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How Danielle's hobby became a business

Danielle McDonald talks to Sylvia Pennington about going from depression and divorce to real happiness.

Battling depression with two young children to support, Danielle McDonald decided it was time to make her own luck.

Four years on, she’s turned her furniture upcycling hobby into a thriving business, with customers all over the country queuing to buy her shabby-chic creations, via her Joli Bluebird Facebook page and retail store in Ipswich, Queensland.

A former steel-industry worker, McDonald worked as a casual night filler at Coles Supermarkets Australia. But following the birth of her second child she found the hours impossible after being left on her own with limited childcare options, following the breakdown of her marriage.

“The kids were with me pretty much full time and if I’d gone back to full-time work, then I would have had to put them in long-hours day care or before and after school care,” she says. “I never wanted to do that.”

An extended bout of clinical depression made the prospect of re-entering the conventional workforce additionally daunting.

“Things got to the point where I was pretty sick,” McDonald says. “I recognised I had a problem and went and got help and realised I needed an outlet – something to keep me busy. That’s why I started painting; it was a therapeutic thing.”

Finding business in pleasure

People were impressed with the furniture she was rejuvenating and suggested she could sell it. She started sourcing old furniture that was given away, salvaged from the kerb or sold at bargain basement prices and rejuvenating it.

“Somebody suggested I get a shop and I said, ‘I don’t have the money to pay for those kinds of overheads but I’ll create a page on Facebook because it’s free’. It wasn’t until I started getting quite a good following – I’d list something for sale on the page and within 20 minutes it’d go – that I thought, actually, I could make a living out of this.”

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Some of the furniture Danielle has restored to sell in her shop. 

Tables and chairs are typically priced at $500 to $600 and dressing tables and sideboards around $300.

After three years of building her business from home, McDonald was approached to become a stockist for Annie Sloan, the chalk-based furniture paint, used on the majority of her pieces, and decided it was time to consider a move into the retail arena.

When offered a rent-free space in the Ipswich Mall, as part of the local council’s Activate Ipswich campaign, she jumped at the opportunity. Launched to help boost foot traffic in the Ipswich central business district, the initiative aims to give start-up enterprises a helping hand, while filling empty commercial spaces.

“I always had that dream,” McDonald says. “When I was doing the furniture I used to think, one day I’d like to have a shop. I wasn’t really ready for it when it happened but if I’d waited until I was ready maybe I wouldn’t have done it.”

Opened in September 2016, her store comprises a retail outlet for McDonald’s creations plus a collection of quirky homewares, and a space for her to host furniture-restoration workshops.

Starting small

Set up on a shoestring, the venture consumed $10,000 of McDonald’s savings and represented a step away from the safety of no-overheads, home-based toil.

“I haven’t gone into debt – everything in the shop I own,” McDonald says.

“I’m just starting off small and growing as I go because I don’t want to borrow money and be constantly stressed about having to pay it off. I still have to pay rent on my home and look after the kids.

“There’s something about being greedy at the start – things don’t work if you try to be too big, too quick. If I just build it up slowly over time and be cautious I believe it’ll work out better for me.

“I’d like to get things to a point where, when the kids finish school, they can come and join the business if they choose to. It would be nice to have some sort of opportunity for them.”

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The Joli Bluebird shop opened in Ipswich in September 2016.

Setting an example

Witnessing her journey from struggle to self-employment and small-business ownership has taught McDonald’s daughter and son, now aged eight and six, financial and life lessons about hard work, resourcefulness and perseverance.

“They’ve seen me work out of home and watched people come and pick stuff up,” McDonald says.

“When someone would come to the door they’d be like, ‘Do you want to buy this, or do you want to buy that?’

“You can tell that they’re so proud of me. They tell everybody ‘My mum’s Joli Bluebird, my mum’s got a shop, you should come to my mum’s shop’ and they say that one day they’re going to work in the shop.

“They’ve seen me battle and build all this up to turn my situation around. Now things are so much better and I’ve met Bernie, my partner. I couldn’t ask for a happier time in my life and I do feel quite proud of myself and what I’ve achieved – from just painting a couple of pieces to creating a business that can support me and my family.

“You can pretty much come from nothing and have nothing but with hard work you can achieve good things.”

My financial journey is a series from ANZ Women on how Australian women have overcome major obstacles and taken charge of their finances.