Working as a brand manager for a paper wholesaler, Cath Connell had the idea for Leaf. Paper and Journals. Within the space of a few days she had drafted her manifesto, checked the trademark for the name and was then made redundant. Here’s her story…
What were you doing when you decided to create your own business?
I was working full-time+ as a brand manager for a major paper wholesaler. Times were tough and we were all under a lot of pressure. Meanwhile, my little boy had just turned three, and it occurred to me that his childhood was passing me by. I gathered up the courage to ask my boss to drop back to four days a week, even if it meant a change in roles. A couple of weeks later, on a Friday, I had my first ideas for Leaf. I was so excited and talked about nothing else all weekend with family and friends. On the Monday I drafted a manifesto and checked the trademark for the name. On the Tuesday I was made redundant.
What inspired you to start the business and when did you officially start it?
I started working on Leaf as a brand pretty much the next day. The first six months were really a sabbatical – just getting myself into a healthy headspace, researching the market and coming up with product concepts. I officially registered the business name when the bank told me it was a requirement to get an EFTPOS machine.
What was your start-up cost? How did you acquire the money and what did you use it for?
Creating a product-based business is pretty expensive, and I have loads more ideas that I simply can’t afford to fund yet, especially considering the cost for design and printing. Plus there’s trade shows, warehousing, marketing materials and PR – all of which cost good money. My redundancy payout got me through all the start-up costs, our initial product collection and the first year’s worth of household bills, but it eventually ran out. I was still very much in start-up mode when the opportunity to produce officially licensed goods for dirtgirlworld arrived out of the blue. I knew we had to jump at it. We had recently sold our investment property, so we funded the initial product – a scrapbook just like dirtgirl’s – from the proceeds of that. Thank goodness for a supportive husband!
What was the biggest obstacle?
Panicking about money, especially before we sold the unit… I wasted about six months trying to get another business off the ground to bring in short-term cash, rather than concentrating on getting Leaf up and running properly.
How did you rise above the tough days? Those days when people said no, things fell through or someone said they didn’t “get it’’.
I still have a lot of these days. My products are very concept driven, and a LOT of people don’t “get” them. I’ve had so many times when I’ve been wondering what my future holds, and whether I should start looking for a job, and then, someone comes along and tells me how much a child in their life absolutely loves their journal or Story Starters and how much fun they find them. Comments like that make it all worthwhile and remind me to keep going.
How long did it take for your business to become profitable?
Ask me again in six months.
What do you love most about being your own boss? What are the drawbacks?
Even if Leaf doesn’t become the huge success I dream of, the time I have been able to spend being a mum would have made it worth it. I treasure having so much flexibility, and being able to spend time with my son, especially after having missed so much of his early childhood with work and study.
I LOVE being my own boss ¬– being able to choose what I do each day. I love the variety of tasks – one day I will be hands on, making a product, the next I might be writing articles for a magazine or signing off on a product design, while another day I might be up to my neck in book-keeping (who am I kidding?)
The isolation, especially to talk through ideas, is a big drawback, but I have become involved in several networking groups and find these fabulous for sharing ideas and problem solving. I love being able to help them too. I also head out to a local café a few mornings a week, just to have people around me
How have you been using social media to grow your business?
When I first left “paperland” I read a fabulous book, Groundswell. It really woke me up to the power of social media. My main audience is on Facebook, so most of my efforts are concentrated there, but I also use Twitter and LinkedIn. The Leaf blog has become a big part of my business strategy too…
How have you used public relations to grow your business? What strategies have you used?
After nearly two years of putting off writing my own press releases, I decided to outsource for the dirtgirlworld scrapbook launch – it was just too important a project to have me procrastinate on. I’m keeping my fingers crossed at the moment, as we wait for the results – and loads of Christmas sales!
I think outsourcing my PR for a while also helped build my confidence, as well as teaching me some important skills for approaching media that I really hadn’t learned in my time in corporate marketing – sending PR to trade mags when you work for the market leader isn’t at all the same!
Although I think I can probably tackle approaching the media on my own now, I will still be outsourcing my press release writing. I find it too hard to separate myself from the emotional attachment I have to my products and the business, to come up with a single news-worthy angle – I want to tell the whole story!
Where do you work from?
I now have a lovely little studio in my back garden. It’s much better than working at the dining room table (which I did for the first two years!)
Who are your entrepreneurial role models? What’s so inspiring about them?
Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) will always be my “hero”.
To me, she opened up the possibility of a world where ethical, sustainable business could also be financially viable.
As I watch the incredible growth of small “grassroots” business, and the huge interest in alternative markets (e.g. online marketplaces, co-ops, pop-up shops) away from the big name brands, I feel that maybe the time is coming when “business as unusual” will be the norm, rather than a hippy dream.
How have you acquired the skills and knowledge you have to make your business successful?
I actually completed my MBA before finishing up at my corporate job, so technically, I am fully qualified to run just about any type of business! Unfortunately, while it teaches you how to be a leader, read a spreadsheet and understand your management team’s specialised lingo, it doesn’t really prepare you for running a teeny business, where you ARE the product development team, marketing team, finance and accounts team, strategic management team, cafeteria and cleaning service all in one.
So I invest in courses and workshops where I can. I prefer in person, and have done some great ones with organisations such as Bizness Babes and Motivating Mum. I also read – A LOT!
What’s the best piece of business advice you ever received?
Cash is King. Very important…
What is your favourite product/service that you offer?
I love them all, but at the moment I’m really proud of the dirtgirlworld scrapbook. It is so different from anything out there – it’s such a beautiful product, of incredibly high quality, and I feel it will be absolutely treasured by the little ones who are fortunate enough to receive one.
A bigger business wouldn’t have tackled this product in this way – they couldn’t. Because of the environmental requirements, and my own decision to print locally, it’s an incredibly expensive to produce, and my profit margins are sooooo tight on it. But if it takes off, there are so many opportunities that can come out of it.
And it’s sparked a whole heap of other ideas 😉
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Go for it!
What were you doing when your business idea hit?