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How I dug myself out – and stay out – of debt (mostly)

Mirror, mirror on the wall… let’s talk about debt.

Debt can be an interesting little mirror. To your peccadillos. Your addictions. Your obsessions. In the early 90s, I was obsessed with 18 hole Doc Martens and CK One. Because I wanted to be Winona Ryder. (Don’t laugh.) But I was earning minimum wage, wearing a kilt and serving Guinness to foreigners.

Cue a store card.

That innocuous piece of plastic set the tone for my 20s: jol now, pay later. Only I was too young and naïve to get that the cost of “pay later” was more than just a few more rands and cents.

“Pay later” meant ending my 20s in a debt hole that mirrored obsessions involving beer, travel and first generation mp3 players. I don’t regret the travel, but I regret finding myself trapped in another country by the money I owed on booze and boogying. And having to spend a whole year paying off credit cards and choosing jobs for the cash rather than the career. And all in a country that’s perpetually grey.

And it meant I entered my 30s with no savings, no investments and no assets.

It was a rough lesson.

On the upside, I’m now allergic to store cards.

Am I debt free? Hell no. I’ve got a mortgage bond and car finance. But I’m comfortable with what that mirror shows me. And I work hard to make sure my penchant for ale and apps doesn’t dig me another hole. Here’s how.

  • I watch my spend. (Note: 22seven is a whizz for this). If the latest obsessions – sushi, shoes – start cranking up, I limit myself. I’m also pretty brutal now about differentiating between whether I want or need something. I’m no ascetic – in fact, I’m a borderline hedonist. But I’ve stopped buying (some of the) crap I really don’t need.
  • I only have one credit card. And it has a low limit. One I can actually pay off each month. I honestly don’t understand why people have more than one card, unless they are inviting debt. One card, that limits me to short term debt I’m comfortable with managing, works for me.
  • I save a little each month towards “big, unexpected shit”. Because I watch my spend, I know that the “big, unexpected shit” is usually house or car related. Roof repairs, new tires, a security upgrade. And it happens every year. And it used to screw me. So now I plan for it.
  • I have a “one in, one out” policy. If I buy anything, I have to throw something away. I started doing this primarily to deal with the clutter in my house. But unexpectedly it also made me think hard about what I was buying. Which meant I bought less. Winning.
  • I’m not afraid of good debt (vs bad debt). There’s a great explanation here of good vs bad debt. I’ve racked up debt to buy my house, start my own business and study further. All of which has paid off. But it’s not just about increasing economic net worth. For me, some debt is worth it if it increases my “experiences” net worth. Like travel.

I know that all of the above might make you want to gnaw out your own eyes with the very dullness of it all, but consider this: what is your debt saying about you? Is it reflecting scatter cushions and seasonal sales? Or Bali and building a business? I honestly don’t care what you spend your money on, but kidding yourself that the stuff is worth the real cost is just silly. It just makes the hole a little more comfortable.

Originally written for 22seven. 

Sisonke…an update

A couple of weeks ago I shared a story about Christophe who lost his wife in childbirth, left as a single dad to his newborn, Sisonke.  My mum and I were hoping to get a couple of things together for the little one to help her dad out…and I asked the interwebs for help.

The response was nothing short of astounding. 

We received a huge pile of stuff from people, some of it second hand, some of brand new.   Stuff from all over the country – and even on parcel sent all the way from London.  Nappies, bottles, formula, clothes (such cute clothes), shoes, toys, books, blankets, towels.  Everything a small little girl needs. 


just *some* of the stuff

I just want to send a massive heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped so generously.  You know who you are, you awesome humans.

We got this pic of Sisonke and a note from her dad….

Hallow guys, I just want to say thank you for all the things you gave for my daughter.  I’m so lucky to get some people like you guys.  God bless you guys.  THANK YOU.  …Mr Christophe Manyatela.


Beautiful Sisonke

Thank you!


Social business: win or fail?

It would seem the adoption of social as an internal business communications channel has been slow, despite pundits lauding it as a groundbreaking tool for innovation, collaboration and internal crowdsourcing.

A colleague recently shared this Sloan Review article which says that “[a]ccording to a survey of large companies in the U.S. and Europe already involved in social initiatives, only 10-20% of their employees are actively involved in social collaboration.”

So why aren’t employees applying their ninja social skillz in-house, when we all know they’re linktwitting their facebooks off?

Generally speaking, I think social communications tools in the workplace can be intimidating to employees:

1.    Everyone’s watching
The pressure to be smarter is higher.  And the faux pas that feels small on twitter feels bigger when it’s in front of colleagues (even though rationally, those colleagues could be following you on both)

2.    It’s too informal
Too many people are still stuck in the habit of using email as a ‘back up’ to document exchanges – social sometimes feels too intangible for discussions that then need action steps (and a ‘cover yourself’ mechanism).

3.    Too much noise
It’s hard to work out what to pay attention to and what to prioritise

I think internal corporate based social will only really work if:

  • Employees feel empowered (and safe enough) to talk and engage freely
  • There is a mechanism to convert social sharing and discussion into actual work streams and responsibilities
  • There is some function (similar to reddit or dig) to vote up really interesting or valuable content
  • There is a clever way to search and save interesting stuff, so that it doesn’t just get lost in the stream
  • That it’s used in conjunction with other internal channels for important comms – recognising that some people will NEVER use social channels

This is a bit off the cuff, but something I’ve been mulling over.  The power of social could be massive for businesses (especially ones that are large and global), but the trick will be replacing the trusty inbox with tools that are more useful at fostering good connections, not just overwhelming people with more data.

Is your business using social?  What do you think works?

Sisonke means “we stay together”

I’m not normally the type to ask for help, but every now and then, something sneaks in.  And this story just broke my heart.  Read this from my mom:

Darling – Christopher, one of my dustbin men, had a baby girl on 3 August this year and his wife tragically died in child birth.  The baby’s name is Sisonke and means ‘we stay together’!  He has no parents so is bringing up the baby on his own.  I bought a few things but am also trying to collect some old baby clothes, blankets etc to help him – I imagine from 6 months upwards.  Anything would be so welcome – perhaps some of your friends have the odd old baby-grow or whatever.  He is such a nice young man!!

If you have ANY old baby stuff to share, or have any friends who might be willing to part with old blankets or gear, or better yet, know any brands who might be willing to part with some old stock or something, please let me know.

Either email me at katiewolters [at] gmail [dot] com or catch me on twitter via @katewolters.

Sending this out there, with gratitude and hope.  Thank you.

8 tips for boulder bashing (aka keeping projects rolling)

click image for source

There is nothing worse than a project that makes you feel like Sisyphus.  You know, the ancient Greek guy who was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down the other side.  We all know the feeling.

I do a lot of work across countries, timezones and operational teams.  Keeping projects moving is one of the singular goals (and joys and banes) of my existence*.  These might be no-brainers, but these are my 8 tips for keeping projects moving, even when you’d rather give up and just go home.

1. Be realistic about timelines
Projects always take longer than you expect.  And there is nothing more demoralizing and energy draining than endless delays and missed deadlines.  Think…really think…about what (and who) it’s going to take to get your project done. And plan accordingly.

2. Talk about roles and responsibilities
In tasks that require a group, don’t assume you know whose going to do what.  Be explicit.  And be accountable.

3. Catch up regularly
This is particularly relevant for teams spread across locations or online based teams.  Keep a basic work in progress document or action items and hold a weekly or bi-weekly catch up to keep the team on track and motivated.  Weekly accountability, even informal, keeps momentum and makes problem solving easier.

4. Make the goal real
If the team knows what they’re contributing to, it helps.  Particularly on internal projects, where deadlines slip the most.  Seriously.  Being a cog in the machine is utterly soulless if you can’t see how deadly important your specific cog-i-ness is the smooth functioning of the machine (and if you don’t know what the machine is doing in the first place, then you’re really borked).  Metaphor tortured enough?

5. Empower your team to make decisions without you
Every project hits a wall when a decision needs to be made.  And if oneperson (usually busy) is the only decision maker, you’re basically waiting around until they can get to you.  If your team feels empowered to make the day-to-day decisions, but know to come to you with the big ones, you’ll have far more momentum.

6. Put a deadline on the big decisions
If you’re not able to reach consensus quickly, ask the senior member of the team to make a call and put a time frame on the final decision, whether it’s an hour or a day or a month.  Endless debate stagnates a project, but appropriately swift decision making can really move things along.

7. Call time
If a project isn’t going anywhere, take some time out to think about why.  Either have the courage to shut it down and move on to something new.  Or consider what – or who in the team – needs to change to get it back on track.

8. Look back
This is probably the one step that’s most underrated. At the end of each project, look back.  What helped move the process forward and what held it back?  Which were the bad decisions – and there are always bad decisions – and what might you have done differently (with more time, or less pressure?) What can you take into the next project?

Any to add to the list?  How do you help to keep your team on track?

*particularly because these lovely people are generally working on my projects over and above their day jobs.  Did I mention how lovely they are?

A case for leaping about

Two things have totally revved my motor this week.

Firstly, news that Nick Haraway‘s new book, Angelmaker, is finally on Amazon’s pre-order list.

If you’re wondering why this is exciting enough to blog about, read this blurb:

Joe Spork spends his days fixing antique clocks. The son of infamous London criminal Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, he has turned his back on his family’s mobster history and aims to live a quiet life. That orderly existence is suddenly upended when Joe activates a particularly unusual clockwork mechanism. His client, Edie Banister, is more than the kindly old lady she appears to be—she’s a retired international secret agent. And the device? It’s a 1950s doomsday machine. Having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the British government and a diabolical South Asian dictator who is also Edie’s old arch-nemesis. On the upside, Joe’s got a girl: a bold receptionist named Polly whose smarts, savvy and sex appeal may be just what he needs. With Joe’s once-quiet world suddenly overrun by mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realizes that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she abandoned years ago and pick up his father’s old gun .

And then if that doesn’t convince you, read this.

I. Am.  So. Excited.

The second thing was this fab little film of the people of Burning Man 2011 performing Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”.   Based on Dr. Seuss’s final book before his death, the piece is about the journey of life, complete with the dark and the scary and the lonely bits.  And the people of Burning Man bring it to life with all the appropriate Cat-in-the-Hat madness it deserves.

It makes me happy.  And happy is short supply.

In a week of meh, this little gem lifted me right out of myself.  I’ll take Dr Seuss over navel-gazing any day of the week.


I was exceptionally lucky to pop my conference speaking cherry at the WTF Media Conference last year.  I speak at lot at Universities, but haven’t actually done the formal thing before.  What a (terrifying) jol.  Held at Cape Tech’s Belville Campus, the conference aims to give the largely student audience a view on what’s happening out there in the wild and wired world of (mostly) new media.  The theme: A Smarter World.

The line up was fab and styled in the short-form TED-type format.  10 minutes to make your point before the next guy got the mike. So the intimidation factor was pretty high.  But kind folk like the seriously fab Melissa Attree calmed my thundering heart and made me laugh out loud.  Lots. And thank the gods, I didn’t have to go after Mike Sharman, aka The Sharmanator. And I only swore twice (sorry mom).

I’d been asked to speak largely because my twitter profile says “blogger, writer, lurker”.  And the organizers were intrigued about the “lurker” bit.  I absolutely love the word ‘lurker’.  I’ve lurked my whole life.  And the interwebs is the finest thing for a good lurk ever to be invented. Continue reading ‘Lurking’

10 things I learned at Tech4Africa

Herman Chinery-Hesse, SOFTtribe Co-Founder and keynote speaker at Tech4Africa 2011

“What are you doing here”, at least three people asked. “I didn’t know you were a geek.”

I’m not. Well, I am in a loose sense. I don’t code, but I know enough about HTML to occasionally end an email to mates with “</rant>”. I’m not techy, but I do spend a lot of time stalking the interwebs. And I’m in a highly iterative learning curve with part of my day job and the business’s digital strategy.

I am, though, a very enthusiastic geek stalker. I hope, a lot, that I will somehow absorb ‘geek’ by osmosis. Because the tech world turns me on. Like a chav Christmas tree.

The level of innovation, the adoption of failure as a critical precursor to success, the liberal and generous sharing of stuff and the collaborative and accelerated learning that happens as a result fills me with a peculiar glee.

In that context, absolutely no surprise then that I was bouncing around Tech4Africa with ill-concealed delight. And this is what’s surfaced after two days of mulling it over: Continue reading ’10 things I learned at Tech4Africa’

Thinking about leadership

In a recent conversation about whether politicians’ private lives are relevant to their public office, I was playing my usual devil’s advocate role, and asking if Bill’s penchant for interns really affected his ability to run the free world.  At this point, Dave Duarte did his usual thing, and brought the argument to a compelling end by pointing out that leadership and ethics are not about delivery, but about inspiration.  He pointed out that under Mandela, we all wanted to be better South Africans, while in other circumstances, with other leaders, we see less reason to ask more of ourselves.

This may seem like a pretty obvious observation, but it shifted something in my understanding of leadership.  I’ve always understood that truly great leaders do more than just their jobs.  But I’d never considered how important good leadership is to our collective social consciousness. However subtle, the cues our leaders give us become benchmarks of a sort.  A view to what we could be.  There is a ripple effect of repercussion in that idea that is in equal parts thrilling and depressing.

This, I believe, is why the whole world is currently mourning a CEO.  Because Steve Jobs did what truly great leaders do.  Only passing reference is made to the bagillions Apple earned under his tenure.  But practically every eulogy, blog post and social media stream is filled with stories of how he inspired people.

And so to me it’s no surprise that Apple and Tim Cook have been under scrutiny since Jobs stepped down from his leadership.  Because the kind of leadership Steve brought to the company is rare.  And while I think Apple will easily ride on the equity of its past success, we all feel that something has been lost now in Steve’s passing.  Something intangible and almost impossible to replicate.  And that will have repercussions for the business long into its future.

And in the meantime, I’m thinking a lot about who I turn to for leadership in my own life and what that is really saying about who I want to be.

On selling out and driving a tazz

This tweet has been bugging me all day.  I don’t know which bit bites me more.  Our ‘issues’ about selling out?  Cashing in one’s “cool”.  Or the quip about girls not respecting a man for driving a Tazz.


Ok, let me caveat this briefly.  Twitter as stream of consciousness is a given.  Sometimes our collective conscious throws up some pretty dumb stuff.  It’s hard enough to share layers of thought and meaning and innuendo and subtlety, let alone in 140 characters.  And I don’t know CapeTown_Girl in the real.  Or how much of her online persona is mixed in with who she is.  So I have no idea as to her intent.  Flippant?  Deeply ironic?  I’m going with both.

So this here rantlet is purely my own reaction to the words as they stand, in my very own frame of reference.

I work in marketing.  I work in the very industry that finds new and ingenious ways to flog more stuff to people.  I have no illusions about any great altruistic contribution to the world.  The gift of my graft to the greater good.  I’m frikkin’ PR, for god’s sake.  But I like to think I have integrity.  I’ve said no to clients who’ve thought spin means finding nice ways to tell lies.  I’ve turned down high-paying work because I don’t support the category.  I find it hard to write drivel about stuff that’s not important.  And I’ve found a place to work that supports my values, even when we occassionally disagree on the exact shades of gray.

It’s bloody hard being a marketer these days.  No one believes advertising any more.  Trust is out the window. The pursuit of the advertising budget means the only worthwhile reads are the Daily Maverick and the Mail & Guardian.  You can’t just say you’re better than the competition, you have to prove it.

And that’s just the corporate machine.  The whole world seems to be finding ways to cash in on the almighty brand.  The clutter is beyond comprehension.  Students branding their cars for petrol money.  Okes selling their foreheads as advertising space.  Women selling their unborn children as brand ambassadors.  Ok, I made the last bit up.

But the point is, we…at least I…want some things to remain unstamped by the big green money making monster.  I want to be inspired, moved, touched, motivated, embraced…but not (always*) brought to you by Big Brand, selling brands since 1863.

So when people like artists and poets and dreamers can be bought….when their whole aim in life is to sign that next big sponsorship deal…my heart sinks a little.  How can I trust you, what you say and what you stand for if I know that even a percentage of that ‘supports the message of our sponsor’ or whatever.

I get that there is nothing sexy about starving for your art.  Freezing garrets are not great real estate.  But surely there can be patronage without being patronizing?  More Medici and less McDonalds?

As for men in a Tazz.  I knew a man who chose to drive a Tazz instead of an Audi.  Let’s call it a lifestyle choice.  A choice that meant he made less money, but he was home every night to put his kids to bed.  I respect the hell out of him.


*Of course, for all my ranting, I’m not sure why I’m ok for Lady Gaga to be a brand bitch, but I’m disappointed by The Parletones?  The subjectivity of art?  My own aesthetic as a form of prejudice?  All of the above?  Either way, it reminds me that it’s always a little more complicated than that.

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