“By age six I was selling mice to pet shops: as pets, not for food. Back in those days the interest in reptiles as pets was non-existent. When we visited the pet shop up the road from our house I remember saying to mum that my mice were so much prettier than theirs. I asked the owner if he would pay me if I could make more mice. I think I got 40 cents a piece,” van den Broek says.
Those early entrepreneurial acts, which also included selling fabric handicrafts and the mandatory lemonade stand, were more “something to do” than an act of conscious entrepreneurship.
“Entrepreneurship is known now; people realise there is the option to create your own business. In those days you simply got a job,” she says.
Her own jobs prior to founding Rufus & Coco included event management and marketing for David Jones (no small feat given that at one stage she ran 300 fashion shows for the department store each year). Then, van den Broek moved on to senior marketing roles for undies brand Bonds and vitamins maker Blackmores.
Eventually, the desire to run her own business became too strong to ignore.
“My mother always said that she wished she had done this or that. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to wish it, I’m going to do it’,” van den Broek says.
Her marketing experience helped, as did an MBA, although the latter had a downside too.
“By the time I reached my mid thirties I had so many ideas. Having done an MBA meant I also spent some time overanalysing them,” she laughs.
Rufus & Coco was the concept she felt most strongly about – and eleven years later she still does. While that passion has helped her keep going, van den Broek says that persistence has also played an important role in Rufus & Coco’s success.
“In 2010 we went into Woolworths nationally with 23 lines. That was my fourth presentation to Woolworths. We redefined our offer each time and went back in. Now we are a brand that contributes a lot of growth there,” she says.
Today, van den Broek spends much of her time mentoring other entrepreneurs, and continues to feel strongly about the ability of her business to make a better world for people and their pets.
One example of the latter? The company’s corn-based, environmentally friendly (and flushable) cat litter.
“One cat can contribute 500 kilos of litter every year of waste. That’s one cat! A lot of that litter is actually mined from the earth; it’s very damaging.”
The environmental impact is enormous, says van den Broek. “We have about 3.5 million cats in Australia.”