Entrepreneur and communicator

7 Things I Learned in Seven Years at Cerebra

We recently announced that WPP acquired a majority stake in Cerebra. This exciting development is the culmination of years of hard work and preparation, and we’re confident that the timing was perfect for such a partnership.

Ok. Enough of the PR blab. I doubt you want to read more of that.

This is my personal website, so I’d like to share a bit about what this deal means for me personally. More specifically, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned in the process of building a company that someone decided to invest in, and what that means for my future and the future of Cerebra.

I started Cerebra because, quite frankly, nobody would hire me. I worked a couple of sales jobs with really interesting companies that provided me with a fantastic foundation for sales and marketing. Realising that I wanted to be involved in communication and, more specifically, advertising, I applied at over twenty local agencies and secured at least ten interviews. Those were tough interviews; “You seem like a nice guy, but you don’t have any qualifications or experience to speak of” was the usual response I received. Eventually, I could predict the reaction.

I ironically discovered blogging in the course of applying for numerous positions online, feeling quite dejected and frustrated. Relatively new and geeky in 2005, I was intrigued by this platform that allowed ordinary people with no background or formal training in journalism to publish content and have it read by anyone who cared.

I started blogging, and surprisingly people read what I wrote. Mostly I shared thoughts about this new “social media” thing (although at that stage it was label-less) and how I believed it was changing business and society. That snowballed into realising that the hype and buzz around social could conceivably be a business offering – a service to corporate clients. Cerebra was born out of that realisation, and we’ve remained faithful to that for seven years.

Because we’re in the business of strategic communication, we’re pretty good at presenting the best of what happens at Cerebra. It is a very special company with very special people, and we’ve enjoyed a lot of luck and pristine timing, but don’t be deceived into believing it hasn’t been tough at times. Which brings me nicely into my first lesson…

1. Don’t believe the PR

One of the overwhelming characteristics of the whole new media / social media / ad game, in general, is our need (and ability) to present a highly favourable version of ourselves and our businesses. My current favourite blog, ‘Wait But Why,’ recently published an excellent post on this behaviour and its impact on society. What you don’t see in the press releases, on the Facebook page, and in our Tweets are the fights, tears, broken relationships, sleepless nights, mistakes, doubts, heartaches, phone calls from banks, etc. But those are all essential ingredients in arriving at a place where it looks like you have it all together. Mark my words – everybody has their pain. Everybody has their struggle. Don’t get lured into believing that any perceived success came without a price. Finally, know that when you’re going through those things that you may just be paying school fees for something much better, bigger, greater.

Which brings me to my next point.

2. The value of partnerships

Most people know that Craig and I have a lot of fun together. What very few people know is that we have fun together even when things are really tough. Without wanting to dribble tears and snot all over my keyboard, Craig is the big brother I never had, the best friend I could hope for, and an absolute legend amongst men. And I get to hang out with him every day. And we call it work.

I cannot overemphasise the value of having a business partner you trust implicitly, respect enormously, and regularly beat at table tennis. It makes the whole journey worthwhile.

Which brings me to my next point.

3. Enjoy the journey

I guess I’m lucky to do something every day that I love. But then again (and pardon the vanity), maybe I just had the balls to create a situation that suited my personality and desires. I realise that not everyone has the luxury of being their “own boss”, but everyone is given opportunities to change their path. Some take them, and others watch them whizz by with a knot in their stomachs. I’m afraid every day, but I still give it a shot. My greatest fear in life, though, more significant than the fear of messing up or losing money or disappointing friends, is waking up at age 75 and realising all I can think about is “what if.” What if I’d tried that thing, taken that chance, made that decision. That thought petrifies me and drives me to action.

Which brings me to my next point.

4. Take action

There are a lot of people in our industry that say a lot of things, but few that back up what they say with action. I opted early on to act, and use the evidence of our actions to justify talking a massive game. None of the decisions we ever took in Cerebra were backed by a certainty of knowing they were right, but we knew ACTION was right. And the best way to learn something or improve on something is to get a version out and improve on that.

There’s another side to this coin, though, and that is that I meet a lot of people doing incredible work and initiating change everywhere that do an awful job of sharing those successes. Commercially speaking, both are potentially dangerous mistakes.

If you have an idea, take action. If you don’t, stop complaining that nothing good is happening to you.

Which brings me to my next point.

5. Ideas are worthless

If I had R10 for every good idea that has ever been sold or pitched to me, I would not need to ever do a deal. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but execution is rare. One thing I’m excited about on the back of this deal is my ability to more effectively and efficiently turn decent ideas into brilliant executions. Watch this space.

Which brings me nicely to my next point.

6. The importance of space (and fun)

Don’t tell anyone I told you, but I really don’t work that hard. I can’t remember the last time I put in a 16-hour day (at least not working solidly). People think I’m terribly busy, and I am, but I’m not always busy working. Sometimes I’m very busy doing precisely what is most important at the time, which is quite often nothing at all. “Time you enjoyed wasting is not wasted time.”

I meet a lot of entrepreneurs who brag about their hectic lifestyles, and then follow that up with how sick and tired they are of their lifestyle and not getting to do the things they want to do. If you are very successful and wealthy, but still don’t control your time or live a reasonably balanced life, you are not successful and wealthy – you are caught neatly in the middle of slavery and addiction, and that’s pretty kak.

Which brings me to my next point.

7. Money

It’s quite nice. It buys stuff. Stuff is often quite nice. But while having some money may alleviate one or two problems or headaches I had before, it also introduces a new level of stress and complexity that I was not anticipating. So be careful what you wish for and beware of what you pursue.

Which brings me nicely to my conclusion.

The overwhelming emotion and feeling I get having concluded this chapter of Cerebra is that I can’t wait to get going on the next chapter. Not because it makes me money, or because people “like” the Facebook status about this particular bit of news (ok I lie that’s quite important to me), but because it means I get to do what I love most every day. I get to live and breathe the adventure of running a business and defining an industry. I could not ask for a better adventure and could not hope for a higher privilege.

Thanks for the role you’ve played in the process – lookout for even bigger and better things to come!

24 thoughts on “7 Things I Learned in Seven Years at Cerebra

  1. Congratulations on the journey to date and good luck going forward, though you don’t need it.

  2. Great post Mike – my journey has taken a similar twist, so the post and points made resonate deeply. Congratulations on your achievements and contribution to the industry – enjoy the next chapter.

  3. Great post Mike, and once again, respect & congrats to you and Craig! You have both been a personal, albeit mostly online, inspiration in my online journey over the years 🙂

  4. Awesome lessons. It is amazing having watched you from early on in this journey and learned about business vicariously through your experiences. May you, Craig & Cerebra grow from strength to strength. Much love.

  5. Great post Mike. I work with many companies and I must say the energy and people at Cerebra are just amazing to work with. Wishing you and Craig and the entire team the best of luck in your future.

  6. This made so much sense to me and I can seriously UNDERSTAND and relate to a few things here. Thank you for your honesty.

  7. Outstanding post. Very authentic advice. Would’ve like it if you elaborated on the extra stresses of money though. Maybe a separate Blog Post. Which brings me to my next point… Your Posts are too few and far between for a man if your experience. Which brings me to my next point… Keep going, 😉

  8. Great post Mike – I could not agree more with all of your points, but especially point no. 6, that is the one I can identify with most: “time you enjoyed wasting is not wasted time”

  9. Mike, of all the mountains of content I have consumed this year, this post is probably the single most valuable thing I have read. Thank you.

  10. HI Mike, I found your article via Richard Mulholland and I’m so glad that I took 7 minutes to read what you had to say. I’m the co-founder of a communications agency, called Firecracker, which mainly operates in the social and environmental development space (we do have corporate clients too). We offer all forms of communication to a sector that is typically inept at communicating the amazing work that results in the development of this country. I started Firecracker with people I trust, genuinely like and who are blooming talented in their work disciplines ie. our creative lead, marketer, PRO etc. Our story is very similar to yours & I can safely say we’d all share your sentiments around entrepreneurship, the tough times but mainly focusing on the absolute brilliant times whilst running our own show. Ironically, we’ve never had to market ourselves as a business so I’m still hoping that this factor indicates we’re doing something right! A thought that (still) petrifies me is waking up knowing I have to be in an office I hate at 8am with a boss that is less capable than myself and sit there til 5pm to make my boss rich. That thought drives me to just stuff done, even if it is at 11pm because I only started work at 2pm. We co-founded an events platform called Enterprise Elevator with a couple of other progressive consultancies / start ups, as a stage for growing entrepreneurs in this country. When it comes to Joburg, we’re definitely booking you as a speaker, if that’s ok (?!) to tell the real story of being entrepreneur. All the very best in this new phase for Cerebra.

  11. i am joining the chorus in saying i really loved this post and wish you and Craig everything of the best

  12. The importance of space and fun. Refreshing to hear a business leader emphasizing this! *Like* All the best for your next adventure Mike!

  13. Hi Mike,

    Thanks so much for this post! As a bit of a rebel myself, and currently on a grown-up gap year, I’m exploring the world and the world of digital expression and media!

    Your article inspires / reassures and excites me – the journey I’m on is the right one!!

    Thanks and enjoy the success you so richly deserve!


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