Founder, Sleekgeek South Africa
Two boys from Johannesburg
Life as an overweight corporate workaholic
Haters gonna hate (“Who are THEY to be in the health & fitness community?”)
James Clear and Atomic Habits
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I am your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Elan Lohmann, founder of Sleekgeek South Africa, a social community of support and motivation for healthy lifestyle goals. Their objective is to inspire one million South Africans to be healthier. I met Elan at King Edwards Prep School in Johannesburg, South Africa in the third grade. We called it Standard One. We’ve known each other since the mid-eighties but we lost touch after we both went to different high schools. I’m delighted to be speaking with Elan today, and looking forward to hearing his story. From Cape Town, South Africa, Elan, welcome, it’s a great pleasure to have you on the podcast.
ELAN LOHMANN: Hi Ivan. It’s really great to be here with you and with your community.
IVAN: It’s just so great to be catching up with you. It’s like, been so long. [laughing] Isn’t this amazing that we can do this?
ELAN: I can still remember playing at your house. I remember you had that big, double-story house in—was it Northcliff?
IVAN: It was in Northcliff.
ELAN: Yeah, and I remember that Northcliff Tower. That was kind of like the landmark when I knew that I was coming to visit. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] Yeah, that was a way to go.
ELAN: That was a lifetime ago.
IVAN: It feels like a lifetime ago, right?
IVAN: Wow. Yeah, I remember you playing Cricket at KEPS and I remember you focusing on your scholarship exam at the end of KEPS, and I think you were trying to get into either St. Stithians or St. John’s? I can’t remember which one.
ELAN: It was St. John’s and I did get the scholarship thank goodness, so that allowed me to have a topnotch education, even though my parents couldn’t quite afford it at the time. So, I was very fortunate in that, and that gave me a good foundation for life, I think.
IVAN: Yeah, I think so too, and the education we had in South Africa was pretty amazing. I ended up at Greenside High School and just had the best experience there. And just my wife keeps mentioning, “You guys had such a great experience in South Africa.” I’m like, “I know.” It was amazing.
ELAN: Absolutely. There are a lot of amazing things about this country.
IVAN: Yeah. So, I want to start with Sleekgeek, which is a great name. You started this as a passion project seven or so years ago. You gave up a cushy, corporate executive job and kind of just went headlong into a new direction. So, what I want to know is: tell me about the corporate job you had just before starting Sleekgeek, and what led you to that moment when you realized, “Hey man. I need a change.”
ELAN: Sure. Okay. So, the first part of your question, what was the corporate job that I last did, well, the preamble to that is, I spent 10 years working in corporate media, and I had been the General Manager of News 24, which is the largest news website in South Africa. I think in America you might call that the "Publisher." Then my last job was at the Sunday Times Group. It’s called Avusa, and it’s a big media group. It owns the Sunday Times, the Financial Mail here in South Africa, Business Times, a range of publications as well as other media properties, cinemas, and bookstores, like a Barnes & Noble kind of equivalent. And so it’s a massive media group, and I was the group executive for digital. So, that was my last gig. And at that stage I was your average, typical, corporate workaholic, and I was overweight for most of my adult life. I used to work way into the night and never log off. I chain smoked for 16½ years.
IVAN: Oh my gosh.
ELAN: I didn’t cook myself a meal for my whole working career. I didn’t know exercise, and even though as you mentioned, I was fairly sporty at school, that kind of all stopped when I finished school, and what happens to a lot of people, I think, is they go into their working career university—not me, I didn’t get married and have kids, but a lot of people do that and they end up losing their health in the process, because it’s just not their focus and their priority. So, I found myself at age 35 and I looked at my life and I thought, You know what? This isn’t the life that I dreamed of. When I was young the life that I pictured was quite different to what this was, and I turned around and realized that I just spent all my time literally only focusing on my career and moving up the corporate ladder.
Everything was lopsided and I'd neglected relationships in my life, I'd neglected family, I'd neglected my health. It’s strange though, it wasn’t some kind of big bang epiphany, it actually started out of vanity. At age 35 I was due to go to Zanzibar on a holiday with my then-girlfriend, and I was thinking, Okay, we’re going to spend 10 days in Zanzibar at a beach resort, pretty much in swimming costumes, and looking in the mirror I felt like I looked like a beached whale [laughing], no offense to the whales. But the thing was, jokes aside, I actually was quite ashamed of myself, because when you are overweight or unhealthy, you don’t really focus on that. No one looks in the mirror and admires themselves and goes, Wow, man. You really got overweight.
IVAN: [laughing] You avoid looking in the mirror, right?
ELAN: Exactly. I had tattoos that I’d forgotten that I had. No jokes. And the thing is that I actually took a long hard look at myself, and I’m quite a competitive person, and at the time, I had seen there was a New York Times Best Seller called, Body for Life, and the Body for Life was a challenge where some American guy had put up his Ferrari and said, “Whoever takes this 12-week challenge and changes their body, goes into line for this Ferrari.” And that kind of captured my imagination.
I thought, you know what, It was like a Thursday, and I put out a tweet, in those days Twitter was big in my community, we were like the early adopters of Twitter in those days before it had gone to the mass market, and so I had a little network of geeks on Twitter, [laughing] and I put it out and I said, “Guys," (it was only six weeks till I was going to Zanzibar) I said on Monday, "I’m starting this challenge. Put 500 Rand (approximately $34 US) in the kitty. The winner's going to take the money. Let’s see who can get the best results in six weeks. We all submit our "before" photos, we take some measurements, we weigh ourselves, and we’ll get one of our friends, who’s like a gym bunny kind of guy, to be the judge.” About 10 of my friends said, “We’re in.” So, it was me and my 10 friends. This is like the classical kind of startup story.
IVAN: Oh, yeah. And you were still working your job at Avusa. Right?
ELAN: Yeah. I was still a busy corporate executive. So, we did the six-week challenge and I lost about eight or nine kilograms in that challenge.
IVAN: So, pause, eight or nine kilograms, for those of you listening, that’s probably around 18-20 pounds, something like that?
ELAN: Yeah. Let’s say 18 pounds.
IVAN: 2.2. Right?
ELAN: Yeah, let’s say around 18 pounds.
IVAN: Eighteen pounds. Okay.
ELAN: Yeah. So, that wasn’t huge, but it was enough to feel quite different about my trip. Then I realized at that time someone had told me Paleo is the thing, and you just got to cut out grains and dairy and sugar and carbohydrates, and you’re going to lose weight. And I’d never heard this before, no one had ever told me that that was an option. So, I tried it and it worked for me. I don’t do that anymore but that’s how I started my journey. Because all that did was just made me eat whole foods and reduce my overall consumption and stop eating junk.
And then I went to Zanzibar with my girlfriend at the time, and I was sitting there and I’m thinking, You know what? I’m actually enjoying this. Why don’t I just avoid alcohol during the day. Instead of having 10 cocktails poolside during the day, why don’t I just make a rule that I could have some alcohol at night if I want, but during the day I’ll drink water. And why don’t I make a rule—because there was a gym at the resort—why don’t I just make a rule that I’ll spend 45 minutes each day in that gym and sweat a bit, and why don’t I just try and avoid carbohydrates and I can have as much protein and vegetables as I like.
And, in Zanzibar they have beautiful fish and seafood.
IVAN: That’s in Tanzania, right?
ELAN: Yeah. And I realized it’s idyllic there. I realized I can actually enjoy myself, have a wonderful holiday, not feel deprived, and still keep up on my journey.
Then to cut a long story short, I came back to South Africa, and my friends were like—oh, I left out the part what the embryo of Sleekgeek was. I decided with those 10 friends how are we going to communicate with each other. And I thought, well at that time, Facebook had just launched groups, they weren’t really a thing. People were mainly using pages in those days, but pages are more designed to talk at people rather than talk with them. So, groups are more about conversation. Pages are more for brands to talk to audiences. So, I started a group where we could talk to each other and I had to name it—and your next question is probably like, “Where did Sleekgeek come from?”
IVAN: Yeah, I’m very curious.
ELAN: So, at that time in South Africa, the early adopters of the tech community, like let’s say your South African equivalent of Silicon Valley, we referred to ourselves as "geeks" rather than "nerds."
IVAN: Yeah, I remember that. [laughing]
ELAN: And so, there was a whole range of things going on at that time. There was a cricket league called Geek Cricket, and there was a weekend away that we called Geek Retreat. So, the word "geek" in my life at that point was fairly topical.
IVAN: And positive as well, right?
ELAN: Yeah, exactly. You know what it’s like, you click on Start Group [In Facebook] and then it asks you to name it. So, literally in two seconds I just thought, Ok, well I’m the geek and I want to be sleek, so let’s call this thing Sleekgeek.
ELAN: At that point there was no motive to start a consumer brand. I probably wouldn’t have called it "Sleekgeek" had I been trying to brainstorm a name that was intuitive, because even though a lot of people have enjoyed the name, I think if you’re going to have a word that isn’t little to what you’re doing, it should probably have no meaning, because otherwise it could throw people off what the product really is. So, it’s not ideal. When we passed about 3,000 members we did sit down and seriously consider renaming it to something more intuitive around health and wellness. But we realized that people who had nothing to do with technology actually were loving the name [laughing]. They were already referring to themselves as “Sleeks,” and so we decided let’s just roll with it. That’s how Sleekgeek was created. So, I came back from Zanzibar and people said to me, “You've got to do another challenge man!” And then we had 20 people who signed up, and then we had 50, and now eight years later we have on average about 1,000 people who sign up for a challenge, and we do it three times a year.
IVAN: Wow. Three times a year. Wow, that’s a lot of people that you are influencing and helping and taking on their own journeys. That’s amazing.
ELAN: Sure. We’re a small market compared to the States. I think if I had the equivalent product there, we’d have 10,000, but for a South African market we’ve got an audience of well over 100,000 at the moment, and in this market that’s quite a big audience. I know in the States you have people on Instagram who have like a million followers, but we do have quite a small internet market in South Africa.
IVAN: But, that’s just the start. How long have you been in business then?
ELAN: So, the first year, I just did it on the side.
IVAN: As a passion project, right?
ELAN: I still carried on at my job as a corporate executive. All it meant that in my breaks and everything I was constantly on social media talking to my community. Then at the point where we passed about 1,000 members, that’s when I decided to cash in my chips and leave corporate and do the Sleekgeek thing full-time.
IVAN: That’s a ballsy thing to do, Elan.
ELAN: Well, everyone thought I was nuts. [laughing] I was earning really well, and things were looking really good in my career, and a lot of my friends and people around me thought that I’d kind of lost my marbles. But people often say to me, that took a lot of guts and that was ballsy, but in a way, I feel like I didn’t have a choice. Sometimes in life there are things that choose you and you don’t choose them, and that’s kind of how I felt about it. Like, I didn’t have any fear around it. I just felt like this is something that I really want to do, whatever the consequences. And luckily, I had a years’ worth of living costs saved up.
ELAN: And I just thought, what am I going to do with that? Am I going to buy a bigger house or a bigger car? Let me just take this and buy myself a sabbatical. Well, you know that sabbatical eight years later. [laughing].
IVAN: [laughing] It’s turned into a booming business that you have— 100,000 South Africans that are participating. That’s a great story.
ELAN: Thanks man.
IVAN: So, you packed it in.
ELAN: When we had 1,000 members, yeah.
IVAN: When you had a years’ worth, and 1,000 members.
ELAN: And I had to sell my convertible.
IVAN: Aw...what kind of convertible did you have to sell?
ELAN: I had the Lexus convertible. [laughing]
IVAN: You know what? It’s just a convertible, right?
ELAN: Exactly. I sold the convertible and my uncle had a rust bucket 1969 Volvo, and I bought that from him for basically nothing. And I drove that for about two and a half years. I did the archetypal entrepreneur where you would kind of, give the whole stuff up and make sacrifices. Then one day I decided, you know what, I don’t want to be a charity case. I don’t want to ask for handouts. We’re going to make this thing commercially viable, and I've been just focusing on doing that.
IVAN: Were you living in Cape Town at the time of your job? So, you didn’t relocate anywhere, you just continued to be in Cape Town?
ELAN: Sure. For my last job I was commuting. Johannesburg is, for the audience who don’t know, it’s a two-hour flight, and the company that I was working for in Johannesburg, were commuting me, I was leaving every Monday morning on the first flight out and coming home every Thursday night. I did that for about two years.
IVAN: That must’ve been killer, Elan.
ELAN: You know what? In a way it was strange, because when I lived in Cape Town and worked in Cape Town, I used to work weekends all the time, but when I did the commuting, Monday to Thursday I worked my ass off, and then Friday I was a little more chilled, and I treated the weekend as a holiday. So, in a kind of strange way, it kind of partitioned my life and almost made every weekend in Cape Town, which as you would know, an absolutely beautiful place that people come on holiday to. It made every weekend like a holiday. So, in a weird kind of way, it actually worked pretty well for me.
IVAN: I’ve seen online that you are actually the cofounder of Sleekgeek. Is that correct? Because I’ve seen someone else as a part of the business. How did that turn out?
ELAN: Okay. So, my partner Eric, the story is, Eric is about 15 years younger than me, but about 15 years wiser than me [laughing]. Eric is one of those guys, he’s young but he’s just way beyond his years in intelligence and wisdom. And finding him was an absolute gem. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without him. So, I started Sleekgeek and Eric came to me about a month and a half into it. He found the community when we just started, and he said, “Look, I’m a student. I’d like to help you out. I’ve got a bit of technology; do you need some help with your website?” I said, “Sure, but I can’t pay you anything. I can try and give you some pocket money.”
He started helping me while he was still studying, and eventually when we started to generate a bit of revenue, I said, “Well, you know, I can’t really pay you, but I’ll give you 10% of everything we make as a thank you.” Then eventually when he graduated, he said, “Look, I’d like to start working full time for Sleekgeek and see where that goes.” So, he came into full-time employment, and over time I said to him, “Look, I want to do this with you. I’d like you to have some equity in the business.” And we worked out an equity agreement so that he has a share in the future, and we have profit sharing and all that kind of thing, and I also said, “Because you were there right from day one and because every single decision that I’ve made around this business, we’ve consulted on, and because so many of the really great things we’ve done have been like your ideas, I’m happy for you to refer to yourself as the cofounder of Sleekgeek, quite comfortably.”
ELAN: I refer to myself actually as the founder, which I am. I’m the original vampire.
IVAN: You’re the original McCoy, right? The Big Kahuna.
ELAN: I gave birth to the thing. If it wasn't for me there would be no Sleekgeek. So, I am the founder, but if it wasn’t for Eric, Sleekgeek wouldn’t be so amazing. So, he’s my cofounder.
IVAN: That’s a great way to look at it. So, just for our listeners, you referred to "pocket money" earlier. So, that would be the equivalent of an allowance here. So, going from allowance to equity ownership, that’s a great story.
ELAN: Sure. And you know the thing is, I debated, there’s a lot of questions around when you give people equity should they have to pay for it, or sweat equity, there’s all these different topics, but with Eric I was quite comfortable that he earned it through his sweat.
It’s quite a thing to wake up one day and realize you don’t have 100% of your company anymore. I actually woke up feeling good about it, so that told me it was the right decision.
And honestly, I’ve said this to Eric many times, I wouldn’t want to do this without him. Sometimes I think partnerships aren’t always easy, but sometimes you find your soulmate in a partnership, and I think I found that in Eric, in a sense that we are very different people, but we complement each other. He's much more rational and considered. Eric’s the kind of guy, you know when you ask someone to think about something, 99% of the people, they don’t really think about it. He will think about it. If you ask him to consider something, he will come back with a considered thought-out response, looked at every angle. They are very few people, I think we’re living in a society—I’ve just listened to that audiobook from Cal Newport called Deep Work.
IVAN: Oh yeah. That’s a great book.
ELAN: Yeah. And I think that we are definitely living in a world where people have just become so distracted that people are just living in the shallows, and everyone’s just giving minimal attention, doing the bare minimum. Even when people debate political ideas or people get into debates where they don’t even bother to really look at the details. And Eric is just one of those rare people who tends to go deep on everything. It complements me [laughing] because I’m kind of the cheerleader. I cheer people on. I’m the show pony. I’m kind of like the charismatic leader in the community. And he makes sure that we have the depth and the quality.
IVAN: It sounds like you have the relationship that a classic CEO and COO would need to have, and the CEO is the frontrunner, the show pony, as you said, and the COO is kind of the rational, “let’s actually make it happen operationally, what the CEO promised,” and those are hard to find, those relationships.
IVAN: It feels like you guys are succeeding though.
ELAN: Yeah. I think what’s made it great is that we often disagree on things, and that gets us to a better solution. So, it really helps that we see things differently and we course correct each other and we’re not afraid to say, “I don’t think that’s the right answer,” because we know that we’re ultimately going to get to a better answer. So, that’s worked really well for us, the fact that we are so different. But, actually in your analogy of the CEO and the COO, I must say even though it’s hard to call your business a "startup" when it’s eight years old, but I’ve really had to get back into the grind, and it’s humbled me in a sense that when I was a cushy corporate I had hundreds of people under me to do the actual work. I was at that strategic level where you get paid for the ideas and solving of the problems, you don’t get paid for doing the operational grind.
IVAN: The hard work, right? Yeah, the grind.
ELAN: But in a small startup like this, where we’re very limited on capacity, I’ve had to really, over the last eight years, get immersed in the daily grind, almost too much. I don’t feel like I get to work on the business enough, yet we’re still in that kind of phase. So, that’s also been quite humbling, but what it has taught me is, one thing that I did have a problem with when I was in my corporate life, even though I was quite successful, I always battled procrastination and work productivity.
I used to get things done at the last minute. Eventually I’d get them done well, but I wasted a lot of time. I said I was a workaholic, and I think I was unnecessarily a workaholic, because I didn’t get the work done in the time that I had, and that resulted in me having to work late into the night. I wish I’d known then what I know now, because I’ve become so much more efficient and effective—because obviously you know efficiency and effectiveness are two different things—but I’ve become much better at getting things done efficiently and I’ve become much better at focusing on what really matters.
I made a promise to myself when I left corporate that if I’m going to run and own a health organization, I'd better practice what I preach. I’ve got to live a balanced life. So, I challenged myself to be able to build my empire and build my dream in reasonable working hours. And I’ve stuck to that, because I didn’t want to buy into the whole idea that if you want to be an entrepreneur you’ve got to burn it at both ends. I’m trying to make it happen within a reasonable balanced life.
IVAN: Yeah. I totally agree. Everything you’ve said makes a lot of sense. You should have a good healthy work-life focus. And burning it on both ends just doesn’t make sense, and it’s not healthy. And, it’s not healthy as an example to your community or to your employees. You should be modeling that behavior and I agree with that.
And, I have to say, I really appreciate your honesty and your authenticity. I think your vulnerability is infectious. I’ve seen the videos that you’ve put online, and you were just talking about how you didn’t like what you saw in the mirror. That kind of stuff is impressive. How do you deal with the negativity and the haters and the people that come after you, who are just trolls, really? How do you deal with that?
ELAN: Okay, well. Either I’m not famous enough, or I’m too likeable, but I can’t say that I’ve had to encounter [laughing]…
IVAN: [laughing] It’s the last one. It’s not that you’re not famous, because you will be famous. It’s you’re too likeable.
ELAN: I’m not really a polarizing type of person, which probably counts against me, because a lot of people who’ve attained major success as social media icons are fairly polarizing and controversial. You’ve got to have a little bit of crazy in you. I'm quite a balanced—I don’t anger or upset people, but where I have found some resistance is in the health and fitness community. There are people, like personal trainers or gym owners, who look at us and they think, “Who are these guys? That guy's like an ex-corporate media hack. What right does he have to own this community?” And, I think there is some kind of envy or jealousy, because to build a community of this size and to keep it going, it’s a lot of hard work, and people who are in the health and fitness community, they don’t have that skillset. So, often they look at what we do, and I think there's some kind of envy around that, so, we have gotten a bit of flak over the years, but I think over the years we’ve also earned a lot of respect, because one thing that Sleekgeek is known for is, we trade in trust and reliable information. So, in the health industry there’s a lot of BS out there, man.
IVAN: Yeah, there really is.
ELAN: It kind of upsets me, because the guys with the BS are owning ten times more money than I am, but we like to sleep well at night, and we’re an ethical business across the board. We believe in happy money. We only want to make money where both parties are happy and are served. It’s been hard because we’re up against Instagrammers who just show a bit of tits and ass and sell a meal plan, which is never really going to work in the long term. And that’s what we’re up against in the consumer space.
I should’ve actually mentioned that we’ve got a freemium model; 99% of what we do, we give away for free. I decided from day one that I want people to have access to good support and good information. So a lot of people have criticized us for giving away too much. At the end of the day I want people to have access to that help and support, so people can change their lives in our community without ever paying me a cent. I don’t know where I was going with this. Where did we start? I’ve gone off on a total tangent.
IVAN: [laughing] Well, we started off on the haters and the trolls. But I kind of like where you went with this, because it speaks to the business model, right? So, you’re talking about freemium. How do you actually make money? Is it on the challenges? What does the business model look like?
ELAN: Well, first of all, the challenges which we run three times a year, people pay an entry. So, the average price for an entry, whether you’re an early bird or full price, that saves about 500 Rands. So, what’s that?
IVAN: In U.S. dollars, that’s about $35.00.
ELAN: Yeah, our currency’s really weak. But would it be quite cheap for you to pay $35.00 to enter an eight-week health transformation challenge?
IVAN: Oh my God. That’d be so cheap for eight weeks of a challenge? $35.00? Absolutely. That would be very cheap. For eight weeks, I think I would expect maybe $100.00.
ELAN: Okay, well people pay $35.00 here and a lot people actually find that hard to afford. But, it’s basically a weight loss competition where we’ve got 100,000 Rands' worth of prizes. We give people eating plans, training plans. So, essentially, we’re talking about the business model, so I won’t go into what that product is, but essentially that product probably earns us about 70% of our annual income.
We don’t deal too much with advertising, because we don’t really want to over advertise to our audience. But we have one or two key partnerships. Adidas is our anchor sponsor at the moment, and they pay us a monthly retainer. Then we are certified with Precision Nutrition, which is to my mind, one of the best nutrition companies in the world. They’re based in Canada and we certified with them.
We licensed the Learner Management System, and we teach their Nutrition System, which we feel is really one of the best nutrition systems out there. It’s been peer reviewed in scientific journals. And what we like about it is, it’s very agnostic, and it’s not very polarizing. It’s a habit-based approach to health. We try and teach people healthy habits, because we don’t believe that meal plans and diets and these kind of things really work, because they don’t fit into peoples’ real lives. Life is messy, man.
IVAN: Yeah, it really is.
ELAN: And in a messy real life you can only make those kind of diet plans work under perfect conditions and for a very limited period of time. Unfortunately, a lot of people, the only way they know how to lose weight, is a way that’s not sustainable. If you said to me, “Yeah, Elan, I know how to lose 10 kilograms, I just run 10Ks every day and eat 1,500 calories,” I’d be “That’s great.” But how are you ever going to sustain that for more than a couple of weeks? So, you don’t really know how to lose 10 kilograms. It doesn’t really work.
[laughing] So, we try and teach people healthy habits around portion control, around intuitively knowing how to construct a healthy meal, and just being able to survive life. We deal a lot with mindset because, for the most part, people, if they can solve a couple of their bad habits, like late-night snacking, or emotional eating, or overconsumption of alcohol, those are the things that generally really set people back. But we believe as a change model, we believe in a habit-based approach. I don’t know if you know James Clear?
IVAN: No, I don’t. Tell me about James Clear.
ELAN: You'd better go check out James Clear; you’re going to fall in love.
IVAN: [laughing] Ok. Good.
ELAN: So, James Clear, his blog is amazing. His emails are incredible, you should really subscribe. But James Clear has the Habits Academy, and he’s pioneered a habit-based approach to change. It’s basically saying small incremental change versus "big bang" kind of change. But the way he lays it out, he’s got a great book called....
IVAN: Atomic Habits.
ELAN: Yeah. Man, it’ll blow your mind. He’s just got a way of explaining things in such a simple, consumable way. His emails are really brilliant.
IVAN: I just subscribed.
ELAN: Yeah, he’s actually changed his email style at the moment, and he’s saying that he’s trying to give the most value per word out of any email out there. So, what he’s doing now is, he’s sending an email where it’s not long, but it is just mind-blowing power. So, look forward to that.
So, yeah, we love James Clear, and so we take a habit-based approach to health. The unfortunate truth, guys, if you want to improve your health, is that it takes work and it’s a lifelong pursuit, just like anything else in life worth having. It’s like a relationship—each day you choose it. You know what’ll happen in your marriage if you didn’t show up each day. It’s the same thing.
IVAN: The same thing. And, I love the amount of effect you’re having on South Africans. When are you going global?
ELAN: You know what? I would love to go global. There are a few things that I’m trying to figure out. One, I think we’re still in an R&D phase eight years later of trying to figure out what the product really is. We’ve created something that isn’t really—like I don’t know anything like it out there. For example, when you create a news website you know what other news websites look like. You know what the business model is. You know what everyone else is doing. So, we’re still trying to figure out what the real business model is, one. And two, at the moment, the localization works in a sense that when people are in a discussion, when they’re talking to people who are similar to them, it’s more of a shared experience.
I don’t know why, but it looks like my lights just went out. Okay, wait. No, it seems my power is on. Okay. You can still hear me clearly, right?
IVAN: For those of you listening, Cape Town has something called brown outs every now and again. Is that what’s going on right now?
ELAN: It’s just weird, maybe something tripped. I can see my laptop plug light is on, so we can just keep going, just ignore that.
IVAN: Keep going.
ELAN: I’m sitting here in the dark. As I look to the right, I can see dark clouds and orange over the ocean. I’m very lucky to live on the beachfront here in Cape Town. I’ve travelled a lot in my life, and if you ever can get to Cape Town guys, it’s a beautiful place to be.
IVAN: Whereabout are you? Are you in Green Point or Sea Point?
ELAN: I’m in Mouille Point, so basically you know where the lighthouse is?
IVAN: Mouille Point. Oh. Yeah.
ELAN: I’m just by the lighthouse there, on the promenade.
IVAN: Wow. Nice. Very nice.
ELAN: So, we were saying?
IVAN: We were talking about what is keeping you from going global? One is the product, and you were going to talk about the localization.
ELAN: Yes. Okay. So, I think the local relevance does matter in terms of community, and we’ve often thought how we would build out other communities and other territories, and replicate the experience. But because it kind of grew organically the way it did, I don’t kind of have the blueprint to make that happen in another territory as of yet.
We could take our challenge and I could white label that and give it to you tomorrow. But the point is, it still needs a marketing model, and our marketing model has been to create community, and that’s how we generate interest in it. And, that’s how we generate trust as well, because a lot of weight loss kind of products or whatever, there’s a lot of mistrust. So, we first earn people's trust, and then they’re happy to engage with it.
Then also, having said that, we're short in capacity, we’re still running at break even, and I barely have enough capacity to make things work in this territory. But I do sometimes think to myself, Am I thinking big enough? But, you know what does interest me, Ivan, about your markets—and maybe we can talk about this offline—is, if you ask me how am I going to scale my business, which is always the question, I would say, if you’d asked me in my corporate days, pre-Sleekgeek, if I was going to start a business one day, what would I do? I would’ve said, 99%, I would've said that it would be a business-to-business [B to B] business, not a business-to-consumer [B to C] business. So, I accidentally ended up starting a business-to-consumer business, which is a real grind. And I think the future of Sleekgeek lies in the business-to-business in a corporate health and wellness model. My problem there is I can’t figure out the product. We can take a lot of what we know and a lot of what we learned and transfer that to corporate. But it’s a very different beast in a sense that, people who come to us, they are looking for a solution, they want change. In a corporate setting, the staff there weren’t really asking for the change, and when it’s thrust upon them, it’s a very different animal to deal with. And so, in my research, a lot of the products that I’ve seen out there in the corporate space, I don’t believe that they are effective, and I want to do something that’s going to make real change. So, that’s why I’m a little bit stuck at the moment.
I have seen, actually in the States—I can’t remember the names—one or two companies who look to be doing it really well, but they’re very tech-driven. So, my frustration right now is, I just don’t have the budget to build tech and to maintain it. And so that’s where I’m a little bit stuck. But I definitely think the answer for our future is to sustain and grow this business in creating a corporate workplace wellness model that is effective and really serves people. So, that’s really what I spend my days thinking about at the moment.
IVAN: Yeah. So, one of the angles is, do you think the angle of the corporate approach, the B-to-B approach, is because you feel like you can’t be you in every B-to-C market across the globe? You can’t replicate Elan to motivate everyone in every single state in the United States, and Canada and Europe. Is that part of the nut you’re trying to crack?
ELAN: Partially. I would say it’s hard to become a world phenomenon from South Africa, because ultimately you know there’s a ripple effect. You want to be in a big market and get that ripple effect, but that’s not really the reason. The reason is, from a strategy perspective, my reasoning is that we’ve been very reliant, our community is mainly based in Facebook. And over the eight years we’ve been riding the Facebook algorithm rollercoaster. It’s had its good times and it's had its bad times, but it’s always unpredictable, and that always makes me feel uneasy.
IVAN: Yeah, that’s a risk, right.
ELAN: It’s a massive risk, but at the same time I would never have been able to build a brand so easily and so cheaply had it not been for Facebook. So, it’s been swings and roundabouts, but it is a high risk. We do have a newsletter; we’ve got 30,000 subscribers to our newsletter opted in. We do have a website where we have about 30,000 unique visitors a month. So, not all the eggs are just in the Facebook basket, and we still haven’t quite figured out Instagram. But Facebook is where our community lives, and so, what I thought to myself is, If I can create a really effective workplace product, then I’m immune to what Facebook does or doesn’t do. Because then I’m going to be judged on the track record and the testimony and the success of the product that I create. So, that makes me feel more solid against those kind of external forces. I would say that’d be my main reason. We’re a community-based business and we always will be, because the community gives us reputation and leads and goodwill. And most of the leads for the corporate workplace stuff is going to be in my community itself.
Community is what will always be as our DNA, but my kind of dream for the future is to almost build a really solid business model alongside, which can subsidize the community and help us give even more away for free, is probably the way I’d see it. We’d never abandon the community at all, but I just feel that trying to fund the community through the community, you know we’ve been chugging away for eight years now, and we’re still running at breakeven. That’s been hard. From going from a place of such financial security, now literally every quarter I’m wondering if I’m going to be around for the next quarter, and that can be quite stressful. It’s a different kind of stress.
IVAN: It definitely is. I think we need to talk a little bit offline and see what kind of collaboration or synergy, or I don’t know what other word you want to use, but there might be something we can do together. Let’s talk about that offline.
We have been talking for a long time and I love it.
ELAN: It feels like five minutes. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] It does feel like five minutes, but it’s been 45 already, and so we’re going to have to wrap it up here in just a little bit here.
IVAN: We’ve kind of talked about what you see Sleekgeek evolving into and the challenges of going global and getting bigger, and so on. I just want to go back a little bit before you started your corporate world. We mentioned St. John’s at the beginning of the episode and that we went to school together and prep school, I never asked you about where you ended up at University and what did you study? I’m curious to know what you studied and how you got into media, and if you’re using any of that today in business.
ELAN: Okay. Well, that’s an interesting question, because after school I did something quite unconventional in those days. Most people in South Africa they just went straight from school to University, or college I think as it’s called on your side. And basically, I did something unconventional, I went and decided I was going to backpack for a year. I went to Israel, I was on a kibbutz, and when I left South Africa there wasn’t much crime, it was just post-elections in 1994. And I went off to Israel, and during that year crime became quite a hot thing in South Africa. And when I returned at the end of 1995, I decided that because Johannesburg was such a crime hotspot, I didn’t want to study there anymore.
So, the original plan was to go to the University in Johannesburg and study sports psychology. Then my sister had this great idea. She said, “Why don’t you study journalism? You’re really good at English and you love history, and all these things. The Bachelor of Arts side of things, you’re quite good at that, why don’t you go and do that?” In Grahamstown, Rhodes University specialized and that was the only place you could study journalism in South Africa.
IVAN: That’s true.
ELAN: So, I went there, and for those of your audience who wouldn’t know, Grahamstown is a small little town in the middle of nowhere, where it’s literally just thousands of students wanting to party; isolated in this little beautiful town.
IVAN: And wine, lots of wine. Right?
ELAN: It was in the Guinness Book of World Records for alcohol consumption. So, anyway, that’s where I studied journalism, and I also did psychology and political science. But what was really fortunate for me was, it was kind of the time where the browsed web started to become a thing, back in the day of HTML One and blue links and HTML frames.
IVAN: Oh my gosh, frames, yes. [laughing]
ELAN: Exactly, where we all learned on Web Monkey [an online tutorial website back in 90s] how to code.
ELAN: And so, actually I went, and I worked at Web Monkey for a while. Anyway, that’s another story for another day.
So, anyway, in Grahamstown in my journalism school, we were the first ever class to start a new program called Cyber Publishing: How to Use the Internet for Journalism. We learned how to build websites, and do all these cool things back in the day when you would write websites in Notepad, and you would still have to code image maps. There were no real tools available. Back in the days where Photoshop didn’t really even have layers and you only had one undo.
IVAN: [laughing] Exactly. I remember that.
ELAN: [laughing] Exactly. So, basically it was quite a new thing and that was very lucky for me. I started my career at Sunday Times, which is our biggest Sunday publication in South Africa, they had a website. And I said to them, “Listen, I’m graduating from journalism. I’ve got these skills. I want to come work for you.” They said, “Well, we don’t have a job for you. We’ve got a job freeze.” I said, “I’ll work for free.” I went there and within six months I totally recreated their website, their product, turned everything upside down, and they offered me a really decent job.
At that point, when they offered me a starting salary I said, “No, no, no, you can’t offer me what you’re offering the journalists. I’ve got specialized skills.” And so, I started off in a good package and that was very fortuitous, because in those days the older media management type people, they didn’t understand technology, they feared it. They feared the internet, and none of them really knew anything about it, so it allowed me to get to the board room very quickly at the age of 25, 26. I was running the online department and it allowed me to sit in management meetings, where if I had gone into print journalism or if I’d gone into radio, or gone into TV, I would’ve had to do years of doing my time and paying my dues.
So, that helped me to leapfrog my career very quickly. So, yeah, did I use my journalism skills? Not at all. I’ll tell you why. I realized that I was going to be poor if I tried to be a journalist. I decided I’m going to be the person who pays the journalists. And, so straightaway, right from the beginning, I went into a commercial role where my job was to run the business and to make sure that the business was profitable and to make sure that the strategy was in place.
So, right from the beginning I went into the commercial side of things, and always had a team of journalists and media people working for me. So, I obviously used my media knowledge in terms of understanding media, but I never ever worked a day as a journalist or a reporter. And it was always funny, because you know, our parents back in the day, my Mom always used to tell everyone I was a journalist. I’m like, “Mom, I’m not a journalist.” [laughing] She never really got what I did. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] That’s so funny. I’m so glad to have spent this time with you catching up and finding out so much about Sleekgeek. It’s been great.
ELAN: Me too, man. I’m sorry I didn’t get to find out about you. We’ve got to do an online, off-podcast conversation so I can find out a little bit more about your life.
IVAN: I think that would be great. I’d love to do that.
ELAN: Good, good, good, good.
IVAN: Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. It’s really been a great pleasure talking with you.
ELAN: Sure. Can I leave your audience with one message?
IVAN: Yes, please do!
ELAN: Guys, this is the message that I learned, and this is what my passion is: life is better when you’re healthy. If you want to be a better employee. If you want to be a better entrepreneur, you want to be a better partner, you want to be a better parent, you want to be a better all-around human being, health is the real wealth and life is better when you’re healthy.
IVAN: I love it. Thank you, Elan.
IVAN: Elan Lohmann is founder of Sleekgeek South Africa, a social community of support and motivation for your healthy lifestyle goals. You can find them online at sleekgeek.co.za, or as they say in South Africa, sleekgeek.co.zed-a. And on Facebook as sleekgeek. They’re also on Twitter and Instagram as @sleekgeeksa. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.