From stand-up to start-up: How top entrepreneur’s comedic insights shaped his business

Long before the concept social media influencer became ubiquitous, a young marketer in London started planning his return to South Africa to start his own agency to help brands harness the power of internet virality through popular social media personalities. 

His foresight paid off remarkably. Today, after a “wild” decade of surfing the upheaval of the internet in the advertising industry, Mike Sharman heads up Retroviral Digital Communications, which he proudly describes as having “made more brands go viral globally than any other agency in Africa”. 

Apart from pioneering internet marketing in South Africa through Retroviral, Mike has co-founded, a global platform linking influencers with brands, Retroactive, digital, a sports marketing agency, and, a company that helps sports stars build their own websites.

Mike, a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year® competition, started his career with the idea of becoming an actor. To reassure his worried parents, he studied marketing in Johannesburg where he grew up, but left for Hollywood to study acting and stand-up comedy as soon as he got his degree.   

It proved to be a key ingredient to his success as a marketing expert. The science and art of making a diverse audience laugh is exactly what a marketer needs, says Mike. An observational comedian finds a universal truth to which everyone in the audience can nod their heads, and then he tells a relatable story around it to evoke laughter. Good marketing is essentially the same – crafting a story around a universal truth creates an emotional connection with a broad target market, explains Mike.

His first venture was a play which he wrote and staged in Johannesburg and, with the profits, took to the Grahamstown Festival fringe, boosting his growth as an entrepreneur with valuable project management experience.

Mike’s next career move was sparked by winning a trip to London in a cricket fancy dress competition. He started working at a London public relations firm where he became the account manager for the LG brand. It was here that he saw a clear opportunity forming in the world of marketing and advertising.

It was around 2009, and the idea of using social media to promote brands by “going viral” had already taken hold, but nobody knew exactly how to integrate it with traditional marketing campaigns. Digital agencies were popping up all over the place, but they worked in silos, separate from other arms of campaigns, and often as an afterthought.

Mike started dreaming of an agency that could put together viral campaigns that would “seed” quality content to popular bloggers, vloggers, journalists and thought leaders – today known as influencers. Crucially, it would be integrated with the public relations and activation (direct interaction with prospective clients) arms of the campaign. 

In 2010, Mike returned to South Africa to experience the World Cup and to start his business. Several factors came together to make it a wildly successful first year for Retroviral. Local advertising agencies were keen but clueless about digital marketing, and broadband was rolling out in South Africa. The timing could not be better.

But it was Mike’s personality and approach that gave him the unique ability to grab the opportunity. He “lived the experiment” by posting, blogging and tweeting, not only building his personal brand, but gaining expert knowledge of the fast-changing social-network scene. 

Several of his posts went viral, including one in which he declared his commitment to South Africa despite surviving a terrifying home invasion that year. At the same time, he obsessively analysed the statistics around his social media activity. His prowess with cricket statistics helped him to win the trip to London. Now he found that he could apply the knack to online analytics. 

Above all, he is an excellent networker, never forgetting a face or a name. Soon he was embedded in the Johannesburg PR scene, renting a desk from a local agency. Within a month he landed his first R10 000-per-month retainer, and at the end of the year he won over Nandos as a client. 

Retroviral operated as a loose grouping of freelancers at first but had to formalise quickly as growth skyrocketed. “I started to mature a little bit and stopped going to meetings in flip-flops,” says Mike. 

Although Retroviral was the unmistakable leader in the field of viral marketing in South Africa for a number of years, winning several local and international awards, competition sprung up fast. Large advertising agencies that often hired Retroviral to do the digital leg of their campaigns started setting up inhouse units. 

To counter this, Mike co-founded, essentially placing Retroviral’s database of influencers on a subscription platform where they can be recruited by brands and agencies. New influencers can sign up to the platform for free.

Today, Mike remains a shareholder of Webfluential which has spun off from Retroviral. He chose to focus on building Retroviral into a dynamic content-creation company. With a team of 18, the Sandton based agency is substantial enough today to take on any campaign, but small enough to be agile, without the weight of bureaucracy that stifles creativity. 

A recent example of how Retroviral has managed to maintain its edge was My Kreepy Teacher, a hilarious spoof on the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher. The Kreepy Krauly ad took 96 hours “from zero to viral in 96 hours”.