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Kartina Rosli

Get To Know Dhawal Shah, Co-Founder Of 2Stallions

A great leader puts the team at the front when it comes to receiving praise, but shoulders the responsibility if things are going wrong

With offices in Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia and India, 2Stallions is an award winning full-service digital marketing agency, founded by two partners in 2012. It has now grown to a team of 30 across four countries, boasting a portfolio of over 500 success stories.

2Stallions works with clients from the FMCG, finance and insurance, technology & telco, education, hospitality & leisure and government industries, with notable brands such as CNN, Stanley Black & Decker, Redbull, AXA, Unit4 and Intercontinental Singapore amongst others. The agency has received numerous awards over the years for its excellent work in establishing online dominance for their clients.

Marketing in Asia had a chat with Dhawal Shah, one of the founders and the agency’s Director. Dhawal has a long career as an entrepreneur, coder and a trainer with over 12 years of management, web development and digital marketing experience. Today, he leads and works alongside his team to develop holistic digital strategies focusing on performance and returns on investments for his clients. Having birthed the company as a start-up, he explains the growth experienced by the agency while describing the company’s philosophy and the challenges ahead. 

It’s great to have you on Marketing In Asia, Dhawal. Let’s dive straight in and share with us your personal journey to starting 2Stallions.

Thank you for having me – it’s great to be here. Sure, where do I begin? I started my career in Silicon Valley. My first role was as an early employee doing web development at a startup that was acquired by Skype in 2010. I experienced many highs and lows with them, and the company and the culture of the Valley set me on my entrepreneurial path. 

I then spent a couple of years doing project management at DSTA, where I grew an appreciation for enterprise-scale projects, but my entrepreneurial itch meant I was always trying out things on the side.

My first venture, which failed eventually, was an ecommerce startup in the fashion industry. We raised US$50,000 in 30 days from Kickstarter, and launched the business. That was a trial by fire and set the groundwork for my knowledge in digital marketing, as we grew our blog to over 100,000 monthly visitors and generated almost all our sales through that.

2Stallions happened almost as an accident. My co-founder, Razy, approached me with the idea. At first I was hesitant, but I saw the need for an agency focused on small and medium enterprises in 2012, as they weren’t well-catered to. Furthermore, both of us had complementary skills that meant we could provide a wide range of services to clients. 

We all know how crowded the digital marketing sector is. What makes 2Stallions stand out from the rest?

We focus on being transparent in the way we work, and we take the time to educate our clients along the way so they understand where we are headed. We treat every client as a partner rather than a customer, and make their success our priority. This is why, even when we hit some bumps in the road, clients continue to trust us to lead them to success. 

We are also laser-focused on developing and growing a stellar team at 2Stallions that is led by real experts in their fields. To this end, we hired Pieter Dijkgraaf, who leads our Performance Marketing efforts across the region. In the past, he has not just led, but also set up and grown paid and displayed teams at larger Dutch agencies. We also hired Antayra Mares, who is our Head of Creative and Accounts Strategy. She brings a deep creative background having graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York. With rockstars like these leading our teams, our clients know they are getting the best.

The agency has seen a phenomenal growth over the last few years. What are the success factors that have led the agency to experience such exponential growth?

I would attribute our growth to two factors. 

The crucial reason  for our phenomenal growth is our team. We have worked hard to develop a company culture that attracts the right talent to be a part of the 2Stallions family and believe in what we do. 

This has led to us being able to deliver quality work for our clients and enjoy the work along the way, as we can rely on every single member of the team to do their part. Even in rough times, we are able to have open and frank conversations internally to have alignment across our team. 

The second factor for our success is our belief in giving back through thought leadership. We do this in a couple of ways. 

First is through our signature event – #SPEAKEASYASIA – that we run at least once a year (more often now via webinars). We find expert industry speakers to share their views on trending topics in digital marketing. 

Additionally, everyone in the management team conducts digital marketing training. Being ACTA-certified, I develop curriculum and train at Equinet Academy – where I share my knowledge on Digital Marketing Strategy and Digital Marketing Analytics. This also helps me to keep my own skills fresh, and to gain new perspectives from participants.

What was one of the biggest challenges you faced while growing 2Stallions?

As a small-sized agency, the biggest challenge we face, even today, is competing for projects against larger agencies. In most cases, we cannot match the resources these companies can allocate to projects, and we also cannot slash our margins to be razor-thin as we do not take on as many projects. 

Over the years, we have learnt to focus on our quality of delivery and the bespoke solutions we provide as our differentiators. Generally, when we win such a project against large-sized agencies, we end up developing a very good long-term working relationship with these clients as they understand the value we provide rather than benchmarking us on costs. 

As an agency, how do you ensure that you continuously provide solutions that are bespoke, innovative and creative?

The only constant in our industry is change. As an agency, we have made ‘Learn Continuously” one of our Core Values and everyone in our team is encouraged to explore and better themselves. Our team’s commitment to the success of our clients and our growth means they are always sharing updates on new technology or platforms they discover with the rest of us. 

That is how we made the switch from using Adobe Photoshop to Sketch for UI/UX designs. A design team member brought it to our attention and made a strong case on how it would improve productivity and lead to benefits for our clients.

Additionally, our approach to clients, as I mentioned earlier, is to focus on their success. We do a lot of research before we provide a strategy to clients so that we figure out the best way to achieve success for them, and this sometimes leads us to unexplored paths. Our transparency helps set the expectations when we are exploring such new avenues with clients.

Having teams across four countries, how do you maintain the agency’s philosophy, vision and values across the different teams?

We have created an employee handbook that is compulsory reading for everyone on our team. Our team leads also rely on our Core Values of “D.I.G.I.T.A.L” – an easy to remember mnemonic – when making decisions or conducting a teammate’s monthly performance review. This allows our values to be imbibed into our team members, since they use them as their guiding principles at work.

In the early days, when our team was smaller, we also used to hold monthly Skype calls where each team member would share one success and a fun thing they did the past month. Of course, that became unwieldy as we grew. We now do monthly townhall meetings where we celebrate successes brought to our attention by each team lead. Beyond that, we maintain a monthly internal newsletter to share news about our company and celebrate life events of our team in a way that reflects our philosophy and values.

Since there is constant communication across our company on a daily basis, we have not faced any challenges with maintaining our philosophy, vision and values across our team.

What is your leadership philosophy and in your opinion, what makes a great leader?

I am in a constant state of learning and evolving when it comes to leadership. My leadership philosophy is based on respect. I believe every individual in our team has earned their place, and I treat them with the respect of their role, trusting them to deliver and supporting them in their endeavour when needed. This also means I challenge them whenever we have a differing viewpoint. This philosophy helps their growth and allows me to learn about them.

For me, a great leader puts the team at the front when it comes to receiving praise, but shoulders the responsibility if things are going wrong. This approach fosters loyalty and respect for the leader, and motivates the team to do their best for that leader.

Dhawal, what was the best marketing and business advice you have received and who was it from?

I was actually fortunate to be invited to the Google Elevator programme in 2018 because our company, 2Stallions Digital Marketing Agency, was recognised by Google to have high-growth potential. As part of that programme, which almost felt like a compressed MBA, I spent sessions with other agency owners exploring facets of business and marketing. Throughout that journey, I was guided by a mentor, Eu Gene Ang, who was instrumental. 

The best business advice he gave me was that any company needs the right people to succeed, and he guided our focus in the right direction to ensure this happened.  

Dhawal, you are a true adventurer. You have swam with dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand and summited Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the African continent. What are some of the key attributes of an adventurer that you have applied in running your business?

Climbing mountains like Mt. Kilimanjaro, where the air gets thin near the summit, takes a lot of mental as well as physical toughness. As you summit, you start focusing on just taking the next step rather than thinking about reaching the top – but eventually you get there. That is something we do in business as well. You have a vision of your own business summit, but you remain focused on the next steps, knowing that eventually, these will take you to the summit you envision.

As an adventurer, you also need to be able to take leaps of faith, because there are risks involved, and believe in yourself to overcome those risks. Business is very similar. We make decisions and take risks, and back ourselves to overcome them.  

How has your life journey shaped you as a person today?

You become who you are from your life experiences and how they impact you. For me, there were a couple I attribute for my current life journey. 

First one was when I was growing up. My parents were instrumental to shaping my world view. They were industrious, and learnt and earned from sources beyond just day jobs. They also had a never-say-die attitude, where they backed themselves to turn things to their favour. Their success also opened up many experiences, such as extensive travel, for me that I would otherwise not have had.

The second was my time in Silicon Valley – studying at Stanford and working at a startup. This experience solidified the trajectory of my life. I was contemplating a potentially more academic life until then but realised how much I enjoyed a startup environment. 

This led me to always be on the lookout for ideas, even when I was working a day job, and when the right opportunity came along, to take the leap of faith, and back myself to succeed. 

How can our readers connect with you Dhawal?

You can connect with me via LinkedIn. I am open to mentor or advise startups, provide consulting or even speak or conduct training. You can also check out my personal website – DhawalShah.net – where I write about digital marketing, technology and management.

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Written By

Kartina is Marketing In Asia's Editor for Op-Ed. She is also the Founder of Tin Communications. A media specialist with over 20 years of experience in both public and private sectors, she helps SMEs grow their business through strategic media and marketing plans. Connect with her on LinkedIn. You may also reach her by email at kartina@localhost.

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