To Know The Future, You Have To Look To The Past

On Saturday 28 May, Shapeshift moved house. Normally, this wouldn’t be reason enough to write a blog on – a simple email or Tweet would have sufficed. But in this case, I think it might be permissible to indulge in a little reflection.

Humble Beginnings


You see, Shapeshift started as a bunch of techie weirdos and geeks. Ambitious techie weirdos. And it started, as most good reality fairy tales do, in someone’s braai room. Jean-Pierre Mouton, our lead interaction designer, in this case. A couple of old desktops that were running on Windows XP and bubble gum, blue tack, instant coffee and a 56kbps dial-up modem. None of the guys had any real business experience, no real startup capital, no flashy offices and parking spaces. What drove them was a real desire to learn, to do everything to the best of their abilities and a genuine love for the internet and everything rebellious and free it stands for.

Jean-Pierre’s house became a split office / Ricky’s parents’ house, with the boys operating out of the front room. Designing logos and business cards had moved on to actual web design. CorelDraw had given way to Photoshop and CSS. A few bigger clients were picked up, word started spreading slowly. Then, about 4 years ago, the boys (the lady numbers wizard Elizma now included in their ranks) moved to the Durbanville office premises.

It was a big step forward, make no mistake. A reception room with sofas, custom-made built-in cupboards, logos on the windows, aircon and all those little things that make offices what they are. And a big old coffee maker, constantly filling the room with the nostril-tingling

aroma of real coffee, punctuated by loud screams of ‘Fresh pot!’ whenever it got refilled. It was cosy and comfortable and good while it lasted, but with eight full-time members of the team, the time has come for another change.

Hoogekraal Farm lies about 8 kilometres outside Durbanville on the junction of the Vissershok and Contermanskloof Roads. It has the bomb-proof build that real farm houses tend to have, as well as enough rooms for the farmer and his many offspring and townie visitors. Wooden floors and shutter windows, pantries and dining rooms all now quietly buzzing with bits and bytes sent and received.

Sustainable Growth


The growth here at Shapeshift has happened in a very organic way, a model of business championed by pioneers such as Yvon Chouinard from the Patagonia sports company, initiator of the One Percent for the Planet program – an alliance of companies that donate at least one percent of their sales to a network of environmental groups worldwide. In his own words, ‘At Patagonia, profit is not the goal, because profits happen when you do everything else right. In many companies, the tail (finance) wags the dog (corporate decisions). We strive to balance the funding of environmental activities with the desire to continue in business for the next hundred years.’

Shapeshift may not yet have the environmental focus or impact that Patagonia has, but the lines of thought have evolved in a similar direction. There is no real desire to go public as quickly as possible, to shift the direction and impetus of business decisions to a group of faceless shareholders. There is no need to cook the books every quarter to please investors, but rather an honest assessment of the true value and direction we are taking. Where the focus lies, instead, is on producing the products or tools that build value for our clients. As Chouinard notes: ‘If you create a demand, that is unnecessary. In other words, you’re selling to people who don’t need it, but want it: then you’re at the mercy of the economy.’

Why Do What We Do?

We believe in creating websites and tools that people need. It is for this reason that we are investing the time in creating website building platforms such as WebShift for small and medium-sized business. We believe that everyone needs to be able to represent themselves in a quality manner online; that startup businesses and people with innovative ideas should be able to use the digital world to bring their ideas to fruition, and that it shouldn’t cost them a second mortgage. We believe that this is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. And that the web is a space that should hold the ideals of equal access and connectivity in the highest esteem.

For a cup of steaming ‘Fresh Pot!’, drop in any time. Call Ricky on 072 105 7303 for directions.



By Ilze Hugo

If a company doesn’t have a website in today’s tech savvy market, it’s almost as if they don’t exist, says Jean-Pierre Mouton, co-owner and lead interaction designer at web production studio, Shapeshift: ‘A website gives you credibility. Being online shows that you’re reputable, that you’re not a fly-by-night.’But while it certainly helps, just being online isn’t enough. Your site needs to look good and work well too. Consumers are becoming increasingly web savvy and can spot a badly designed website a mile away, warns Riaan van der Westhuizen, a web developer at full-service digital marketing agency, Hello Computer. Just as not having an online presence can be bad for business, a shoddily designed site can also do damage: ‘If you’ve got a brand experience online and the text is too small, it creates frustration for the person interacting with that data,’ explains Mouton. A scrollbar or a link that is broken will irritate potential clients, leading them to assume that dealing with your company will be equally frustrating. A bad website says simply: You’re incompetent.

Speak to the right audience
So, what does a good website look like then? First of all you’ve got to understand who you’re making it for. Identify your audience and what they like – from graphics to types of interactions, content and style of copy: ‘Many designers blindly follow trends without considering whether those design trends actually fit their target market,’ says Mouton. Get a group of people that represent your target market to test a prototype of your website before it goes live says Van der Westhuizen: A good strategy is also imperative: ‘Before even starting the design process you have to develop a site strategy and decide what your goals are for the site – be it sales, brand exposure etcetera,’ says Mouton.

Think sexy looks and smooth sailing
‘When designing a website, you need to communicate a certain set of information to your users. If you don’t lay that info out properly it will get lost or your users will get bored and go somewhere else,’ warns Van der Westhuizen. The site needs to be laid out in a way that makes sense on an interactive level, so that users can interact with it in an intuitive way, says Mouton. One example is to put your search box at the top right-hand corner of the website where your users expect it to be. A user shouldn’t have to work for information. People are lazy, says Van der Westhuizen. ‘Focus on the main points and don’t force more info onto people than they are willing to read – keep copy clear, concise and to the point.’ Layout and colour plays a huge role in a user’s perception of your site, and can be used to visually point people in the right direction – highlighting the most important points and focusing their attention where you want it to be.’

With a content-heavy site, the challenge is to present it in such a way that users don’t get overwhelmed: ‘You have to ask yourself, how do I design it that user only need three clicks to get to the info he/she wants,’ says Mouton. A good designer will also program your site according to web standards and ensure that the site doesn’t discriminate against anyone. For example: You should be able to open it from any browser, be it Internet Explorer or Firefox.‘Beware of trying too many fancy things. Rather stick with what actually works, like menu bars that have words on, instead of pictures,’ says Van der Westhuizen. Another bad idea is fancy flash intros that take too long to load. If you’re a local company targeting middle income users in South Africa, keep in mind that your audience might have slow internet connections, so you can’t have massive videos that take forever to load. ‘When going to a restaurant, people want to see the menu and not read about the chef’s grandmother’s influence on the recipes. You need to know why people come to your website; who your target market is and what the most used internet connection is amongst them.’

The buck doesn’t stop when your site hits the net
Your site should be designed in such a way that you can measure your results continuously – keeping track of hits, seeing where your users are coming from and whether you’re getting the correct audience, after the site is up: ‘With statistics like Google Analytics you can even see which areas of the website somebody’s actually clicking on and which areas are being totally ignored by visitors,’ says Mouton. ‘Websites are dynamic platforms. Always keep in mind that your site will never really be complete because as markets, audiences and technology change, people interact with things differently and you constantly need to measure your results and tweak your website accordingly,’ says Mouton.

There are billions of sites out there and competition is tough. That’s why its hard work to keep your website highly ranked, says Van der Westhuizen. Regularly redesigning it ensures that users don’t become bored with the design and keep coming back: ‘Sites like Kalahari do this once a year.’ He advises looking at a redesign every 18 months. ‘Rather spend more initially and invest in a content management system that allows you to update the site yourself, with photos and content will work out cheaper in the long run.’

Be social or go home
Marketing on the web has changed dramatically: ‘A couple of years ago before the social media revolution we would do search engine optimization to ensure that Google’s bots found your site. That’s still relevant today but, because there are more and more people online, it becomes much more difficult,’ says Mouton. ‘For example, in one country there may be thousands of plumbers who are all competing to be number one on Google.’ With the invention of socially aggregated communities like Digg, Stumble Upon and Reddit, that aren’t ranked by Google’s algorithm, but by internet users themselves, ranking has become social: ‘It’s not bots ranking your site anymore, but people. That’s why social networking integration is so important. If you want to be ranked high on Google today you have to be ‘Liked’. The ‘Like’ button has been the biggest revolution in the social web. If your website is Liked, you are ranked higher, you are more relevant and therefore have a better brand. And of course this translates into hits as well. So marketing yourself online is very much tied around being social, being Liked.’ Also pivotal to your online marketing is a blog – which not only informs your visitors of what’s happening, but also establishes you as a thought leader; generates excitement around your brand and makes you look like an innovator. And if your content is interesting people will read it and ‘Like’ it. Others will pick up on this and it will snowball logarithmically. But of course, not all businesses have to be marketed in this way. Here again you have to ask yourself who are you talking to.’

Social networking is huge and one cannot afford to ignore it anymore, agrees Van der Westhuizen. ‘There are amazing things you can do with Facebook fan pages and Twitter these days. But if don’t know how to manage those things then it’s better to just leave it, as managing them badly can actually harm your brand.’

Choose an A-team
A good website isn’t just something you can slap together or get your young nephew to design because he knows a lot about computers, warns Mouton. The web has become a very specialized industry. Make sure the team you employ has the necessary experience and a proper track record. Ask to see portfolios, enquire about past successes and turnaround of sites. If the price seems cheap, go somewhere else. Says Van der Westhuizen: ‘With cheap options, clients often end up spending more money getting the site redesigned than they would have if they had just gone to a reputable company with a great portfolio the first time round.’ Also be careful of guys who claim to be SEO experts, he warns: ‘There are no magicians out there who can get your website onto the 3rd slot on Google by magic. It’s hard work. You need a website with good content and good links to other sites with good reputations.’

Originally published in High-Flyers Magazine, Issue 17. 3PHXU8TX3RVN.

Incentives and the Workplace

I read an interesting blog post by Bob Meyer today.

Today in the workplace, the paycheck buys baseline performance…but with incentives you get exceptional effort, because they communicate that you care about and value your people.

To make rewards more effective—no matter how much you spend—you need to be as timely as possible, so the employee knows why he or she received the incentive.

That way you reinforce and encourage employees to keep doing the exceptional work that won them the incentive in the first instance.

You also must match the reward to the individual, making the incentives as personal as possible.

This means getting to know your employees, observing their interests and picking rewards that they will value and appreciate.

I must say, I have to agree. One of the things we implemented here at Shapeshift is a bonus incentive program. Every week we have an Employee of the Week award. This award gets you a small write up on our website and a small cash bonus for that week.

On top of that we tally up all the votes inside the company and the employee with the most votes receives quite a large bonus on top of his monthly salary.

The reasoning and advantage to the company behind this is:

Lets say our company turns R1 000 000 a month. This income is derived from the combined effort of all the employees. The simple math behind the bonus is, lets say we pay out R10 000 in bonuses a month and everyone works 5% harder to receive that bonus it means the company has made an extra R50 000.

This means that the bonus has paid itself off against a profit of R40 000.

Combine this with some of the ideas that Bob Meyer has wrote, it could easily mean that the 5% turns to 15%. Suddenly you are looking at quite a vast improvement in income and production turnover times.

The advantages of financial bonuses are numerous. Your employees will have more job satisfaction, as Bob Meyer rightly said, loyalty these days is strongly based on financial return. With more job satisfaction you will have a lower employee turn over rate which means more experienced employees. All these things will all effect your bottom line, for the better.