The journey so far: Glenn Gillis, MD, Sea Monster

Glenn Gillis

Glenn Gillis is the MD of Sea Monster, a Cape Town-based studio that specialises in animation, gaming and augmented reality.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

… All of them. What that means is that, as a business owner, you’re having to balance all the challenges you face constantly and knowing which ones to prioritise, and which decisions to make is the challenge because it’s not one thing that determines success.

I like the analogy of the clown at the circus with the spinning plates on sticks – [and] knowing which one to give extra spin to so [that] none comes crashing down, is how every day feels.

[It is about] balancing the short term and the long term: getting cash in versus making investments, [and] hiring people (or not). These are all examples of the spinning plates an entrepreneur needs to keep moving. Success is about a combination of things and, of course, not running out of money while you achieve your dream.

2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?

… Sea Monster and the fact that we exist, for me, is my proudest achievement. We’ve been recognised with awards locally and internationally, and we’ve won the trust of some of the biggest businesses in Africa. And those are wonderful things.

But what I really love is that we exist because we’ve proved that animation and games are serious instruments for change within large organisations.

Seven years later, we’re still around, and the quality of the narrative we’re having with clients has improved massively. They understand the costs better and we’re working with big businesses on real, strategic transformational processes in a way that is nuanced and story driven. We’re not seen as a hipster fringe movement, what we do is recognised as a proper part of their arsenal to drive their business goals.

3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

… How emotional I am about the business. It’s not only my creation, but, as the leader of the organisation, I’m human, and I have good days and bad days. People leave the company and move on, and I can see it’s the wrong decision for them and the business, and I take these things personally.

I’m aware of it and try not to let my emotions affect decisions, but I am passionate about the business. I hope that this passion and sincerity come across to our clients on the good days and, on the bad ones, I’m grateful that my team is good at ignoring me and that my co-founder is good at calming me down and bringing a more measured approach to these things.

4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

One of my favourite sayings is: “You need to plan to succeed.” It sounds simple and people will nod in agreement. What it means is that you need to make decisions fairly regularly where it is about a leap of faith.

You know you need that extra business development person. You can’t quite afford them, but if you don’t hire them you won’t have enough work coming in. You know you need to upgrade your computers, it slows people down if they’re using older ones, but, sheesh, you’ve got to write out a big cheque, and so on.

If you plan to succeed, you have to keep backing yourself and making these decisions, not recklessly, but still take the next step, the next calculated risk, believing it will all work out.

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?

I don’t wish there was anything I knew. The problem is in some sense I knew too much. I’m not a frustrated animator or game designer, I came from a business background and have fixed up many businesses over the past 25 years.

I took a leap of faith, despite everything I knew. I know how hard it is to set up and run a business. [I know] how hard South Africa is as a trading environment and how punitive it is for small businesses. I don’t know it all, and I’ve learned a million things.

I also think this notion that entrepreneurship is about … young people coming up with a big idea and taking a leap of faith is wrong and [it is] not backed up by data. Globally, successful entrepreneurs are about 43 years old and have failed a few times or had some business experience.

Popular culture often equates entrepreneurship with being young – and that is an advantage because they have more energy. But you should have some knowledge and experience, and it’s often the case that people are in their 40s when they succeed. Maybe because they have a house they can mortgage to fund the business, networks they can leverage and so on.