, we could execute projects faster, and that entrepreneurial agility is a real differentiator.
“Looking at the ecommerce landscape and critically analysing it gave me the confidence that there was a need that my particular skill set could fill.”
2. Get your foot in the door
No matter how much experience you have, or how good your reputation is within your industry circles, you still need to find and secure your first clients. Spratt had a very specific strategy in this regard.
“I targeted projects in distress,” she explains. “Projects that are in need of rescue tend to be toxic, stressful environments. Everyone hates each other, things are going wrong, it’s costing money and the client needs help. No one wants to step into a mess, and so it’s an easy sell, first because something needs to be done to salvage the project, and second, because you’re offering your services in an area that everyone else is trying to avoid.
“It was an extremely stressful space to launch the business, because I was stepping into such a negative space, but doing a few of them gave me the experience and more importantly the confidence to approach other clients.
“Execution is where people often fall down, and that’s our sweet spot. Successful project management encompasses everything, from start to finish, keeping the online and offline user experience top of mind.”
3. Don’t lose focus
Like many entrepreneurs, Spratt has bootstrapped her business, the only investment a cash pay-out from her corporate pension, and her access bond and credit cards. The result was that in the early days cash was a scarce commodity.
“You end up taking anything that pays money, and for me, that was anything related to digital,” says Spratt.
The problem was that Spratt Consulting was meant to be a company that specialised in big ecommerce projects. “Instead, I found that we were quickly becoming another digital agency,” she says.
“I don’t believe South Africa needs another agency. That was red waters, full of competitors. It’s also not where my skill set actually lies. I can do it, but we were never going to be leaders if all we did was social media and ad buying. There are other agencies far better than us. In project management though, we could be the industry leaders.
“I had to put the brakes on any agency work and focus on what I wanted the business to be: A consulting firm with a digital development arm.
“The development side of the business functions independently but can also complement the consulting side, mainly because I often can’t find good developers, or the existing team has let the client down.
“Focusing on these two core areas meant saying no to agency work at first, which was essentially saying no to revenue, and that was difficult. It’s something you really need to wrap your head around, especially when there are bills to be paid.
“But it also opened up the time to find and say yes to the work I wanted to take on, and that was how we were going to build the business in the direction we wanted to go.”
4. Never stop selling
Keep your pipeline full. That’s one of the toughest lessons Spratt had to learn the hard way. “In consulting I’m the project manager, but it can’t consume me on the execution side. I also need to be the person out there selling, keeping the pipeline full. In the early days we’d finish a project and I’d realise that I’d been so busy executing the job that I hadn’t been out selling, making sure we had the next job. The result was big gaps between projects — gaps where no revenue was coming in.
“Selling was something I’d never done before. I’d had lots of roles, and sales support was one of them, but I’d never had to hustle. Initially it was a bit scary, but the thought of losing the business and not having an income was scarier, and so you push on.
“It helped that I believed in what I was doing. I felt like I was helping my clients. If you believe enough, it almost doesn’t feel like selling. But either way, you have to be out there doing it. It’s only later, once you’re more established, that business starts coming your way. You can’t expect that as a start-up.”
5. Create your culture
This is important from the very beginning of your start-up journey. Get your foundations right and the rest will follow. For Spratt, her methodology, control and the tools she uses are what set her apart from other project managers.
“There’s a very specific way I want Spratt Consulting to operate, and this needs to be taught,” she says. “I can’t rely on consultants and freelancers to do things my way without being trained in my methodology.”
Spratt works with new members of the team. “They shadow me, learning my processes before running their own projects. It takes longer, but the right foundations are being laid. Ultimately, I need the Spratt Consulting name to have a strong reputation without the need for me to personally execute a project, and that means taking the time to upskill my team.”
Critically evaluate each decision you make according to your original vision: Is it working towards that vision, or is it a short-term win that actually moves you away from your business goals?
By Nadine Todd