Defying the odds, How Junk Mail has survived and thrived for 30 years - StartUp Magazine South Africa
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Defying the odds, How Junk Mail has survived and thrived for 30 years

Junk Mail is a name every South African is familiar with, and so they should be. They are an icon in the classified advertising space who remains successful in South Africa today.  

While their particular success story started in the Classified Adverts space, the lessons learnt over three decades of hard work can be applied to almost any business around today. Read on to learn more about what has set them apart from the so-called ‘big players’.  

Let’s go back to the beginning… it’s usually the best place to start

Junk Mail officially started operations from a garage in 1992, selling free classified advertising space in the Pretoria region. The little company had big aspirations, and launched their own distribution division a year later. A decade on, and Junk Mail had grown their footprint into most parts of the country and hit a new milestone of being the first classifieds company with an online presence in South Africa. Even as a young company, Junk Mail continually fought to stay relevant in the evolving marketplace.

Shaping up for the age of the internet

1999 was a big year for Junk Mail with the introduction of their new MD (and current CEO), Felix Erken. Felix has been with Junk Mail since it started in 1992, working alongside their founder Gerald Coniel. He had the advantage of knowing the inner workings of the company and their customers, and wasted no time tightening up operations to allow for further growth and acquisitions. Felix was integral in setting up the first Junk Mail website in 1996, getting the ‘King of Classifieds’ online. 

Interesting, yes. But what sets them apart?

Junk Mail ultimately never had the investment capital of the ‘heavyweights’ who appeared in the 2000’s. With the age of the internet, everybody wanted to be on it. The good news is that Junk Mail was already in that space, but they made a conscious decision to stay in their traditional print market too, and continued to service that side of the market successfully.

Furthermore, Junk Mail made some interesting decisions that set them apart from the likes of Gumtree and OLX. Junk Mail decided to not display too much other advertising alongside a listing; it not only confuses the buyer, but they also didn’t want to be reliant on this as a revenue stream.

While their competitors focused on technology to outsmart potential scammers, Junk Mail made peace with the fact that scammers will always exist in the classified industry, but were safe in the knowledge that their combination of technology and experienced moderators could largely weed out these adverts. 

Understanding the South African customer

Ensuring a smooth customer experience helped keep the phones ringing at Junk Mail, while people grew tired of the hoops they had to jump through when perusing the other classified websites. While everyone was clambering to be visible on TV, radio and online, Junk Mail carried on with business as usual.

Their unique way of measuring their success was not web traffic based; their team simply looked at how many classified adverts they were placing and what the responses were to their adverts. Basic business speak, they were focused on their conversion rates as opposed to the ‘hits’ they were getting. While no one was looking, they were growing.

What they lacked in a slick advertising budget, they more than made up for with their unmatched knowledge of the South African customer, knowing how best to talk and respond to them. Their business objective is simple; bring buyers and sellers together. They are not responsible for trying to change the perception of classified adverts, they simply want to allow them to transact quickly and securely.

Team dynamics an integral part of their success

According to the Junk Mail CEO, Felix Erken, something which has made a huge difference to their business is the fact that they have enough experience to understand the subtleties that lie in each sector of their market, and the small nuances in the local language. This informs their sales strategy in that region. Felix says, ‘You really need to understand your customer and speak the same language, as classifieds take on the voice of the community’.

Another strength evident when talking to Felix is the fact that his employees have bought into Junk Mail’s vision, and take pride in being seen as the underdog. Their refusal to buckle when faced with the heavy pressures businesses have faced in the past two years has truly set them apart.

Knowing when to hold on and when to let go is a skill that can’t be taught, but proved invaluable to them. Junk Mail has remained relevant in all their channels over the years: print, online and mobile formats; only stopping their print channel in 2020, as it simply didn’t make any sense to continue when faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.

When work is a great place to be

Ultimately, Junk Mail’s CEO Felix Erken is an enabler – not only does he enable buyers and sellers to come together, but he has enabled growth for the group by successfully converting the publications to digital platforms, upskilling his staff and setting the stage for whatever growth comes next. It seems no task is too momentous for this little giant of a company.

The lessons learnt from their journey can be applied across multiple industries and across various scales of business.

See below for a list of principles you could easily apply to your own work environment:

Know your business model.

Stick to the basics of what your business stands for and do it intentionally. Don’t allow yourself to drift too far away from your starting point, searching for other revenue streams.

Adapting but not following.

It can’t be denied that you need to keep up with the times, particularly when it comes to technology, but if you find yourself measuring your success based on your competitors’ movements, you need to change tack.

Place your customer at the heart of what you do.

Best business practices result in loyal customers, which will see your business through tough times. Customer retention is not an area to be ignored.

Industry knowledge trumps trend-seeking.

Trends will always come and go, but as far as running a business, knowledge is truly power. Don’t overlook the talent lying within your company and make it a priority to upskill and promote your existing staff members.

Know your market in a global context.

When researching global business trends, bear in mind that while certain moves can be made for international players, you should always trust your instincts when it comes to the South African market.

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