Rob Stokes: From bedroom to buyout – an entrepreneur’s story

The founder of digital agency Quirk gives advice to would-be entrepreneurs.
Rob Stokes says "Just. Fucking. Do. It".
Rob Stokes says "Just. Fucking. Do. It".

EMarketing specialist Rob Stokes is best known for founding Quirk, one of South Africa’s earliest, most award-winning and now largest digital agencies, with five offices across Africa and in London. After being actively courted by numerous international agencies including Publicis, Stokes recently surprised the industry by selling controlling interest to another leading global communications group.

Documenting his learnings from his business experience from starting up in a bedroom to selling his company, Stokes gives ten business pointers to aspiring startups.

  1. Surround yourself with people better than yourself

    For whatever reason (maybe ego or insecurity), people often hire people less skilled than themselves. Rather, take a page out of Henry Ford’s book and make sure the people you hire can answer all the questions that you cannot. Not only will this aid your business but also your personal growth.

  2. Timing does matter (it’s just hard to predict)

    Years ago, Stokes pitched to a “big blue bank” that he could get them to the top of Google. Sounds great? They weren’t interested. And the reason was simple. At that point no one was interested in Google ranking. Even if an idea is brilliant, being too early – or too late – can be a deal breaker.

  3. Always play to people’s strengths

    Knowing your team’s strengths – and your own – is important if you want the job to be done well. Stokes learnt this in getting a partner to start his Johannesburg branch who “couldn’t sell a blanket to an Eskimo”, when what he really needed was a salesperson to bring in clients. When building a team find people who are well suited to specific tasks, and hire people to fill in your weaknesses.

  4. If you’re going to do something, commit fully

    Don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s better to do one thing well than many things with mediocrity.

  5. Be generous with your knowledge

    Don’t be afraid to share what you know. Writing a textbook was the best business card Stokes ever created. If you give it away, says Stokes, there’s “some kind of weird business karma” and it comes back to you.

  6. You need luck (it happens through perseverance)

    Entrepreneurs tend to attribute a lot of their success to luck. But, says Stokes, more time in the business increases your odds – in a nutshell, you make your own luck.

  7. Make yourself saleable (even if you’re not for sale)

    Not every business intends to sell but Stokes has learnt that it’s important to be ready just in case the right opportunity comes along. Everyone has a price!

  8. Businesses struggle to innovate internally

    Even the best companies inevitably fail – as Clayton Christensen points out in his bestseller The Innovator’s Dilemma. The reason is they miss out on waves of innovation, so that newer, more innovative companies eventually rise above them. The lesson is to always keep innovating and never become complacent because ironically the same practices that made a business successful eventually lead to their demise. Citing examples like BrandsEye, Stokes also found the best thing he ever did for in-house innovation was to turn them into independent businesses that didn’t have to answer to Quirk.

  9. The most adaptable to change, survive

    Business is Darwinian, especially when it comes to technology. Tech is changing all the time and you have to be ready to change with it.

  10. Just. Fucking. Do. It.

    Along the lines of Aaron Marshall’s advice (forget the cart, ride the horse!), Stokes’s final instruction is “just fucking do it!” Even if you fail, says Stokes, if you spend a year trying to start a business you are guaranteed to learn more than you did in the ten years hence.

Rob Stokes was a speaker at the Net Prophet conference in Cape Town last week, talking about the journey of his business Quirk, from startup to recently selling to WPP, the world’s largest communications services group.