Roberto CoelhoBy Roberto Coelho|August 27, 2021|12 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

Hard times and Hollywood.

Disrupter Mike Sharman’s life has rarely been dull. He tried his hand at making it as a Hollywood actor, he stood in the spotlight stateside as a stand-up comedian – he walked away to build a business that is no joke.

To say this well-read gentleman is passionate would be an understatement. His eyes look like those of a man willing to disrupt an industry regardless of a global pandemic. He founded Retroviral 11 years back as South Africans prepared for the historic 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Long after the crowds left South Africa, his daily responsibility is controlling the production of an innovative creative team, with the goal of reaching the eyeballs of millions. Sharman runs his business on the outskirts of the richest square mile in Africa.

“I get stuck into the things I am good at. I hire staff that can cover my blind spots.”

By covering his blind spots, the Retroviral team has the support to create viral adverts leading to an ever-growing clients list and awards cabinet.

Retroviral is a business that aims to be disruptive.

“We are not an advertising agency; I have never worked in one. I would say we are a digital creative agency.”

An agency that focuses on using creative content to make brands ‘go viral’. The best on the African continent, he says.

Who can forget the Nando’s advert – the last dictator standing – poking fun at the late President Robert Mugabe by depicting him cavorting with Idi Amin and PW Botha? It stirred controversy and certainly went viral. It still gets hundreds of thousands of views on You Tube.

“Retro focuses on how we study engagement, the technical information and seeding the right content to the right influencers for the right results.”

It is all broken down into two-steps. Eyeballs; then conversion. A video going viral without viewers converting into customers is a profitless task for both Sharman and his client.

“We are obsessed with creating a good story, as a good story converts ordinary viewers into customers.”

Ina world overcrowded with advertising agencies Retroviral business model is a hybrid PR agency.

“We are a hybrid, focusing on the niche.”

Sharman may one day be known as the Godfather of digital creative agencies. Mixing technology and statistics with creativity is a rare screenplay.

To understand the author, businessman, and director we travel back in time to a schoolboy living in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg near Africa’s largest airport, O.R. Tambo International Airport.

As the son of a pilot, Sharman showed potential in mathematics in class as well as flair in the art studio. In between the two lessons the young man dreamed of being a movie star.

With skeptical parents ,doubting his ability in the ruthless acting industry, Sharman jumped on a plane and landed in Hollywood.

The walkway between the Hollywood Sign and Walk of Fame held valuable lessons for Sharman on his path to entrepreneurship. Unexpectedly, one of these hard lessons came during a standup comedy course.

“Standup comedy is all about selling yourself to a difficult audience. The techniques used to create great content can be seen in our own business today.”

Standup comedy was a high point in Hollywood for Sharman, but his dream of being on the silver screen was dying.

“I didn’t give acting a full year. I decided not to continue the struggle and took a job. Now I use those skills as a director in our productions.”

Sharman’s decision to quit acting led him to a PR agency where he worked on a PRISA award-winning campaign for Virgin Money.

Taking cues from the marketing maestro, Richard Branson, Sharman honed his skills and prepared to venture out on his own.

“During this time, I learned a lot of the PR world and the tech world. I was an early adopter of Twitter and while living in the UK on the tube home I would scroll and understand how influencers became influencers.”

Sharman’s experience may have provided him with the skills needed to start and run a digital creative agency. But nothing can prepare one for the difficulties of entrepreneurship.

“I am grateful I didn’t know the struggles before I started. To compare it to a video game, as you go up each level and defeat ‘the boss’ you learn as you go. If you know how difficult it is, you may never start the level.”

Sharman has battled difficult times to ensure his staff is paid and the business continues going.

“The staff have never missed a pay run. I have had tough months but not them. They are employees, not founders, they never took the risk and shouldn’t be exposed to volatility.”

Watching the re-runs of his past, Sharman feels those grueling moments prepared the business for success.

“I learned to never let the fears of financial failure cripple us. Finance can restrict creativity. But at the same time, we balance this by putting money away for a rainy day.”

Saving for a rainy day proved to be prudent, as Retroviral faced the largest economic downturn in living history caused by a global health crisis and government-induced lockdowns.

The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, looking back a year on, reads like the script of a blockbuster thriller Sharman may have dreamed of starring in.

The panic started on the 23rd of March 2020 when President Ramaphosa announced a nationwide lockdown to ‘flatten to curve’ of infections.

As staff moved to work from home, clients were to first to react to the lockdown.

“Either it was pandemic paralysis or absolute chaos depending on the client.”

When the going gets tough many in business run for the hills. More than a few business leaders felt it was time to cut non-essential expenses, including advertising.

The truly great brands see panic as the time to step up and shine. Sharman understood this principle and encouraged clients to see the potential. Some agreed but others did not.

One larger client with a difference of opinion was burger chain Rocomamas which cut ties with the Retroviral team.

“We were lucky not to cut any staff, unfortunately, we were unable to hire interns who trained with us.”

In the doom and gloom, there were positives as Gumtree signed on as a new customer.

The endless lockdowns lead to more than client panic, including internal disfunction.

Working from home presented many challenges, from young children running around to certain staff not being able to distinguish home life from work life anymore.

“We were excited to come back to the office to create a balance again.”

With balance continuously challenged the future is uncertain, not only for Retroviral but the world.

Retroviral will need to be the ‘Top Gun’ to continue their path of accolades.

“We try to connect the dots and see what will work in the future. Just as we have done in the past. We are slow to jump on to new fads, for example when Snapchat came out, we didn’t attack it thinking Facebook may overcome it.”

As Tiktok continues to grow rapidly, Sharman prepares his team for the short video challenge.

“The Tiktok hallmark on each video is very clever. It is every business wish to be addictive and so distinct.”

It seems Tiktok will remain popular for the next 5 to 10 years, as individuals of all ages all tick their time away while glued to the screen. Keeping customers glued to the screen is Sharman’s specialty, and directing these short clips brings joy to his everyday job.

“I try to find ways to bring passion into our daily jobs.”

Remaining passionate, youthful, and creative while running a business is a rare delight. Sharman’s accomplishment is exposed on Retroviral’s client list reading like a list of the good blue-chip South African companies, from Liberty to Russell Hobbs.

“Looking back, I think I made the right decision to give on up acting. After all, I would rather be Steven Spielberg than ET.”

The maestro himself would never refrain from making only one movie, neither will Sharman refrain from starting another company. In 2020 Sharman founded MatchKit, an online platform reinventing how global sports stars interact with fans.

The Sharman story has certainly been far from dull – like Hollywood, there is bound to be a sequel.

"I learned to never let the fears of financial failure cripple us. Finance can restrict creativity but at the same time we balance this by putting money away for a rainy day.


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