How to Build an Impactful Agency and Leverage NFTs With Ross Drakes

Ross Drakes is the Founder and Creative Director of Nicework, a branding agency based out of South Africa. He is a former freelance creative turned entrepreneur who now helps his clients build brands that people genuinely care about. Ross is also a keynote speaker, host of the One More Question podcast, and co-host of the RadEO podcast. He is a member of EO South Africa.

In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran sits down with Ross Drakes, the Founder and Creative Director of Nicework, to talk about how to build an impactful agency. They also discuss the evolution of Nicework, potential opportunities around NFTs, and how to know when to diversify your services.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • [02:24] Ross Drakes’ entrepreneurial background
  • [05:56] What led to Ross’ success in building an agency?
  • [09:44] The evolution of Nicework 
  • [11:17] How Ross built his client base and diversified his services
  • [19:01] The technology and opportunities around NFTs
  • [30:49] Ross’ thoughts on how NFT creatives are compensated
  • [35:01] How small brands can leverage NFT technology
  • [40:43] The people who’ve had a significant impact on Ross’ life

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Sponsor: Rise25

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Episode Transcript

Chad Franzen 0:02

Welcome to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where we feature top entrepreneurs, business leaders and thought leaders and ask them how they built key relationships to get where they are today. Now, let’s get started with the show.

John Corcoran 0:19

Welcome everyone, John Corcoran here and the host of this show. And first of all, you know, my guest here today is Ross Drakes. He’s the Founder of Nicework, which is a branding agency out of South Africa. And if you like this episode, and you want to learn more about this amazing country, I actually have done a number of recent episodes with residents and former residents of South Africa. So I just thought that I would shout out a few of those episodes which you should check out first of all, Rich Mulholland who has done work with Ross as a friend of his they’ve done some podcast together. Great episode talking about going from rock’n’roll roadie to how to be a better speaker and apply better speakers to your business speaking to business. Daniel Nel, founder of Nebulous Software on how failing his first business helped him to launch six different businesses. Sean Magennis again as former CEO and President of YPO Global, current chair of Aluminide Network, which focuses on making C-suite executives and their executive assistants more productive together. That’s another fabulous episode. I loved recording that one. 

And then also Anthony Vidergauz, former CEO of California Closets who talked about turning a $5,000 investment into a $300 million dollar a year business. So check that one out as well. And a little bit more about Ross. He’s a former freelancer, graphic designer, web designer, turned founder of this company, Nicework, which helps build brands. Founded in 2007, it has worked with global companies like Nike to award-winning cocktail bars. For the last couple years, they have actually focused on NFT’s and Web3. So we’re going to talk a lot about that. And so kind of the business case, whether it’s a good fit for your business or not, when you should be thinking about NF T applications or not. He’s also a podcast or like myself, so check out his podcast One More Question really good. And then also the RadEO podcast, which is coming out with a new season. Very soon.

Of course, this is brought to you by Rise25, my company, where we help b2b businesses get clients, referrals, and strategic partnerships with done-for-you podcasts and content marketing. And you can learn more about us at Alright, Ross, pleasure to have you here. And first, I want to start with you were a creative kid. And growing up in South Africa. And, you know, I love to ask people about how entrepreneurial they were as a kid, and you didn’t have access to a lot of technology, computers, printers, stuff like that. But you had access to one and you had a friend whose mom was a doctor who had access to a photocopier. And I love the application, because you found a way to generate some revenue from that. So tell us a story.

Ross Drakes 2:51

Yes, sir. So I started this business. I mean, I don’t think we would have thought of it as a business at the time with my my best friend, Edward Martin. His mom was a doctor. So she had all of this technology that we thought was amazing. So she had a computer that we could play games on, I think it was the apple two, she had a printer, she had a photocopier. And we thought this was the coolest thing ever. And I was given a Garfield coloring book as a gift. And we figured out that we could photocopy the pages of their coloring book, and then our friends at school would buy them for from us for the the tack shop money. And we had two different offerings. So you could buy just the blank piece of paper, and then you could use your own pens, or you could spend more money and you could use our cookies, and we’d give them 

John Corcoran 3:49

I like how in upsell. That’s great. 

Ross Drakes 3:51

And maquinas memory. Well, there was actually two memories out of this. The first one was, like, I remember getting 50 random notes, which I mean, I think at the moment is less than than $3. But I had 50 Rand in my hand, and I thought this was the most money that any individual had ever held in one place ever. And I was so precious about it that when I went to my extramural activity that afternoon, which was karate, I didn’t want to leave it in my bag because I thought somebody could steal my bag and then I’d lose this 50 Rand so I folded it up and I tucked it into my karate gi but unfortunately at the end of karate, it had somehow fallen naturing that that session and I can actually still to this day, remember the feeling of like loss that I felt when that money had just stuck, disappeared and that was was deeply terrible. So then, you know, not wanting to give up. We kept selling these things and we were building to our next 5050 grand but we got cut off from our photocopier because we made so many photocopies that we burn through all the toner Uh, in Edwards mom’s photocopier. And you can imagine that toner wasn’t very cheap in the 80s, she quickly cut us off from our supply. So we learned a very, you know, kind of valuable business lesson, which is, you know, secure your raw materials. You know, in the long term, I’ll show businesses not not viable. So as soon as we lost access to it was the end of end of that business, which is a bit sad, but you know, you live and you learn,

John Corcoran 5:29

it’s a great lesson. Yeah. And it’s interesting how, like, the visceral pain of losing that 50 ran note, all these many years later, you can still kind of feel it, when you think about it, you know, that pain of that. And it makes you wonder how it kind of like drives us, you know, to get it to get away from that or to overcome it right?

Ross Drakes 5:50

Never, never lose that never, never have that feeling again. Yeah, try and secure it.

John Corcoran 5:57

Now. You were a freelancer for many years, you studied marketing, design, advertising, marketing, graphic design, printmaking, and school, and you did freelancing did different work? Eventually, that evolved into an agency. You know, there’s a lot of people that start out with that kind of work, freelancing, graphic design, but never are able to take it to the next level, build a team. Do you reflecting back on it now? Why do you think that you were able to build it into a larger operation?

Ross Drakes 6:33

So I’m not sure how we managed to do it, but it was, I guess, part of it was just being super, super keen, you know, so we were all like, I was always super keen. And I said yes to a whole bunch of things that didn’t necessarily make sense at the time. But then when you look back, you’re like, oh, there’s a series of of yeses that have led me to this point. And one of those yeses is there was a man called Louie Gavin, who was the co founder of one of our biggest agencies, here in South Africa, Gavin ready. And Gavin already lost one of the massive retailers here as a client, and they were part of TBWA. And TBWA, at the time, thought that it was better to sort of take that agency and roll it into one of the other mass of agencies that they owned. And Louis didn’t want to be part of that. But part of his deal. I’m not sure what the details were. But part of it was that he was given the old office of this agency until the lease ran out. So now Louis had this building, which was designed for 200 people, but nobody in it. And he said to myself, and my future business partner, Donovan, he was like, if you guys want free office space, and desks, you know, all you need to do is work for me for, whatever, 20 hours a week, and this is yours. And we thought, this is a great idea. So we started working in the same space together. And that sort of led to conversations about oh, look at the size of the building that, you know, Louis managed to build, maybe we could build an agency like that. And I can actually remember the night where we, we planned creating Nicework. And we were like, we’re too creative people we studied together, we need a business guy, because we don’t you know, most creative people are like, we don’t want to deal with money, or deadlines, or contracts or like any of that stuff. We just want to be left alone to make beautiful things and change the world with our ideas. So we got our third partner, Ben, and we were all dancing on a dance floor does Anna, you know, in a club as you do when you’re 24, and we were like, Let’s start an agency, and we were like, yes, yes. And then we had some tequila shots, and we kept dancing. And the next morning, we met at a coffee shop. Then we wrote down our business plan, which I’ve got in a file somewhere, which is a single page and all it says is borrow money, buy Macintosh get clients profit. That was that was the logic with which means the business. You know, looking back, it was it was simple and elegant. And what we did is we borrowed money, we bought a Macintosh, we got some clients, and we made profit. Like it wasn’t a phenomenal business. But also weirdly enough our needs and our wants from the business were actually quite low. So survived through those first couple of years because it wasn’t like we suddenly felt we needed an HR department and a big fancy office and we were happy to just sort of hustle it on by but the the business has evolved many times in the 15 years that it’s been alive. So you know, a lot of change

John Corcoran 9:51

during that period of time, right for two, web three and NF Ts and a lot of changes in terms of advertising in terms of Web in terms of media, all those things have

Ross Drakes 10:03

had changed so much. I mean, when we began digital cameras weren’t a thing. You know, if you wanted a photograph you shot on phone, and then you scanned in the print. Like, that’s how you got digital images. And I think this is part of the the latter years of the businesses. I was always very comfortable moving into new pieces of software, new things like as they came up, so I wasn’t like, nervous to play with the technology. But what um, we made a lot of money out of for a long time was building Flash games and Flash animations and flash apps, you know, which doesn’t sound like much now. But back then, there was no YouTube. There were no, there was no streaming video. And Flash was the first piece of software that unlocked this opportunity. And if I look back through our history, we, we were we were offering DVDs for people, we were some of the first people to do 3d animation. We were doing flash, we were building HTML websites, we were doing email as we were just playing with any new technology that sort of came along. And I think part of that, that curiosity, and that excitement is the energy that’s carried the company forward. over the 15 years

John Corcoran 11:19

now, do you remember in the early days, you said you had two creative guys, and you had a business guy? Do you remember where your first clients came from? did? Yeah. Did you have to hop into sales? Obviously, someone who’s able to sell because you got clients, you’re still here?