Catherine Cunningham, The Crafty Bird

This time we are speaking with Catherine Cunningham of The Craft Bird.  Catherine set up The Crafty Bird from beautiful West Wicklow with a unique offering - a growing range of milk paint products made to Catherine's innovative recipe. 


What led you to starting your business?CatherineCunningham

I had set up The Crafty Bird as a crafts/furniture painting business initially.  As a furniture painter, I had been searching for a paint that would yield certain look i.e. weathered and naturally aged, without too much hard work!  I couldn’t find a paint here to give me that look, so I dabbled and messed about with some ingredients and after a lot of time and effort, I came up with a recipe that worked.  I thought it was too good to keep under wraps so I began selling it to stores around Ireland.   So you could say, I arrived here by accident!

 How did you raise the start-up funds you needed?

I initially thought I would need thousands of Euros to start this type of business.  I visualised myself with hefty machinery, in a large factory setting with volumes of raw materials.  But I was very lucky to have been mentored by a business planning consultant named Paul O’Kelly who helped me realise that I could easily start the business today with just a small amount of raw materials, hand labelled bags from a room in my house.  I took his advice and started the business the very next day on a budget of a couple of hundred Euro.

 What was the most significant lesson you learned in starting your business?

I’ve learned that no amount of training can equip you to sell your product or service unless you truly believe in it.  If you don’t believe in your own product, it shows.  Buyers just won’t buy into it.  You’ve got to be honestly passionate about what you’re selling because if you aren’t 100% committed, then why should anyone else be?

MilkPaintPackagingWhat’s the best business book you’ve ever read?

I’m actually just starting to read “The Suitcase Entrepreneur: Create freedom in business and adventure in life” by Natalie Sisson.  Even though I couldn’t possibly run my business from a café or indeed a suitcase, it does give you tips on how to build a business around your lifestyle.  I also like the fact that the author has real life experience and isn’t just a theorist.

 Who is the entrepreneur you admire the most?

I have recently come across Gerard Vroomen, Co-founder of Cervélo and currently co-owner of Open Cycle. Gerard has a very refreshing approach to business whereby he believes in “Relentless Simplicity”.  He and his business partner maintain a culture of simplicity and openness in the everyday running of their business.  They keep their structure small and only perform the tasks they absolutely love.  But ultimately, they are completely honest with their customers and don’t hide behind their challenges.   It really works for them and I think it’s a very good tactic to running a successful business.

What have been the biggest challenges in your business to date?

Initially, trying to convince potential retailers (and therefore the public) that this product, whilst it seemed bonkers to begin with, is actually a top quality product that is a serious contender in competing with the top commercial paints on the market.

What has been the proudest moment in your business so far?

I signed up to exhibit at the recent Autumn Gift & Home Fair in Citywest.  My goal was to give my product exposure and to advertise it amongst the retail trade.  But the response I actually received was completely unexpected!  I trebled my retailers in just 2 days, and the feedback was tremendous.  It took at least a week for me to come down from the adrenalin high!

What was the best piece of business advice you ever got?

I’ve received so much good advice from mentors and consultants.  But the lovely Louise Fleming from Wicklow LEO gave a golden nugget of advice when she told me that if I want to succeed, taking a leap into a bigger playing field is sometimes the only way forward.  Sometimes to stay put and play safe is not the right option as it can cause you to plateau and ultimately stagnate.

Can you recommend a good time management technique for other entrepreneurs out there?

I am useless at managing my time. If at all possible though, I do believe you should only work on what you love to do and try to outsource the stuff you enjoy less.  I know that in the early stages though, that’s not always possible.  Another piece of advice though is to try to set aside some personal time for yourself.  Otherwise what is this all for?

What magazine do you never miss each month?

I read all of the interior mags, I’m not a great follower of business magazines!

What is your favourite film?

My favourite all time film is an Argentine-French movie called “Valentín”.  It is a lovely story which revolves around the world of an eight-year-old boy who dreams of one day becoming an astronaut.  The characters are so honest it warms your heart.  The movie is all about Valentín’s attempts to improve his family’s world, which at most times is baffling and confusing to him.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs thinking of starting a business?

If you love it, then just do it.

Do your prep work, do your research.  But don’t procrastinate or over analyse your business idea.  If you do, someone with less fear might jump in ahead of you! 

What do you like to do when you’re not running your business? Any hobbies?

Spending time with my children (they’re great sounding boards by the way!), interior design, painting furniture, upholstery and reading a good book.

Have you found the self-employed formula for a work/life balance?  What is it?!MilkPaintStools

I haven’t quite found it yet I’m afraid…my kids still drag me away from the computer every night!

What’s your website?

Do you have a Facebook page?

Are you on Twitter?


How has LEO Wicklow helped?

LEO Wicklow has been instrumental in helping me grow my business.  From day 1, Catherine Howard gave great advice and told me which areas I needed to work on.  I came back a few months later and was assigned Louise Fleming as my advisor.  Louise has always got the time to talk issues through with me, and she shares her knowledge and interest as if it’s her own business under analysis.  She went through my business plan with painstaking detail and successfully obtained a priming grant for the company.  My gratitude to these guys is beyond words.

If you could start up all over again, would you do anything differently?

I know that business plans are important, but you can get bogged down by them.  I spent nearly 10 months writing my business plan.  Did it assist me in laying the foundations and strategy for the business?  Yes it gave me the structure I needed.  But did it make a difference to where I am today?  Probably not.  I would probably have arrived at this stage a lot earlier if I hadn’t become hung up on the writing of the business plan.  I mean it’s ridiculous, it’s nearly 80 pages long!

Thank you for talking to us Catherine - what an inspiration!