More and more designers and developers in our industry are making the leap into becoming entrepreneurs by starting their very own products. One of these aspiring designers is Cat Noone, co-founder of Liberio which closed in 2015.
Cat is a young and talented designer and entrepreneur from Brooklyn, New York, now living and working in Berlin. She worked in the field of special education before jumping into a career that she really loves and makes her happy.
Since switching tracks, Cat has worked as a product designer at Prolific Interactive and as design lead at ADP Innovation Labs, and she has freelanced and advised startups. She is the co-creator of Designer Relationships and The Gentle Hound and works now on her own start-up Liberio, an eBook creation and self-publishing platform for everyone.
In this interview, Cat shares insights about her personal life and Berlin, talks about her latest project (the startup Liberio) and gives advice to young designers and developers in the industry.
Q: First, tell us a little about yourself, Cat. Where did you grow up, and how did you start designing?
Cat: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a time when kids still played outside and knew that the street lights turning on meant it was time to come inside. It was great and taught me a lot of the common street sense I have today — I’m grateful for it.
I was surrounded by art throughout my entire childhood. My grandfather and aunt were fantastic with doodles, sketches and more. I remember my aunt pulling out this beautiful piece of Belle from Beauty and the Beast that she did in college — I loved it and that kind of sparked the urge to do the same. I still see the details of that piece in my head, and it inspired me to sketch and draw the characters I loved so much, too.
My family knew the love I had, and still have, for art. They fully supported my passion by swarming me with coloring and sketch books, canvas and paints, pastels and more. I always had pencils, crayons, markers and paint nearby, and I also had this awesome art desk where I kept everything. Paintings, sketches and self-made characters filled my books and donned the refrigerator like they were masterpieces, courtesy of my family — I was always so proud of them.
As I got older, the sketchbook was often the only thing I brought to school. I drew my school notes in there, and the information was retained much easier when the notes were doodled, versus writing them so plainly.
Even though I never intended to be a designer when I was younger (I wanted to be a veterinarian), I guess I should have known I would become one. I was always quite particular about the way things should look, work and be constructed. When I was a kid, I had a clear idea in my head of what made sense and what didn’t. However, despite the love I had for design, I was scared to make the jump into designing full-time when the opportunity first came around.
I wasn’t sure whether or not I would be able to make a living off of it, and I think I would have failed if I had jumped into it at that time. In hindsight, I certainly wasn’t ready. Instead, I thought that a college degree in something else like psychology or education would be safe, so I went into college as a biology major and minored in psychology. I ended up in the special education field before I decided that you just have to be willing to jump sometimes — and I did.
Q: You live in Berlin now. How did you end up there, and what has made you stay?
Cat: Always a story I enjoy telling! I actually ended up here because of my significant other, Benedikt. We met in the United States, but he lived in Berlin. We knew that, eventually, it would come down to “What now? Who moves where?” [laughs]
I had been in the Valley for a bit and needed something different. I needed a break and knew the change of scenery would work out for me. We discussed it at length, each fully willing to support whatever decision we came up with, and finally came to a conclusion: I would come to Berlin, we’d stay out here for a while, travel around Europe, and after some time we would eventually head back to the States together.
From the moment I stepped foot in Berlin, I knew I made the right decision. For being such a major city, it’s so relaxing and beautiful. There are these little pockets within the center of the city that are so suburban-like. On top of that, the difference in culture, language and more is a nice opportunity to learn so much. I love it.
Q: Having spent a while in Berlin, do you think Berlin (and Germany) is an encouraging place for people in our industry?
Cat: I think it’s great for a variety of reasons. It’s not “busy” out here, for one. The city surrounding the scene is much more calming, making it feel less chaotic in an industry that is always on the go. Compared to the other cities I’ve been in, it’s still a baby startup scene. But that’s part of the reason I’m happy to be out here now rather than later. It’s growing and needs to be molded. Building a company that is part of that feels awesome.
When it comes to the Valley, there are a lot of qualities people in the industry are not happy about. I also see and hear of more designers and developers choosing Berlin over San Francisco, which is interesting. So, I think Berlin could learn from what people dislike about other places and can mature and shape itself into what it should and needs to be in order to thrive. It has a lot of potential; some awesome startups are sprouting lately, and I’m excited to see where it goes. I recommend everyone experience a startup scene at the stage Berlin is at now.
Q: Coming to a new city, what do you think is the best strategy to build a creative network and to find people to build something?
Cat: Reach out to people, for sure. You have to break out of your comfort zone and just contact people. One thing I enjoy doing is connecting with people who are in my area on Twitter. It’s nice to see what others are working on and what you can learn from them. Much like the Valley, something is always happening, and someone is always willing to link up for a coffee or lunch. Take advantage of that!
It may feel weird at first, reaching out to someone you don’t know, but it’s well worth it.
Q: You also met cofounder Nicolas Zimmer in Berlin. How did you come up with the idea for Liberio?
Cat: Nicolas actually came up with the core idea for Liberio. He grew up in a family that at one point ran a publishing house. So, he experienced firsthand the transition from traditional to digital and the struggle that self-publishers face.
For me, I had personally tried creating an eBook at one point and knew what it was like to design and create a high-quality one. It was not fun. And I could imagine how many others out there are not as tech-savvy but want to share their thoughts, stories and more with the world.
Once Nicolas and I met and sat down to discuss Liberio further, we solidified it, built on the idea and created what you see today.
Q: What makes Liberio better than other solutions?
Cat: Until Liberio, there was no product that enabled the average individual to create and publish an eBook in the simplest, easiest and most beautiful way possible. Before, you had to use multiple and often difficult tools to do so. The publishing market is mostly in the hands of publishing houses, or else the products are made for professionals, which totally eliminates the chance for self-publishers to go far without major help. Realistically, that needed to change. Self-publishing is no longer a niche trend, and we wanted to create something that enables everyone to share their ideas, stories and knowledge.
The one thing we emphasize is that we want to do for eBooks what the App Store did for software: which is to allow individuals to create and publish their ideas and knowledge. Ultimately, we want to be the one-stop shop for it all. Liberio is for everyone. On our platform, we currently have students, teachers, doctors, authors, engineers, designers, chefs, bloggers and more. And that’s really exciting to see.
Q: What were the basic features and main goals you started with, and how did your product evolve?
Cat: Writing and reading are very emotional experiences, and one of the things we wanted from the beginning was to tap into that as much as possible through the branding and voice. That’s the main reason why we went with the illustrative design and friendly voice that we have. From there, we could bring our story, characters, objects and more to life — similar to what you’re familiar with from books.
Our goal from the beginning was to make the design as easy as possible to understand, so that people could easily create and publish an eBook. We started in private beta to ensure that our platform was solid and easy to pick up on, allowing you to simply create and publish right from Google Drive. We knew doing that in private beta would allow people on the platform to talk to us and validate or correct the assumptions we were making and the direction in which we were taking Liberio.
The process helped us to gain a better understanding of our next steps. We’ve learned a lot about what is needed in the self-publishing world versus what is simply wanted. I think our biggest insight was understanding the different ways we need to showcase and promote authors as much as possible; and now, post-launch, we’re working on ways to do so.
Q: There has been a lot of discussion lately about the future of self-publishing. Do you think publishers will become redundant, and will Liberio play a part in that development?
Cat: Definitely. People are realizing they don’t need publishing houses to succeed anymore. Before, having a company like Penguin on your book cover meant dollar signs. However, in the digital world we live in now, with social networks, self-publishers no longer need a publishing house to push their digital content out there, and consumers certainly don’t need the vanity logo to assure them that this is something they’ll want to read. Consumer reading lists are now drawn solely from suggestions based on previous reads and from others in your circle.
Nicolas and I laugh because a lot of people don’t realize that the (infamous) 50 Shades of Gray series started out as a self-published book. Only once it blew up did a publishing house want it because they were guaranteed to make so much money off of it. Before that, they didn’t want to touch it. That’s the problem self-publishers face. But the great thing is, they no longer need the publishing house.
Q: What are your future plans, dreams and hopes for Liberio?
Cat: Ultimately, I want Liberio to be the one-stop-shop not only for authors, but for any individual who wants to easily create and publish content that can then be consumed by everyone. I want to provide them with tools on our platform that enable them to create the most interactive and engaging content and to profit from it emotionally and financially.
There are so many stories left untold, and I’d love to continue doing everything possible to ensure they are written, distributed without a hassle and seen by everyone.
Q: What are the biggest challenges or fears you’ve faced as an entrepreneur, and how did you tackle them?
Cat: So, what come to mind instantly are speed and efficiency. Right now, it’s just Nicolas and I building Liberio, and while it really is great on the one hand, it also has its cons. The number of people on the platform is quickly increasing week by week, and although I won’t and never will complain about that, it means that a lot more hands are needed on deck.
Nicolas is handling all things development and business and some support. I’m focusing on all things design and brand management, business and marketing and some support also. With more people on board, this would obviously alleviate pressure on both of us and free us up to focus on other areas, pushing the product forward in a much faster, more efficient and more strategic way.
Q: You’re life must be very busy right now. What inspires you, and how do you get out of designer’s block?
Cat: I’m definitely influenced by the innovative products around me. They definitely get me excited about what’s to come, and they keep pushing me to work harder and think differently.
I do my best to ensure designer’s block doesn’t happen, because it ends up being kryptonite for me, and my brain becomes toast for a long period of time. It’s happened once already, and I just couldn’t stare at another pixel — it was bad.
When I just can’t get into a groove, though, or I’m not satisfied with how something is going, I make it a point to step away from the Internet and the computer for inspiration. I love traveling, seeing the area around me, reading or looking at magazines and more. I make sure I get lost and mentally detached from the tech world as much as I can.
At the end of the day, I make it a point not to look at my phone or computer as much as possible. It takes a long time for my brain to wind down as it is, so feeding it continually into the night is just counter-productive. To do so, I enjoy cozying up in the living room with Benedikt and our puppy, Dex, watching our shows or going for a nice long walk together.
Q: Besides turning Liberio into a successful product, what are your personal and business goals for this year?
Cat: Oh wow. This is a pretty deep question. I think this year I have more personal goals than I do business-wise, mainly because I know one hand will wash the other — I know, that’s such an old grandma saying.
My biggest battle is and probably always has been myself. I expect a lot from myself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that I beat myself up a lot at the same time, and it honestly makes me unproductive. It’s funny because I tell everyone, “Stop being so hard on yourself” — but when it comes to myself, I really don’t take my own advice often.
Although I’m satisfied with a lot of what I do and with the progress I’ve made, there is always the other side talking to me saying, “It isn’t good” or “You’re not going to make it,” and it feels rather low. So, that’s something I want to work on. I want to turn the “It isn’t good” voice into “Can this be improved? If so, how? Look at it from a different angle.”
Personally, I also want to enjoy life more. I spent a lot of time prior to this year focusing on things that I thought would get me closer to “success,” instead of realizing that success is what you make of it. Being successful isn’t about how big your business becomes, but about how happy you are, about the beautiful relationship I create with my significant other. Now, don’t get me wrong: I want to make a big difference in the community, and I want Liberio to be successful, but getting there is so much more likely if the cofounder has a level head to do so.
In business, I want to learn a lot from every aspect of my work right now. I want to educate myself in areas that I am subpar in (development, business, finances, etc.), to ensure I always keep up and continue to hone my skills. I want to build up my network and profile and to connect with a lot of people who I can learn from as best as possible, so that I can apply it to everything I work on.
Q: And last but not least, what advice can you give to young designers and developers who want to start a successful side project or startup?
Yes, I have a few points that I consider very important to becoming “successful.”
- Know what you excel and suck at.. It’s important to know where you flourish and where you fail and to be willing to accept that so that you can accept help. Most people have such big egos that they refuse to admit and ask. It’s a career-killer.
- Connect.. Get to know people in the field who you can watch and learn from, speak to and get advice from when you ask. Reach out to them! The worst that’s going to happen is they say no.
- Use the tools you have.. Use your tools to make something fast, meaningful and beautiful all at the same time. Use what you know, and then go from there. Adapt once you have the basics down. There’s always going to be something new sprouting up.
- Love what you do.. Nothing is worse than going through life doing something that isn’t truly satisfying. It will make life hell for you, your employees and, in the end, the company. It’s not worth it. Find what you love, do it, and the world will benefit. You might be scared, but you have to do what makes you happy — you only have one shot at this.
- Enjoy the ride.. When it comes to startups, months are like years. The life cycle is really quick. 90% of companies fail, but in the failure is a compilation of mistakes that blossom into lessons learned. In the end, you take those lessons and learn from them. You apply them to your next venture and hope you’ve learned enough not to make the mistakes again. You’re in the air flying for what seems like a lifetime, and it could be exhausting or exhilarating. So, flap your wings as hard as possible while you’re up there, because there’s no telling when it’ll be time to come back down again.
Thank you for sharing with us these inspiring insights into your work, Cat!