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Self-portrait Of A Community

A person with short hair, wearing a pink shirt, black vest, jeans, and a coral cardigan, leans on the back of a sheep statue adorned with knitted accessories. This charming outdoor scene with buildings and greenery in the background exemplifies creative business ideas for women.

Cayla Pothan

Tootsie Gallery Cafe

The Business
Tootsie Gallery Cafe
The Founder
Cayla Pothan, 2015
The Concept
A creative workshop space and cafe housed in a beautifully renovated garage in the Yass Valley
The Toughest Part
Learning leadership – “I’ve worked with an authoritarian leader and didn’t want to create that, but being good friends with my staff didn’t create good boundaries so they’ve walked all over me.”
The Best Part
“I feel like I give people permission to be themselves, even if they feel it’s a bit weird or out of the box, which is how I used to feel. I’ve built a place of conversation, connection and community, making people feel important.”

Insomnia And Dream-building

How many of us have experienced that awful 3am twilight zone where we can’t sleep, overwhelmed by feeling stuck in a rut but not sure how to climb out? Cayla Pothan certainly has, only she knew exactly what she needed to do. She just had to convince her husband, and the local community of Yass in southeastern NSW, to support her.

Pothan had a dream of buying the old 1930s Yass service station that had lain empty for 20 years and transforming it into a thriving art gallery cafe with crazy coloured walls, out-of-the box art classes and non-traditional exhibitions. But everywhere she turned she met resistance, including initially from her husband whose concreting business she had been managing alone from their property outside Yass.

“He supported me but felt I was about five years too early, the kids were still young but I said, ‘What I’m doing now is killing my soul and I feel like I need to start’.”

So buy it they did, in 2013, and spent the next two years renovating but it soon became overwhelming and expensive, so they stopped for a few months before attacking the reno once more. But when she was looking to design the gallery, eschewing the traditional white box and formal gallery environment for a more homely feel to entice locals to create their own art, a local friend again told her she was ahead of her time.

“He said, ‘You’re five years too early for Yass, Yass isn’t ready for you, you’re too out of the box. People need to get to know you, to trust you’.”

Two women are working together on an art project in a colorful room filled with various artwork and decorations. One woman, with short blonde hair, wears a cat-themed apron, while the other, with long gray hair, is focused on her task. Discussing business ideas for women, they chat about starting a business based on their creativity.

Open For Business

Heeding his advice, in November 2015 she opened Tootsie Gallery Cafe with white walls and rotating exhibitions, but her heart wasn’t in it. Reluctant to charge artists to exhibit she instead charged a meagre commission on sales and the business was surviving on a shoestring with Pothan still doing her husband’s bookkeeping to keep the gallery alive.

Pothan isn’t one to take no for an answer. Canberra born and bred, she grew up wanting to be an artist but was repeatedly told it wasn’t a career option.

“My mum wanted me to be a lawyer,” Pothan says. “I started mosaicing and she’d say, ‘I don’t understand why you stick broken stuff to other broken stuff. Half the stuff you do people take to the tip’. Because she kept telling me it wasn’t a career path it ignited my fire and I thought, ‘watch me!’”

Nevertheless she first became a horticulturist then earned an associate diploma in disability, but she’d always felt there was something more. Similarly when she was four years into running Tootsie Gallery Cafe she couldn’t shake the feeling she wasn’t being true to herself.

“It was killing my soul again and I needed to either shut it down or take it over as if it was my own home.”

Be True To Yourself

When Covid hit she did just that, carrying out what Pothan calls a ‘massive takeover’ where she painted walls hot pink, purple, turquoise and yellow. Gone are the exhibitions and instead she runs workshops and art classes for adults, kids, corporate groups, even tourists who regularly return for weekends to take part in her off-the-wall classes where they’re encouraged to mosaic, paint self-expression rather than Impressionism, decorate blank white sneakers or journal using art and recycled personal trinkets.

Since then the business has doubled, her staff have doubled to six and the gallery cafe is twice as busy. Not only that but Pothan has been elected to the local Yass Valley council, prompting customers to regularly come in and chat.

“I feel like it’s become authentically me. It’s attracted a whole different type of person – more creative, artistic, travellers – it feels more connected and really feeds my soul in a way that nothing has before. A lot of people tell me coming here makes them feel happy and as if they have permission to be themselves. The community here has come with me, they’ve been on the journey with me and I’m part of that community.”

Advice

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Fail fast, learn from it and don’t be embarrassed by your mistakes.

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Stay true to yourself. “Don’t try to be what you think others want you to be because that is never going to work and you’ll attract people who also aren’t being true to themselves.”

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Be resilient. “Even if you don’t feel it, create it.”

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Create a business people want to return to.

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You can eat the elephant. “Creating a business can feel like that metaphor of eating an elephant: it feels really big. Start with showing up, then do one thing at a time.”

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Be collaborative and open to feedback, good and bad.

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