Judith Middleton is the founder of DUO Marketing + Communications, where she is now the director of new business development. DUO Marketing + Communications is a South African public relations and digital agency that serves the business-to-business tech industry. The company has recently expanded into Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya, to support the growing tech boom in Africa.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
Without doubt: cashflow management. The business can be strong and healthy, with solid recurring revenue, but that doesn’t mean customers pay on time or adhere to their part of the contract. Fortunately, this has only happened twice in our nearly 15-year history and when we were truly honest with ourselves; we acknowledged that the mutual value and respect for one another just wasn’t there. So we took a hard line and “blessed and released” the client.
The impact on one’s health, wellbeing and team morale just isn’t worth a late-paying client who disregards the agreement. We also created a firmer payment policy with penalty clauses, which we now enforce. Trust and hope are an entrepreneur’s reverie when we don’t really want to confront what truly is so.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
While I’ve been involved in many businesses as a coach, mentor, advisor, director or member of a board – DUO Marketing + Communications is the business I’m most proud of. The reason for this is that, although I founded it and grew it through its teenage years, being able to hand it over to a highly competent CEO has been the greatest gift, to me personally, as well as to our clients.
The level of service, skill, truly measurable results, is better now than it has ever been. Leadership and management are two separate roles and I now get to focus on what I love: finding better systems, developing new products, and driving new business for the company.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
Interestingly, I recently discovered that loyalty has a dark side and is potentially a bigger weakness than a virtue in some instances. I really value connection and trusted relationships, but sometimes we depend too heavily on individuals who aren’t quite as committed to the process or outcome as we are. This has led to real frustration as I tend to see possibility in everyone and get deeply frustrated when they don’t see that for themselves or don’t value their own worth.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
I’m not a fan of pop-psychology for business and because every product or service in every new market is different; it’s not always useful to take on generic advice. I find the best tool is to listen. Listen to your clients, they will tell you what they need. Listen to your staff and trust their opinions. Listen to your intuition and your body, it seldom lets you down.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
Plenty, but here is my short list:
Get a coach/mentor – we often go too far down the rabbit hole blindsided by passion. A dash of perspective from a trusted outsider can be enormously valuable. Learn to hear the “no” and apply it – there is always something to learn from a “no”. Dig deep and find it. A “no” from a customer may mean the pitch is wrong or that you didn’t understand their perspective; it doesn’t mean your product or solution is a failure. Keep testing and don’t take it personally.
Be open to the possibility of being wrong – listening is the only way we learn. Righteousness killed many a good entrepreneur. Hire the very best you can afford. Hire people who are good at what you aren’t good at. No entrepreneur can do it all – business development, finance, human resources, sales etc. Do what you are good at and hire the rest in as fast as you can pay for quality skills.
Focus on your strengths – it’s the best way to sustain passion. Join a business group/network. Discussing entrepreneurial pain points with like-minded individuals keeps you humble and sane.
Get away from the business every now and again – perspective is invaluable. Be prepared to work harder than any of your friends in corporate roles. The early years can be harrowing. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Manage growth carefully – too many businesses break due to fast growth. Quality suffers when effective systems aren’t in place (and most often you only learn this when the heat is turned up). Manage your brand perception – it takes one poorly crafted or angry tweet to ruin your reputation. Trust your team and allow them to surprise you.
Develop your emotional quotient (EQ) and do as many personal development courses as you can. EQ has been proven to be more beneficial than IQ in business and especially in relationship management. Manage your wellbeing; we often become workaholics (disguised as passion) and lose connection with our health, families etc. Burnout is common. It’s really not sexy.
Bootstrap as much as you can. Supplement cashflow if you can. Think global from day one. Be careful who you take money from especially in the early stages.
‘The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip, and content production by Justin Probyn.