Co-founder of Liberio
Grew up: New York, USA
Cat Noone is an entrepreneur and designer from Brooklyn, New York, who now lives in Berlin.After moving to Europe with her partner, Ben, she co-founded Liberio, a startup that allows anyone to easily create and publish eBooks. She has also used her design chops to co-make other products such as Coo, The Gentle Hound and Maker Hunt.
I chat to Cat from her home in Berlin and all the while her puppy, Dexter, listens in from the couch beside her. You’ll meet Dexter shortly—he’s a total showstopper—but first, here’s Cat on what she wishes she’d known before taking on Liberio, women in tech and why there are no such things as unicorns.
You initially started your career off in special education. Is it a surprise for you to be where you are now?
Yes and no. I grew up in a really supportive family that also loved art. I always had this mini shop in my family’s house where I went and drew and that carried over into high school. I discovered that there can be this blend of what I’m putting on paper and then digitising it; I always loved the endless possibilities that could come with that. So as much as I loved the kids that I worked with [in special ed] and the reward that came with it, there was this gnawing, this voice at the back of my head that said, ‘You can’t do this for the rest of your life.’ After a few years doing that, I decided to quit and I just took the plunge and went right into freelance design. The rest is history!
There was this gnawing, this voice at the back of my head that said, ‘You can’t do this for the rest of your life.’
Did you have any people encouraging you along the way? Who did you use as a sounding board?
Because I had been doing [design] in my spare time I had also been creating these connections on social media with other designers. I think that seeing all of the work happening, seeing the inspiration and how jazzed up everyone else got about it, was a springboard in itself.
It sounds like, at heart, you’re a maker. What’s your proudest achievement?
I guess the fact that it’s really easy to be sucked up into this ego that comes with the maker community. It’s the fluff that comes with it and I’ve never been about the fluff.
What is the fluff?
The fluff is the stuff that doesn’t need to be talked about. It’s really easy to gas your head up [in the design community]: I’m a unicorn. I’m this and I’m that. I grew up in a time where there was no such thing as a unicorn. You had multiple skills and you were called talented. That’s it. I think there are so many people out there who bust their asses on a regular basis and succeed. They’re the mom and pop shops all the way up to the major companies like Facebook. So I guess I can say that my biggest success is really keeping my head down, doing what I love and not getting caught up in that fluff.
To get Liberio up and running is a massive feat. I’m sure there were moments where you thought, Oh holy shit, what are we doing? How do you deal with the tough emotions that come up when you’re trying your heart out?
I had a conversation with a few founders before I really kicked it off and they said, ‘Are you ready for this?’ I said, ‘Yeah! Why not?’
It had to be this definitive yes or no answer for them and that was because they’d done this before, whereas I didn’t know what was coming. I had no idea about the shit show that would follow. It’s like having a child in a way: you care for it and you nurture it but shit still goes wrong. So you fix it as much as possible and try not to lose your mind when doing it.
I think the mark of a successful businessperson is knowing how to really organise your day and structure it to ensure you’re set up for success.
On that whole trying not to lose your mind note, how do you make sure you look after yourself?
Above all, the biggest emotional challenge as a person in this industry was learning how to detach myself from the work and remembering that I can’t burn out because I can’t afford to.
By afford I mean I personally can’t health wise afford to and I can’t afford to do that to my family, because all of this nonsense aside, my work is nothing compared to my family.
And of course it doesn’t help that the world has a really skewed idea of what hard work is.
For sure. A lot of people will put in these nineteen-hour days and it’s toted around like a badge of honour, but at the end of the day it’s not. I’ve burned out before, I was toast for months and it’s not worth it. Now I think the mark of a successful businessperson is knowing how to really organise your day and structure it to ensure you’re set up for success.
My work is nothing compared to my family.
At what point did you realise that you can’t go on? What was the tipping point to burn out?
When I literally didn’t want to wake up and work. I was working sixteen-hour days, sometimes forgetting to eat. I loved what I was doing, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t smart. So I took the time to just mentally detox and it wasn’t that I did nothing for two months, but I slowly got back into a groove once I did dedicate time to myself.
It’s an easy mistake to make, right? You think, Well I’m enjoying what I do, that should give me energy. But actually there is no replacement for food! Gotta eat and gotta sleep.
Yeah, it was a mess but at the end of it I thought, What the hell am I doing? This is ridiculous. Lesson learned.
You said once in another interview that it’s good to know what you excel and what you suck at. What are those things for you?
I think I excel at storytelling, in the sense that you need to feel like you’re able to walk through a product and that it’s been communicated clearly. From visuals to interactions to copy, I think I do a pretty good job of creating an overall experience for a user within a product.
One thing that I really sucked at was business and finance, and obviously as a co-founder that is super essential. I spent a good amount of time familiarising myself with the technologies that are out there and how venture capital works because previous to that the finance spreads for Liberio were a foreign language to me. I was looking at Swahili!
I want to ensure my success is defined by how many personal goals I’ve met.
Going back to what you were saying about being talented and the ‘unicorn’, is it perhaps that we’re so focused on being talented that we forget some things, in fact most things, you just have to learn from scratch?
Yeah, yesterday I actually tweeted a quote that said, ‘Success is not a goal, it’s a by-product.’ So when people say, ‘What do you chalk up your success to?’, it’s like who said I’m successful? How do you define my success? By what? Against whom? If you define it against Mark Zuckerberg, I’m nowhere to most. If you define it against the mom and pop shop that is not doing so well, then yeah, I’m probably successful. Success it what you make of it and I’d say I’m doing well.
Work things aside, what kind of personal goals have you set for yourself?
One of them was that I wanted to do something that was bigger than me, so granted that really coincides with my work goals.
I also always wanted to find a partner for life and I’ve found that, and you know, I want to have a family. They’re these really normal things, I guess, but at the end of the day I want to ensure my success is defined by how many personal goals I’ve met.
From what you were saying earlier it sounds like your creative time as a kid had a big influence on what you do now. What other things do you think your family has taught you?
Just what it means to be a root in a tree, to be there and to support someone. You are a root in this foundation and you play a role and you play an important one. They’re all necessary.
I grew up in a very Italian-Irish family so we had home cooked meals and good conversation at dinner and no hats or phones at the table. They really value family time so that’s something that I’ve tried my best to carry over, those really non-techie traditional values and the take away: how to really value what you have.
I value in women the same thing I do in men. You’re super determined, ready to kick ass, you know what you want and you know how to have a really good time doing it.
What qualities do you admire about other women working in the tech community? And do you think we should be making a distinction between female communities in tech and the greater tech community at large?
I think it’s important that there is that distinction: it gives women a bit of a comfort zone to help them excel in the way they want and need to. Especially when they’re stuck between a rock in a hard place in a male-dominated tech.
For me, as much as I love those siloed-off groups, I think that it’s equally as important to understand that there are males out there who also want to be on the bottom of that totem pole, to lift females up and ensure they succeed the way other males do.
Among the women I work with, I value in women the same thing I do in men. You’re super determined, ready to kick ass, you know what you want and you know how to have a really good time doing it.
It sounds like you are that person you just described. On the flip side of that, what makes you hesitate? What are you scared of?
What is failing for you?
Feeling like I didn’t meet my personal goals. I don’t like feeling like I failed someone and if Liberio were to not make it I’d feel like I had in a way failed the authors on the platform. That’s maybe my personality or maybe it’s just being a founder.
In a more general scope, there are many things. If I go into an investor meeting I’m scared. I’m scared that I won’t tell the story the way it needs to be told to convince them, so there are these little micro frightening moments, but at the end of the day I’m almost always willing to jump off the cliff and see what happens. Because the ultimate failure for me is making a mistake with no lessons learned.
Have you just become a bit more familiar with your own fear going to so many investor meetings?
As I go on I’m more confident with what I’m doing and I truly believe in it so it makes it really easy to tell the story. But I’m human, so we all fuck up.
Let’s go back to your family for a little. You have three younger sisters. What’s it like being the eldest?
A responsibility! They’re delicate and strong in their own way and I take a lot responsibility in making sure I do my part in helping them succeed.
What have they taught you?
Because they’re so very different you have to be sensitive to how you approach these very delicate situations like boys and school. They taught me to be more patient and to remember that I have someone watching me, watching my move. I hope that my success only shows them that there is nothing they can’t do as females, a big sister or a mother. You can be all you want. I hope that’s what they take away from me.
I bet they do.
As I go on I’m more confident with what I’m doing. But I’m human, so we all fuck up.
A favourite question of ours is finding out what people wish we spoke more about. Is there a topic you’d like to see get more airtime?
Can I have a few?
The top one would probably be the people who are not really spoken about and I think that’s the special education community. Not a lot of funding is put toward them to make sure they are set up for success. What happens when they reach a certain age and they need a job? Some go through college and are super successful, and that’s great, but the odds are not as likely as they should be.
Another would be global equality. In America we talk a lot about what’s going on with equal pay and racism but we need to discuss this on a global scale.
And then, I’d say education in general. We’re in 2015 and you’d think it would be different now. Everyone deserves the right to a well-rounded education.
I firmly believe that, too, and it feels like there are the right murmurings going on. What do you think needs to happen next?
I think us, as the body of people in tech, have a lot of opportunities to solve these problems and if nothing else, just pure awareness. Forming companies like Charity Water and Watsi, maybe that’s the best way to do it. So for now, I’d say that’s the best answer: educating yourself on the issues in general, because you need to know what the issue is in order to fix it. And then, use that power to push it as far as possible.
Don’t ever allow anyone to feed you stories that prevent you from properly writing your own.
Last question. What piece of advice do you wish you’d known before you began Liberio that might be handy for anyone wanting to begin their own thing?
I wish I wouldn’t have listened to everyone who said it was incredibly difficult, not worth it, too stressful, etc. It obviously didn’t stop me, but it made me go into it with these preconceived assumptions based on nothing I had ever experienced.
In some ways, I was terrified. And I think in a lot of ways that nervousness and fear hindered me at the start. Once I dropped those thoughts and shook it off, I really flourished and developed into the founder and designer I saw for myself.
At the end of the day, only you know what you’re capable of. If you set your mind on something and are really passionate about it, don’t ever allow anyone to feed you any stories that prevent you from properly writing your own.
For the writers out there, head on over to Liberio to start creating and publishing your own eBooks.
Find out more about Cat right here and follow her on Twitter @imcatnoone