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  • Catherine Hodgson

Entrepreneurship - Lessons learnt when I dared to dream

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

By Catherine Hodgson

To be an entrepreneur requires courage, determination, perseverance, hard work and resilience. Don’t think you’re taking the easy route - this route is for the brave hearted. But the rewards can extend beyond your wildest expectations....

I never set out to be an entrepreneur. From an early age I knew I wanted to be involved in business and could imagine myself running a company, but I was thinking more along the lines of corporate board rooms and Fortune 500 companies. However, after 7 years in the corporate world, bashing my head against the glass ceiling as a woman, I started dreaming of running my own business. I never thought I would have so much fun starting my own company with my husband as I have had over the past 28 years.

So what have I learnt about being an entrepreneur that I can pay forward to anyone willing to learn?

1. Never burn bridges as you don’t know who will show up in a position of influence down the line!

So many times a person resigns from one company and pops up in another one - people also tend to stick to the same industry and just move around. A colleague of mine from the cosmetics company I worked for, became the cosmetics buyer for a large retailer a few years after I had left. In one phone call and a few meetings later, we became listed with that retailer and have been supplying them for 26 years. Unfortunately, it does work the opposite way around as well. One person who I did not get on very well with at a company, became a manager in another retail company where we were pitching for business. They subsequently blocked us from getting the business - big lesson learnt there!

2. Ask for help if you need it!

I can be a stubborn person and fiercely independent. However, when my husband and I first set up our company, we had little money and nothing to put forward as surety for a bank loan. My father-in-law backed us after we asked him if he would stand surety for us. Luckily he believed in us and our business. We would never have been able to fund our first order without him! Put your pride to one side and ask for help!

3. Don’t give up!

So many times we have been turned down. If we had given up then we would not have a business today. Sometimes we have been a little too ahead of the market for our product - it gets turned down this year, but the buyer loves it the next year. We have been rejected by companies but accepted a few years later when there are new buyers on board. One has to be thick skinned and not take rejection personally.

4. You will experience failure!

Be prepared for it, know how to deal with it and then get over it! Things will go wrong and they do! You need to be resilient and be able to bounce forward. Everything is not going to go according to plan every time. It’s how you deal with things when they do go wrong that’s important.

My suggestions to my team are as follows: “be honest with the customer, admit that something has gone wrong, take responsibility and ownership, accept the blame and apologise, have a solution or a few possible solutions to correct the wrongdoing and keep the customer updated at all times.”

Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint hearted. You need to be strong and resilient to get through some tough times. There is no place to hide – be open, honest and transparent…..ALWAYS.

5. You need to be able to make decisions.

You don’t want to be a dictator, but sometimes, after you have listened to everyone’s input, the decision may fall on you and someone needs to call it. People are going to look to you for leadership, to make some final decisions and you need to be able to do that. Be decisive and people will respect you for it.

6. It’s a lot of hard work and then there is the guilt.

Being your own boss does not come without hard work and long hours. You are exchanging a day where you may work from 9 to 5, to being “on” 24/7 - especially when you’re building your business. Even if you are not physically doing the work, you are thinking about it constantly. I carried on working all through my pregnancies, even when our girls were little. I felt guilty every day when I had to travel or be away from our daughters. It was a constant juggle of working and being a mother - I wanted to do both well. I was fortunate to be in business with my husband who also took on the role of business partner and parent. When I was busy, he stepped in to look after the girls and when he was busy I did the same. One of us always fetched and carried our girls to and from school, was with them each afternoon to do homework or to transport them to extra mural activities. We were like a tag team.

Our commitment was the following: we would not rely on au pairs, we wanted to co-parent and we would not miss any teachers’ meeting, musical recitals, hockey matches, swimming galas, carol services, prize-giving or whatever was in the girl’s calendar. I had opted to be an entrepreneur so that I could spend more time with our family and I honoured that above all else. However, it was a constant fight with feeling guilty and feeling personally fulfilled.

7. Your job will go from building a product and business to leading and managing people.

Unless you remain hands-on and don’t employ too many people, you will eventually just be managing people… and of course thinking about the direction you want to take the business and overall strategy. While the business is still starting out, one usually cannot afford to hire managers. I had to be flexible and learn along my entrepreneurial journey until we could get big enough to hire people to manage.

Nobody taught me Human Resources, Industrial Relations, Coaching, Mentoring, IT and Conversational Intelligence. I didn’t know the first thing about hiring people, disciplinary hearings, employee benefits, feedback, counselling, coaching, 360’s, performance reviews, etc. I had to keep on learning and upskilling myself to know what I was doing. One goes into a business because you are wanting to offer a product or service and then have to learn how to be a guru in marketing, finance, human resources, sales, IT, etc.

Conversational skills such as listening and being curious, being empathetic and getting in touch with our emotions, are some of the things that will go a long way to honing your leadership skills!

8. Build a network of like-minded people to support you.

After 10 years of running the business with my husband (and raising two daughters), I realized that I didn’t have any colleagues to call on. My husband was in the business with me and then we had our employees. I missed my contemporaries from my corporate days - people I could bounce ideas off, colleagues, others who were facing the same problems as me. Most of my girlfriends were not working so I felt quite lonely. I subsequently joined a business organization which opened up a whole new world for me. All of a sudden I had other CEO’s and entrepreneurs that I could call on and discuss business with. It was a relief and a life line. I have not looked back since. Reach out to a business organization that can help support you on your entrepreneurial journey.

9. Seek out a few mentors.

I have had mentors throughout my career. My husband has been the most influential mentor on my entrepreneurial journey. There is always someone who can help you along the way – just reach out to them and ask them if they would be willing to be your mentor. They are usually flattered by the invitation.

I had a formal mentoring relationship in the business organization that I belong to and it was invaluable for dealing with a lot of issues that I was experiencing. He stretched my thinking, pushed me to think about issues that I did not want to deal with, supported me along the way and was an unbiased sounding board. You can walk much further with a mentor by your side.

10. Be flexible and open to change! You have to be able to change and adapt along the way. The business that we started 28 years ago is very different to the businesses that we have now. Don't get stuck in your ways otherwise you will be left behind. As soon as a retailer wanted us to do something differently or adopt a new system, we were open to listen and adapt if necessary. It was never "We have done it like this for so long, we know it works and we are not open to change." If things can be improved then we are open to improve them. Be open to learn and to think differently.

I believe that entrepreneurship can be learnt - you don’t need to be born an entrepreneur. More schools should be teaching it and encouraging it. You can learn how to be a self-starter, courageous, resilient, determined and hard working. You can learn perseverance. You can learn leadership skills. However, I believe it's impossible to start a business without being passionate about what you are doing. If you are passionate about it, it will never feel like work. The moment that I resigned from corporate to start my own business, was the moment that the Sunday night ‘knots in my stomach’ and ‘grey cloud of the looming Monday morning’ disappeared. I have never had that feeling again. I love what I do every day and continue to grow and learn.

What I love most though, is the impact that I and our business can make on others and our planet. My joy is helping to grow and develop others, supporting our staff and seeing them and their families flourish.

In our retail supplier business we are constantly trying to find alternative methods to reduce our energy consumption, waste, water use, etc. We are also working with retailers and our factories in using more biodegradable packaging and being more ‘planet friendly’ during production of our products. This makes it all worthwhile. As entrepreneurs, we can make those decisions ourselves and have an impact on our environment and society.

Over the past 14 years I developed a passion for mentoring and coaching which has been my north star and my new business venture. Making a positive difference in other peoples' lives has been my driver.

Looking back all these years later, I have absolutely no doubt that I made the right decision. It gave me the freedom that I was looking for, as well as inspired our daughters to start their own business, and now join our family business. I must have done something right as they have told their friends that I have been a big role-model for them.

If you feel that you have it in you - what’s holding you back? Dream big and create a vision. Don’t let your limiting assumptions get in the way. Plan meticulously for it. Do the market research. Set up a roadmap with a time-line, goals and milestones. Then go for it!

Dare to dream…then put it into action!

Article by Catherine Hodgson

Catherine Hodgson is the co-founder and CEO of The Hodgson Group in South Africa and SHIFT Mentoring. Hodgson joined YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) in 2009 and served as Global Mentoring Chair for 5 years. She is a Mentoring Facilitator, YPO Forum Facilitator, Certified Coach and Certified in Conversational Intelligence. Married with two daughters, she lives in Cape Town, South Africa and part of the year in Europe.

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