Feline the Love

Entrepreneurial alumni duo’s cat venture set for lift off

6 May 2015

Thomas Derricott and Wenee Yap

Twelve cats, two cat lovers, space paraphernalia and a whole load of coffee – the ‘purr-fect’ recipe for a quirky new Surry Hills cafe set to open its doors in July. The brainchild of an Austrian cyber-hacker living in Thailand and UTS graduates Wenee Yap and Thomas Derricott, Catmosphere has given the couple a chance to mix business with pleasure – and they’re loving it.

Thomas Derricott

Thomas Derricott Last year in October, Wenee – the amazing partner she is – bought us a trip to Thailand for my birthday.We had initially planned to spend the time training in Thai Boxing as I’m somewhat of a martial arts geek. However, after several days of sweat-soaked boxing gloves and merciless Thai coaches, we decided to look for something to do in Chiang Mai that was completely antithetical to boxing. After some searching, we stumbled upon this cat cafe – and not just any cat cafe, but a space-themed cat cafe.

We walked through the glass doors and it was love at first sight. It was complete mayhem in the best sense of the word – you could sit on the floor, sipping your coffee, and eating your cheesecake, while cats try to pilfer milk from your cup. We ended up returning a couple of times on our trip and befriending the owner, who eventually suggested we open a franchise in Sydney. Because we’re completely insane, we agreed.

I’m a journalist and Wenee’s a law academic so research is something we’re both quite comfortable with.First and foremost, we made contact with the City of Sydney Council and began looking into council regulations. Once we knew we were in the clear, we decided to test the waters. We created a Facebook page, invited our friends to probe if anyone was interested, and meekly sent around a few emails. Within a few days we had people we didn’t know sharing the Facebook page, so we took that as affirmation that, yes, there are in fact people as crazy as us in Sydney.

We’ve been working with a number of cat rescue organisations to find our rescue cats. One is Inner City Strays and the other is World League for Protection of Animals. We’re fine for a few of our cats to be antisocial – that’s a cornerstone of being a cat – but we want to have cats who feel comfortable in the presence of their human inferiors. We’ll be promoting cat adoption through our cafe, and will offer each rescue cat’s adoption profile as if it’s being featured on a dating site. You know, ‘This feline is single and ready to mingle!’

We’re not only expecting the typical crazy cat lovers, but people who like to inject a bit of the outlandish into their lives. Cats are idolised for their cantankerous natures, and this is something we want to embrace at Catmosphere. I think people enjoy wanting what they can’t have, which, in this case, is the love of a cat.

Wenee and I met at a UTS Open Day in 2008 working as SPROUTS for the uni. We didn’t see each other for a couple of years and during that time I went on exchange to Chile. Shortly after I graduated in 2011, she messaged me and said, ‘Hey Thomas, let’s catch up!’ At first I thought it was going to be one of those really awkward coffees but from the moment we met, it was clear there was a rapport. I think she felt uncertain but intrigued, and I know I felt foolhardy and determined, which turned out to be a perfect combination.

It was the beginning of last year that we launched our marketing company The Ducky Mafia. When you run a company together it’s a case of finding the right time to switch off, stop being business partners, and revert to being romantic partners. As professionally imposing as Wenee can be, I always see her as the hilarious, ridiculous, phenomenal woman I fell in love with. Something Wenee suggested that has been incredibly helpful is to take time away from the city every month. Recently we’ve dedicated Sundays to Hogs Breath Cafe, so we’ll take a book, order the curly fries, and just completely unwind. It’s a kitsch guilty pleasure, but it’s honestly delightful.

Wenee Yap

Wenee YapI suggested the holiday because we’d started a business together that year, and it was time for a break. We had got over the hardest part, but I said to Thomas, ‘We need to do something for ourselves’. So our Thai boxing holiday looked perfectly normal for him, he’s a big strong Viking-like guy, but I’m a 54-kilo, tiny Malaysian-Chinese woman. I thought to myself, ‘Sure, let’s get beat up and see some cats’.

I saw in the distance the cat cafe all lit up, and I literally ran across a six-lane road going, ‘It’s here! Please let me in!’ We walked in and it was like a space wonderland. I love sci-fi. There was a Star Wars corner where cats were depicted as Luke Skywalker. The owner, Bernhard, is this Austrian hacker, this big, gentle, giant covered in cats! I thought it was an amazing business so I said to him, ‘Hey, I've got some experience doing business marketing, maybe we could work together?’ And in poker terms, he saw my bet and raised it, asking me to open a cafe in Sydney. I was thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know how you got that from what I said. That’s not what I said! I run a marketing firm, I teach ... no cafe!’

We agreed to start working together and Thomas and I brought the idea back to our team at The Ducky Mafia. We put together a business plan and project plan, we scoped the market. We soft launched on a Sunday night in January. Monday night, we had 200 fans, and then suddenly it was everywhere! Fifteen publications, including the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph, unsolicited, were speculating about who we were because we had written this crazy spiel from the perspective of cat astronauts landing in Sydney. By the end of the week we had 2000 Facebook fans and we’d raised $4000 from a crowd funding campaign. We’ve now raised over $36 000!

Thomas and I were warned not to go into business together, but I'm the kind of person that heeds no warnings and assumes we’ll be the outlier. Honestly, it’s been great! There is that marriage-type relationship in business as well, and the truth is I respect what he does, he respects what I do. We handle different clients generally, we might advise each other, but we have that control and independence, and it’s almost like barristers working next to each other.

Just like a personal relationship, it only grows if you start from the basics, wanting to build each other to be better. And that was actually the clincher. When we started romantically thinking about each other I asked Thomas, ‘What does a romance mean for you?’ And he said, ‘Well, I think a relationship should be better than the sum of its parts’. I thought to myself, ‘That is the best answer I have ever heard!’

To find out more about Catmosphere, go to catmospherecafe.com/sydney.

Cosmic KittyStory by Izanda Ford
Photography by Joanne Saad
Artwork by Claudia Iacovella

This article was first published in the May edition of U:magazine.
Reproduced with permission from U: magazine.