Rich Mulholland started his working career as a roadie, hauling gear on and off stage and operating the lighting at gigs for the likes of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. Now 38, Mulholland runs Missing Link, South Africa’s largest presentation specialist, and co-founded a “perspective lab” and consulting firm called 21Tanks.
“I grew up on the posh, west end of Glasgow,” Mulholland tells me by way of introduction. “My dad worked for Scottish television. In 1983, he came to South Africa for his mother’s funeral and, while he was here, the SABC offered him a job and to move his entire family to Johannesburg.”
Over the years that followed, the Mulholland family gradually moved to Cape Town — one after the other — but the young Richard decided to “hedge” his “bets” and now splits his time between Cape Town (weekends) and Johannesburg (weekdays).
“I’m only a dad in Cape Town,” Mulholland says. His son and daughter live with his ex-wife and he usually flies down on Fridays to catch his son’s kickboxing classes. “I live right next to my ex, and we get on very well. I wasn’t a great dad originally; I was more a personal assistant to their mom. I’m much better now — now I go to Cape Town to be a dad.”
The youngest of three siblings, Mulholland says his two sisters wanted to instil a sense of pride in him about his heritage and so they took him on a tour of Scotland. “It gave me a sense of belonging and connectedness, and I want to give that to my kids, too, so they’re coming with me when I go to Edinburgh for TED next year.”
Mulholland became involved with TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), the global set of conferences run and owned by the Sapling Foundation, in 2005.
“That year, I attended the first TED global conference,” he says. “They wanted audience members to do three-minute talks on stage. I did one called ‘First Impressions Lie’, which went down pretty well.”
Kenyan-based technologist Erik Hersman, a friend of Mulholland’s, is a TED senior fellow and introduces Mulholland as “the greatest speaker I’ve ever seen” when the two share a stage. It was Hersman who introduced Mulholland to Logan McClure, the programme manager for TED fellows, which led to him training TED speakers last year. “I don’t get paid for it, but it’s a good story to tell and it’s great when you’re pitching to new clients.”
Mulholland describes himself as an “accidental entrepreneur” and says that starting the various companies he has over the years all happened by chance.
Through a fairly circuitous career path, Mulholland went on to start Missing Link in 1998 and focused on making interactive CD-ROMs. The business only later morphed into presentations and strategies around them. “I read Harry Beckwith’s Selling the Invisible and that was the pivot, the moment of clarity. It changed everything for me.”
At the time, Missing Link had video editors, designers, animators and other creative staff. Mulholland says he started telling staff that when people asked what they did the answer was that they were “presentation strategists”.
“Everything else was a by-product. I didn’t want Missing Link to be defined by video or design. I wanted it to be about strategy.” Strategy accounts for only 3% of turnover now, but selling Missing Link as a presentation company became a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.
“Now the challenge is we’ve built enough of a reputation, [and so] should I jettison that and say we don’t need presentations to take us to the next level? I’m at a bit of a crossroads, actually. It’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle.”
Missing Link, which is headquartered in Fourways, north of Sandton, has arguably the most novel office space of any South African company. It recently won an award from Inc. magazine for the “most creative use of material” in a competition to identify the best offices on the planet.
“I remember telling people we’re the only company in the finals from Africa,” Mulholland says. “But then we were probably the only guys from Africa in the competition.
With its fireman’s pole, tattoo parlour, shooting gallery, themed office spaces and cubicles — and Mulholland’s own office, which is modelled after a tree house — it’s certainly a unique working environment. It’s all about making an impression.
“You can spend a million rand on an office and make it unremarkable. A rule for every engagement is that you’re meant to go home and at some point after work say ‘I met this crazy guy’, or ‘I went to this great office’. It needs to transcend discussion in the workplace.”
Missing Link has won numerous awards over the years, and Mulholland says some of them haven’t even been for the best presentations, but rather for compelling stories.
Despite his appearance — wild hair, heavily tattooed arms, casual garb — Mulholland describes himself as an “absolute introvert” who often takes a staff member to conferences with him so he’ll have someone to talk to and so he won’t have to deal with talking to the strangers around him on his own.
When he isn’t speaking at conferences or pitching to new clients, Mulholland says he reads a lot, spends as much time as possible with his girlfriend, and with his children.
His reading habits drew him to Good Reads, a social network of sorts for the bookish. “Most social media offers so little value,” he says. “We need contextual networks, not social networks. Instagram is a great example of that, or it can be when people use it for good photos rather than every single picture of their kids. Random photos of your kids belong on Facebook, not on Instagram. But people get to choose how they use these networks, I guess.”
Mulholland’s also a keen freeboarder and snowboarder. (A freeboard is a six-wheeled skateboard designed to behave like a snowboard.) But by far his biggest passion is motorcycles. He owns three Vespa scooters, two Harley-Davidsons, two Triumphs and a Honda CB650. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media