A big part of my success was choosing the right people – Colin Thornton

Updated on 4 September 2014

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A big part of my success was choosing the right people - Colin ThorntonCompany Profile

Name of company: Dial a Nerd

Years in existence: 16

Position: CEO

Can you tell us a little bit about your background – personal, educational and professional?

When I’m not in the office or at home nowadays, I’m outdoors. I grew up outdoors and then went through a long period indoors starting and growing an IT company so I’m trying to make up for it.

Apart from a brief stint trying to make websites in 1996 and 1997 (when people were still struggling to see the value), I have been running Dial a Nerd for my entire professional life. I was born in Chicago, USA, but spent the first ten years of my life in Cape Town, then moved back to the States and then finally settled in Johannesburg in 1994. I consider myself South African.

Can you tell us a little bit about your company and what you do?

Dial a Nerd started as a desktop support company meaning we fixed, sold and taught people how to use computers. The IT landscape has changed dramatically in the last couple of years however, and we’re now focused on IT support for businesses and schools. We act as an outsourced IT department for just about any sized organisation.

How did you journey begin and how have you achieved success so far?

The real proverbial ‘kick’ was when I dropped out of university and discovered how expensive the real world was. I had one skill: fixing computers. So the decision was easy at the time. I believe a big part of my success was choosing the right people to help me grow the business. I try and find people who complement my weaknesses. An example is my brother Aaron who has been with the company for 13 years and has just taken over as Managing Director.

“Don’t keep hitting your head against a wall if your idea isn’t working”

What were some of the obstacles you face and how did you overcome them?

There are plenty of obstacles as an entrepreneur but the one which springs to mind now has to be in the last three years. We had to take a company with 150 staff and 13 years of experience, which was totally focused on supporting home users, and redefine it into a company supporting SME’s. Sounds easy but the reality was incredibly challenging and it often felt like we were starting the company from scratch.

How many people does your company employ?

We currently employ around 70 people.

What is your overall vision for your business?

I believe we have a good brand in Cape Town and Johannesburg but a lot of people associate us with fixing a modem or teaching the older generation how to Skype. My vision is that we grow our brand into one which is widely recognized as an outsourced IT department for businesses and schools. We can still teach you how to Skype, but we can also set up a world class IT infrastructure incorporating cutting-edge on-premise technology and cloud.

What do you think it takes to establish and run a successful business in South Africa?

‘Perseverance’ springs to mind. It’s a cliché but for a reason. It goes without saying that this must be tempered with common sense though. Don’t keep hitting your head against a wall if your idea isn’t working. Many, many entrepreneurs have dropped one idea (or two, or ten) after giving it their best shot and then hitting another idea which is the home run.

How did you finance your business, how difficult or easy was the process?

I first tried the banks but without any history there was absolutely no ways. So I approached friends and family and loaned R5000. I spent every cent on flyers to advertise!

When did you know that you were an entrepreneur?

My mother tells stories of me selling stuff to the other kids in primary school and our neighbours at the time. So I think the writing was on the wall from very early on.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m very bad at setting targets and measuring peoples performance regularly. I don’t micromanage and tend to believe that everyone wants to do their best all of the time. Unfortunately that isn’t always true.  I do provide as much guidance and big picture strategy as I can though and I enjoy playing devils advocate to test ideas.

“Shoot bullets before cannon balls”

What are some of your favourite motivational books and motivational gurus that have inspired you in growing your business?

I read all of Jim Collins’ books a long time ago and really enjoyed them. I believe I used a lot of his ideas early on.

What three pieces of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs starting out today?

1) Do something you love and are passionate about. If you aren’t, the difficult times will get you down and sap your will to succeed.

2) Shoot bullets before cannon balls. This is a concept Jim Collins talks about in “Great by Choice” and I suggest every entrepreneur uses it.

3) Don’t get too bogged down with business plans, financial strategies, market research, statistics, and analysing your competition before you start. Lots of people don’t ever get their idea off the ground because all of the ‘standard start-up procedure’ puts them off. If you have a great idea and you can start it easily then do it. If it works you can worry about the details later!

And finally, do you believe in luck, hard work or both?

Definitely both. I consider it lucky that I started an IT support business in a time when IT support was about to become incredibly important. But if you don’t follow your luck up with hard work then you probably won’t take advantage of it.

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