Cathrine M. Ann: from homeless to millionaire
Cathrine M. Ann, president of Consumer Connections Inc., does over $1-million in annual revenue with her home-based business. But when she started 12 years ago, she was 40, unemployed, homeless and broke.
She wasn’t worried, though. She had a plan.
“I was either going to start a business or rob a bank,” she says.
She was serious. She had acquired how-to information from a bank robber she’d met in Guelph as well as a business person from the Bahamas where she planned to open a Jet Ski rental shop.
She had convinced her boyfriend Mark (now her husband) to quit his job as a chef to join her in her business venture, and the two of them lived in the car. Then the Bahamas plan fell through and robbing the bank suddenly looked a lot more promising.
However, when she picked up her last Employment Insurance cheque, it contained a slip of paper inviting her to apply to a business program offered through the Self-Employment and Entrepreneurial Development Society (SEEDS) in Surrey, British Columbia.
“I thought, well, I have someone here, [Mark,] who doesn’t seem keen on robbing a bank. Maybe I can think of something that is more on the straight and narrow,” she says.
Her grown son suggested starting a mystery shopping business. They didn’t have any start-up funds and couldn’t get a bank loan, but her son had a credit card and the SEEDS program offered a small living allowance, so she applied to the program.
Ann’s life up to that point had held a lot of ups and downs. She grew up in poverty, moving frequently because the family couldn’t pay the rent. She was bullied at school, sexually abused by friends of the family, and as a teenager got pregnant by a boy who had a penchant for criminal behaviour that he never grew out of. Her parents were alcoholics who constantly argued, and when life at home because too stressful she began sleeping on the street, in stairwells, at the school yard, even in public bathrooms. Sometimes she left the baby with her parents and sometimes she took him with her.
Living on the street became a familiar and comfortable thing for her, and she often returned to it throughout her life. Even now, as a successful entrepreneur, she sometimes sees people on the street thinks, “They have it made.” It’s a difficult life in some ways, she says, but easier in that there’s no bills or financial commitments; you just get up and go whenever you want. All her life she’s been on the move, so there are times when she feels staying in one place for so long is like putting a wild animal in the zoo.
A single mom at 15, Ann quit her job as a waitress at the urging of her uncle. Because he was self-employed, she thought he was going to offer her a job in his business. Instead, he introduced her to prostitution.
"I was either going to start a business or rob a bank."
She had always had an entrepreneurial spirit and tried to make her life better, but she was just as likely to use her skills for legitimate purposes (starting a word processing business in Toronto) as she was for criminal activity (recruiting prostitutes for the mob in Calgary).
At one point she forged university transcripts to get into medical school and studied for two years before being found out. She excelled at classes like anatomy and microbiology but, because of her Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and learning disability, no matter how much time she spent with tutors she couldn’t do math.
“My brain just couldn’t absorb it,” she says, “It looked suspicious that someone who was supposed to have a 98% average couldn’t get a 60 in [math-based programs like] chemistry.”
Yet, when it comes to business, she can instantly calculate in her head the commission her sales people will get, receivables versus payables and project costs.
Ann credits the SEEDS program for helping her turn her life around, and Mark for bringing focus and organization into her life and her business.
“Mark believed in me and SEEDS believed in me,” Ann says. “Although I was homeless, I was getting enough positive from SEEDS and Mark to stay the course, so I started believing in myself.”
When SEEDS required her to research the viability of her business idea, she decided to cold-call potential clients, ask them what their mystery shopping needs were, and told them she’d call back when her business was running. She did, and hit $85,000 worth of sales when she graduated from SEEDS, and her business revenue increased considerably every year after that.
She notes being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart. You work long hours and need to put your business ahead of anything else. You also need to be able to think on your feet. For example, when she was starting out she didn’t have any references.
“In the old days, I would have just made them up,” she says. This time, she met with the decision-makers in person to explain how her services would help them save money and improve their business overall. She told them if they didn’t like her work, they didn’t have to pay her. This got her the contracts and she’s never had a client refuse to pay.
When asked about work/life balance, she says, “anyone who thinks they can have life balance as an entrepreneur is not making enough money in the first six years.”
Ann had been in business for almost a decade before she told the story of her life. She’d kept it secret because she was afraid if her clients knew about her rough past, they’d leave her. She hadn’t meant to tell anyone, ever, but at a business awards ceremony a couple of years ago she was so shocked she’d won, she said, “Well, this sure beats eating out of garbage cans.” The room grew quiet, and the story tumbled out of her.
"It took me ten years to become an overnight success."
Not only did her clients stay with her but her inspirational story of coming from humble beginnings and overcoming huge obstacles in order to build a million-dollar business has launched her professional-speaking career. She received a standing ovation when she spoke at a women’s empowerment conference at the Toronto Board of Trade; she spoke, by invitation of the Governor, at a women’s conference in Hawaii and she has a book deal with a major Canadian publisher. Her memoirs, written by award-winning author John Lawrence Reynolds, will be available in the Fall of next year. Even Hollywood has shown interest, although there’s no movie contract yet.
“It took me ten years to become an overnight success,” says Ann.
- Dream it, believe it, be it. “If I can succeed in business, so can you.”
- Believe in what you’re doing and be prepared to work hard. There’s no obstacle you can’t overcome.
- Research. Make sure your business is financially viable.
- Be flexible. There’s opportunity in everything you want to do: you may start out thinking you’ll build pools, but maybe your success will come from being a lifeguard. When a door closes, a window opens.
- There will always be naysayers. If someone says ‘no’ to you, that’s just a suggestion.
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