Fast technological changes over the past two decades have compelled companies to stay abreast of developments in order to stay ahead and becompetitive. To make that possible, many companies have always relied on digital partners with cutting-edge expertise to remain relevant. One such digital partner company is Liquid Thought, a digital innovation agency founded by Zulfiq Isaacs 21 years ago, back when there were few players in the market to beginwith. The company remains as relevant and innovative today as it was back then. During the early days of the internet revolution in South Africa, its work helped several companies develop their first web and mobile
platforms. Today, it helps its Clients, many of which are leading brands, to achieve their digital ambition by enabling their digital journeys and getting them toembrace Web 3.0 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What has enabled Isaacs to maintain Liquid Thought as a digital leader through both good and bad times?
Below, he shares some of his business secrets with Fast Company (SA). His insights will prove valuable to both start-ups and established companies that need to stay focused when confronting digital disruption.
Inception (The first seven years)
Isaacs founded Liquid Thought in 2001. It was a difficult period in which to start a tech business because of distrust at the time for such ventures by the investment community. Fears of a so-called tech bubble were real, with most tech companies not delivering investment returns. In South Africa, support for tech businesses was limited. The first African tech incubator, Bandwidth Barn, was among a handful of hubs providing tech business support and growing this nascent community back then.
Venture capitalists were an endangered species – unlike today, where there’s no shortage of support and investment for technology companies. On his decision to proceed with Liquid Thought, Isaacs explains: “I had fire in my belly”. It was the kind of fire that is hard to extinguish and acts as both a catalyst and fuel for anentrepreneurial journey. He had a strong belief in his vision and this carried him through. It helped that at more or less the same time, Mark Shuttleworth wasmaking tech entrepreneurship cool in South Africa that provided Isaacs with inspiration. He had exited his first tech start-up (Thawte) for hundredsof millions of dollars, a move widely hailed as a major success. One of the first Bandwidth Barn boardrooms was named after Shuttleworth.
Just as Liquid Thought was starting to walk on its own, the world was hit by the 2008 financial crisis. The financial squeeze pushed companies towards open-source models because these did not require expensive licences or support. This major shift posed a threat to Microsoft and partner businesses, including Liquid Thought.
How did Isaacs handle this? In a masterstroke, he pivoted Liquid Thought towards becoming an entity less married to a specific vendor. This kept it going when others were losing business due to the shift from proprietary companies, such as Microsoft, to open-source solutions. It did not help that most advertising agencies were starting to offer digital solutions as well.
According to Isaacs, the shift from a software engineering- to a more integrated innovation-led company gave Liquid Thought an edge. This type of agility when dealing with rapid technological developments is considered key to dealing with such changes, which can severely disrupt or destroy companies.
It is safe to say that Liquid Thought is now a mature digital agency. The company has several leading corporates among its clients. According to Isaacs, it can now back the claim – made on its website (www. liquidthought.co.za) – that it’s a “next generation digital innovation agency”, one not born yesterday but “hard at work shaping leading brands in the digital economy since 2001”.
Into the Future
The tough economic conditions at the time he founded Liquid Thought did not hold Isaacs back from pursuing his vision. Now, more than 20 years later, he again finds his company, along with many others, confronting more of the same, brought on by the prevailing negative economic conditions in South Africa and abroad. His outlook remains positive; according to Isaacs, an entrepreneur has to use times like these to build and look beyond the present, with the “opportunity to re-imagine, gain market share having a growth mindset”.