How often do you hear of parents doubting the viability of their child’s career choice? That is what Ms Lindy Scott had to contend with, when she enrolled to study Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2007. Fast-forward to 2022 and 33-year-old Lindy Scott is now Managing Director and Creative Strategist for Conceptual Eyes (with just-under R5m annual turnover) and its brand-new sister company, Amber. And the business outlook is promising.
Ms Lindy Scott (left) related the story of her business in a talk titled From Art School to Amber at last week’s SWEEP Economic Activation Workshop. SWEEP is the Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP), and a brainchild of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training that is being implemented in partnership with Universities South Africa. The workshop, which was hosted for women looking to create business while studying, was an empowerment exercise positioning them for economic activity. Participants were drawn from those who have signed up for SWEEP and more, from South Africa’s public universities.
For Ms Scott, a huge game-changer occurred in her last three years of high school when her art teacher identified a strong creative streak in her and encouraged her to consider pursuing a career in Fine Art. “My parents were very nervous about this career choice. We all know the story of the starving artist –the crazy artist who cuts off their earring but never sells a painting… So, these were the narratives I was constantly hearing from my parents. They were really worried about me pursuing this degree.” She said throughout her university life her parents occasionally asked her “where are you gonna work – what type of job are you gonna get? I, nonetheless, found this an incredible degree.”
Even though Scott did not feel particularly talented in painting or drawing, she loved that the programme was sharpening her creativity. At graduation, in 2010, she already had a job offer from a team building company called Dream Team Catalyst, for which she worked for one year before securing another internship opportunity with Hercules Trophy, which was Dream Team’s partner company in Belgium.
At the age of 22, Scott secured an au pair visa to work for a family of entrepreneurs in whose business she was to intern – supporting team building projects. “I was exposed to this incredible, task-driven Dutch-Belgian culture, where people did things completely differently from what I was accustomed to,” she said. Living in Belgium would shape her thoughts and outlook on life, and career, for good.
From day to day, Scott was mesmerized by little things. For instance, the wife, in the couple that she worked for, had not taken the husband’s surname. “That was completely new to me. When I asked why, she said ‘I don’t what to change my name. I am an independent woman, a CEO, and his partner. Why should I change my name?’ It really inspired me to see that there were options for women entering marriage, who did not want to lose their identity. I also got exposed to museums, galleries and huge business, that I had never seen before.”
It was in Belgium that the idea of starting her own business was hatched.
Starting out amidst great negativity
When her one-year visa expired, she returned to South Africa. Her business idea was built on the things she had been doing at Dream Team Catalyst and at Hercules Trophy. All she wanted was to create visual aesthetic solutions for companies and bring creativity into workspaces. “Even though I saw possibilities, I had a lot of doubt. People spoke a lot of negativity to me, like ‘nobody would ever, ever, pay you for coming up with ideas.’” Despite all of that, Ms Scott trusted in this process and went on to found her first company, Conceptual Eyes, that focuses on internal communication, in 2013.
“I founded this company with colleagues who included a lady I had met on Instagram, who later became my Angel Investor and a business partner.” She says this business performed exceptionally well for about five years and started to attract a lot of mining clients.
One day, out of the blue, Conceptual Eyes got a call to assist with Health and Safety content for a mining company. “As an entrepreneur you take any job that you get given, and it was a high-paying job, so we jumped in and did the job.”
Scott says she was fascinated by Health and Safety, which she found to be an incredible body of knowledge with a lot of complexity. “Health and Safety became everything that I had ever wanted to do.” Seeing an opportunity in the market in this field, she approached her investor with an idea to start a separate company that totally focused on Health and Safety. That is how Health and Safety Dialogue Company was born in 2018.
Eager to learn more on this field, in 2019, she, her partner and a colleague took time off to go research on Health and Safety in Canada. “As if we were rock stars, we went on a trip around the country to learn about Health and Safety approaches in different cultures as a benchmark to what was to become their own practice. “We already had an idea to create a platform called Amber, our goal being to become a Unicorn one day – hence putting so much time into this research.
In 2020, Scott took up a voluntary position in Women in Mining, a non-governmental organisation that was seeking to open doors for women in a male-dominated industry. In that time, they were building up software that was to lead to the birth of Amber, her third company, in May 2021.
A snapshot of her two businesses
Conceptual Eyes, a people-focused, experiential consultancy venture, generates live-drawings at conferences as people speak. “So, we will create a visual summary of the proceedings. We also do workshops on design thinking,” Scott explained. “Amber, on the other hand, is a tech-based entity generating creative software solutions on health and safety and does health and safety communication. Our revenue streams are software keynotes and this company is registered in the United Kingdom because the vision around it was to build it in every continent. Amber has not yet started taking revenue.” In other words, Health and Safety Dialogue Company morphed into, and became one venture with Amber.
“So, my journey has been unique in that the team that started with me on the one business, has grown with me, into the second one.”
Tips to aspiring businesswomen
She said it was important for any woman contemplating going into business, to heed the following:
- Know yourself – Lindy Scott knew her strengths, right from the day she started off at university. For her, creativity was the strongest trait she had brought into business. Her love for brainstorming and concept development complements her creativity in facilitating design thinking workshops. “What is unique to you will make you an entrepreneur. My unique characteristics are what people notice when I walk into a room, whether I mention it or not.”
She said anyone who has empathy in them, who can understand a client’s challenge and conceptualise a solution for it, is already into Design Thinking, a model Scott applies a lot in health and safety. At the beginning, she created prototypes of her solutions and tested, re-tested and practised them among family and friends before she could apply them to clients.
- Know your financial situation and what type of life you want to live: Entrepreneurship is full of uncertainties. Not knowing where your next pay cheque is going to come from is often the reality of running your own business. There were times when Conceptual Eyes made a lot of money but when Covid-19 came, we reached a point of zero revenue. We were very fortunate to have two businesses and that is how we could keep Conceptual Eyes going.
- Put in a lot of thought into the business idea: the concept will revolve around the world you are trying to serve. Remember, businesses exist to serve people. Think through and choose the right time to solve problems. Most businesses started as sketches on a piece of paper.
- Be Brave: I was brave enough to share my business idea with people who mattered. I was just confident in myself and believed in the goodness of people; by opening up to this lady (see below), who was curious about my plans after Belgium, I found my Angel investor and she found in me, a business partner. And here we are, growing together in business.
- Always keep an eye out: You never know who a game-changer in your life will be. Those opportunities are everywhere.
- Unlearn negativity: Initially, I thought finances and numbers crunching was someone else’s problem. I quickly had to unlearn that. I realised how naive I was when I was asked about the funding I needed to start Conceptual Eyes. My numbers were unrealistically low; but my investor worked them out with me. That’s when I appreciated the need to understand numbers if I was to run a business.
- Test out your idea: Even if people shoot it down, have enough faith in it to test it out. If it does not work and it turns out nobody wants to pay for it, then so be it. But never just go on people’s opinions.
- Do the work: When you come across a business willing to try out your services, put in the effort. Entrepreneurship is about putting in long, hard hours, long before you can start popping champaign bottles. It took me many night hours in front of the computer, conceptualising ideas for numerous different clients. Also accept that some days will be great, but others will be terrible.
- Upskill: maintain a learning mindset. Things change so quickly, you will never, ever rely only on one body of knowledge that you brought into the enterprise. After graduating I did a course in digital marketing – and that field changes all the time. I also acquired nine other skills as shown below. Keep absorbing knowledge – you never know when you will need it. The 10 things I did, I did over time, not just once to tick them off and remove them from the list.
She says her hunger for learning dates to her days at varsity (see below). In the quest to gather as much knowledge as she could, she got took every gig opportunity she got. Below are things she got involved with, all of which she found herself reaping from, seven to ten years later. This included be-friending fellow students from Drama and Architecture – from which she picked up ideas and opportunities to collaborate across sectors – something that still benefits her business today.
- Tell your story: But do not let it be all about you. Building the brand around you, and not your business, means people will learn to trust you, personally, and not your business. You cannot be at more than one place at a time. Empower others so that your company can be trusted to deliver the work, even in your absence.
- Build a team but keep it lean: You will need someone to do the finances, or to draw, as in my case. Find talented people to do things that take up your most time. Keep your team as lean as possible. It is extremely difficult to create employment, and yet it is something we’re very proud to have achieved over the years. Employing other people means a payroll responsibility added to you as the entrepreneur and with it, the UIF, PAYE and the mammoth monthly administration that comes with staff.
As a beginner, try and outsource work and only bring in people as you grow.
Embrace sales work: You must sell and talk about money. Be mindful of cancellations. We experienced massive cancellations along the way. Learn to charge cancellation fees. Even if you have an accountant, or an investor, you cannot run away from selling, and discussing payments. Put on that cheeky smile and get on with it. That is the only way your business will survive.
‘Mateboho Green is Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.