Sylvester Chauke: The reluctant entrepreneur

Feb 12, 2021 | Articles

This was to have been published in Destiny Man magazine January/February 2019 issue. It was never published. A part of me wanted to rewrite it. Below is exactly how I wrote it then before final sub-editing. The plan is to share more of what I wrote in other spaces, on here.

If, ten years ago, you had asked Sylvester Chauke where he thought he would be in 2019, he would have probably said “an incredible Chief Marketing Officer at one of the big telecommunications companies. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur because I didn’t think I had the risk appetite or the emotional capability to run so many people’s lives and have to worry about them every month.”

For Chauke, that was the pinnacle yet, instead, we are sitting in the offices of the currently, Johannesburg-based, DNA Brand Architects, the company he founded just over six years ago, looking back over his 37 years on this third rock from the sun, as he reflects on the journey he has taken to reach this point and the lessons that he has learned.

I mention that I have always found it interesting how his own office has always had big windows, facing out on the walkway outside his offices, to which he replies, “It goes back to growing. My dad used to play Tsonga music loud throughout the weekend and I learned to zone out and focus on what you need to do. And, at Nando’s, I had a glass office and at MTV, I had a glass office, so I guess I have become accustomed to working in fishbowls.”

The Early Years

Sylvester Chauke grew up in what he calls a typical, average Black family in Protea North, Soweto. The early years were ones of constant motion where, he describes “It was a thing in the Chauke household. My parents moved us around a bit, from Meadowlands and Orlando East to Dobsonville, eventually setting up a space for us in Protea. Both of them were clerks, my Tshonga father (from Limpopo) at a construction company and my Sotho mother (from Soweto) at an optometrist. I was the weirdo. I was awkward and unhappy because, for a while, I didn’t understand how that was my life and how my family were my family. I wanted more. I am grateful for how they just let me be.”

He went to Tshonga primary school in Orlando East, Leresche Primary School, and completed his matric at Nghunghunyani Comprehensive School in Chiawelo. But, it was his extra-curricular activities that led down the path that he has travelled since then, even though, in those early days, he wanted to be a teacher.

Spotted by a talent scout in Soweto, he joined Stage Arts, a dance academy in Randpark Ridge, where he started tap-dancing before branching into ballet, modern and jazz dance, which shifted his career ambitions from teaching to performing. He reminisces, “I become good at and comfortable with dance. I was going to go to UCT and study performing arts.”

And what made him shift again? Successfully auditioning as a dancer for a CNA Back to School television commercial at age 12 and a natural curiosity that was piqued by seeing what went on behind the scenes and how that was translated into the final product.

Learning the Lessons

Despite this fascination, it was only when he sat down with two psychologists at the then RAU, now University of Johannesburg, that he was exposed to possible subjects and career paths that would enable him to enter the space. He ended up completing a BA in Marketing Communications, exploring a range of subjects including philosophy, sociology, history, English and, to his chagrin, Statistics.

He laughs, “I didn’t find joy in it at all. There’s always that one thing that keeps you honest. You can’t be brilliant at everything. My first semester at varsity was really brilliant; my second semester was dismal, outside of advertising, sociology and philosophy.”

He adds, “We aren’t prepared enough for university. We have orientation in the first week where you are bombarded with all this information, but you aren’t prepared to independently manage your life. You come from being locked down for a number of hours at school to having to run your own schedule. Freedom comes with responsibility. You’re juggling a lot of things. You have to make new friends. I joined the RAU Arts Academy which helped but I struggled with the social pressures.”

Chauke is passionate about drawing from those experiences to help young people entering tertiary. He sits on the Advisory Board for the Department of Communications and laments the big drop in the number of students the higher you go in the system, especially at post-graduate level. He questions the ability of the education system to equip the young with the tools to handle this new world of ours.

“As a business owner now, it really concerns me. Last year we did a campaign, DNA for Madiba, where we got 60 marketing graduates into a day’s bootcamp. We then took fifteen on for a year’s internship.  They were not equipped to handle the new requirements of this new work world. Leading this new breed of millennials is challenging.

Sometimes you have to get back to basics but also deliver step-by-step, growing incrementally. They see people doing well, and quickly, and expect it to be the case for themselves. It’s the Kim-Kardashian-can-do-it so-I-can mentality.”

The World of Work

While DNA Brand Architects was registered in 2006, it would take six years before he actually started it. At the time, after about eight years of working in the advertising industry, with FCB, Ogilvy and DDB, he was National Marketing Manager for Nando’s.

I point out that he was the young person entering the workplace to which he responds, “Those initial years in advertising gave me a strong foundation. I was aware of my capabilities, what I was not capable of, had respect for leadership and was open to learning from those who had walked before me. I still believe that you’ve got to do the work and you’ve got to be able to apply yourself in the work. I can’t stress that enough.”

His time at Nando’s coincided with a more overt approach to advertising that was tongue-in-cheek, witty and potentially divisive but he doesn’t take credit for it, pointing out that Nando’s already had a specific way of operating that came from the founders and leadership. It had creativity and people at its core, which aligned perfectly with his own approach. The one thing he did bring was an emphasis on honesty, in terms of how the business viewed itself, who its customers are and who the business wanted to be moving forward.

As he puts it, “The honesty helped in being able to chart an interesting creative approach to how we communicate. I walked in as a young Black boy who just happened to be very interested in the community that they come from and felt it was important to advertise in a way that made sense for the consumers of the brand. And who loves chicken? Us, Black people. It was amazing, as a young person, to have the ear of the CEO and founder and a platform to be heard.”

To Play The Game Or Not To Play The Game

Honesty in business is something that Sylvester Chauke comes back to often and he tries to emulate the kind of leadership that he saw at Nando’s in his own business. He believes that it is important to allow for people to be expressive and honest because, often, business is not an honest space. He emphasises this repeatedly when giving keynotes, with a slide that states:

we’ve got to be honest first, if you want to get good work out. You have to have a team that can tell you that something sucks.

He has found that, in business, honesty is not something that is valued within company cultures. He describes it as a Game of Thrones where, if you are honest or say something your boss doesn’t like, chances are you will be out of a job or you have to play the game where you are constantly trying to align yourself with the right power bases. This, he says, does not make for great business and often, the incredible wins he has experienced in business come when there is an honest and clear mandate in terms of who he is and what he wants to do.

This came to play when he was leaving Nando’s. His first attempt to leave was rejected by Robert Brozin, a founder of the brand, who felt that the initial job he was going to wouldn’t work for him. When Viacom/MTV Networks came knocking with a Director of Marketing role, he was ushered out with blessings. He spent two years and a half there before finally taking the step into the world of entrepreneurship, a world he never thought he would take. It was call from a friend that was the final push.

“When I was at Nando’s, and then Viacom, I always felt that there was a gap in the advertising and marketing communications space. Often, the advertising agencies would be briefed and create great ads while the media would distribute what they had created, but there was no-one getting everyone in the room to determine the overall strategy. CMOs tend to listen to themselves and/or their agencies only but there was no-one providing honest counsel.

And then, one day, I got a call and was asked to look at a strategy for someone. I looked over it over a weekend and redeveloped it. A couple of weeks later, they called to ask me to look at another strategy; this time I got paid for it. Reflecting on this, I realised that they believed I had something to offer and so perhaps I should explore this further.”

The Lessons

Leaving Viacom to actively operate DNA Brand Architects came with a number of challenges, the biggest of which was a personal one, namely that he was a “one-trick pony” having done marketing for two big brands. Walking into spaces as DNA was difficult initially because the business did not have any credentials and, for those who knew him, his value and glory came from his previous employers. While he appreciated, and appreciates, his history in other spaces, he was driven by the desire to push on and do new things.

Other lessons learned as DNA garners achievements and as established itself in its six short years as a leading branding and marketing communications company? Chauke says there are many, such as how it is easy to hold yourself back as an entrepreneur. “Sometimes we limit our potential to grow because we think about what if it doesn’t work. Being able to overcome the fear has been challenging. I have been able to turn that fear into ‘just do it, it doesn’t matter’ and have the confidence to say, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, it’s okay.

Also, learning the importance of personal relationships that goes into building a business. There will be betrayal and there will be dishonesty. When I think back to the start-up phase, and look at where I am now, it’s tougher. There is a misconception with a lot of young entrepreneurs that the start-up phase is tough and then it gets easier but I have found it to be the opposite.”

Losing clients has also brought its own challenges, particularly when it comes to revenue, which is the less than rosy part of entrepreneurship. As well as losing staff. For Chauke, having someone leave, in the early days, brought sleepless nights because of the family-like culture that he has created at DNA. He has come to learn that people sometimes have to leave to grow and many that leave the business go onto start their own businesses or move onto bigger things, for them.

2019 and Beyond

The business is now at the stage where there has been a significant shift in Chauke’s role, from operational to leadership, and he has had to separate the person from the business. He has had to focus on building a business that is not dependent on him by learning to surround himself with people who can help build and grow the business, while allowing them to make mistakes.

Laughing, he says, “In the early days, I was doing everything. Software upgrades, setting up emails when new staff joined, etc. It’s like a divorce. I am grateful for the ability to let go; the team challenges me a lot as well. They are vocal when I get in the way. Your success can’t be wholly tied to the business.”

What this does is free him up to explore what is the next frontier for him, which is working with and contributing to the penetration of South African and Africans brands into global markets. From the sub-brands under Tiger Brands to fashion brands like Maxhosa by Laduma, Doktor and Misses Furniture, etc, he believes there need to be a more concerted and collective effort to push them onto the world stage, and he would like to be part of that journey and exercise.

While DNA continues to be a conduit for him to make an impact on brand building and marketing communications on a practical level, there is still a teacher in him, who would like to bring together the knowledge and share the South African, and African, perspectives on his field. And, as he grows into his leadership role, he also takes more time to draw inspiration from people’s stories, whether in theatre, music and film.

There is the concept of ‘having arrived’ in business. The moment when everything falls into place and it is just smooth sailing from that point onwards. For Sylvester Chauke, it is about arriving at a moment in time from which he can launch into another phase. As the kids used to say, “Levels”.