Inspirational Woman: Debra Charles | Founder & CEO, Novacroft

What inspired you to start a business?

Inspirational Woman - Debra Charles
Inspirational Woman - Debra Charles

Technology and determination! Novacroft is a smartcard programme and software solution company, which I founded in 1998 after working for Apple and Westinghouse, where I fell in love with the tech world. The internet was just taking off and I saw how it could be used to give stakeholders transparency across their projects. There seemed to be particular potential in the transport industry. I kept the idea for an online database in my back pocket for a while and then, when my parents passed away, I realised that the only barriers in life were the ones I'd made for myself. I knew it was time to turn my idea into reality.

Today we work with public, private and third sector clients, including Transport for London on their concessionary Oyster photocard schemes, to help them simplify complexities and achieve efficiencies through innovation and technology. We’ve also recently begun implementing a social action programme, called Ucando­it, which helps organisations across all sectors recognise and reward their customers, volunteers and team members for all the positive things they do, whether that’s using public transport, recycling, keeping fit or donating their time to charity.

What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?

Running a business means bringing people together. People matter ­ at the end of the day everyone needs to put food on the table. But despite all the people, running a business can be lonely. It’s a great responsibility, I take it very seriously. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. But I don’t think of worst moments, it’s about ensuring you invest in capability and capacity. You learn from experience and continuously improve.

The greatest reward ­ apart from walking into our sensational new offices each morning and looking around at the amazing Novacroft team, you mean?! The next best thing for me will always be looking ahead, scanning the horizon for the game­changing ideas that will open up exciting new opportunities for our clients so we can keep helping them get more for less ­ and making life easier for everyone!

What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failures?

The first piece of advice I’d give is to embrace your differences and what makes you unique, and set goals based on what you want to achieve, not what others tell you. For instance, having dyslexia hasn’t hindered be as everyone said it would – it’s actually helped me be a stronger, more confident person and given me a helicopter perspective of the world, which means I see problems and solutions in a different way to others. I use mind maps, illustrations and charts both in my thinking and when explaining my ideas because, for me, these are far clearer than words on a page.

I was never given much of a chance at school, due to my dyslexia, and as I got older and started working I wanted to show people what I could do. I often feel I wouldn’t have set up my own business if I wasn’t so determined to beat the challenge of dyslexia. It’s been a gift.

Anyone can achieve their goals and manage the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, so long as they have a clear purpose. Stand out from the crowd, explore what makes you happy. Find an idea or a passionand make it different, forget about conforming. Then it’s having the energy, will and determination to follow it through and to ensure you’re creating something that will work. But leave your ego at the door.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a business owner?

Early on I learnt a huge lesson about having faith in my own ideas and standards. I invested
£90,000 of my inheritance in the development of Novacroft’s first data management system and it didn't work. Being too lenient with the developers cost me the bulk of my parents' estate, which was really upsetting because they'd worked so hard for everything. I persisted, though, recruiting my first team member, who turned my vision for the system into reality ­ and is still evolving and enhancing it all these years later! Another challenge in the early days was getting organisations to realise that using online application processes could solve so many of the problems they had with manual interventions involving postal forms and delivery. We've come a long way since then and have enabled many public sector organisations to embrace the change!

How have you benefited from mentoring or coaching?

Mentoring is a huge part of being a good leader. For me, it’s about giving something back and unlocking the talents of the next generation, to inspire them and give them confidence to pursue their dreams. I was recently fortunate enough to provide mentoring to a number of tech start­ups as part of the HackTrain Accelerator programme. Our aim is to make the use of public transport more attractive, and make it easier to use. The Accelerator programme perfectly encapsulates the essence of innovation in rail and is an obvious fit for us. I was delighted to be able to bring my expertise, technological know­how and passion for innovation to the programme so that we can really make a meaningful difference to society.

What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?

I see it more as collaboration, and collaboration is a very positive thing. There are some amazing people in the world, and as a business leader I feel that it’s essential to reach out and share ideas ­ together, people can do good things. One of the big challenges of collaboration, is that it requires you to take a leap of faith and someti-mes get out of your comfort zone. But the results can be amazing ­ the people you meet, the things that happ-en. So look at events, groups, at any event where you can collaborate and add value.

What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth?

Have clarity around your vision, ensure it makes sense. Turning your vision into a reality is about investment into the products and services required, having the right processes, and ensuring you have the right talent. The people around you must be people that can help ensure the validity and robustness of the organisation’s vision, ensure it’s realistic and financially viable. Organisational resilience is key, enabling you to be adaptable and agile, ready to tackle opportunities and risks.

There’s also a personal element to this. We need to ensure that we care for ourselves as individuals. As a leader, how can you give your organisation and team the motivation they require and deserve if you haven’t looked after yourself?

What does the future hold for you?

The future is very bright! A huge opportunity for us lies in our Ucando­it programme and supporting positive community action in collaboration with charities and volunteer organisations. We’ll continue to invest in our future too because we’re always looking to improve, so we’ll further develop our core products and services as well as enable our R&D team to develop game­changing innovations.

While today we are aiming to put people in control through our smartcard and software solutions, helping our clients get more for less and making life easier for all, in the future we’ll help them say goodbye to the mundane activities in life. Our goal is to develop smart solutions for things like remote­control homes and next­generation communities, freeing people from unwanted tasks and giving them more time for fun.