You don’t have to work for anyone

You don’t have to work for anyone – Catherine Young’s story


“No, I can’t go do a floor walk now. I have customers and this lettuce on the floor needs to get on the shelf first. Could you help me pack them please?

These were the words of 21-year-old Catherine Young, to the CEO of Shoprite, Whitey Basson after he walked into the 600m2 Plettenberg Bay store one scorching afternoon in the middle of the busy season. And what do you know—that’s just what he did. He helped Catherine pack shelves!

Hard work and how to prioritise—those were things Catherine knew about from a young age. The oldest daughter in a single parent household, Catherine was working her way up in the Shoprite group in order to help support her single mother and younger sister, and she was no stranger to scrubbing floors or packing shelves.

James Wellwood “Whitey” Basson was one of those legendary captains of industry who built empires from a position of firm control. A veteran of World War II and South African politics, Basson qualified as a chartered accountant and over time earned a reputation for rebuilding troubled companies. He built Checkers from an eight-store grocery chain to one of the country’s largest supermarket chains, listing on the JSE in 1986.

Basson was used to managers leaping to attention and doing his bidding immediately, and while Catherine had a clear understanding of the importance of the CEO’s visit, she also had lettuce on the floor that was looking more and more limp by the second.

This interaction would become the spark that would light a wildfire that became Catherine’s corporate career and later led to her blossoming entrepreneurship life.  Whitey became a mentor for her – transferring her to head office soon after their first meeting – and Catherine went on to soak in everything she could from the man who would create one of the greatest retail brands in South Africa.

From Shoprite, Catherine worked for Chevron and then Deloitte, all the while learning as much as she could about corporate life. While entrenched in a successful corporate career, Catherine soon realised she wanted to work for herself and that is precisely what she did, creating her own consultancy; Thinkroom Consulting in 2014. The company’s mantra was simple: Thinkroom – 20% better quality, 20% less cost.

From small beginnings in South Africa, the company now spans across 26 countries in Africa with plans for global expansion steadily on the way. Through the creation of Thinkroom, Catherine’s goal was simple: to grow the world’s trailblazing entrepreneurs in order to unlock their full potential.

Catherine and the Thinkroom team believe that Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) play a critical role in the creation of jobs in many countries across the world. At the same time, many big businesses have a specific imperative to run entrepreneurship programmes, not only for the development of their supply chains, but also to enable small business growth and to increase the impact on local economies. Very often these big corporations do not have the expertise or resources to plan and manage these programmes themselves and that is where the Thinkroom team comes in.

For over a decade now, Thinkroom has been helping big businesses develop their own customised SME programmes while simultaneously assisting them with the implementation of those programmes and systems through hands-on mentoring and a carefully curated training programme; Thinkubate.

With a global, but Africa-centric footprint, concentrating on local SMEs, Thinkroom facilitates industry-leading programmes and partnerships that will ensure the success of any entrepreneurial programme. Since inception, Thinkroom has helped countless businesses develop their own customised SME programmes, assisting them with the implementation of those systems through Thinkroom’s carefully curated programmatic approach.

Catherine notes:

“We work with locals on the ground, so we never go into a country and bring the South African way. We always respect the way that’s on the ground and work with local organisations.”

Now an industry thought-leader, Catherine recently sat down with Digital Jersey to share her insights on starting a business and her experiences in the corporate world and then as an entrepreneur.


Watch the video here:


Here are Catherine Young’s top tips for SME business growth:

  • Tip 1: Never say what you are expected to say, rather say what is needed to get the job done. 

Entrepreneurs need to go with their instinct and understand what needs to be done, while also knowing what to prioritise.


  •  Tip 2: Get corporate experience before going solo. Working in the trenches for corporates teaches invaluable lessons about structure and discipline. 

Entrepreneurs who don’t take this route and instead start out on their own should try and find a mentor who has corporate experience. Finding a mentor who has the experience you need will help you to overcome more obstacles than you can imagine.


  • Tip 3: Choosing a business partner. 

If you decided to take on a business partner, make sure that partner is on the same page and wants the same things you do, or it may be very hard to make it work. Ending up in a wrong partnership can be quite destructive and the dissolution of a partnership can often come with legal implications that can cause tremendous strain both financially and emotionally. So, pick carefully.


  • Tip 4: Money/ Capital. 

Having limited funds or even no money, should not be a barrier. Money is often a conduit. There is always money somewhere, the trick is to get it in, to get it on-board. The rest will follow.

Take outside money as late as you can. Bootstrap for as long as you can. The minute you take a funding round you’ve set a perceived value for your business and you hardly go back from that. The customer is your best and cheapest way of funding, for the first two years. As you build traction in your business, then start looking for funding. This way you will get a fair value when it comes to the valuation of your business.


  • Tip 5: Character is very important.

Entrepreneurs need to have a glass half full approach to life. If something doesn’t work, lick your wounds for a couple of hours, and then move on and start focusing again on the positive side of things. Start with a new plan, find a different way to execute the plan, adjust the costs.

Think about things differently.


  • Tip 6: Entrepreneurs shouldn’t be too in love with their product. 

If a product doesn’t work, leave it behind and focus on something new. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings but be sure to learn from the experience, including why something doesn’t work and then try something different.


  • Tip 7:  The business.

When you choose the business you want to be in, be true to yourself and honest. What makes you passionate? Look at innovation – how can you do things better or differently? Consider global reach and how you can make your business live its values. The balance sheet items will follow.


  • Tip 8: The team. 

A team is about the people. You need to look for complimentary skill sets in a team. Diverse behavioural traits and diverse entrepreneurial DNA. Different bits make up the whole. All entrepreneurs have weaknesses and we can’t fix all our weaknesses. So when building a team, focus on your strengths and hire for your weaknesses.


  • Tip 9: Look for opportunity.

Make sure there is a market opportunity for what you want to offer. Somebody has to want to pay for it. Speak to other businesses and potential customers to see if there is appetite. Maybe the product market fit is actually not there. Don’t pour money into something that doesn’t sell. If your product offering is not working, pivot and move on or find a different way.


  • Tip 10: Growth and resilience is critical.

Entrepreneurs and founders of businesses should never stop seeking to improve. There should be a continuous learning and exploration to ensure growth. And when things get tough, stick it out, be resilient. There will be tough times. So have check points. Usually this would be at the end of year one, year three and a half, and year seven. You need to do whatever you have to do to make it work by each of those checkpoints. After each one the business really starts growing and you feel like you are finally going to make it. There will be stress, so find a coping mechanism. Figure out which one is yours and focus on that so it will help you get through the day.


Catherine Young has been around the block and she has experienced it all. She has worked for major corporations and she has gone her own way, something she encourages others to do.

“You don’t have to work for anyone,” is Catherine’s motto.



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