SA’s Blink Tower builds success out of failure

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Cape Town video startup Blink Tower is now a self-sufficient entity, dealing with high profile clients both in South Africa and abroad and reporting substantial year-on-year revenue increases. Yet the road to running a sustainable business has been a long one for Blink Tower’s founders Elodie Kleynhans and Adrian Burger.

The pair tasted their fair share of failure in the years before launching Blink Tower, which has carved a niche in making explainer videos for a range of companies. Kleynhans has previously launched two startups, both of which came two nothing.

“My first startup was called Tinfon, and our business was teaching English over the internet using Skype. This was in the early days of Skype, so quite novel at the time,” Kleynhans told Disrupt Africa. “I had just returned from teaching English in Taiwan for a year, and there was a big gap in the market for adults wanting to learn English with a real person, in their own time.”

Tinfon, however, was not a success, with Kleynhans saying the venture failed partly because she was “clueless” in running her own company and partly because she got no real joy from teaching English online.

“Skype used to drop constantly and I would dread every lesson! We did build a fairly substantial network of teachers and attracted quite a few students, but in the end, my heart was not in it and it went nowhere. My biggest lesson: you have to love it to stick it out,” she said.

It was back to the drawing board, with a second startup launched called Soccer Babes, a one-minute video show with attractive women providing soccer news to a user’s mobile.

“We launched the show on the first day of the Soccer World Cup, 2010. Those were heady times! Our studio was at the top of Long Street, pretty much at the start of the fan walk. We created a great little show, but in the end, no one paid attention,” Kleynhans said.

She said marketing failures were at the root of the failure of Soccer Babes.

“It failed because we got the marketing wrong. We partnered with a major media house but they were advertising in print, inside a soccer insert. If you are going to sell mobile content, you need to do it on TV, well in those days at least,” she said. “The biggest lesson I learnt was to pull the plug. That is difficult for an eternal optimist, but sometimes if you have to know when to quit.”

But Kleynhans did not consider giving up on entrepreneurship for greater security, feeling she still had plenty to offer.

“I had nothing to lose and I didn’t feel nearly done. I also believed that Adrian, my co-founder, and myself had great complementary skills. He is a creative genius and I had access to a network,” she said.

Blink Tower was born in 2010, funded from the pair’s own pockets. Yet the initial conception of the company was a lot different to the one that four years later is self-sustaining and reporting increasing revenues.

“We were willing to do pretty much anything for money, and a bunch of things for free if there was the slightest hope of it leading to money one day. Those were the two minute noodles days,” Kleynhans said.

A change in direction was necessary, and the Blink Tower team was lucky enough to spot its niche at an early stage, courtesy of non-executive co-founder Henk Kleynhans, Elodie’s brother.

“Fortunately for us, our non-executive co-founder, Henk, pointed out that there were about a zillion production companies in Cape Town and that we were stupid trying to compete,” she said. “It also just so happens that Adrian, while a mere schoolboy, had been commissioned by Henk’s startup, Skyrove, to make what was arguably South Africa’s first explainer video. So he naturally suggested that we corner the market.”

This proved to be more successful, with Blink Tower first turning to Cape Town’s startup community for clients. “We persuaded them with ridiculously low prices and Adrian’s excellent existing showreel,” Kleynhans said.

Now though, the company is dealing with mainly corporate clients, that either have products that need marketing to clients or want their clients to understand something like ADSL. Current clients include WeChat, Afrihost and Vodacom.

“High tech companies also find our service useful as it is typically difficult to explain very technical products and concepts to the layman, especially when you are not one yourself. Here we work with companies like Stratus Technologies and Ookla,” Kleynhans said.

One 90-second explainer video, which generally takes between six and eight weeks to complete, costs around ZAR100,000 (US$9,000), with Blink Tower operating with a small team plus a number of freelancers on illustration, animation, music and sound effects.

Revenues have been so positive Blink Tower has felt no need to seek additional funding, with projected revenue for February 2015 up by 65 per cent from last year. Kleynhans said the company is working with more and more South African corporates, while 40 per cent of the company’s clients are international.

“I think working with one corporate or organisation scores you kudos with another and then another. But no one would be interested if we weren’t consistently putting out excellent videos that always get the message across, no matter how complicated the subject matter,” she said.

“I believe we stand out because our scripts are always spot on. We spend a lot of time and brain power on ensuring that we get the message just right, and then we go out of our way to ensure quality on every aspect of production. But very importantly, we do our best to give our clients a positive experience, a lot our business is return business.”

Blink Tower has expanded its product offering by adding an advertising service, meaning not only does it now make the video, it can now place it online, on YouTube and the Google Display network. It has also been undertaking some non-profit work, while a number of awards have come its way.

“We really get a kick out of working with organisations and foundations like the Shuttleworth Foundation and their fellows,” Kleynhans said. “We have also entered and won two American video competitions. We’ve started work on a series of educational videos on Ebola prevention, and we are very proud that the video we made explaining what TED and TEDx is has just reached over a million views on the TEDx talks YouTube site.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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