The Leap Stories #68: Cat Harding & Mardi Brown

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What happens when two mid career marketers ‘unpack their confidence and self-belief from the suitcase of doom’, and ask themselves ‘what will I regret having not done when I’m on my deathbed?’ What happens when they join forces to do work that matters, that leverages their skills and contacts? What happens when they connect the dots to solve multiple problems in a global network? A beautiful leap is made, that’s what!

Earlier this year Cat Harding and Mardi Brown launched Pony Up For Good –  a social enterprise that collects donated decommissioned devices from organisations, cleans them up, resells them and donates 50% of its profits to food rescue and redistribution organisation, SecondBite.

Devices (mobile phones, tablets and laptops) are reused for up to another seven years, providing affordable, working technology to folk in developing countries, while keeping toxic chemicals out of soil and waterways.  Funds then go towards supporting SecondBite who last year, rescued 10 million kilograms of fresh food and redistributed it to over 1,300 food programs nationally. That’s 55,000 healthy meals a day.

To put that in perspective, Cat and Mardi are looking to impact the 20 million tonnes of e-waste created every year AND the $8 billion dollars of fresh edible food thrown away each year AND the 2 million Australians who go hungry. Yowsers.

This leap was born out of asking questions, retreating to silence for answers, taking stock of what kind of work felt right, making conscious choices and partnering with someone who shares the same values. Cat and Mardi firmly believe that real failings and unhappiness in life don’t come from the things we try and don’t workout the way we thought; they come from not trying in the first place. It’s a belief I wholeheartedly share.

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Gorgeous Cat Harding and Mardi Brown, co-founders of PonyUp For Good.

What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

CAT: When I was young, I envied people who knew what they wanted to do. I didn’t finish my arts degree (which was qualifying me to be incredibly windswept and interesting, talking about philosophy, sociology and cinema at parties), preferring to opt for a ‘cool job’ in the music industry. I always seemed to swing from one thing to another when opportunities arose. I didn’t have a plan and I was never sure what my path was or what jobs I was even qualified for. However, the universe provided me with interesting and challenging roles with incredible people, and now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that what felt like being a bit directionless was actually just the gathering of a hugely diverse set of experiences and training in how to adapt my natural skill set to any industry and any situation. This is a blessing when setting up your own business and prepared me well for taking my leap.

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MARDI: When I was very young I wanted to be a marine biologist and a ‘dance-arina’ on the side. I always dreamt of being an Author and quietly still do.

Admittedly, for a few years after doing my business/marketing degree, my career just ‘happened to me’ rather than the other way around. I was deeply unhappy in a career that I had stumbled upon and found myself in. At that point in time I was working in marketing for a large payroll company, copywriting and trying to put a sexy spin on the changes to Fringe Benefit Tax laws… I learnt two important things working for this company: 1) It was not for me and 2) Although you can’t polish a turd you CAN, in fact, roll it in glitter!

I had a realisation one day sitting on the bank of the Yarra River in the sun, that I had no idea where the year had gone and I made a decision, then and there, to start taking control of my life in a whole new way. I started doing annual ‘head & heart’ planning. It allowed me to consciously plan my future. The Head column was a list of all the grown up things I wanted to achieve, mainly financial, saving and investment goals. With the Heart column listing all the wild and ostentatious things that my heart wanted. It started out with the outlandish but, refined over the years, it has become more pragmatic in taking care of my own emotional needs. Doing everything I say I’m going to do, has become a real addiction.

In my Head column, I always wanted to run my own business. It took a while to take that leap, however PonyUp is one of the proudest career decisions I have ever made. I LOVE working with Cat – we have so much energy for this business and what it can do for others and our environment, it’s sometimes quite scary.

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What did/do you study?

CAT: I started an arts degree, which I deferred and never went back to. In my career though I have taken every training opportunity that came along. Any course a business was willing to send me on, I took. From self-development, computer skills, coaching and leadership, to change and project management, communications and even fire training and first aid. (You’ll want me around when your house is on fire and you’ve cut your knee). Take education where you can and continue learning your whole life.

MARDI: I have always read about and studied human behavioural topics, it’s been an area of great curiosity over the years. I always take the opportunity to learn something new as I’m driven by a need for variety and adventure. Over the years I have studied everything from business, marketing, analytics, public speaking, short story writing, vocal training, negotiation skills and most recently behavioural profiling and coaching. I secretly always pictured being a hot air balloon pilot. Upon enquiry into this, I learnt you have to be an ‘actual’ pilot first – so this is currently on the back burner.

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PonyUp For Good takes your old tech goods and on-sells them for reuse, donating 50% of profits to a SecondBite, social change initiative.

What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

CAT: Leaving my job with nothing to go to and no plan as yet. I knew I’d figure it out but I needed to re-centre myself. I’m lucky to have a very supportive husband. I kept the kids in school and care and focussed on myself. I spent a couple of months regrouping and chatting with Mardi about what our project might look like. I had a great tan and was very well read that summer and by February PonyUp was born. I was blessed to have the time to invest in myself to get there.

MARDI: The scariest leap I have ever made was moving away from being a full-time marketer, going back to school and choosing a new path in human behaviour and workplace culture planning. That was butterfly city! I have to say the leap into PonyUp was a lot more exciting than scary. I believed in it, and more than that, I believed that Cat and I were the ones to bring it to life. When you know, you know, and that takes a lot of the fear out of the decision.

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What were you doing before you made your leap?

CAT: I found myself in a role and within a team that didn’t bring out the best in me. I had a knot in my stomach every day and was struggling with a sense of feeling trapped and not knowing what to do next. I was terrified of failing in the role I was in and terrified of failing if I went out on my own. I was completely paralysed until I had an epiphany: being deeply unhappy and not doing anything to change it was the very definition of the failure I was so desperate to avoid. Life is too short to be miserable and stay in a job that doesn’t let you shine and be the very best version of yourself.

MARDI: I was juggling several roles at the time, running CultureCom, working part-time with TEDxMelbourne and volunteering with ACE. I had just completed three years of intense study in human behaviour. As someone who gets their energy from others, I had been working on my own for the most part for several years and this was starting to wear thin. Cat and I had been throwing around ideas for some time and when she left ‘corporate land’ I lobbed up on her doorstep soon after with a cheeky smile on my face, determined to steal her while I could!

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Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

CAT:

1. My lovely friend Tamsin got me my first job in the music industry in the late 90’s. She continues to be an inspiration for me, always making her career work for her lifestyle. She chooses what she wants her life to look like and then makes it happen rather than taking what’s on offer and working around it.
2. How I viewed work life balance shifted enormously after my two beautiful girls were born. Seeing my girls seeing me so unhappy was a great motivator for my leap. I wanted to set an example for them and be proud of my work and its impact. When I finally left my job, my daughter made me a card congratulating me on quitting. She was seven and she could see it was the right thing, that made me laugh.
3. Working with Mrs Mardi Brown has been a revelation. We have such great energy and get so much done, but we never stop laughing. We are not afraid to challenge one another and are not precious about who does what, but we are both perfectionists and love great style, so nothing gets out the door if we are not happy with it. Mardi has great personal insight and is an open book and that makes for a great business partner. She’s not afraid to call a spade a shovel and knock you upside with it if required, but she’ll wrap it in bubble wrap first. Self awareness is key in all relationships but none so important as the person you spend an eight hour day with.
4. Ian, my husband, has been incredibly important in my leap. He has been so supportive. We always work as a team and we know we can get through anything together, we always have each other’s back and that’s important.

 

MARDI:

1. Graeme – In my first marketing role, I had the most wonderful CEO who acted as my mentor. He asked for my insights into various areas of the business that a junior would never otherwise have been asked about. He taught me that business does not have to be serious and to always prioritise the bigger issues. He promoted me three times and I spent my entire career there outside my comfort zone. It was the best training and start I could have ever asked for. Because he backed me, I learnt early on how to back myself.

2. Jon – Working alongside the curator and director of TEDxMelbourne, Jon Yeo was a wonderful influence on my creative mind. TED is a very unique environment where your purpose is to help ‘bring to stage’ some of this world’s most creative, talented and humble minds, to tell their story in a way that captivates and broadens their audience’s mind. Jon is especially gifted at this and he has influenced me greatly in how I approach creativity and innovation with PonyUp.

3. Pete – I’d be remiss in mentioning my husband, Pete. He has been my rock over the years and somehow manages to give me the right advice just when I need it. He has built and sold an incredibly successful business in the last 10 years and is an amazing people person. He has cheered me on unwaveringly in all of my big career moves. I’m very lucky…

4. Cat – Going into biz with Cat has been an absolute treat. When you meet us you’ll work out pretty quickly that you’ll never die wondering what we are thinking, which makes for an excellent partner in crime. She has influenced my motivation, challenges my thinking and brings me undone in a fit of laughter at the drop of a hat. The thing that I think rubs off on me most is her ability to balance work, family and social time like no one I have ever seen. Being present is her superpower and I’ve certainly tried to take a page out of her book.

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What did you have in place before you made the leap?

CAT: A background in building something from nothing across a multitude of industries, a great idea and an incredible smart and savvy business partner who makes me laugh, shares my passion and is always up for glass of red.

MARDI: We had a solid business model in place, which we shared with some of our trusted mentors and business advisors. It held up and this bolstered our confidence to take the leap. We decided to back each other and in those earlier days when awkwardness outweighed any sense of business elegance, we had each other every step of the way.

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What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?

CAT: I started work on a web project with external resources and I was working with these lovely creative guys whose company I enjoyed immensely. The process we undertook was creative with shared objectives and collaborative ideas and problem solving. It reminded me of roles and teams I had loved in the past. I had a realisation: it wasn’t me, I was just in the wrong job and I needed to change it STAT.

MARDI: I had been working on my own for a few years and there was only so much collaboration and feedback my dog Busta was capable of. She diligently agreed with all of my ideas, even if they were questionable. I am at my best when there is the opportunity to collaborate. I found that my ability to innovate in a creative and bold way had become that much harder. Eventually there was a pain point and luckily for me, the timing to start PonyUp for Good with Cat was just around the corner.

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How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

CAT: A fear of failure and lack of a good idea were my greatest hurdles. I was so terrified of starting something and having it fail that I was spiritually paralysed. I couldn’t come up with, or commit to, a great idea in that headspace. I had no mojo. However, I was blessed with my husband’s support and Mardi’s boundless enthusiasm and unwavering belief that together we could do anything we put our minds to. So I put my toe in slowly and bit by bit I unpacked my confidence and self belief from the suitcase of doom I had packed it into and remembered who I am and what I’m capable of. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

And if the business doesn’t succeed, then we’ll deal with it and be enriched for the experience because it’s been an adventure and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much or been so proud of what I’ve achieved before. It’s important to understand that failure (and success for that matter) is a metric only you can define. For me, unhappiness and lack of fulfillment was far scarier than taking the leap.

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MARDI: From an early age, I have used a simple equation when making the BIG life decisions. It might sound crass to some, but I jump ahead and ask myself ‘will I regret not doing this when I am on my deathbed?’ For me, the fear of regret having not taken the scary chances in life is an ultimate motivator to just say yes and work out how. I took some time in January to prepare myself mentally for the leap and to work out who I needed to be, for Cat and for myself, in taking this new business on. This came in the form of a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in the hills, (no talking, eye contact, technology, reading or touching). If you didn’t know yourself beforehand, you certainly will when you float out of there. It was the best preparation for jumping in committed, focused and ready to face any fear. I purposely surround myself with people who make scary decisions and live large lives in their own ways – they are my inspiration and drive. Cat and I both have an attitude of being able to ‘work it out’ no matter what and this is as strong a tool in the toolbox as anything else.

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How did you fund your leap?

On good manners, great relationships, great attitudes, tonnes of positivity and many favours we will repay as soon as we are able.

What other leaps have you made?

CAT: I quit my job and got on a plane to England with next to no money and no plan, following the love of my life. We stayed there and worked and travelled for four years. We are now happily married with two kids, so a pretty good decision all in all.

MARDI: My husband and I saved like demons years ago, quit our jobs and travelled Asia and Europe for 16 months. I got a tan and, for a ginger, I can tell you, this is no easy feat. We ended up setting up home in Toronto for four years and worked out butts off. There were more leaps in this time than I could ever count on my fingers and toes. I LOVED my job there and I remember the sense of dread, stress and sleepless nights waiting for working visas to be renewed. It’s hard to relax when you’re not sure if you have to pack up a life and leave the country the following week or not. In saying this, I would recommend to anyone to go work and live in another country at least once in their life. It gives you a constant sense of joie de vivre.

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What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

CAT & MARDI: We’ve come to believe that a leap is never a failure if you learn something valuable or grow or change in some way. It will become a part of your story and a part of your journey to whatever is next.

Whenever something does not go our way, we try to remind ourselves how young we are in this business and that it’s all feedback, not failure. It doesn’t always translate into practice, however we take the advice that we can be our own worst enemy, so we just try to not sweat the small stuff – first world problems and all that…

 

What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

CAT & MARDI: Spiders (of a certain size) and no longer working for ourselves. We have both worked in large business for most of our careers and it’s a breath of fresh air to answer to ourselves.

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How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.

CAT & MARDI: We are both on a 10. We love working together and we feel a real sense of purpose in what we are doing. PonyUp speaks to our environmental and charitable values, whilst allowing us total creative control. Now we just need to hire someone to deal with spreadsheets and taxes!

What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

CAT & MARDI: Complete creative control and being able to make the decisions that are akin to our values is the most liberating upside to making this leap. We call the shots and sometimes this means experiencing an awkward dismount from some of our ideas, but they’re ours, we own them!

What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

CAT & MARDI: We’re never going to be the poster children for patience and at times we get frustrated that things have not happened yesterday. But we’ve achieved a lot, and this is what we have to remind ourselves when this feeling kicks in, in order to take a breath and move through it.

Oh and paying yourself! That does not always happen at first, so this can be a downside if you have not planned for a backup. Having a community of backup dancers who support your every move is a blessing if you’re taking the leap!

What might be your next leap?

CAT & MARDI: It will be a couple of years off yet, however our aim is to launch a ‘PonyUp Foundation’, which funds environmental/charitable projects. There a lot of young innovators and inventors who come up with new ways to reuse, repurpose or recycle things, which improve our environment, or the way we resource and serve vulnerable people. Our aim is to help them realise these ideas and build on them through various networks, get them the resources they need to turn the idea into life. We’d like to be able to support others to take their leap and invest in worthwhile environmental or development projects at the same time.

What are your favourite words to live by?

CAT: Be yourself, everybody else is taken.

MARDI: Don’t die wondering…

Who do you admire who also made the leap?

CAT & MARDI: We’ve paid close attention to the attitudes and success of the guys at Thankyou and Who Gives a Crap. We really admire the creative way that they have approached the growth of their businesses and the focused leap they have made in supporting their charity impact partners. Our hats are tipped in their general direction.

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A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

CAT & MARDI: Try and take some time out to decide what the right project is for you. It can be hard to see the wood for the trees when you are doing something that doesn’t fulfill you. You may not want a 10 day silent meditation, but invest some time in yourself and know that what you are doing is what you want to commit to long-term. You’ll be spending a lot of time doing it.

Do your homework and understand the market. Step through a pilot to replicate your business in a live and safe environment and learn what you don’t know in order to set up your processes, networks and suppliers and practices.

If you are seeking mentors or advice from people, first ask: ‘Who are you and what have you done?’ Make sure you are seeking advice from the right people who have experience and a track record of achievement in your industry or field.

Most of all, choose people to go into business with who have your back no matter what. Building your own business is challenging work, but it also an opportunity to build something that speaks to your values. Communicate like a champion and have some fun along the way.

Right now I’m:

CAT:
Hearing: Lots of spotify playlists, I like to be surprised.
Eating: A nutribullet for breakfast and maltesers for afternoon tea. My diet starts fresh each day and lasts until 3pm.
Drinking: Italian reds.
Reading: The bricks that built the houses by Kate Tempest and I have the new Harry Potter waiting by my bed.
Loving: Time with my beautiful daughters.

MARDI:.
Hearing: A mix some DJ friends made recently called Daybreak Disco, but I have such a broad appreciation of music.
Eating: Anything vegetarian (except olives – yuk).
Drinking: I start the day with warm water, ginger root, lemon, honey and turmeric – it really feels like medicine.
Reading: Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey
Loving: Time by the fire this past winter with my husband and dog. They’re my chill time.

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For many of us, a summer break is on the horizon. Like Cat, it was taking time off over summer away from the noise of everyday commitments and planting myself in nature for a little while that gave me the space to think differently about how my life could be. With a new year on the horizon, and the reflective pause it invites, how might you give yourself permission to make a leap in 2017? Start by making space for some ‘you’ time.

Lovingly,

Kylie x

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