Career Interview: Darren Gorton from OutThink

YM: According to your Twitter profile, you are a “Qualified financial something-or-other living in South Africa. Obsessed with value and finding stunning ways to create it.”  That is an understatement:  BCom (Hons) (Accounting Science) & Certificate in Theory of Accountancy at University of Pretoria, Chartered Accountant, Financial Director and Company Secretary.  Did your obsession with value lead you to the world of finance or was it accidental?

DG: No, I initially followed this path to get a solid foundation of business understanding and was looking for some good exposure to business in general. The obsession with value grew from there as I increasingly saw how much potential people, companies and South Africa have.

YM: How well does the CA(SA) route prepare one for the challenges of being a) Finance Director b) Entrepreneur? 

DG: For being a Financial Director – quite well. It gives you the fundamentals you need to understand the interrelationship between numbers, value and business but experience is still the best teacher and a very necessary component.

For being an Entrepreneur, the exposure to numbers and general business understanding is very useful and forms a very good foundation, but the challenges are very different. Looking at South African entrepreneurs in SA, there are some CA’s that have become highly successful entrepreneurs which proves that the skills are useful. However, on the whole I’d say that being an entrepreneur requires an appetite for risk that most CA’s tend to shy away from. Quite ironic really.

YM: Many Finance Directors chase after share prices & bottom line, with talent being the first casualty. Do you agree?

DG: Yes, based on what I’ve seen and heard it’s probably true in most cases. Numbers are great for helping us understand performance and business, but they don’t tell the whole story. The biggest part of the story that the numbers neglect is the value of people [although it’s tempting to claim that good results are a reflection of good talent, and vice-versa]. This leads many business to pursue increases in profits and share price while neglecting those things they can’t accurately measure, and inevitably some amazing people end up as casualties, as you put it.

YM: What advice can you give to HR professionals that are trying to convince the FD to invest in their workforce during the recession?

DG: It depends a lot on where the opportunities [or necessities] lie.

For a company merely trying to survive, there is a good argument to be made for retaining great staff by offering revised contractual terms [eg. three or four day weeks with pay reduced proportionately] so that you don’t lose them now and suffer the consequences when you need to start hiring again. The cost of replacing individuals you lose now will be very high [in both time and money terms] so you should be able to justify spending a bit to retain those valuable relationships.

If the company is looking to grow it should be much easier. Most entrepreneurs will tell you that it’s difficult times like these where the best opportunities lie, so in these cases you’d probably be looking at a business plan to explain the business opportunity, and if that makes sense then you would be crazy not to invest in the talent.

In both cases it’s important to justify the cost with the value to be gained the company. Just make sure that the value you expect to gain is realistic, even if it’s not entirely [or easily] measurable in numbers.

YM: You have a popular business blog, OutThink; that looks at entrepreneurship, creativity, technology & SA. Over the years, the blog has brought a blook, business model on a business card and now project Neo to life. For those readers that are not yet fans of the blog, summarise the motivation for each one & the progress to date.

I started OutThink with the following overarching objective: “The search for strategies and tools to stimulate social and economic revival in South Africa” – or put more simply, a pursuit of ways to add value. However, I do use it as a bit of a creative play-area as well, and much of what I write is a hybrid between serious business and creative fun [hopefully it is, anyway]. So these ideas or projects just reflect that approach.

The SA Blook came from an idea of collaborative writing online and we published it in June 2008. I was fortunate enough to have some really talented and fascinating people agree to be a part of it, and the final product displayed quite a diverse range of writing. It is a book written by bloggers and published online across their own sites [although we’ve since collated it into an easier to digest pdf document that can be downloaded for reading offline]. The topic of that first blook was essentially a positive and constructive look at South Africa and the opportunities that lie ahead of us. What I loved was the cohesion you saw as you read through the chapters, bearing in mind that none of the authors saw each others’ work until each chapter was published on the same day.

Business models on business cards was just a bit of fun really, playing with the idea that all business models can be simplified and explained on the back of a business card [if they can’t, the business is too complex!]. I’ve only done a few basic ones so far, but as time allows I’ll pursue this some more.

Project Neo is my baby. A business idea that’s been building for a while and which I’ve decided to pursue and I want to document the journey online. This is perhaps the most difficult project so far as this could either succeed or fail hugely. Whatever happens though, I’m interested to see what learnings come out of the process, and I hope that it will help someone else on their journey one day, or better yet inspire them to start the journey in the first place!

YM: My all time favourite nugget from OutThink has to be this one:

“Life has a way of providing distractions to keep you from focusing on what you want to focus on, and sadly what you have to do more often than not takes precedence over what you want to do.”

In my line of work, many talented individuals, are trapped in what they “have” to do and can’t find a way to start doing what they “want” to do.  How do you break free?

DG: Exactly right, but there is no easy answer. If what they “want” to do is sit on the beach all day, I can’t comment. But if it means pursuing what they’re passionate about, then I think the only answer is don’t be afraid to make the decision.

We have many bright entrepreneurs [some very successful] in SA, but sadly we don’t have a culture that is conducive to entrepreneurship structures and legislation that facilitate it. Things are changing… slowly. It will be a while until our environment really supports entrepreneurs as it should, but in the meantime we can each take responsibility for it, drop the excuses and make the decision to go ahead. The decision is the hard part as you always find excuses. Once you’ve made the decision it gets easier as I believe you then start looking for solutions rather than excuses.

Dan Wieden got it perfectly right for Nike when he coined the infamous slogan “Just do it”!

YM: By the end of 2010, you want….

DG: …amongst other things, to see South Africa building large capacity entrepreneurs capable of shaking the world up! [and to be contributing to their development while growing those skills in myself].

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