When Natasha Cuevas presented a pitch to run a boutique artisan market inside Wollongong Central in 2019 she had $11 to her name and was using services like Need-A-Feed. Now the business is turning over millions of dollars.
The bubbly woman with a big smile has a digital image of her bright pink lips now adorned on seven Chatterbox Mark storefronts, a logo which is said to encapsulate the company's culture - bright, enthusiastic and friendly.
"It's been a very exciting ride, we've had a lot of ups and down," the former hair stylist said. "I've learnt how to become a ballerina and pivot like a mad woman."
Chatterbox now employs 29 staff and represents 80 small businesses across their stores, selling ethical, sustainable and handmade goods.
They've also just opened a warehouse in Unanderra to store their stock and service their upcoming web store (which will look a little different to your usual e-shop I'm told).
Cuevas said she knows running a collective-style store supporting dozens of smaller artisan brands isn't new or ground-breaking, but it's "popular" and helping other local small businesses succeed.
Having run a mobile hair salon (Chop Chop Hair) at various markets she knew how "unpredictable" market life was in the weather, and the "tough slog" it was to get up at 4am to secure the best spot.
"I also I noticed a lot of businesses were creating a beautiful product but were missing the mark on how to present it, how to market themselves," she said.
The whole venture evolved from a casual conversation she had while eating a bacon and egg role. The then store manager was chatting to a representative from Wollongong Central about how her employer wasn't interested in expanding, but happened to put out a few ideas of what they should do.
The next day Wollongong Central followed up with a call and wanted Cuevas to make her vision a reality.
"I had been utilising services like Need-A-Feed and Anglicare as I was in a really difficult position following a really difficult break-up and became the 100 per cent sole carer of my children," she said.
"The day I presented my ideas I had $11 in bank account, and last year our turnover - even though we were closed for months - our revenue that we generated for small businesses was just shy of $3 million.
"I'm very proud of that fact, because it's not my money it's the money I've generated for local small businesses."
Cuevas had not long opened three other ventures when the world was turned upside down in early 2020 with a mysterious coronavirus, and she had four days to pack up four stores not knowing when they'd be able to reopen.
Mount Ousley photographer Sam St John captured the entrepreneur in one of her darkest moments, the photo depicting a distraught Cuevas holding a glass of wine and surrounded by her children at their doorstep.
It was that afternoon she realised how dire the situation was: all her staff were now unemployed and she was tens of thousands of dollars in debt as Chatterbox hadn't yet hit the profit margin after nine months of operating.
Michelle Rizovski was a long-time friend of Cuevas, as well as running a small businesses which sold their wares with Chatterbox. She could understand the vision her friend had for the business so reached out to help.
They became partners, choosing the name Soulpreneur Enterprises, "a heart driven soul centred business - every decision we make is based on that", Rizovski said.
"Together we manifest stuff, we're able to dream it and then do it - the best thing about our business partnership is we both see the vision," she said.
But it still wasn't an easy road to success for the company, with a second lockdown for the region coming to force just as they had signed a lease for a Kiama store and had launched a new store inside Stockland Shellharbour.
Cuevas was not going to head down the path of closure again and instead came up with an idea to remain open, by creating a COVID-safe kiosk.
Their Thirroul store opened every Saturday in kiosk-style, while at Shellharbour they put clear perspex around their mid-store setup (like a cube) with products facing outside and a small window for shoppers to pay the attendant and receive their goods.
It proved a hit with customers as they stopped by on the way to the supermarket.
"Our staff member was safe in the box and the customer was safe on the other side," Cuevas said. "We were only allowed to sell essential items like baby products, vegan skincare, diffusers for natural remedies for coughs and colds, handmade face masks."
Cuevas said she felt the business had always "put the cart before the horse" before joking she was "on the horse riding a million miles an hour and Michelle is in the cart".
"But now we've paused and finally the horse is before the cart," she said.
From the beginning, the vision for Chatterbox was to be an incubator for small artisan businesses and nurture them to progress from a market stall to one day their own store.
Cuevas ultimately has ambitions of becoming an educator, so that she can focus on helping small businesses realise their full potential alongside her market empire. And perhaps release a memoir before becoming a motivational speaker, she joked.
"I want to go from $11 to an $11 million turnover, and I want to release a book called Confessions of a Chatterbox and then I'll just be a guest speaker going around talking about how I did it," she laughed.
"I just keep pinching myself, it's just ridiculous how far we've come ... Someone asked me do I have 'more hours in the day than other humans?'.
"I just wrote back to her and said 'nope, I just don't second guess my intuition'. People waste time on self doubt and I guess that's the difference of why we've come so far. I had nothing to lose in the beginning so it's all been this exciting, massive adventure."
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