Cath Young

Did you know that one of Etsy’s most successful sellers lives in remote NSW, is a alcohol and drug counsellor and recently raised almost $4,000 for Asylum Seekers?

Cath Young is a brilliant example of balancing social conscience with creativity. I spoke to Cath on managing her Etsy store, balancing boundaries at work and why she’s opted to keep her part time income coming in, despite her business’ success.

What was the catalyst for creating your own biz on Etsy?

I was on maternity leave at the time. I went from working full time and then all of a sudden being at home with a baby. By complete chance, and other parents might hate to hear this, she was a cruisy baby and I had all this time on my hands. I started my first Etsy shop in 2008 and it was mainly kids and babies stuff. Then, I had this idea to put Map cushions, one thing led to another and I opened My Bearded Pigeon in 2010.

And I understand one day, the business exploded, overnight?

I did a world map on an oversized pillow and took a photo of my daughter lying on it. Apartment Therapy picked it up by then and it just went crazy.

And just overnight it was like ‘you’re running a business’. It wasn’t a hobby anymore. I had receipts in the shoebox situation and I knew it was making some money, but then it really started turning into a business!

Prior to launching the store, what had you been doing?

I have been work as a social worker, as a drug and alcohol counsellor for the past 12 years. 

I couldn’t do one without the other. That’s been the key. I couldn’t just do the emotion that is required for dealing with trauma that I deal with at work without a creative outlet. 

While it’s become a successful business, I can’t let go of the counselling, because I have a social conscience. I don’t feel like I’d be contributing to the world if I just made it ‘pretty’. We need people to make beautiful art, but I don’t think that’s all for me. 

The cases I find the most challenging are the ones where the  system has failed people - there’s not an excuse for this! It is a privilege to be told these stories but I leave it all at work, it is rare now when I am still thinking about someone I saw when I am at home. 

When I get home the creativity is using other parts of my brain and also parenting  helps me to switch that part off. 

Would you say then that your creative project was born from conflict of some kind?

I was certainly going through that ‘freak out’ like any parent who has their first baby. Thoughts like, ‘who am I? Am I only a mum now? Is that ok to be a mum and not work? Do I want to go back to work full time anyway? What do mums do at home? Are they bored? Do I feel a bit bored? I love my baby and she makes me happy but I feel like I need more? 

It wasn’t a unique crisis, it was classic 'becoming a mother-crisis', I think. The role that I found myself in all of a sudden, from working full time to being at home with a sleeping baby was quite a shock. As the ‘chief-breastfeeder’ I felt a little like I had gone back in time, as though I was a housewife stuck at home in the 1950’s.

And that’s not to say I didn’t and don’t revel that time at home, but it was quite a change from what I was used to.

I also hated not having my own money and I hated having to ask my partner for money. I didn’t want to have to explain why I had bought something, just like I didn’t want to have to ask where his cash was going. Neither of us wanted to have that conversation.

I wanted my own money again and I didn’t want to have to leave my baby to get it. So I started the biz before my second baby.

You recently released a Let Them Stay tote which has sold out. What led you to create this?

I’ve done the totes a couple of times to fundraise for the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. I feel like it’s my way of contributing, I would like to do more but I also know that money is really helpful too. 

I always get really upset reading in the news the way the Australian media was reporting on what is clearly a really distressing time for people fleeing their homes.

Australia has lost its compassion. The way the media reports asylum seekers as ‘stealing jobs’ and ‘taking this and that’ it’s just dangerous. Its very ‘us vs them’ storytelling. 

There’s no one telling the story of the people who are actually affected by these xenophobic stereotypes. We can’t possibly know what these people have been through. They’ve not left a happy life behind. 

Do you think this media landscape is changing?

In my day to day life I don’t often hear a racist point of view. I’m white, I have that privilege. But I am aware of the privilege but probably not enough. 

I think it was Germaine Greer - who said “women thought we were  progressing really well before the internet exploded”. I mean frequently when a woman speaks out against male violence online she’s sent rape threats. It’s outrageous. Or “hysterical” as Steve Price would say, ha ha! 

I learned from a prison psychologist that acts of violence, are almost always shame, or low self worth, dressed up with aggression. Given your counselling experience, what are your thoughts on that?

I am involved in a program called Lovebites for 15 - 16 year olds, to educate them respectful relationships- with a focus on sexual assault, consent, and domestic violence. 

There is still a huge gap between young people’s understanding of what they acknowledge as wrong, such as sexual violence, and smaller microaggressions, such as blaming a girl if her private photo, sent to a boyfriend, gets shared with the whole school and sexist jokes as being part of what leads to one woman a week being killed in Australia.

Many adults don’t even understand those two acts are connected. We’ve got so far to go in terms of education in those respects. 

Do you have any thoughts on ways to change this dialogue? Or creating awareness for young men and women to influence future generations?

It’s actually not about women need to ‘come up and do the work’, or ‘lean in’. Men need to actually step down or hire a woman in their place to do the job to really start creating change. Ultimately, men need to relinquish some of the power they have for us to all have equality.

I worked with a corporate organisation a few months ago and was pretty mortified to see all these men in senior positions, surrounded by women who were clearly smarter than them. I looked around and thought ‘not one of these men will step aside and let someone else more qualified do the job’. Because that’s what it means - sacrifice to create opportunities. 

There is a still a boys club in many large organisations where horrific acts of bullying or sexual harassment are covered up repeatedly. 

It’s interesting that you’ve opted to continue working part time, while theoretically, one could imagine you could technically afford to live just off the Etsy store. Is it about balancing creativity with social justice in your instance?

I’ve been conscious of not investing huge money in the business. As a family, we spend the profit. We have a quality of life. I’m not saving to invest into make the business bigger and scale it, because you can’t - it’s a handmade business. I’m not going to get my stuff manufactured overseas so I can make more money.

I treat the business like my disposable income so I suppose I can enjoy it a little more. It’s treat money, it pays for nice things like holidays and fun with the family. It’s another income. And that’s good. That means we can both work outside the home less which is a big win.

There’s been a bit of media attention around start ups and supporting innovation in the Australian press. Do you think there’s enough support out there for those in SME status? Does small to medium enterprise accurately describe what you do with your Etsy store?

Well, first of all, a small biz doesn’t turn over $1M - no matter what you read! Running a small business, in my case, is a mum packing orders while the kids are in bed.

Despite being a small business, as a category, we’re actually collectively enormous. We really need a Union. We need some kind of peak body organisation to be able to negotiate on our behalf, because none of us have the time. We’re running the business!

For the lack of understanding in business circles, the Etsy team really ‘get me’. When I’m in a room of Etsy sellers, I know we’re on the same page. Yeah, we want our biz to be successful and make money, but that’s just a small part of how you define success.

The fact that you have people giving you money, and buying something that you’ve personally made is unquantifiable.

I mean, lots of people don’t start an Etsy shop to make money. They start from the complete other side. The making comes first.

Cath is an Etsy Seller and Advisory Board Member. Check out her store here. Photography by Breeana Dunbar.