Can you share some of your background with us?
I grew up in Alexandra Township, but I’m originally from Mofolo in Soweto. I have an older sister who is pretty much in the same industry as myself - we’re both graphic designers. Both of my parents are artists, so I suppose creativity runs in my veins.
You’re creative director at a successful South African agency, at the age of 28? That’s an incredible life accomplishment. What was your secret to attaining such a huge life goal at such a young age?
At 28 years old, creative director at the Johannesburg-based design agency Green Robot, Kgomotso Mautloa, has already achieved much of what he set out to do when he was a youngster back at school. He shared with The Afropolitan his history and secret to success...
I’ve been blessed with so many different experiences, from my youth, growing up all the way to starting my business. All of which has shaped my journey to where I am today as an entrepreneur. I’ve also been fortunate to be surrounded with such incredible people in my life (from family and friends) to colleagues who come into the business, and the people I work with every day - they truly inspire me to try and do better every day. The only advice or secret, I’d say, is to never give up. There’s no room for failure, just room for learning. One has to always keep their eyes on the prize and never give up.
Ask any entrepreneur or business superstar, and they’ll tell you they had a great mentor. Who was, or is yours and how have they affected or guided your journey?
I had a lot of people around me who inspired me and taught me valuable things at different times in my life. An example is my friend who taught me to play pool when I was 16; in that seemingly simple pastime he played a role in my life in terms of teaching me how to strategise! Having said that I do have one person, Monwabisi Thethe, who taught me a lot about business, being indispensable and pushing myself to be the very best at every given moment. He also taught me to work till my heart’s content; and that if I was doing the right thing and was placed in the business you love, there’s never a limit to what one can achieve.
Kgomotso, how did it feel when you were listed as one of the Mail and Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans in 2014?
I was surprised! I got a call, I think it was a month before the actual announcement, but I thought there was still a screening process that one had to go through. During the call I am still not sure that they mentioned that it was for the actual awards. Anyway, on the day that the winners were announced in the paper, I was fast asleep. When I woke up I checked my phone, as is my ritual, and I saw a message from my now business partner saying ‘Congratulations on your big achievement’. I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. When I eventually got onto the net, I was insanely surprised because I didn’t expect it at all! Thinking back on it now, it truly is a big achievement and a special accolade, and I feel honoured to have been acknowledged alongside other inspiring young South Africans who are doing incredible things in their respective industries. The accolades come and go, but if we haven’t achieved what we set out to, then we have only scratched the surface.
Do you feel your upbringing or background played a part into getting you to this point in your career?
Definitely. I think growing up in two of South Africa’s townships, Soweto and Alexandra, played a big role in the person I am and where I am today. I think Alexandra more so because I’ve lived there for most of my life. I learnt how to fend for myself and learnt how to work with people - in the spirit of uBuntu - and how to make something out of nothing. My family also played a pivotal role. My parents taught me how to work hard and to strive for whatever I believed in; they both worked hard to get us (my sister and I) through school, and they have always been so incredibly supportive. My sister showed me how to be humble, rational, and to always think things through twice. All of those are traits that I try live by to this day. There are always lessons presented to us, each and every day, and we need to be in tune with what’s going on - life is our best teacher.
In your interview with the M&G, you said, “I think it is important for South African companies to develop a sense of collaboration rather than adversarial or competitive relationships.” Tell us more about how you implement this at Green Robot?
Internally at Green Robot, I try to get everyone to work together, be it in brainstorming sessions or on projects - just so that we all know what’s happening and are all on the same page, but more importantly, so that we are able to appreciate each others role within the company. In the same sense, we need to adapt and grow how we work with each other, to achieve a greater goal. We all as small businesses have different strengths and weaknesses, and that’s how we compliment each other. If we are to achieve the greater goal and get the bigger clients, we need to unite or work together on that journey. Almost like the Trojan horse - we need to work together to become a better unit of small businesses and to build upon each other playing to each other’s strengths. Being adversarial is only going to break us down; we won’t achieve anything if we aren’t willing to work together.
Let us in on a secret - did you call your agency “Green Robot” because you secretly love Android? What was the thinking behind this quirky name?
Hahaha, well uhm, I do love Android, but that’s not the inspiration behind the name. I initially started the company with a friend of mine when we were at Vega. We had the idea to start a company, and we had gone through so many names; some that were a bit different, like Mushroom Jam, which is one I remember! But heading home one day, we were at the corner of Rivonia Road & Grayston Drive in Sandton by the McDonalds; the robot went green, and we were both like “Green Robot design!” We were actually out of words to play around with. I think it’s actually worked out pretty well. There have been so many spin offs because of that.
Green Robot Design has a design ethos of “THINK. PLAN. CREATE”. Could you tell us how you’d implement that strategy for say an urban development project or an NGO? (No need to give away too many secrets, but we’d love to know how you strategise internally)
Think: the thought process is a powerful one. You need to always engage with the project that you take on and understand what the brief is. We created a brand strategy for development last year and we approached it in the same manner. Thinking about the outcomes, and what you and the client want to achieve.
The Plan: how do we do it? How do we effectively create something that will meet the concepts and ideas that we have thought (THINK) about?
Create: the execution. This part is what we at Green Robot like the most; creating something that will either be a good strategy, communication tool, website etc.
The culmination of everything and the three-step process makes for a great final project. Functional solutions for businesses!
And, lastly, Green Robot Design has a boutique approach to service provision, enabling you to provide clients with a wide range of specialised services. How do you hone in on what your client might need vs. what they think they need (there’s always a difference!)?
Definitely, there’s always a difference. I’ve sat in on many meetings where clients have seen work that others have done, that they also want to have, but sometimes that’s not what is beneficial for their business or brand. You always need to ask what the reasons are; what are they trying to achieve; and what outcomes they would like to see once the project is complete. I also used to ask clients “why us? (Green Robot.) I think that gives you a good background of what their expectations are; why they think they need ‘this’; and why they have chosen to work with us on this particular project. Once you know this you are able to discern the need and the want. Most of the time, the need beats the want.