Start-up lessons from a seasoned entrepreneur

Cindy Norcott, author of ‘How Does She Do It?’ discusses learning to be a leader, learning to say no, the need to understand financials, and knowing that 80% is good enough.

FIFI PETERS: We’ve been talking a lot about how the pandemic destroyed not only people’s lives, but also their livelihoods. In fact, of the small businesses that went under many were owned by female entrepreneurs; and, of the people that lost their jobs, many were female and mostly young.

But our next guest spent the bulk of the pandemic putting pen to paper and writing a book on how women entrepreneurs can embrace the challenge of the post-pandemic world in their businesses, and how they can approach their journeys to business success in a whole new way. She is a multi-award winning entrepreneur and author, Cindy Norcott.

Cindy, thanks so much for your time. It’s quite incredible – the recruitment company you have run for as long as South Africa has been a democracy, essentially. You started at the time when the ‘new dawn’ was emerging, and you were only 23. Can you take us back to that moment in time and what conditions allowed you, as a 23-year-old, to set up your own business – as a woman, even?

CINDY NORCOTT: I think at that time it was quite interesting. I was living at home with my parents and we literally had a spare room and a desk and a typewriter. We didn’t even have a computer. So I think it was probably just pre all the technology. That made it quite easy and affordable to open my own business, and having the support of my family meant that I could take the risk. I think that’s often a main reason why so many people don’t [do so] – because they don’t have somebody to support them, to say if it fails you’ll still have a roof over your head.

It was an interesting time in our history for women in business; I was often one of the only business women in a room. You’d often go to business meetings and 90% were 90%, if not more. So I think it was an interesting time. I’m glad I got in young and I think that was a really, really good time to start.

FIFI PETERS: It’s not only that you were a woman, but I think the fact that you were also a young person. I talk to a lot of young people today who are trying to start businesses, and they talk about the walls that they have to face just to get in the room. I’m just wondering – back at that time, was it a theme for young people to be starting businesses, serious businesses like yours, in which you were trying to solve a skills gap?

CINDY NORCOTT: To be honest with you, no. I often was the youngest person in a room. But if I could just give young people just some experiences from my point of view. I often have people saying, I’d love to start a business but I’m too scared. I think, when you are young, you have very little to lose and the older we get the less confident we become and the more risk-averse you become. So my encouragement is, if a young person has an idea for a business, try and grow it organically. Start it.

I look back now and I think, gosh, if I were to start a business now, 28 years later, I think I’d be more nervous than I was at 23.

You are absolutely right. Networking is important, knowing people. So I’ve spent so much time and energy [on that]. I’d say probably the superpower I’ve developed over the years is building my brand and building my network, and building relationships with people because, if nobody knows you, knows of you, you might be dead in the water in your own business.

FIFI PETERS: When you talk about starting a business, and ideally starting it organically, I’m assuming you are referring to the fact that a lot of the support that you got from perhaps even your parents also helped you in support. Also the finance – perhaps that also helped you with financial support, which allowed you to pursue the organic path of growing a business. Yet you have a lot of young people today who often say that they’re being held back by the fact that their businesses need funding today in order to start, and to also scale.

There are differing views about this, about whether you do need access to funding or whether you do it organically and you get funding along the way. Which camp do you lie [in]?

CINDY NORCOTT: From my point of view I had actually saved up R9 000 – and that’s all I had to start my business. That was from work that I’d done. So there was no sort of silver spoon or rich relative offering money. I used to also run a training company, training entrepreneurs for two years, and one of the things I used to see was so many entrepreneurs used lack of finance as a major obstacle, so basically ‘I don’t have finance, therefore I can’t’.

So my thinking is how can you start it as a side-hustle and still keep your job? How do you start it on a micro level and just get your foot in the market, as such? I think a lot of people are using ‘I need a loan’ as being the main issue. Often you need a product, you need a market, you need a competitive advantage. You actually don’t need a loan. And sometimes finding your first client is actually the thing you need, rather than needing a big startup capital. So it’s amazing what one can do on a shoestring budget if you need to.

FIFI PETERS: Certainly. I was speaking to another entrepreneur in the space and she was talking about the fact that it’s important to also know what problem you’re solving, because says that businesses are in the business of providing solutions. Your solution was recruitment. You were trying to make it easier for companies to hire, and make it easier for people who are looking for a job to get a job – the middle man, as it were.

I’m interested in your perceptions of the labour landscape currently. Today we’re looking at record high unemployment, and it’s not only because we don’t have enough jobs out there, but it’s also because we don’t have enough people with the skills that the jobs market requires. I’m interested in your perception of how different the situation, the labour picture, is today compared to what it was 28 years ago when you started.

CINDY NORCOTT: It’s very, very different today. You are absolutely right. We are sitting with massive unprecedented levels of unemployment. Unfortunately it’s at a level where people don’t have enough skills or education or experience. Then, on the other side, we’ve got a skills shortage. So in areas like engineering, IT, software development, finance, high-level jobs; we are battling to find adequate skills at the high level.

So yeah, it concerns me so much that we live in a country where there are so many people desperate and willing and able to give their eight hours a day, but nobody wants what they’ve got. It really is a conundrum at the moment.

The one positive thing I’m seeing is that we are getting a lot of international companies hiring South Africans remotely to work for them, but based here. So I’m seeing that as a positive sign as well. And yeah, it’s a major challenge at the moment for young unemployed people who don’t have a lot of experience or a lot of skill or a lot of education. I think they are the victims in this employment quandary that we are in.

FIFI PETERS: Perhaps what has made the quandary even worse – in fact, not even perhaps, it’s a statement of fact – is the pandemic, in which we saw a lot of businesses closing, a lot of people losing their jobs, a lot young people and a lot of women, mostly, losing their jobs.

In this time, I do understand that you spent this time with pen and paper writing your second book. It is focused specifically on emerging successfully from the crisis. You’re speaking specifically to women entrepreneurs. What’s your message to them, those who have seen the toughest of times, probably, over the past two years?

CINDY NORCOTT: I called my book ‘How does she do it?’ because I often have people saying, “Gosh, I don’t know how you do it. How do you do it?” And my message really is I do believe that women in business are incredibly hard on themselves. I think so many women are aiming for perfection when they actually could be aiming for 80%. That would be more than adequate. I think we try and do so many things and help so many people all the time, and we wear so many hats every day that it’s actually quite exhausting.

You are right, the pandemic has been very hard for women. So many women have had to care for so many people, their communities, their families, themselves, their staff, worrying about their businesses.

In the book I have written it’s just really the back end of business. People always see the success, they see the achievements – but they don’t actually see what really goes on, or what goes into the success, the long hours, the anxiety, the stress, the worry, the hard work. I really want to demystify that because I think sometimes women will put other women on a pedestal and they’ll say, “Ah, she’s so lucky or blessed because she’s got a great business. I can’t be like her because she’s made of different stuff”. And I want people to know that we are all made of the same stuff.

In the book I share things that I’ve learned. I share so many mistakes I’ve made, and some embarrassing moments as well. But I think it’s real, it’s raw, it’s vulnerable. It’s just behind the scenes. There’s no mask. This is a woman who has worked as hard as possible for 28 years, saying, you know what, this is what the journey has really been like for me. Let’s not worry about all the awards, all the achievements. Let me walk you through this journey and let me share with you what I’ve learned. That’s really my wish for other women in businesses, if they read it, to identify with the journey and to hopefully learn from the mistakes I’ve made so they don’t have to make them.

FIFI PETERS: That was going to be my next question. Out of curiosity, what is the biggest mistake or what are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made, and what were the lessons and the teachings that you got from making them?

CINDY NORCOTT: I think for me as a business owner and managing staff, I’d say probably the first mistake that I think I could have dealt with differently was learning how to be a leader, learning how to manage people, getting the best out of people, and not applying my own standards to other people. You know what it’s like when you’re passionate about your business, and you think about it 24/7, and you’re naïve and young and immature, you kind of expect everyone else to do the same thing. I think in the beginning it was about learning to be assertive, to say what I mean, mean what I say. I learned a lot about that.

The second thing I think was understanding financials. I always felt well, I’m not really good with figures. But you actually can’t run a successful business if you don’t understand the figures. We’ve got to learn, not [only] counting the trial balances, the balance sheets, you’ve got to learn how to work out costings and pricings. That’s a must. Nobody can sit there and say, ‘Oh, I don’t understand’. Well then you’ve got to find out.

I think the third thing that I’ve really battled with – maybe it’s a more personal thing – is boundaries, saying no. I’m one of those people who try to please the whole world, often to the detriment of my family, myself, my own company, sometimes, just trying to help others. So [it’s] knowing when no is no and when enough is enough. Also in terms of putting limits on work times and what you will actually do. Sometimes I think so many of us work far too hard, and we have to have more of a balance.

FIFI PETERS: Especially in the pandemic where the phenomenon of work from home happened, and there was no start or finish time.

CINDY NORCOTT: Exactly. And that’s what we see. So many people have been out for two reasons. One has been there’s been no defining boundary between work and home. Then the other thing I think has been that expectations have been raised. I think a lot of people are so scared of losing their jobs, they don’t know when to stop working. They have been working and working.

FIFI PETERS: Yeah, I can totally relate.

But Cindy, thanks so much for sharing those insights with us. I think particularly the message to a lot of female entrepreneurs out there is to stop chasing perfection, it doesn’t exist, and 80% is last season, it is out of fashion now.

But Cindy, we will leave it there. That is award-winning entrepreneur and author Cindy Norcott.

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