Start a business: How to hire, fire and inspire

“Fetola CEO Catherine Wijnberg reveals how to carefully nurture your relationship with employees.”

The best and the hardest part of business is the people. In the very beginning, one of the reasons I hired people was because I didn’t enjoy working alone from my living room. It was lonely and uninspiring to be a team of one, so as the work increased it was a treat to look for and employ my first team member, who 14 years later – even as the team has grown to 80 people around the country – is now my General Manager.

I believe that good people are a company’s best asset. They are the face and the force within a company and collectively make up the company culture. Carefully nurtured, a company culture is the secret sauce that differentiates you from your competition. To build that secret sauce you need to be mindful of three things.


Hiring is a lot like getting married. You are seeking someone to bring into the most central and important part of your life – your business. Just like a marriage partner, you want to be sure you have found the right person before you walk down the aisle! In South Africa, our labour laws are very tough and it’s hard to exit someone once you have hired them, so making the right hiring decision is even more important.

I always hire for attitude. Someone with the right talents but a bad attitude is worse than no-one at all, as bad attitude can spread in an organisation like a virus. Don’t be tempted to think their attitude will change – people are at their best behaviour in interviews, so it’s more likely to be all downhill from there.

A small startup can’t offer fancy offices, an impressive company brand or the salary and benefits of a large organisation but it can offer exactly what many people want, which is recognition, respect and the chance to make a difference.  “A grade” companies can only be built with A grade people, so get as close as you can to that from day one.

As a startup you need people with skill, passion and drive. People that believe in the vision of your company and want to grow with it, and you, as the business expands. Look for people with growth potential – intelligence, emotional stability, willingness to learn, resilience and complementary skills to your own.

Avoid hiring people in a hurry. Rushed recruitment results in tears as we overlook things in our desperation to fill the position, and then sit sadly paying the wrong person month after month. Avoid hiring friends and family too, unless you are absolutely sure that you can handle the personal dynamics and fall-out if the recruitment doesn’t work.

To take recruitment seriously I recommend at three-stage interview process with more than one person – so if you are alone, get someone else to help with your interviews. This will ensure you have a balanced view of the capabilities of the person, and they don’t feel you are grabbing the first person that turns up to the interview!

Interns and work experience graduates can be a great way to resource your small business providing a win-win for the graduate and you.


Firing unfortunately comes with the job of being a business owner. It’s always tough to have to exit someone from your company but is an essential (although hopefully very rare), part of maintaining the right team of people to build your vision. If you do need to let someone go, follow the labour law procedures. It is the procedural failures that result in problems. The more confident you are about the labour law, the quicker and more pain free this process will be.


Just as you need to feel inspired by your vision, so your people need inspired by you and the work that your business is offering them. People join and stay in small companies because they want to be more than just a number or a nameless person in a massive production line. They want to feel seen and heard, to feel special and an important part in making the business happen.

Make time to see your staff by greeting them, inquire about their well-being and care about who they are. Show them recognition by thanking them for their work, taking time to explain what and why their work is important to the business and sharing your vision of the business you are building. Show them respect by asking for their input and opinion, and by listening to and acknowledging their input. Show respect in the way you speak to, and about them.

Reward them with time off, with working conditions such as flexi-time, or work from home days that meet their needs, time for working parents to fetch and care for children and with small things such as birthday leave or an annual work anniversary celebration. Reward them by encouraging them to further their education and personal development, and with salaries that reflect their worth.

Remember to be generous in bidding people farewell. Good people do leave to make their way in the world, but fabulous people will always remain in your network – spreading the word about your company and building your future from the outside.

Lastly, continue to build yourself as a leader so that as the company grows you grow with it, creating space behind you for your people to fill as they grow and manifest the life that inspires them.

About the Author:

Catherine Wijnberg is the CEO of Fetola, a leading provider of scalable, world-class entrepreneurial support programmes for African entrepreneurs. Helping people build businesses that last through scalable solutions that deliver social, environmental and economic impact. Fetola means “change” in Sesotho – and they aim to empower people by supporting the growth and development of sustainable, empowered and thriving small and medium enterprises (SMEs) at scale.

Thank you for reading this article. Catherine regularly writes about small business development, sustainability and circularity, and has a passion for effecting scalable impact at the ecosystem level. To receive updates, please sign up here.