Mumpreneur Catherine Wong grew up in a dysfunctional family in Sydney’s Western suburbs. Her father was in and out of jail for most of her childhood and she admits she was ‘the slowest kid in the class.’ So how did the twenty-something year-old mum go on to launch one of Australia’s most successful and glamourous beauty and fashion e-tail sites, Black Swallow?
Like many successful entrepreneurs, she faced adversity head-on.
“I didn’t want my past to define me so once I left high school, I studied hard, entered university as a mature age student at 21, got my nursing degree and then worked full-time as an IUC nurse for five years,” explains Catherine. “Then, while simultaneously working full-time and overtime as a nurse, I launched Black Swallow with my husband Alex.”
Black Swallow is an online, fast-fashion e-tailer that Catherine Wong established with her fiancé Alex Baro two years ago. The e-commerce site provides women with access to the latest in fashion, shoes, accessories, hair and beauty products. Their target market is 18 to 25-year old females – Aussie women that need to stay ahead of the sartorial curve.
What makes Black Swallow unique though is was winning the exclusive Australian distribution rights to sell some of the world’s most coveted beauty brands, including Jeffree Star and Fanola, as well as popular crowd pleasers Bondi Sands, Milani, Ardell, L.A. Girl, e.l.f. and Hollywood.
But Black Swallow almost folded multiple times during that two year period. Today, however, it’s a different story. The thriving e-tailer employs 10 full-time staff plus casuals and turned over a whopping $10 million in its second year. That is 900% growth year-on-year. Seriously. Not bad considering the couple launched the business on their credit cards.
“There’s been a lot of highs and lows along the way!” admits Catherine.
So what were they?
Here, Catherine, who is mum to 17 month-old Lucas and is expecting her second baby in April 2018, explains the business mistakes and successes they’ve made, what it’s like working with her husband Alex and how she juggles her family with business …
Q. Tell us about Black Swallow?
“Black Swallow is a one-stop- online-shop! We sell fashion, cosmetics and hair care products to women and we stock exclusive brands such as Jeffree Star and Fanola. Alex and I started the online store because he was struggling to hold down a job, and he simply didn’t want to work for anyone.”
Q. How did you generate the money to fund the start-up?
“Alex and I both maxed out all our credit cards and I worked full-time nursing to help pay for our expenses. I did a lot of overtime! Working both jobs was necessary because the mortgage and bills needed to be paid, and we needed the additional funds to get Black Swallow up and running.”
Q. You were an ICU nurse just over two years ago. Now you’re running a multi-million dollar e-tailer. Can you explain your career transition?
“The transition wasn’t easy as I’ve never had any fashion or business experience. I was nursing fulltime and overtime and simultaneously working on Black Swallow for the first eight or so months. I was only able to leave nursing once we moved into our first warehouse and the business had grown. It’s continued to grow quickly and we’ve already moved into our second warehouse, which we’ve just about outgrown too!”
Q. How did your troubled background help give you the courage to go out online?
“I grew up in Sydney’s Western suburbs in a dysfunctional family. My dad had spent many years in prison. He is currently released but has ongoing issues. I was always that ‘slow’ kid in school with the lowest grades and put into ESL classes. I didn’t want that to define me so once I left high school, I studied hard, entered university as a mature age student at 21, completed my nursing degree and worked my way into Australia’s largest trauma hospital – Liverpool ICU. I was entrusted to look after some of the sickest patients in the country, which is something I am really proud of.”
Q. Did you create a business plan?
“Looking back now, we didn’t really have a business plan! We created a ‘How to start a business’ checklist and included things such as:
• Buy a computer, desk and chair
• Get the internet!
• Learn about tax
• Find a website company to build a website
“We failed multiple times in our first year and wanted to give up on many occasions. We launched Black Swallow on a cheap $1000 budget website with my friends modelling our dresses in our own lounge room!”
Q. What were some of the biggest learning curves in the first two years?
“It was difficult trying to find trustworthy suppliers. We made multiple trips to China and found that there were heaps of people wanting to rip us off. They would speak Chinese amongst each other discussing ways to make me pay more. It was disheartening because I can understand Chinese and knew exactly what they were saying.”
Q. How have you managed being a new mum with your new business?
“Black Swallow was not even 12 months-old when I fell pregnant with my first baby, Lucas. I was still working night shifts as a nurse and day shifts at Black Swallow in our garage. I was eight months pregnant when we were able to move Black Swallow out of home and into our first warehouse. My son is now 16 months old and I am currently five months pregnant with our second child. It has been absolute chaos and sometimes I wonder if I’m still sane! Alex’s mum has been so supportive. She babysits our son Monday to Friday so that we are able to go to work.”
Related: Scummy Mummies Speak Out
Q. What’s it like working with your husband?
“The first year was difficult. We were living and working together from our home and argued often. Now we work in a two level warehouse, so Alecx and his team are on one level and my team and I work on the other. This arrangement has been a relationship saver! We are now happy with both work and home life. For any other couples going in to business together, my advice is to maintain a distance and be clear on your roles at work and at home.
Q. You’re 23 weeks pregnant. Will you take time out from the business when baby number two arrives?
“The business is in a good place right now and we have a great team of trustworthy employees who can run the business without me. They are more like friends! I plan to stay home and look after the kids and physically drop into work possibly twice a week to ensure things are still running smoothly. As long as I keep my staff happy, the business will run without me.
Q. What are some of the big wins and successes?
“Getting Jeffree Star and Fanola on board has seen our business sky rocket. We grew 900% and it has been so much fun expanding our team.”
Q. Who do you look to for inspiration?
“I look up to Ammar Ahmad, CEO of AMR Hair and Beauty. He is currently under 30, grew up in housing commission and is now Australia’s largest hair and beauty supplier.”
Q. What’s next for Black Swallow?
“Alex and I are riding the wave. We have our good days and our bad and we now know that you can’t plan too far in advance. We moved into our current warehouse in July this year and signed a 3 year lease. In the 5 months that we’ve been here, we have already outgrown this place and we’re contemplating our third move.”
Visit Black Swallow to check out the range.
This story was first published on FRANKIxo.com