Blog

Turffontein

The beauty of being on the wrong side of the tracks!

Jenny Chrys Williams interviewed me on 702 to find out about a racing festival we were launching at Turffontein and said ‘when was the last time anyone went to Turffontein’ implying that it was totally off the radar for most people in Gauteng. At best, some people could recall a time in the distant past when they had been to the South and at worst, some people didn’t even know the South existed. Either way this edgy and historic part of JHB was exactly what appealed to us.

When we worked with David Chong and Felix Frankenburger, the founders of Night of 1000Drawings, to set up their early events, we found a host of beautiful old city buildings that had been mothballed. People loved it when we opened them up for a night. We love working in places with character and history. Places which exist in the shadow of their past glories.

The Turffontein race track is old, but grand. It is the only remaining track of the three which used to host racing in Johannesburg. The precinct itself it superbly maintained with onsite parking and good security. The local police and security teams and the Phumelela event teams are low key and yet very good at what they do. And make no mistake, they take no chances, have high standards and are demanding when we work with them – and that is how it should be.

But the best thing about Turffontein is its scale – it’s a huge stadium facing the iconic Joburg skyline so sunsets are spectacular and the grandness and history of racing is always present. Equinity is about large-scale productions that blow people minds. And it is about character. We love interesting. We detest the bland. And we love risk. Trying new things. Experimenting. Turffontein allows us to do all that because we have the freedom to push the limits of what we have done before. We know we will make some mistakes, which doesn’t mean we are happy to fail, but it does mean we can keep progressing a little bit at a time away from the glare and spotlight that keeps other large brands from trying new things.

The only option is to go big!

Never believe anyone who says size doesn’t matter!

Living in South Africa post-apartheid is not for the faint hearted. I believe that you either get stuck in and do what you can or you get out. Sticking around and moaning isn’t going to help. One of the things we hear about repeatedly in SA is that entrepreneurship is the way to create change and secure a positive future for the country. It’s like this magic ‘thing’ or wand that you can wave around and that will magically fix things. It seems that support and programmes for entrepreneurs are everywhere. And yet, Vusi Thembekwayo, who is by all accounts a very successful young entrepreneur, has boldly stated that this is a lie. He argues that starting a business is hard and that most research shows the large majority of these businesses will fail. But it is his belief that SA does not need small business which got me really listening to what he had to say. He argues that small businesses do not create secure, long term, employment which is exactly what SA needs. We need big businesses which create large-scale and long-term employment and which create massive value.

I agree. We need big solutions and we need to employ thousands of people. We have made this our goal. We looked at the businesses we could create and it was clear we couldn’t employ retrenched mine workers or other factory workers. But we knew that we could employ performers. The field band are a successful charity that works in parts of the country with some of the worst socio-economic problems imaginable. They successfully trained young people to be musicians and used that discipline and expertise to empower these young people to be employable as performers. As they grew over the years these young people found themselves skilled and motivated but with few opportunities to work. We knew that hundreds of these performers were now sitting at home because they had finished school and were trained as musicians but had nothing to do. Watching these young people perform at their national champs is goose-bump stuff. We started to think about how we could include these bands in our projects and as Equinity started to take shape we knew that this was going to be our solution.

Our mission is to employ thousands of performers and to create epic shows that can travel the world. We want these performers to have long-term employment so that they feel they have purpose and most importantly, dignity. To do this we had to change our mindset and we had to start building a big business. Small business and in our case, small productions, are not going to cut it. Even though our first production was for one night and could only host 440 people we put it together as a mini version of our future large-scale productions. We made the sets as big as we could with the money we didn’t have. We packed as many people as we could into the venue. Most importantly we imagined this production as the first step towards the epic productions we have planned. We will literally go big or go bust trying to go big. Small isn’t going to fix anything!

Do whatever it takes!

No one said it would be easy!

Simon Sinek has lead me to believe that innovation is neither efficient nor cost effective. It’s true. Innovation takes up lots of time. It uses up all your energy and costs lots of money. People use the Wright brothers as their inspiration to innovate. They worked in their bike shop to pay their bills, used up hundreds of parts making their prototypes, and spent all their spare time planning and building these prototypes that failed again and again. They were true innovators. And according to Sinek, they were driven by a deep sense of purpose and they loved what they were doing.

When we started Equinity we spent 3 years looking for funding and sponsorship. We spent hours setting up meetings and selling the dream. With no success. The only people who backed us were the racing fraternity. Phumelela agreed to allow us to run our event at an existing night race but had no cash for us. We had tons of people and brands loving our plan but no one would sponsor or invest. We even hired a sponsor expert and paid him with money we didn’t have and while we got to meet some great people we never got one bite. 

So, we thought fuck it. We’ll do it ourselves. We scaled back our first production to a size we could almost afford, used every spare cent we could scrape together from our recently, almost bankrupt business and went for it. 

And even then, we failed. We didn’t sell enough tickets so we had to do deals to get our friends to come. But even that wasn’t enough so our head person, who was running the project, invested the last of some money inherited from her dad who had recently died. And so Illuminessence, the first Equinity production happened, successfully in the end, but with a whole bunch of, let’s call them lessons and challenges, not least of which was the torrential downpours which cancelled any chance of racing! 

With hindsight, not having any money from sponsors or investors has been perfect for us. Because we are spending our own hard earned and very limited cash we think very carefully before we commit to anything and we always aim to get maximum bang for our buck. It has also forced us to do things differently. We know what we want to achieve and now we have some original ideas to help us bring our vision to life.

Simon Sinek is right. Innovation is hard, time consuming, and expensive. But for us Equinity is the most liberating and exhilarating thing we’ve done and as soon as we finished the first one we booked the date for Equinity 2. And we didn’t bother with the sponsorship and funding plans. We started putting money aside from our corporate work and got straight into planning and building the next show – Meoquanee. 

The major benefit of not having to answer to anyone is that we can experiment and try new things. We are driven not by a fear of failure but fearful that our productions won’t be unique and edgy. We want to surprise and blow people’s minds and to do that we have to push the limits. And to do that we have to innovate.

Fighting for what we love!

Fighting for what we love means fighting against the deathly company year-end!

Equinity 2017 takes place in Gauteng in November which is prime time for companies to do their end of year functions and is the perfect opportunity for us to crusade against the traditional year-end.

Make no mistake, we’ve done a fair few of these for our clients. They are a great money-spinner for many agencies and they are often the only highlight for office bound worker bees. But they can be horrendous! Different people like different things and pleasing everyone is impossible. Our solution is to fight against what makes them so bad; can the speeches – nobody cares and nobody is listening anyway. Scrap the awards – if you really want to award your people do it at a time and place meant for this, not the year-end. Don’t make people do things they don’t want to do – give them a choice, they are adults after all.

We love creating a massive world of escape and discovery and then letting people loose – some people want to punt on the horses, others want to dress up or try different foods. We design the space specifically to let people move around so no one is stuck next to the bore from IT or Accounts.

We create opportunities for people to connect – not through some shit team building but by designing areas that allow people to connect and meet naturally. Above all, we love to surprise people. And to inspire them. And to allow them to feel alive through the design, the production, and the performances. We take people on an emotional journey through music and lighting that allows them to enjoy another world and a way of looking at their world from a different perspective.

And through all this creative energy we still focus on quality. We all want to feel special and treated with respect and so all the creativity and design and beautiful chaos is carefully coordinated with an unmatched attention to detail.