#AgencyFocus: Helping SMEs manage digital lead generation
Brett Perlstein has had quite the journey — from dropout engineering student to qualified accountant to a US “visa-whoopsie” forcing a Canadian sojourn that led to a revelation in how digital may impact on small business. He is currently the founder and CEO of SearchKings Africa, a Google Premier Partner focused on growing South African small and medium enterprises (SMEs). “Whether you’re big or small, we’ve got a formula that can help you grow and our formula is delivered in a certain way. If that way works for you and you’re results-driven, then let’s do this dance,” says Perlstein.
It was at a braai in Toronto that his life took a turn towards its current trajectory. “I met this dude. He’s like a cousin’s cousin’s cousin second-husband type of thing. Like the [six] degrees of Kevin Bacon,” he says. The man, who’d started a company called SearchKings in 2008, and invited Perlstein to visit the offices, seeing as he had nothing more to do during his stay in Canada. “They had this beautiful thing that was helping SMEs,” he recalls. “Their big focus is in the home services industry [and] they [had] genuinely seen these plumbers grow their business through the technology that they built. They wanted to build a technology business that could assist [SMEs] so built a platform where they can manage multiple accounts at scale in the home-services area of expertise.”
The pair soon started discussing opportunities for Perlstein to bring the technology to South Africa and test the waters. While the tech was still in its infancy, the potential was there and the plan was to put it all into a self-service system that SME owners could manage themselves. The original offer from the Canadian team was to give him the opportunity to prove his stripes and show that the African market had potential. They weren’t going to pay him a salary but, should he sign on 10 clients in the first six months, they would sign the documentation that would give him the licence to the brand and software in Africa.
After four-and-a-half months, he’d signed his 10th customer. This was in 2013.
Perlstein understood the power of personal networks, so that’s where he started. “My first customer was my mother-in-law. You gotta hit your family first and say, ‘Come on, guys, give me something. I need just like R5000 to work out if I can generate some business for you and, if it doesn’t work, I’m sorry because I can’t pay you back’,” he says.
Reaching 20 customers took a further year and, when he hit 25, Perlstein hired Darren Brick, who is still with SearchKings. They worked from Perlstein’s apartment before moving into a garage next to an old house by Waverley Girls High in Johannesburg, sharing the 40m2 space with a two-person design team, who they soon starting sending work to.
SearchKings works on a month-to-month basis with no long-term contracts and without any strange lead models where there’s a bigger upside for it the more its clients spend. Its aim is to build a sustainable, transparent partnership built on trust with quality technology to back its claims. “You may pay slightly more than the industry average but, because of our technology, we’re able to understand your business [better] and deliver a product that genuinely cares about your business growth,” says Perlstein.
Twenty customers became 40; 40 became 60; and 60 soon became 70. This is when the third employee started; by 2017, there were six. “It felt like, you know when you [have] a pre-drink for a party and then you arrive and no one is there. We were still explaining to people that there are ads on Google. In 2016, yes, some people knew what Google Ads were but they didn’t know how it would work for them,” he says, adding that only in the past two-and-a-half years has there been a proper awakening to the opportunities with Google advertising.
The team is currently made up of 16 people with 200-plus customers. “We’ve been able to leverage off the global expertise. The SearchKings business in Canada is one of the fastest-growing businesses in North America. They’ve been nominated for a [Google award] based on a new product, Google Local Services, and our ability to leverage off a global brand with global expertise gives us a real wealth of knowledge. We have 10 qualified Google experts here and they’ve got close on 30. I don’t think there are many [SME] agencies who can tap into that wealth of expertise,” he claims.
The current team at SearchKings is not made up to veteran marketers but rather three engineers, a professional rally driver, a psychology major, and an MBA graduate. Perlstein is looking for people who are smart professionals who want to ditch the suits for ‘takkies’ and hoodies and who want to really feel the value of their work. “When you talk to a pool client, and he’s like, “Jeez, man, it’s hectic; I’ve just put another bakkie on the road and we’ve hired four more people. And the ice cream shop is telling you they’re opening their eight branch and our bridging finance clients are telling us they’ve helped over 1000 business owners get finance so they can afford houses. There are really tangible, meaningful stories where you can see the function of your work.
“Some of the stories we’ve been able to help tell have been really rewarding. There’s a genuine underlying belief that, if we can use the work that we do to help build the [SME] market ,it can add real value because that’s really what’s going to move the needle here.”
Fear of digital
Perlstein admits that he uses “small” loosely when referring to the relative size of businesses as the service does come at a cost. He recalls many potential clients calling him to ask what R300 would do for their Google Search and has had to admit to them on many occasions that, apart from buying them a good dinner, that money won’t go much further. A lot are driven by fear when they think about spending money on digital — many of whom have spent thousands on community newspaper adverts, flyers, and the like.
The Canadian SearchKings team has always believed that giving its clients control over its data is what’s going to allow them to make smarter business decisions. The technology gives clients a dashboard where they can see all the relevant metrics associated with their accounts. They can see what they’ve spent, how many leads have been generated, what each lead cost them and, as time goes, they can see search trends start to appear. A USP of the technology is a call-tracking system that records all inbound calls from Google Ads, all of which get logged onto the dashboard with a playback function. The SME owner then has the ability to tell whether a call was a good or bad lead, and whether it converted. But, while most of SearchKings clients require call-driven solutions, the technology is equally capable of creating dashboards unique to the needs of each client and its specific call-to-action metrics.
“We’re all about transparency and data… We’re pushing our customers to not be scared of A/B testing and not be scared of news things. The ones that are brave enough are reaping the rewards. There are some really smart tools that are helping businesses reach their objectives at scale” he says.
SearchKings requires that its clients put in equal effort to reap rewards, and the access to the dashboard is part of it. “We’re not owning the whole lead space from start to finish. We’re selling you the fishing rod, not the fish. We’re giving you all the tools as an SME to understand what your lead volumes look like and what the quality of your leads looks like but there’s an expectation that you would do something with them. We’re really trying to give our clients a full end-to-end inbound sales solution that helps them understand their business better. The better they understand their business, the smarter their business decisions are, and the more we can use this data to help them grow online.
“Direct response marketing”
We’re feeding customers so much data. No small business owner really knows how his receptionist is answering the phone or has any idea on what his cost per lead is or know what geographical area he’s getting better leads from. How would he know that? He’s just in the trenches fixing pools. What I love about the Google product is [that] it’s direct response marketing and it’s measurable and trackable. It’s data-driven. If you let us help you understand that data together and you’re willing to put in a bit of time, you can make smarter business decisions and, ultimately, grow your business,” he adds.
Perlstein believes that, if we can future-proof SA by providing the relevant skills to more people, we can future-proof our SMEs. His long-term goal is to aid in the upskilling of people. Part of this is bringing businesses up to speed with the way the world functions in our increasingly digital age and educating them that human connection can still happen over a digital line. “We’re trying to make it very upfront that we’ve future-proofed our business to do business at scale. I don’t have to be sitting across from you for us to get to the end point. You, as an SME, have got to understand that this is the future of business. Is it more important that I come and sit across from you in your boardroom and drink your average coffee or that the phone rings and you get new business? You weigh that up,” he says.
Recently, Perlstein was invited to give share the SearchKings Africa story by giving the keynote at a Google Partners Programme in Lagos, Nigeria, that looks after Google Partners in the local market. For Perlstein, it was a big feather in his cap to have been noticed by Google itself. “We’ve proven success through our service, our product, and our delivery in a market where everyone starts but ultimately goes and hunts elsewhere. Everyone starts as a 30-customer thing; then they go and hunt the big budgets to find three clients. But, ultimately, if you lose two of them, then everyone loses their job,” he says.
While the team works primarily with SMEs, it does have a couple of big-ticket clients: Imperial Group and Imperial Auto. “On the bigger customer front, we’ve been able to prove that our expertise and our forward-thinking and our ability to bring them new innovative ways for them to constantly evolve in this specialised marketing medium has been really successful,” he adds.
Future of SME success
A successful case study is Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream, which now has nine retail stores. “We were there when they were selling ice cream out of their garage. We helped them refine their product range through the data we got from paid Google advertising. What were people looking for? The ice cream cakes they developed predominately came through the data we provided them. People were searching for them. Without the data, they would never have known!”
Perlstein believes the future of SME success lies in effective digital advertising, and in the case of SearchKings, Google Ads. “We’re trying to be the John Snow of Google Ads, warning everyone that it’s coming and that we’ve got the product for you, and you’re going to use it soon.”