I was spurred into action to revive my Web Guru Spotlight Series of interviews when I came across the release of Quirk e-Marketing’s latest online marketing e-book. Rob Stokes, the brains behind Quirk has been a key figure in shaping the online marketing landscape in South Africa.
I have been watching Quirk with interested over the last few years due to the fact that they just seem to be staying ahead and being innovative in a seemingly saturated space.
So enough about Quirk, let’s chat with Rob, the man responsible for getting the Quirk Ball rolling.
Hi Rob, thanks for giving us some of your valuable time to chat and answer a few questions.
So you started Quirk the year after I graduated from design School. What lead up to the founding of Quirk?
I’ve always been a bit of a serial entrepreneur and Quirk was simply the next step for me. Quite honestly at first it was just a way of making some extra cash so I could stop delivering pizza like a poor student…
Are you positive about the direction the online media space is taking in South Africa.
I think we still have a long way to go, but it’s only going up. With SA being a relative laggard in global tech this also has some long term positives. For example you don’t see Neotel laying down copper cables. They will be fibre from the start and that will really benefit us in the long term.
Yes, I’m a glass half full type of guy
Your team are called QuirkStars and your office is called the Quirk Station, tell us a bit about this and the working environment you’ve created.
I absolve myself from all blame on these names! The seemingly silly names have evolved from my staff over the years and whilst we know they are a bit geeky, we’re proud of being QuirkStars so I guess it’s just stuck. As for the working environment, I think we have the best coffee in Cape Town! Seriously though, I think we have created an open working environment where the creative juices can flow.
Do you think the Online Industry is saturated or do you think there’s space for more players?
Definitely not saturated, but definitely fragmented. I think as the industry evolves we will start to see some consolidation and within 10 years I’m sure the online marketing industry will mirror the structure of the traditional ad industry today. I’m happy to mirror their structure as long as we don’t mirror their stereotypical marketing beliefs 😉
What is the potential for the online industry to have an impact on the unemployment rate in South Africa
At the end of the day, pretty much anything that stimulates an economy will benefit unemployment. Ferdie Bester said to me the other day that the best thing we can do as South Africans is start a business and employ people and the internet has made that easier than ever. Now, if only our government would support entrepreneurship as well as the internet does…
How do you think we can nurture better skills in the online space in the strategic, creative & technical spaces? Should the focus be on educational institutions or industry players?
I think there needs to be partnerships between the private and academic sectors. The reality is that cutting edge online tactics evolve from industry and not academia – this is as a result of competition driving innovation.
I’d like to see more companies across the board doing their bit to work with the tremendous academic institutions in SA.
The team you have working for you seem to be a really uniquely chosen bunch and are stars in their own right. Could you give us some insight into your hiring approach?
For starters it is our goal to have a brand which people want to work for. Solving this is half the problem.
Secondly we will experiment with pretty much anything to find people. From Facebook ads to hiring bounties we have tried many things, some have worked, some haven’t, but that’s what online marketing is all about.
Once someone cracks an interview, they are generally seen by their possible team leader and our COO. It might take a few interviews, but if they prove that they have the skills, they then get to be grilled by me to ensure they will fit into our culture. I ask a lot of strange questions, but if you make it through, chances are you rock.
Apart from that, the only other unusual thing is that we work on one man one vote. Inpsired by Ricardo Semler, this means that I, as the CEO, can get outvoted on hiring people. In fact I’ll admit that in the past I’ve voted against hiring someone who the team wanted. We hired that person and I’ll admit that I was wrong and they turned out to be awesome… ah the power of democracy.
Is there a difference between online & offline entrepreneurship?
The fundamentals remain the same only the tactics change.
Many people see online entrepreneurship as this ultimate money making space similar to the way they did before dot bomb. Do you think a crash might be headed our way?
No. Some will fail, some will succeed, but I don’t see an industry wide crash.
I’ve spent the last few weeks teaching some newbies XHTML, CSS & WordPress. What do you think would be the most essential additional skills to pass on to newbies.
Basic HTML, SQL, SEO and PPC. Once you’ve wrapped your head around those concepts, marketing on the internet becomes a far easier and more intuitive process.
You’ve been very involved in the web community since I started getting into the whole meetup / (un)conference scene, has this added value to your organisation?
I think it’s important that we are a contributing member of the community in which we work. Being part of these events goes a long way to achieving that so yes, I do think we have benefited.
Would you recommend all businesses go social in this way?
I think businesses need to interact with their customers and community on their terms and in their space. If this means an unconference then so be it.
I’ve always been an advocate for giving before receiving and admire your gesture of releasing your e-marketing textbook. Does the cost of producing it really justify this type of approach?
Publishing a book is not an easy or cheap exercise. The Quirk eMarketing book took us 8 months and all in all cost us almost half a million Rand.
On the surface we will make a massive loss, but we’re not looking at book sales to drive any sort of ROI for us on this.
This is an example of capitalist driven social development. Quirk will gain from this if we can get thousands of students each year to enjoy learning from our book. These students will become our future staff and customers and it’s very difficult to put a price on that.
So that’s how we justify it from a business perspective. From a personal perspective we have done something really good here. This book will improve the lives of many people and that makes us feel incredibly good.
Lack of access to information and knowledge tools & resources is a big disadvantage for the majority of South Africans.
Do you think there is a serious business case for corporates developing capacity in this area?
We want the Quirk book to be an example to companies in all industries to do the same.
Open Education began primarily as an initiative at school level, but eventually I hope it will permeate all areas where skills are required. Imagine if De Beers wrote a Geology textbook…
Have you focused much on mobile strategies and where do you think the coming mobile revolution could have the most impact?
No, this version of the textbook is very thin on the mobile side. However as we needed to have the book ready for the second university semester of 2008 we left out a few chapters.
We plan to update the book over the next few months with about 5 new chapters of which mobile is definitely one.
Do you think consumer action or provider competition could ever have an impact on the cost of bandwidth in South Africa?
Without doubt. Both are fundamental to economic efficiency and the internet itself promotes both by giving consumers a voice and lower barriers to competition.
I found the launch of Brandseye very interesting. How has the uptake of this innovative solution been so far?
It’s been OK. Internationally it has been well received but locally the mindset isn’t fully there yet and I do acknowledge that the price makes it pretty exclusive.
However we have a plan to cater to a wider audience so watch this space…
Do you guys use Brandseye for Quirk?
Do you think knowledge work and mobile workers are on the rise in South Africa?
What are your favourite tools you use as a knowledge worker on a daily basis?
Twitter, our internal Wiki, RSS
Mac or PC?
Firefox or Safari?
The Fox… it’s the only way!
How do you feel about IE6?
What’s next for South Africa Online?
Video. Currently it’s a pain to watch online video locally. I’d like to think that in the next 2 years South African’s will forget what “buffering” means…
Any last words?
Thanks for a thought provoking interview…!
Thanks to “YOU” Rob and we look forward to hearing you speak at the Heavy Chef session on the 27th.