Thursday, January 21st, 2021

Cathrine M. Ann: from homeless to millionaire

By Cathy Watters on Aug 29 2009 • Filed under Business

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.

TIPS:

  1. Dream it, believe it, be it. “If I can succeed in business, so can you.”
  2. Believe in what you’re doing and be prepared to work hard. There’s no obstacle you can’t overcome.
  3. Research. Make sure your business is financially viable.
  4. 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.
  5. There will always be naysayers. If someone says ‘no’ to you, that’s just a suggestion.

21 Comments

  1. Although applying to be a Mystery Shopper with this company requires you give your date of birth and your SSN….it also asks personal information, such as hair color, height and weight. This sounds like a scam to get personal information to me. Here in the US, you aren’t even allowed to ask a person’s age in the application process and you are also not required to give your SSN when simply applying.

  2. Hi Cat,
    Your book is pure purging …that you happened a complete break down …not your to have honey …when dumped on you feel your fault..that you deserve such…not so …what God judges he does it fair …that to this day you still extend a hand to have it bit …you are a blessed saint.. may i wish you all the joys you can wish…a

  3. Hey Ann! Sounds like where I am right now – business imploded, relationship failed, money frittered, health gone down the pan … I have realised that a breakdown is necessary to build back up! I stripped away and am rebuilding my life again. In many ways I am living right on the edge – no ’employed identity crutch’ am finding out who I really am, what I am here to do and setting about doing it. I used to have an all or nothing attitude whereas now I am learning the art of being patient and taking it step by step. I am learning the very basics of money management which is seriously necessary as gill fielding (secret millionaire) said to me personally ‘if you cant manage £20, you will never manage £2,000 and if you cant manage £2k, you will never manage £2M! So its back to basics for me so that I dont make the same stupid financial decisions that I made previously. I am now aware of my money blueprint! I cant tell you how much I have learned about myself recently! What habits have been driving me subconsciously, I’ve blown their cover! Those habits think they were protecting me as a coping strategy … hmm not so much – not needed anymore! There have been some real ‘hairy’ moments where I thought I just cant do this, I cant live back on my own at 38 with nothing! I recognised that my ‘stuff’ gave me my identity, I am .. my car, my home, my man, my holidays, and so when they disappeared so did my sense of identity! With the help of meditation, (which I used to say I could never do as I operated at such a high speed of vibration my mind would race and it was impossible to control my mind – it wandered where it wanted, when it wanted and thought about what it wanted whenever it wanted to! It was like having an unruly stroppy 3 year old! With work I am able now to see the benefit of having a balanced calmness of mind so that it doesnt become a rollercoaster of extreme highs and extreme lows. I have also given myself some time to reflect, regroup, strategise and get my own plan together and I have never been so excited in all my life about my future!! I feel all the things I have learnt from the ”mistakes”(!) is just preparing me for the real bigger picture and that am still in training at the moment to be able to handle that level of wealth on all levels, not just materially (which I also plan to have again but they wont own me this time!). Your story moved me and although I didnt have it as tough as you growing up my problems (as am sure everyone’s are to them personally) were ruddy tough! I have let go of the blame game of the past, let go of the blame game of the current situation and stopped bitching about stuff I dont want … refocusing on what I want with laser like focus and its true – when you get clear on what you do want – it seems effortless! No panic, no rush, no fear of not having enough time / resources etc… I would love to get a copy of your memoirs and hey maybe I should write some too 😀 one day I may just share mine to help inspire others to do what I did when I have done it … again 😀 thanks for sharing, it’s nice to know that the super successful are still human 😀 xxx

  4. Very motivating and inspiring. Sets us thinking, If she can do it so can we.

  5. Thank you for telling your story and living your truth. Your unbreakable spirit inspires. Best wishes for your continued success.

  6. Thank you, Janet! You can register to become a Mystery Shopper on our website http://www.consumerconnection.net

  7. Hi.
    I love the story, I believe that if you are around negative people you become negative. We all need to clean up our own lives …….. like you said if you can drean it you can become it, if this is what you really want in your life. Myselg I had an ilness and could not leave the house by myself , but I applies at Shaw tv as a camera operator and they called me. It wa the first great leap for me to get on that train and go down town along and I have been there since the 19 of november 2010 and never looked back as I would never let this fear stop me as I wanted this so much. I have taken a camera course at bcit. Thanks to Shaw.
    I saw you on Fanny in studio 4, I wanted to know if you still hire secret shoppers? If so were would I apply.
    Keep up the great work.
    Many thanks
    Janet

  8. Dear Susan Lee: You just e-mailed me asking about your payment. I advised that Tina, our admin person, would process your payment. In 15 years of business, EVERYONE has gotten paid or we wouldn’t be in business. There are all sorts of reasons why a Shopper would not get paid right away after working. Perhaps their work was challenged by the client. Perhaps the client doesn’t pay us within 60 days. Perhaps a Shopper did not collect their funds as often happens since we pay via the internet and payments often get slotted into a Shoppers’ junk mail. But in 15 years, EVERYONE has always gotten paid. Why the hateful and untrue comments by you? We will be contacting our lawyer and then you because what you are doing is slanderous. Why didn’t you also add that Tina is paying you?? Because you are causing trouble and that’s just what some people like to do. Absolutely horrible that people are so full of hate. Maybe you should read my book and change your life for the better too.

  9. An amazing story on the surface. It’s unfortunate that she has decided to exploit other hard working and honest people. Her company performs mystery shopping for clients and employs people (mostly women) on a temporary basis to complete shops. The company has a horrendous history of not paying out these jobs until 4-6 months after completion. Just google “Consumer Connection” and read the posts. I myself am owed close to $400. for shops I completed at the end of September. I have sent emails and called her office with still no response except that I should “rest assured” that I would be paid. $400. is a lot of money and if I were a single parent trying to make ends meet, that could mean rent money. I have worked for numerous mystery shopping companies and this is not how a reputable company conducts itself. Too bad “Entrepreneurial Woman” did not do their homework before putting her on a pedestal.

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