Cleo Johnson, a South African hospitality marketing expert — Lionesses of Africa

Lioness Weekender spoke to Cleo Johnson about her passion for the hospitality marketing sector and her personal entrepreneurial journey, which has taken her to becoming one of the hotly tipped women entrepreneur success stories of the future.

What does your company do?

Nuecleo is a hospitality marketing consultancy in South Africa. We provide a complete strategic, creative, and marketing service for hospitality and tourism businesses that lack marketing infrastructure. We aim to improve the reputation and increase the sales and revenue of our client’s businesses in 90 days using bespoke digital tactics. Marketing Maven is a business consultancy that helps ideation and early-stage entrepreneurs build, structure, and grow their businesses through my award-winning methodologies.

What inspired you to start your company?

Nuecleo was a by-chance situation or kismet as some may see it. I was in the process of moving hotels within the group I was employed with, but the GM of the new hotel I was going to open decided a week before I was supposed to move to Cape Town that he was going to change certain arrangements which led me to decline the offer altogether and resign. I had no plan other than I deserved a break and decided to plan an “eat, pray, love” journey to India to do my Siva at an ashram. As luck would have it, as I began my preparations, I decided I would start a blog and monetize it. Through research, it said I needed to register a business to monetize my blog, fast-forward three weeks, I had met my first client by chance at a Starbucks as I was registering my freelance services online. The rest, they would say, is history. Five and a half years later, I am still in business but have not left for India just yet (LOL).

As the years progressed, I decided to step out from behind my company logo and work on my brand – Marketing Maven was born. It has been two years in the making and will launch its services officially in Q4 of 2022. I had received so many requests during the pandemic from small business owners wanting to work with me so that they could either start or grow their businesses. Throughout that period I offered free small business mentorship along with online training. It has also opened me up to work with corporates like Yoco, Xena by Retail Capital and ABSA to deliver talks and training to SMEs. Marketing Maven has allowed me to venture into other industries without clashing with Nuecleo’s service offering.

Why should anyone use your service or product?

My background is hospitality – it’s what I studied and the industry I worked in for six years. I have always said that hospitality marketing is quite different from other industries. This intimate knowledge sets me apart from other agencies that don’t understand the industry well and allows me to go deeper into solving operational problems and creating experiences online and offline for their guests.
The small business mentorship offered through Marketing Maven uses my award-winning methodologies. My clients can attest that after just one session they already feel more confident and have clarity about their businesses and what they need to do. My business services leverage my experience and offer a unique perspective and creative solutions. I lend this experience to start-ups as interim CEO or HOD to help their businesses and prepare them for their growth phase.

Tell us a little about your team

Nuecleo has a core team of six, including myself and one intern, who all work remotely. My team consists of my website developer, Julian, who is based in Cape Town and attends any meetings that need to happen face to face on my behalf in that area. We have our graphic designer, Dimpho, our SEO manager, Louis, and Mahlodi, who handles PR for our clients.

Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And do you come from an entrepreneurial background?

In February 2023, I will have been an entrepreneur for six years. I have started six businesses and sold one. They have all been in different industries and learned key lessons from them all. I don’t come from an Entrepreneurial background per se, but my dad has always been one for coming up with big ideas – I guess that caught on. My dad also taught me that money should never be an obstacle which I feel is what has gotten me ahead in life. I remember when I started Nuecleo, the idea was to have a social media agency, my name on a building, and I quickly realized that is not what I wanted. I think on this journey we often get influenced by other business people and assume that based on their successes we should imitate them and acquire what they have to be successful – you learn that that is far from the truth. I remember when I still worked for a company and how much I hated being in an office, so for the last five and a half years, my team and I have enjoyed working from home or wherever we want to. On a deeper level, entrepreneurship allowed me to unpack what success means and looks like to me, deal with my imposter syndrome, cultivate healthy habits and spaces that allow my mental health to thrive, learn to rest without feeling guilty, get out of my comfort zone and focus on producing good work that isn’t influenced by awards or media mentions. These last two and a half years were the most difficult I have ever encountered because of the pandemic, but I believe coming out of that season, my character was stripped and refined for what I will be building next. Entrepreneurship is humbling and no one is immune to debt, bad clients, dodgy business partners and invoices being paid late. It is part of the journey, and you learn to roll with the punches. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, but it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be brave, believe in yourself and your vision and be prepared to take countless risks because the world is going to push back but your why will ground you.

What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?

For Nuecleo, I am in the process of launching the Tourism Network, an online platform that teaches and empowers small business owners with digital marketing skills they can implement themselves if they can’t afford an agency. We will also offer subsidized marketing services based on a subscription model too. This project aims to bridge the gap that small businesses face when trying to compete with larger properties or tourism-related businesses that have large budgets and an online presence. This is in the hopes that small businesses in the industry can get a piece of the pie and take the guesswork out of creating an online presence for hotels, B&Bs, tour operators and restaurants.

I am also looking to develop free cloud software that smaller hospitality businesses can use across the continent. Between booking fees and outdated forms on websites, independent hotels and B&Bs are struggling to compete. Whilst the hospitality and tourism industry is in recovery and opening up, I look forward to opening satellite offices in key international cities where my clients are based. This was a plan for 2020 and unfortunately was curtailed due to the pandemic. I miss travelling and look forward to getting back on a plane again.

From a Marketing Maven perspective, I said my 30s were about legacy and having the opportunity to work with a lot of start-ups, a large part of my strategy is equity instead of exorbitant retainer fees. This will be my focus for the next 5-10 years. 
I still have plans to one day open a dignity centre for the homeless and launch a community project that supports and helps girls and young women navigate through those uncertain years. I currently do this in my own time, on a small scale, through my initiatives Adopt-a-block and Powher Circle.

What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?

Seeing my clients happy. Their success is my success. I also get pretty excited when I find innovative solutions or business ventures that I can jump on. I have a varied portfolio of clients and businesses that I work with and in and I love the experience I gain. I do not think I would ever get bored, and entrepreneurship has afforded me that opportunity to constantly grow.

What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?

Do not be in a rush, you won’t have it all figured out in the beginning. By just starting, you will begin to answer all those questions that were holding you back. Always have a niche! There are similar businesses out there but solving a problem for a specific group of people makes you stand out. Focus on customer service first, it is a lot cheaper to maintain the clients you have than to find new ones. Lastly, don’t say yes to every piece of business for the sake of money. Often it is at the sacrifice of your peace and values – clients can be toxic too!

To learn more about Cleo Johnson’s businesses and service offerings, send her an email to: or visit the NueCleo website: or social media pages:


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