Mpho Mpofu on Founding and Running a Value-Driven Market Intelligence Company
Join me and Mpho Mpofu in the Treehouse Studio as we delve deep into value-driven business and personal growth.
Mpho Mpofu is a Consumer Insights Specialist, Professional Speaker and Founder and CEO of Masutane Consulting, a market intelligence agency which has been in operation for more than 10 years. Masutane Consulting has offices in Johannesburg, South Africa and Zimbabwe, providing market insights to corporates across the SADC region. Ms. Mpofu’s background spans consumer relations, market research and business development. She holds a Bachelor of Social Science in Marketing and Economics from the University of Kwazulu-Natal and is a one-time recipient of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association Global Outreach Scholarship which, amongst other things, landed her in the United States. Ms. Mpofu holds a professional speaking qualification from Henley Business School and in 2016 was nominated by the Difference Makers International South Africa chapter as one of their Top 100 for her work in empowering township businesses.
Businesses that are driven by providing value-driven services to consumers are critical to economic growth. Not all businesses are informed by this imperative, at least not in practice. Mpho Mpofu, the Founder and CEO of Masutane Consulting, a consumer insights agency (also referred to as Market Research or Market Intelligence) shares her personal experiences and growth as a human being and as a businesswoman who has built a thriving business in this sector. The luxurious Treehouse Studio at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa was the venue for this deep and rewarding conversation.
Thanks Mpho, so, what inspired you to choose the discipline and practice of Market Intelligence?
It’s a funny story because I got into it by chance. It was an industry that I was not familiar with initially, but I studied Marketing and Economics at University and when I completed, I pursued a career in Marketing. My first job was in Consumer Relations at British American Tobacco and I did some work around Branding. I spent 3 years at British American Tobacco which was quite a big establishment with lots of opportunities to learn even more about marketing and brands.
After my stint at BAT I tried to pursue entrepreneurship but when that didn’t work out, I had to go and look for a job. My business at the time was selling lingerie and clothing from the boot of my car so when this company, Millward Brown, was recommended to me as a potential employer, I was more interested in selling my merchandise to them. So, instead of submitting my CV, I approached the receptionist and asked if I could sell my lingerie and clothing and she said no. While standing there negotiating with the receptionist, the M.D. of the company happened to pass by and overheard this conversation. This piqued her interest in me and she said to me, “you don’t take no for an answer, do you?” We ended up in her office and she offered me a job on the spot. And that was my start in Market Research.
I started as a Junior Researcher and worked my way up to Research Executive. That experience transformed my life. It changed the way I look at South Africa, corporates and how they work, and even the way I viewed my situation and my family. By that I mean, for instance the way corporates invest in understanding the spaces they play in; they really want to get to the root of truly understanding each segment of their market. They want to be ahead of it so that with that understanding they can respond accordingly. And it was something I’d never known before, and, coming from an entrepreneurial family, it started to influence the way I viewed our family business because this is not how we were doing things because we simply did not know. And I could see how the practice of Market Research had grown these companies and how the work we were doing contributed to growth, sales, profits and share increases for our clients.
I realized that Market Intelligence is what makes them lead in their sectors because they’d gotten to a point where they understood what people need even before people knew that they needed a product or service. It made me curious and, as I said, made me look at our family business and the gaps in our knowledge in terms of understanding our market and consumer behaviour.
All this rich data was being used to create portals of information that were being used even at the most junior levels in corporate South Africa to inform training programmes for onboarding staff. And that made me think of succession because the minute you enter those corporate doors you are in fact being groomed for succession. How much of that do we do in our communities and businesses? I did realize that my grandmother had Market Intelligence but it was a different kind of Market Intelligence because she was always very connected to the community and way ahead of her time and truly a trailblazer but there was no succession plan as I came to understand it. Our extended family didn’t necessarily learn and observe from her with that in mind so when she passed away, her businesses passed away with her.
At what point in your journey did you decide that you were going to strike out on your own to establish what is now Masutane Consulting?
I was still quite young back then and I really struggled with having a boss at Millward Brown. The culture at Millward Brown was different in the sense that I was office bound and it mattered what time I came in, it mattered how long my lunch was and there was always somebody over my shoulder demanding something. It was hard because I’d come from a different corporate culture at BAT where one was out in the field, you were your own boss and there was a lot of trust and self-monitoring that came with it, but I knew that I was getting something valuable at Millward Brown. My immediate boss at the time decided to move to New York and I knew that I couldn’t stay and adjust to a new boss. That then led to my decision to start my own company. I had a good relationship with the company leadership so when I resigned, I was able to get some business from them and they were my clients for the longest time because their clients knew and liked me, and I was good at what I did.
For me this experience demonstrated the importance of how you see yourself and how that in turn influences the types of relationships that you build in these corporate spaces. The thing is, I never saw myself as separate from company leadership even when I started out as a junior and I treated them as my equal even though it must’ve been a shock to the system. That is something my grandmother taught me, that there are no “big people” in the world and she used to point to the fact that even though she did not have formal education, she’d never been scared to go for what she wanted because she saw herself as a big person anyway. So even though I came from a township and was raised by a grandmother with no formal education, because of her self-perception she wanted us to have the best and she enrolled me in a prestigious school in KZN, Epworth Girls College. And she did everything she could to keep me there even though it was a struggle. I attended with girls from fabulously wealthy families, but I never felt that I didn’t belong.
So, from a young age that’s all I knew, that I was a big person and belonged anywhere and, yes, it does surprise people when you behave in that way. So, initially I was viewed as this crazy kid at Millward Brown who was overly confident. I suppose it helped that the culture was also relatively relaxed, so they embraced me. But initially it was something of a joke in the office but the more they got to know me they adopted a liking for me and I got given more responsibilities, delivered and moved up the ladder.
Masutane Consulting has experienced a lot of growth over the past 10 years and one pivotal moment in the company’s growth is when I met an executive at Nestle. She loved the services I was providing in terms of moderation but encouraged me to seriously investigate expanding my offering. At the time I was facilitating for so many agencies, I was sought-after, and I’d become comfortable in that zone.
So, how would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do at your company, Masutane Consulting?
When I started Masutane Consulting I did not necessarily have this grand vision or mission; what I had was a skill and experience and this was the vehicle I had decided I would use after I left corporate. One special skill I had at the time was the ability to engage with what they call the “mass market”, meaning black people. And it was quite a big thing because all the brands wanted to be in the mass market and there was a lot of investment being made within research to get moderators that had a true connection to the mass market and could engage with consumers. There weren’t many of us at the time so there were plenty of opportunities. That also came with a lot of temptations because I made a lot of money and squandered all of it. It was quite mind blowing at the time to be able to make so much money at that age.
At Masutane Consulting, we study consumer behaviour and use processes such as moderation to gain insights from consumers and their experiences and perceptions of brands. We collate these insights and share them with the clients and that’s just one aspect of what Masutane does now. We specialize in the WHY in terms of what drives and influences such behaviour in relation to products and services and how that translates into brand choice or how brands can influence choice through understanding of that behaviour. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. Some detractors even say we manipulate consumers because we understand them at such a deep level. It’s an endlessly fascinating area for me because it works, and this is how demand for innovation is created, how sales are driven, value created and how brands become brands.
My 3 years at Millward Brown were quite profound and transforming and I grew immensely. One of the critical skills that I developed as a Market Researcher was paying attention to detail. Research trains you to pay attention to detail and look at things differently so that was an important skill in building my own brand. That way of paying attention to even seemingly minute detail has influenced how I train my team; how we present ourselves as a company and how we differentiate ourselves in the market. Research is all about detail and I think the minute you don’t have detail, you don’t have a business in research because you must be well-thought-out, strategic, part of a bigger picture and linked to the vision. And paying attention to detail at that level was not something that came naturally to me, I had to be trained to be that. So, the power of detail and consistency is something major that I learned through the research industry.
What lessons have you learned over the past twelve years from running Masutane and the different phases of growth up to this point?
In the beginning things were quite haphazard and the transition from running a mostly solo consultancy to running a fully-fledged company was quite something, even just from a mindset perspective. About 6 years ago, for instance, I had a tax issue which involved close to R2 million annually. Prior to that things were just happening fast, and revenue was coming in like clockwork, but my systems were not always up to handling those volumes and my mindset in terms of managing the company finances was not always in alignment with what was needed. So, I got a huge wake-up call and had to deal with the situation and in doing that, I really started to understand what it means to run a company and have systems and processes in place and separate the company from my own identity as Mpho. It was quite a journey and it involved bringing in specialists and strategists that could help me structure the company in the way that I needed to in terms of hiring staff, setting up financial systems and so many other things.
That experience was necessary and taught me that you need to have a bigger vision and that all these opportunities streaming in would not always be here. I also felt that I wanted to make an impact, empower, contribute and build brands and that forced me to think deeper about the bigger picture. This reflection was focused on two levels, that is, the kind of person I want to be in society and the kind of business I want to have and the kind of people that it will attract.
I’ve also learned lessons around the importance of knowing your value in life and business. In every business transaction there is always an element of negotiation and, depending on where you’re coming from, there’s always a pecking order and how you place yourself in that pecking order is important. In the beginning I was not used to big numbers and I had issues around pricing and billing. I’d sit there and think, “Oh my God, can I really bill this, this is too much” and yet, the amount was not arrived at through thumb sucking, this is what this service actually cost. And clients sense this and start testing boundaries and you end up realizing that you are working for nothing. It took some time for me to get to a place where I felt comfortable with the fact that I was making a meaningful contribution to these projects and businesses using my time.
What kind of interior work did you have to do to get to that place where you felt confident in the value you were bringing to clients and charging appropriately for it?
It was difficult and as I grew in this area, there were people who tried to push back. I had people saying I was becoming arrogant and forgetting who had given me this or that break. So, all those things came and initially they did bother me. But here’s the thing though, the minute you sit in that devalued position you can never rise from it again. I was lucky to have the right people around me who kept on reminding me that I was worth so much more, but it was a real struggle because if you think about it, I’d grown up counting coins from the family business till. It was never hundreds of thousands that we were dealing with, so to make that mental shift, that this is what this project is worth in this industry, is immense. When the value is not clear in your mind, you keep on devaluing yourself and people take advantage of that and the minute you try to rise from that then there’s pushback so it’s important to understand from the start the value you’re bringing to projects. Once that’s sorted out, you need to consistently deliver on that value and that links to that attention to detail that I spoke of earlier.
I always tell the team that we’re as good as our last job and every job is new. It does not matter how many times we’ve done a concept test or a product evaluation for instance. Every project is unique and there’s no cut and paste; every single project matters, from start to finish. How we package our offerings, how we present ourselves and engage with current and prospective clients is also important. This industry is very unforgiving and it’s understandable because the work that we produce for them is going to guide the business maybe for the next 3 to 5 years. So entire value chains are affected if our strategy is sub-standard and products must be withdrawn from shelves, factories closed, and people end up losing their livelihoods. In Market Research, it’s not good enough to be “okay”; your work doesn’t end with pitching to a boardroom filled with marketers, it affects people in the field further down the value chain.
I feel like everything that I went through was in preparation for this moment, to have the kind of team that I have because I can focus on other aspects of running the company confident that they understand our value and that it’s directly linked to delivery. And clients are always prepared to pay for the quality rather than to chase a discount.
Also, having mentors who reminded me of how good I am, and who still do, is also important to me. When you sit and have doubts and you don’t have this kind of support structure to give you that confidence, it really becomes difficult. Understanding your value also gives you the confidence to put yourself out there, for example writing papers and coming up with hypotheses that are new to the industry and getting recognition for that. When you don’t have a support structure that validates the fact that you are indeed at that level, it is challenging. All this has made me value the importance of mentorship and I pass that on to my team. Creating these networks must be deliberate; yes some do happen by chance, but there has to be a clear purpose. In general people have got big hearts and are willing to help. My relationships in this industry span as far back as when I started, and these are people that I approached at the time and asked for help. So, yes, there is coincidental networking but overall one must have a well-thought-out plan around building relationships in business. In the beginning I’d seek out people to help me understand the world of Market Research but when crisis mode hit in the business it became about seeking out people to help me understand the world of business.
Apart from certain mindset shifts that had to occur in my transition, it became apparent that the company that one sometimes keeps is also an issue, so I went through a big shedding moment. This included everything that I consume, from environment to media. To have growth, focus, recognition and authentic success, requires a deliberate shift and it’s a lonely place. When people want recklessness, you want order, so it becomes isolating because your energies are now focused on something else. The emotional support from mentors came in handy because they’d affirm how lonely the journey is and how necessary it was to remember the end-result. When you come from an environment where image, social currency, being popular and being seen with the latest things mattered, there does come that moment of reckoning and you realize that you can’t fit into that world.
It’s tough and sobering and a lot of growing up happens but I stayed strong and I remembered my grandmother who had no formal education and started her entrepreneurship journey selling exactly 5 oranges. All the things that I read about years later at University were actually things that my grandmother talked about all the time. I used to work in the family business by doing stocktaking and pricing the goods with a marker and I’d get an allowance. My grandmother would say, “if you put some of it away, it’ll grow”, and I could’ve applied those teachings at the beginning of my career, but societal influences won the day back then but it’s important to learn from our missteps and I did.
Photography by Makgomo Mushwana – Sali Sali Photography