Levi’s Pioneer Nation | An Interview with Mike Sharman

Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (6)


Mike Sharman is an entrepreneurial force to be reckoned with when it comes to the world of online digital communications. He is the founder of Retroviral, which is a digital agency that produces online content with a communication strategy aimed at content going viral.


In the past few years Retroviral outgrew itself, and Mike reckons this was a cool problem to have! The company has recently moved into a fresh office space that consists of a telephone booth, an old school dining table and even a small theatre used to present final work to clients. We visited the new space and caught up with this digital pioneer, who is not to be missed at today’s Levi’s Pioneer Nation festival.


To begin, please tell us about your background and how you came to be where you are now?


I have been a storyteller my whole life. Since I was a kid, I’ve added accents and nuances to the characters within my stories. I have acted, performed as a stand up comedian and lived in Hollywood for six months to refine some of my acting skills. I studied a marketing degree because the communications industry is the one place where commercial storytelling exists.


My first job was working in PR for a strategic communications agency, before moving to the UK for two years to work with startups to mould their communication and PR efforts. I eventually moved into a larger agency in 2008 where I managed accounts such as the Home Entertainment one for LG. While in the UK I saw the impact that social media was having on consumer engagement, delving into the analytical side of content consumption from a blog point of view and in 2010 returned to SA to launch a new kind of ad agency with my friend and business partner – an agency dedicated to the opportunities within the online communications space.


What inspired the idea to start a company like Retroviral in SA?


There were a lot of people selling digital as if it was the ‘Second Coming’. Our opinion was that traditional (retro) communication theory was paramount for success in any media, but it was imperative that we create remarkable content, seed it to the right people (influencers / bloggers), in order to amplify campaign spread and for brands to get the results they needed (viral).


What is Retroviral’s approach and philosophy?


We are obsessed with the internet and what brands are doing on the various platforms online. We consume hours of content for inspiration and understanding what competitors of our clients are doing and how they are achieving success. We continuously strive to stay ahead of the curve and be at the forefront of trends to provide our clients with the best advice and consultancy.

3R’s is our mantra – remarkable content, seeded to the right people, leads to EPIC brand results!


You treat talks as performances and act out characters for briefs. How else has your experience in acting influenced you as an entrepreneur?


Acting is a great way to grow your public speaking acumen. I would recommend taking a course in any kind of performance art for aspiring entrepreneurs because you constantly have to be on the hustle and you have to sell, sell, sell 24/7/365 if you are going to buck the trend of failed startups and actually create a sustainable business.


What are the things that surprised you most about starting your own business and in what way have your motivations changed since?


There is a certain fear of uncertainty – unknown unknowns – and even self doubt that comes with starting a business, but it’s a space that can break you or make you bulletproof because of the constant challenges that you need to create solutions for. You start to worry less about trivial fears; there’s a new level of enlightenment that you experience being a business starter.


What were some of the challenges that you faced along the way?


Landing that first piece of business is always stressful, but exhilarating once achieved. Deciding on the right time to hire your first employee is never easy because you need the stability of ongoing work to be able to offer job security to both yourself and this other human who has decided to invest in you and your vision. Your employees become like your children, you eventually start wearing their worries and concerns.


Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (1)


Your blog generally has a learning to take away, are these your own or garnered from research?


I’m more than just a pretty avatar – these thoughts are bespoke, Sharman learnings, live from the blogosphere 😉


What are some of the things you put into place when producing content that is aimed at going viral?


All of our work is structured around four pillars – strategy (support brand business objectives with communication) , content creation (what is the right platform for this brand and how will content be produced – video, social media, blog copy?), content dissemination (most important for actually seeding the content to the right audience to give it the best chance to go viral – YouTube media / Facebook media / www.webfluential.com / digital PR – various tactics that can be employed), and finally – tracking and reporting to ensure we achieved what we set out to at the start of the campaign.


If you could choose one super power to add to your skill set, what would it be and why?


Adamantium claws. Because Wolverine.


Instead of giving advice, if you could grant any 2 wishes to someone starting out, what would they be?


a) Temporary psychic powers: to show them that they will be fine and things will work out
b) An instant business network: it’s not about what you know, but who you know


You’ve recently moved into a new office space, tell us more about it and what it means for you going forward:


Space is incredibly important – both for your staff, and your agency culture, as well as for potential and existing clients. Your office epitomises your offering. I’m a proponent of shared office space / coffee shops when you start out, but when you intend on taking your startup to the next level, you need a space you can call your own and be proud of.


What can we expect from you at the Pioneer Nation festival?


An intimate, yet comedic account of my journey. My working title for my book, after all, is: Life is Short! Play Naked.


Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (8)

Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (9)

Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (10)

Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (3)

Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (2)

Mike Sharman photographed by Matt Mundell (5)


This interview was conducted by Matthew Mundell as part of a collaboration between us at 10and5 and the Umuzi Photo Club’s #P50 students, who interviewed and photographed a selection of creatives representing at the Levi’s Pioneer Nation Festival.




Between 10 and 5