“We started Debt-IN in 2008 as three partners looking to strike out on our own and fulfil a personal and professional vision,” says Ian Fleming, Director of Debt-IN, a South African company which offers debt recovery solutions and professional credit advisory services. “We realised that the country was starting to go into a recession. With my partner’s banking experience and my debt collection experience, we decided to start up a unique debt recovery service.”
Initially, Debt-IN investigated buying an existing debt collection company in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. “The agreement with the owner allowed us to rent some seats in the call centre and collect debts based on referrals,” he says. “However, after three months, we realised that it would never be profitable and that a different strategy was required.”
After that, Fleming states that the company focused on attracting its own clients. “Our first contract was with the National Housing Finance Corporation,” he says. “From there, we built a reputation and gained other clients, ranging from medium to large businesses.”
In 2009, Debt-IN landed First National Bank (FNB) as its first banking client, which was subsequently followed by Standard Bank, African Bank and the City of Johannesburg. “We now run a call centre in Durban,” Fleming says. “We have a collection agency backed up by a fully-fledged legal function.”
A key point for a start-up business would be attracting clients, he goes on to say. “Inevitably, 90% of your energy in the start-up phase would be focused on finding new work,” he says. “It’s easy to open a company, but that doesn’t mean people are going to be rushing in to give you work. At the beginning, it may be very difficult. It takes effort to develop a track record and you need to use your network of contacts to source those all important first contracts.”
Furthermore, Fleming stresses that start-up businesses should focus on covering outlay costs, managing finances and building the brand’s reputation. “It’s important that your company is able to deliver on time,” he says. “Some companies get work quickly, yet find they are unable to deliver. Often you are given extreme deliverables and deadlines and must be able to manage that kind of stress.”
Debt-IN, like any other new brand, faced obstacles on its journey to success. “Lack of a track record can be a challenge,” says Fleming. “There exists a high percentage of companies that fail soon after opening. To overcome the track record obstacle at Debt-IN, each of the partners used individual references to underscore their experience and credibility.”
Furthermore, infrastructural support is key, he adds. “The money that a company makes in the all-important first three years must be invested back into the business in order to grow it,” he says.
For Debt-IN, profits were used to secure call centre staff, equipment and larger premises. It also invested in training staff. “Keep in mind that your staff won’t generate money straight away,” Fleming says. “In fact, they may only start showing benefits six months down the line. To offset costs, my partners and I worked part time consulting in other fields—just to be able to maintain ourselves while we were growing the business.”
For Fleming the challenge was often to get past the secretaries and persuade a senior person to see them. “It’s about meeting the right people and getting face-to-face opportunities to show your strengths as a company,” he says. “You have to show what is unique about your brand, what you are doing differently.
For Debt-IN, working with Flexible Workspace was extremely useful, Fleming goes on to say, especially at the start when the brand opened a call centre in Durban. “It was just easier for us to take an office without worrying about investing in premises and equipment,” he says. “When we left Flexible Workspace in Durban, it was only because we had over 50 staff. We still have a Flexible Workspace office in Sandton that’s perfect for me—I come to collect documents or to print, make a few calls and leave without any worries.”
As a director of a fast-growing and dynamic company, Fleming believes Flexible Workspace distinguishes itself in its highly qualified and professional staff. “I’m confident in how they answer my calls in the Debt-IN manner,” he says. “Furthermore, I can leave a package with a receptionist to action and so forth. Flexible Workspace gives us a professional image and prestige. It also gives me peace of mind. I don’t worry about running an office— I just get on with running my business,” he concluded.
By Brad Porter