Niches are great. They’re the reason people are able to connect you and your business with a specific problem they need solving. But what does that mean for you when you try and branch out with other offerings? Rich Mulholland talks candidly about being pigeon-holed and how he blew up the birdhouse.
What was it that made Missing Link a runaway success?
We founded our presentation business Missing Link in 1998, a time when there was PowerPoint and that’s what you used for presentations.
Trouble was, they were mind numbingly boring because in today’s economic terms you could hire a PA for a basic salary and they could put together four or five presentations a month. The question became, why on earth would someone pay us R32 000 for one of our cheapest presentations?
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The reality was that people didn’t need presentations, they needed solutions to boring presentations – after all, what do PAs know about exciting presentations? I knew we could be the antithesis of boring. So that’s how we started niching ourselves as a presentation company.
When did you realise being niche wasn’t working for you?
We’ve got a great business and it doesn’t upset me that we’ve been successful creating amazing presentations, but it was a personal thing for me of getting bored, not a matter of the solution not working. Presentations are principles-based.
The content changes but the principles don’t, so I’d have four meetings a day, five days a week with different people and it started feeling a bit likeGroundhog Day.I couldn’t remember if I’d said something in this meeting or the last, whether I’d said it already in this meeting and so on.
What was the solution?
About seven years ago I founded a new company, 21 Tanks. We do innovation strategies where we run labs for big corporates – often Missing Link clients – stuck with a problem. I also founded our digital agency Firing Squad.
A lot of the presentation work has become about internal communications, of presenting yourself online, of creating explainer videos for conferencing and for sites, and that’s where Firing Squad comes in.
Why the decision to create three separate companies?
In earlier years I was hell bent on protecting Missing Link’s niche. I believed that Missing Link was a presentation company and as soon as we weren’t, we’d be just like everyone else, diluted.
Now, I believe I protected Missing Link too and created two separate companies rather than just having them as departments under Missing Link. Why? We have clients phone Don Packet, at 21 Tanks asking questions that should be for Missing Link and we’d explain, ‘No, no he’s the shareholder of 21 Tanks,’ but ultimately the client doesn’t care, they just want answers and don’t care for our internal structures.
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You didn’t feel the need to create an umbrella company to form some kind of structure?
Well we had one, Cultovation, but I’m doing away with it. I was having a conversation with Mike Stopforth who created Cerebra, about this exact thing.
All we’re really doing is confusing the market: The market doesn’t care for or want to understand the complexities of your business. Clients don’t want to deal with 20 things and I believe strategy and digital are not a business, they’re a department. So we’re working on integrating everything into Missing Link.
What’s changed that you’re now able to add functionalities to Missing Link without feeling you’re compromising the business?
Firstly we’re able to offer a lot more value to our clients this way. Secondly, our entire universe is about perspective shifting.
We’re not actually adding more content to the mix, we’re trying to change how people look at things. So if you have something and you need to change the way a live audience looks at it, of your own exec co looks at it, or when people come to look at your site, we’re not trying to add information; it’s about people seeing it with new eyes.
And that’s what we’ve always done from day one – it was taking boring presentations and turning them into something amazing without losing the key messages that needed to be conveyed.
If you could sum up your learnings into one sentence, what would you say?
Be very wary of over-defining yourself and what you do. In this day and age it’s all subject to change, and when you find yourself needing to evolve in two years’ time, you want to have the space within your own definition to do so.
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