The Purpose Behind iXperience: A Startup with Global Impact

iXperience interview

This week we did coffee in style at the Cape Town V&A Waterfront Workshop 17, office to the dynamic iXperience team. A team of twelve, led by two inspirational dudes with a passion for purpose and the stamp of Yale on their LinkedIn profiles.

Now, given the size of waves this business is making in the startup world, they probably don’t need much of an introduction. You probably already know that they originally started as a coding bootcamp with an added internship experience. You also probably know that today they connect with students from top universities in the world, like Harvard, Yale and MIT.  

And if you’ve chatted to Aaron Fuchs or Rafi Khan before, you might even know about their massive plans for the future, including international expansion, a global campus, and the new base they set up in Lisbon, Portugal this year.

So we’re here to tell you what you don’t know. The inside scoop on the real purpose behind iXperience, what drives their leadership, what challenges they face, and how they feel about strategy in a startup.

Now you’re hooked!

From “What” to “Why”

iXperience started without a grand vision. They had no idea what they would look like three years in, and it took them a while to discover their purpose. But what they did know, was that they were doing something epic.

“In the early days, our team didn’t have a concrete vision of what we were building, but everyone knew why: we wanted to create a life-changing experience for students. We wanted to bring students here and change their lives through education, connecting with people, and building an inspiring community”

You see, they’d identified a gap, a need, that wasn’t being met. A need that resonated with them as university graduates themselves. Students at top universities were getting very elite, very expensive education, but leaving without the skills that would impact them in the workplace.  

Ba-dum-chhh. Their purpose was crystal clear. To create epic journeys of growth that unlock students’ potential.

“The idea is really to help people discover something about themselves that they didn’t previously know. The time they have here, and the person they get to be and become while they’re here, is transformative. The people they meet, the culture they experience, the idea of connecting with an inspiring environment and really being pushed out of their comfort zone, is something that I think a traditional university performs abysmally.”

This, of course, is incomparable with many of the other advances in the education industry, too. Like MOOCS, which are, well, massive, meaning that they’re about distribution and dissemination of knowledge. Not exactly the kind of personalised experienced that’ll leave you teary-eyed and sniffling on completion.  

Not even kidding! Many of the students who get the iXperience-experience shed a few tears as they leave Cape Town International Airport, knowing that the journey (or at least this part of their life’s journey) has come to an end.

How They Did It

So, how did they do it? How’d they become so successful in such a short period of time?

The natural answer would be, “A solid strategy”. But it wouldn’t be the truth. Because Rafi has some unconventional feelings on strategy in a startup, and they make a lot of sense.

“I have mixed feelings about strategy in a startup. There’s a saying I like, which is ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. The idea being that building a team that’s aligned around a common mission is far more effective than spending that same time planning the perfect strategy.”

But, while strategy wasn’t the divine answer to growth for iXperience, they did share some of the most important practices and experiences that helped them to move forward:

  1. Access to Market

On first launching the business, Rafi and Aaron found themselves staring straight into the nasty face of their first challenge – access to market.

“Just getting people to believe that what we were doing was good was a very, very difficult thing.”

But, fortunately, Rafi and Aaron are both Yale alumni, so having existing connections at top universities in the U.S. was a big foot forward (and not something that many other South Africans can leverage).

Initial traction came with visiting universities, connecting with students, being able to understand their journeys, and selling them Cape Town as the destination.

“Our market is very far away. It takes an incredible amount of time, and 2 to 3 trips to America each year to foster those relationships and keep building a community.”

Community is an integral part of the programme, and a powerful way of reaching (distant) future students. The community of iXperience alumni are activated to connect with other students on campus, and to share their stories, ultimately creating a network effect in countries beyond South African borders.  

  1. Data, Data, Data!

iXperience leverages data to continuously improve the customer experience, make better business decisions, monitor quality, and refine their marketing approach.

“We believe in the power of data, and the power of technology, to really transform business.”

iXperience boasts an impressive revenue/employee ratio. Why? Well, because they have 12 madly-skilled employees who are invested in their purpose, and the rest is left to tech.

They use Google, Facebook, and Instagram to reach a global audience through digital marketing. They have an impressive website that’s easy to navigate. And they use a complex system of surveys and qualitative and quantitative interviews to get feedback from students.  

“We’re obsessed with tracking every single part of our business, to the point where we know every link that’s clicked, and every professor who opens our email. We base our decisions on this information.”

This tracking enables them to monitor who loves them, who doesn’t, how to improve the experience for those who don’t, and how to activate those who do love them, to do more for them.

  1. People Are Everything

According to Rafi, the people are everything. Both in terms of how you connect with your customer, and how you phrase your vision and purpose to others on the team.

“People buy the who and why, instead of the what. You have to be honest with yourself about why you’re doing something,  truly believe in it, and then hold yourself accountable to finding others who believe in it for the same reason.”

[bctt tweet=”People buy the who and why, instead of the what.” username=”iXperience”]

This is why iXperience feels that the best thing they ever did was to find a group of people who really, really, REALLY cared about the same cause.

“A players hire A players. B players hire C players. So to attain high talent density over time, you have to be rigorous with your recruitment.”

Now, iXperience will be the first to admit that they’re not perfect at this yet. They have about a 50% success rate at hiring, but they’re learning, and getting better at knowing what it is they’re looking for. Today, they have an 8-step hiring process, and discuss personal growth plans right from the onboarding phase.      

But what really makes them unique is their hardworking, passionate and self-driven culture. A culture where people hold themselves accountable as a team, because they share the same expectations of success. Finding other people who connect with this culture is the challenge.

“You’re not here to be busy, you’re here to get results. This resonates with a certain person, but it’s not for everybody.”

As Rafi says, a culture actually has to be exclusive, for it to be a culture.

“It doesn’t really matter what the culture is, as long as it’s authentic. I find culture isn’t something you can say. It has to be discovered over time.”

[bctt tweet=”It doesn’t really matter what the culture is, as long as it’s authentic” username=”iXperience”]

Rafi on Entrepreneurship

We asked Rafi to share some personal insight on his experience of entrepreneurship. After all, the guy could be working at Google, where he’d have a boss whose job it would be to make sure that he succeeds. As it turns out though, Rafi chose the startup road for some very cool reasons, like freedom and ownership of his own growth.

“For me, freedom has been the best and the worst thing. It’s amazing to be able to hold myself accountable to results, but, I have to hold myself accountable to results! That means that I have to be the one reading the books, I have to be the one reaching out to people for feedback. That takes a certain amount of discipline.”

From what we can tell, Rafi is pretty freaking good when it comes to discipline. So the question is, does he ever get time to do human things like eat, sleep, and watch stupid series?  

“My personal philosophy is to work hard, and then take epic holidays.”

iXperience is changing, growing, and making an impact every day. Watch their space as they move into the future, by following them on Facebook and LinkedIn, or checking out their website.

How Neural Sense Grew From a Kitchen Cupboard to Become African Leaders in Neuromarketing

startup growth

Three years ago, Neural Sense didn’t have a single client. Today, they’re boasting business with giants like Coca Cola, Telkom, Old Mutual and Liberty. So we chatted to co-founder, Mark Drummond, to find out how they did it.


Neural Sense is a consumer neuromarketing consultancy. Actually, they’re the only full-service neuromarketing consultancy on the African continent. Sounds impressive. But what does it mean?

Well, they use biometrics and other neuroscience technologies and research techniques to better understand consumer behaviour. This is a huge innovation that fills the void left by more traditional research approaches, like self-report surveys.

You see, these surveys are susceptible to bias, misunderstandings, and just plain old fibbing. Sometimes we answer in the way we think we should, rather than how we truly feel. And even then, how many of us even know how we truly feel?

So, Neural Sense is pioneering a marriage between technology and research to access people’s subconscious responses. This means a true understanding of how consumers feel emotionally and cognitively during an in-store or online experience, while alleviating those nasty biases.

Every Second Counts

Now, the question is… why is research so damn important, anyway? According to Mark, it’s all about making smart decisions, based on accurate information, so that you can catch the attention of an easily distracted audience.

“A lot of businesses don’t take the time to weigh up the pros and cons of the decisions they make. We’re currently in an environment that’s very output driven. There are targets to meet, and we’ll do whatever it takes to meet them.”

This results in businesses taking quick action. Action that’s not always the best way of moving them toward their goals. In fact, without enough thought and research, businesses can sometimes (unintentionally) take actions that lead them away from their objectives. This could be launching a new product without fully understanding the demand, or targeting a new market with ill-suited advertising.

So, Neural Sense conducts research that provides businesses with real insights for smart decisions. These insights not only help them to understand consumers’ in-store experience (like what grabs their attention, or how they navigate the space), but also the online user-experience, and how to optimise it.

This brings with it a host of exciting things, like AI, and figuring out how chatbots can be more emotionally engaging with users.

“There’s so much clutter. We get bombarded with digital messaging. Our attention span has reduced from 12 seconds five years ago, to 8 seconds today, with some people saying that you have only 5 seconds to make a hard sell. So every second counts.”

Neural Sense focuses on providing more than just data. They provide measureable, actionable insights that translate into better business decisions, and better consumer experiences.   

“We’re in such a tough economic environment at the moment, and often the first thing that gets cut is marketing budget. If your marketing mix isn’t optimised at every single touch point for the consumer, you’re going to miss out on opportunities.”

[bctt tweet=”If your marketing mix isn’t optimised at every consumer touch point, you’re going to miss out” username=”#NeuralSense”]

Oh, What A Journey

So, how did this unique startup, offering such an innovative solution, come to be? Well, in the beginning, there were three.

Around three years ago, Mark joined two guys who had been working on the idea of a neuromarketing consultancy. When Mark came on board, the business officially launched.

When picturing these early days, try to envision Mark Drummond working out of a kitchen, and then a cupboard, until 6 months later they finally invested in an office. This is around the same time that Neural Sense secured their first client – Telkom.  

“You essentially create value from nothing as a startup. So having that recognised with money coming into your account is a huge thing. Because it’s your blood, sweat and tears that have achieved that.

But as big as this achievement was, the team had other hurdles on the horizon. About one year in, a difference in expectations about the direction of the business and risk tolerance led to Mark and his partner, David, buying out the third member of their team.   

This was a tough 6 month process, and if he could go back, Mark would do things a little differently. Like being more open, honest and upfront with each other, and really understanding each person’s comfort levels with risk.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in startups, and this can cause tension. Make sure that you are very clear on everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and what your expectations are of each other. Unless there’s a page, you’re not on the same page. Draw up a contract, put it down on paper.”

Today, Mark’s experience in business and marketing makes a great compliment to David’s clinical psychology background. They work with a range of consultants specialising in astrophysics, engineering, and a bunch of other areas, as and when they need them on projects. This helps to keep costs down when there’s no work on the go.

Take It From Mark

It’s not hard to believe that through this startup journey, Mark has learnt a lesson or two. And lucky for us, he’s big on sharing.

Lesson 1: Get Friendly with the Competition

Neural Sense began with a clear strategy: To be a challenger brand. They were one of a kind, they were doing things differently, and they were offering research in a whole new way. They, were going up against the competition – traditional research companies.

“We quickly learnt that we actually needed to partner with them.”

Soon, Mark began to approach established research firms as partners, rather than competitors. This meant access to their client bases, and their stamps of authority. A strategic move that paid off.

“As a startup, you think it’s you against the world. But you need to be quite strategic about who you partner with. Leverage your competition, rather than wanting to have nothing to do with them.”

[bctt tweet=”Leverage your competition, rather than wanting to have nothing to do with them.” username=”#NeuralSense”]

Lesson 2: Plan Less, Do More

Brace yourself for this unconventional tip! If he had to do it all again, Mark would spend less time drawing up business plans. That’s right. Mark reckons that time can be wasted on too much planning.

“Planning is great. It’s important to have goals and vision. But the chances are your plan is going to change a hundred times.”

So, eventually you just have to get down to it, and get in front of clients. Mark is big on learning by doing. This includes experimentation in the real world. Test, learn, and test again until you get it right.

“As the saying goes: A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world. And it’s the same with starting a business.”

Lesson 3: Ask for Help (Sooner)

Okay. If you’ve been following the Coffee@8 interview series, you might just be tired of hearing this one. But hey, if it’s been mentioned by just about every ass-whipping business that we’ve interviewed, then it’s got to be important!

“Ask for help sooner. A lot of people don’t realise the support structures available to them, and how willing people are to help. A startup can be a very lonely place.”

Draw on stories, tips and experiences from those who’ve done it before, and done it well or done it badly… learn from them. The fact that you’re reading this means that you’re already off to a good start!

Toward the Future

What lies in-store (pun intended) for Neural Sense? Many, many exciting things!

To start with, they’ll be making some changes to their team structure, by adding a new team member to take on some of their marketing and field work so that Mark can focus on new business.

“We’re still growing. Currently we’re only operating at around 40%, so we’ll be spending time looking for new business. It’s important to keep hunting for new business everyday.”

They’ll also be making a shift away from project work, and toward a retainer based business model. But the real, long-term goal is to sell the business in the next 5 to 8 years.

The thing is, it’s hard to sell people’s time and skills. So, they’re creating their own exciting technologies, like 3D environments, virtual reality, and desktop-based software applications that help identify the implicit associations people hold with brands.

But that’s not all. Neural Sense is looking to expand into Africa, and leverage the unique consumer landscape that yields huge growth prospects for brands and businesses. To do this, they’re partnering with research houses, establishing their name through networking, and have become a proud sponsor of the Neuromarketing World Forum.

“It’s also an excuse for me and David to go overseas.”

But for now, Mark continues to enjoy the flexibility, autonomy, challenge and purpose that come with being his own boss.


Follow Neural Sense on Facebook and LinkedIn, or check out their website.

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