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Imagin8 – Dream big, exceed those dreams, and dream even bigger

In this interview, we find out more about Adam Rabinowitz (owner, founder, and Chief Imaginator of Imagin8), his business journey, and why he believes South Africa should support small business.

Adam shares how they are into a few different things at Imagin8. They run a data platform that delivers data in real time to their customers. In English, that means that when you call your insurance broker for a quote and they need to look up the value of your car, they hit the Imagin8 data platform, and they tell them immediately what your car is worth.  They do that with car values for insurance brokers, and other motor vehicle data for the motor industry. 

Imagin8 also offer some great services to small businesses to make their lives easier. Imagin8 Debit Orders is a debit order collection service that helps their customers get their money from their customers on time.  Cash flow is critical to every business, and they’ve benefited so much from running a debit order service to collect their monthly invoices from their own customers that they figured other businesses would need a service like this too. Imagin8 Debit Orders customers include everything from small home-based businesses, art clubs, home owners and residents associations, security companies, gyms, accountants and service providers of all descriptions. Adam says that they all love our services. It’s easy to set up, effortless to use, and delivers huge value to the business owners.

And finally, he shares how they are working on SMExpert, an app that helps business owners manage their business and free up their time. Due to Adam having benefited from having such great systems to run his business, he wanted to bring that same advantage to other business owners.

Why did you start your business?

It was probably because I was young, ambitious, optimistic, and mostly naive. My business originally started out as a software development company. I wrote a software application that could run a small insurance brokerage because I thought I could do a better job than the guy that my dad had hired to write his software way back in 1988. That was when software was a lot less complicated than it is now.

In the early days of home computing, just convincing someone to change from paper to computers was a big thing. I think I started this business because of my love for computers and technology, even though there wasn’t much by way of tech back then.  I remember going to my cousin’s house to play “adventure games” on his computer, and you had to insert floppy disks and wait for the game to load. I could see how these things were going to change the world, and I decided from an early age that I wanted a career in computers, and I taught myself to code. Then I spent years trying to get a job as a programmer, but I always ended up taking jobs as a hardware technician.  I figured that the only way to get a job as a programmer was to convince someone I could code, and to do that I took on private projects so I could establish proof of my abilities, which ended up in me starting up my own business, and that business trundled along as a side hustle until I eventually decided to make a go of it full time in 2004.

What do you love the most about running your business?

The way I’ve run Imagin8 has changed vastly over the years.  Right now, I have a great team, and I’m working on developing the next generation of leaders in Imagin8, and I think this phase for me is the most exciting and rewarding. 

When I started Imagin8, I wanted a company that would generate a passive income. For years, the passive income that the business generated was less than 10% of what I needed to live on, and I worked hard at growing the business. Even though life was tough back then, I still enjoyed the freedom that running my own business gave me. I lived lean, but I was more than willing to sacrifice luxury for lifestyle.

During the years of COVID and the aftermath of the lockdown, running my business became all about survival and saving as many jobs as I could, so Imagin8 changed its focus and we became a dev shop, taking on projects for other clients to stay afloat.  That was tough, I won’t lie, and it required a different kind of leadership entirely. We became focused on hours and deadlines, and to be honest, nobody in the company was having fun, but we still had jobs.

When things started returning to normal, Imagin8 started reverting back to what I wanted the company to be in my original vision – a fun place to work that gives us the freedom to create new stuff that makes other people’s lives easier.

Now I get to grow the business, look for new partnerships and collaborations, new opportunities, and guide my team so that they can get us there.  Growing leadership is a challenging and exciting task.  I’m investing in the next 20 years.

What is one of the biggest lessons you have learnt on your business journey?

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt over the years is the importance of leadership in a small business.  As a small business owner, I used to think that leadership was for the big corporates, and that guys like me didn’t need to concern ourselves with big leadership issues. I mean, my business was just me at the time. What did I need to worry about leadership for?

I did an MBA in 2004, and at that time I was convinced that I knew everything there was to know about my small business and its problems. I don’t think I could have been more wrong.

I learnt that as a small business owner, I faced exactly the same problems that big corporates do, just on a smaller scale, and because of that, I needed to show up just like leaders of big corporations do in order to lead my own business.  I had responsibilities to my customers, my future staff, my family and myself that I hadn’t acknowledged. I saw the business as an extension of me, and not as its own entity.  When I started acting as the leader of my business, everything changed.

I learnt a lot of other critical lessons at business school which most business owners need to know too. All of them have made a significant difference to the growth trajectory of my business.  I’ve put a lot of those important lessons in my book, “How to Create, Manage, Fix and Grow Your Business”, which is available at Exclusive Books, Readers Warehouse, and other leading bookstores.   

I think part 2 of this question should be “what lessons were you unaware that you needed to learn?”  Most business owners out there today were never trained in business management, yet they find themselves running businesses, unaware of some simple skills and tools that could make the difference between success and failure, between mediocrity and greatness.

If I could leave business owners with one gift, it would be to impart the knowledge I’ve gained that has made me so effective.  I’ve tried to encapsulate some of that in my book, and I try daily to impart some of that wisdom to the next generation of leaders at Imagin8.

What is your why? Why do you do what you do and what do you focus on to help you persevere and get through tough times?

Interesting question, and one that I have wrestled with a lot in the last few years.  I read Simon Sinek’s book recently, and I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to distil the answer to that question.  My Why has evolved since I first started the company, and as life changes, so does my Why.  

In the early days, it was simple. I didn’t want to work, or be normal. I wanted a different kind of life. While everyone else was getting up to go to work, I wanted to be doing the opposite.  I wanted to be sitting on my balcony, sipping coffee, watching the world go to work while I could stay at home (Of course that was pre-COVID. Now EVERYONE gets to work from home). I wanted a passive income, and a business that would give me the lifestyle I dreamed of.

Now that the business has exceeded that vision, my Why has changed. The business is no longer about me, and the vision for the business now has to serve everyone it touches – my leadership team, my customers, my suppliers.  

I want my company to grow into an organisation that creates financial freedom for its staff, and delivers products that our customers love, and can’t live without. I guess that’s the vision. My Why is because I’ve been fortunate enough to reach and exceed my dreams more than once in my lifetime. I believe we can achieve our dreams if we believe we can. Anything is possible as long as you dream it. I know that people can be so much more than they believe they are capable of. I know I can’t change the world, but I can influence those around me. I can create an organisation that gives its leaders scope to grow and to achieve their dreams. In doing so, I can create products that touch the lives of hundreds of people, millions eventually.  And when people use my products and read my story, I want to inspire them to do what I’ve been able to do. To dream big, exceed those dreams, and dream even bigger, over and over again.

My focus shifts depending on whether we’re in times of plenty, or in lean times.  When we’re in times of plenty, I focus on future growth.  The best time to work on new stuff is when there’s no pressure to do so.  When we face tough times, my focus changes to the critical things we need to do to navigate our way out, even if that means changing what we do.  During COVID, we faced the toughest time Imagin8 has ever faced. I changed the very nature of what we do so that we could survive.  Now that times have changed, I’m looking to the future again, building some exciting new products, steering the company into new, uncontested blue waters.

Why should South Africa support small businesses now and beyond?

I believe small businesses are the key to the future of South Africa, but too many small businesses fail because the owners are not trained in how to run a business. Businesses start because entrepreneurs have ideas, or because people find themselves in a desperate situation, and have to depend on their own efforts for their own survival and businesses are born out of that. A lot of these businesses could survive and grow if managed properly.

We should not only support small businesses by choosing to spend money with them rather than spend our money at big, cash-rich companies, but also by helping their leaders to grow.  A lot of people reading this article have learned lessons that have helped them navigate difficult situations, or overcome difficulties in their journey.  Small business owners need to learn from and help one another in their personal growth as leaders.

There’s so much unemployment in South Africa right now. One person who starts a small business diverts money towards their mini-economy. They can spend their profits locally, thereby helping other businesses in their local communities to grow. Small business is the key to solving the huge unemployment problem we have in South Africa.  We’re not going to solve unemployment by dishing out handouts, or delivering food parcels. Government can only create so many jobs before it runs out of taxpayer money. The jobs will only last as long as the fiscal budget, and that could change at any time, leaving people without jobs once more.  But when entrepreneurs start businesses, they create a future. When people believe that they are the key to their own future, the prospect is longer lasting than handing out a job.  People who control their own destiny make for a much more stable future.

The informal sector in South Africa contributes a significant amount to the country’s GDP. It is imperative for South Africa’s survival that small businesses be allowed to flourish.  Before you go shopping, look in your local social media groups, and see which small businesses you can support even if it’s in a small way.  Every little bit helps.

Imagin8 was one of the 2020 Top 20 Award Winners at the South African Small Business Awards.

Imagin8 is a proud Member of the NSBC.

This Small Business Friday feature is proudly sponsored by Absa.