Debra Charles, founder of smartcard technology and software company Novacroft, shrugged off the stigma of dyslexia and being called ‘thick’ to launch a company which now turns over £10m and employs 300 staff. She talks start-ups, software and self-belief
Chopper bikes and Swiss rolls were an early sign of my entrepreneurialism. When I was 10 my brother and I got paper rounds because I wanted to buy a Chopper and he wanted a road bike. We set up a fortnightly cinema club in our village hall when I was 14 with a second-hand reel-to-reel projector, charged an entrance fee, and made Swiss rolls and sold orange juice.
I always felt different. At school I was regularly taken out for dyslexia tests and not really performing. The fact I was adopted and being told I was thick made me feel alone. It wasn’t until I got older that I saw someone as inspirational as Richard Branson doing things differently and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s amazing’.
I always wanted to be a leader… but the careers adviser said I wouldn’t fit into that framework. Fortunately my mum didn’t fit into a box either. She showed and judged Labradors around the world and made an income from it.
My mum was an Olympian parent – that’s the parent who makes you strive for recognition but keeps putting you off. I spent my childhood seeking my parents’ approval and striving to demonstrate I wasn’t stupid.
I lied about my age to get my first job in the glass department at retailer Lewis’s Group. I was approaching 20. I learnt about budgets and people, that we are all human beings and should be treated appropriately. There was a real formality about retail then. Managers had separate dining rooms and toilets. Segregation is really shocking and appalling. It was challenging at first, dealing with aggressive people who didn’t like the new kid on the block.
Retail didn’t offer career scope; technology excited me. I saw an advert for a marketing coordinator at Westinghouse, rolling out robotics across Europe in car manufacturing and healthcare. I knew I had some – not all – of the skills they wanted, so I put a CV together. I got the job and loved it.
If you don’t show yourself you’ll get overlooked. It was a challenge. I’d work through the night to ensure I was fully versed before any meeting. I learnt a heap of stuff about technology, processes, commerce and personal PR.
I loved the Apple Mac so much I joined the company! Nearing the millennium you could feel the world changing. I remember being told the future wouldn’t be big companies but small start-ups in their bedrooms. It was the catalyst I needed to start a business.
I’ve always had a helicopter view on life. I look at what life might be like in the future, what it looks like now and in the past. I saw in the internet an opportunity for an online, transparent database that provided really useful data. Then both my parents got ill with cancer.
Their deaths made me realise life is short, you need to make it count. They worked hard for their money – my dad was an RAC patrolman – and I wanted my inheritance to mean something, not be frittered away. Before she died, Mum insisted Novacroft, the name of the kennels she ran, didn’t leave the family. It was important.
There were perilous times. Crisis hit before we got off the starting blocks. I commissioned a database, having never written a full brief, and lost £90,000. I brought in Daryl Hurst, who still works at Novacroft [as R&D manager], who could talk in layman’s and technical terms.
When hard times hit, rise to the opportunity. When the recession saw government budgets being stretched, we invested, invested, invested to provide products that helped them get more for less.
You need to recognise when to lean into a business. We’d grown from 10 to 300 staff, but 18 months ago, from my helicopter view,I could see silos and inefficient processes. We’ve made changes and now have an enterprise team delivering more effectively. Our mantra is ‘One team with a start-up mindset for growth’.
It’s the journey not the destination. I realised I could turn things around by looking at what wasn’t working and identifying the changes I needed to make. I formed the enterprise team as a coalition for change, looking at the behaviours we wanted to leave behind and those to take with us.
There is something amazing in everyone. The problem is low self-esteem because we believe the untruths we hear from others. This year I set up the Entrepreneur’s Allotment programme through Novacroft to inspire disadvantaged children to recognise their own talents and help them consider starting their own businesses. I want to help start-ups turn vision into reality. Seeing a person flourish really floats my boat.
Debra Charles CV
Born Lichfield, Staffordshire
Education Newport Girls High School, Shropshire. Left school early in the upper sixth while studying art and general science.
1979-85 Retail manager, Lewis’s Group, Birmingham
1985-90 European marketing co-ordinator, Westinghouse Robotics, Telford
1990-96 Marketing director, Apple, Birmingham
1998 Launched Novacroft
Did you know? Novacroft provides smartcards and online application services to organisations including the Royal British Legion, Transport for London’s Oyster programme and West Yorkshire Combined Authority.
Debra Charles is a member of IoD South