'How I started my business with just $90 in the bank'

On a fleeting visit back to Sydney, globally renowned jewellery designer Samantha Wills took some time out to chat with My Business about how she took her “hobby” from the boot of a car and transformed it into a global business empire.

When looking at the life of an Australian living in New York, jetsetting around the globe and schmoozing with some of the world’s most famous people, it’s easy to think that some people have the good life handed to them on a platter. Yet, more often than not, the facade is very different from the reality.

Such is the case for Samantha Wills. The small-town Aussie girl had big dreams and an even bigger passion, yet it was a long, hard slog to turn those dreams into reality.

Humble beginnings

“I have an accessories brand, which I so modestly named after myself,” Samantha explains.

“I started the business when I was 21 years old and my mum actually put me into jewellery classes up in Port Macquarie, where I'm from.

“I [started out] just making it at home as a hobby because I enjoyed it, and then someone was like, ‘Oh,’ you know, ‘I’d like to buy a pair of these’.”

Samantha Wills, SAMANTHA WILLS“I couldn’t believe someone’s paying money for something I’ve made on my dining room table!”

Samantha moved south for the big smoke of Sydney, juggling a weekday job while indulging in her jewellery-making on the side.

“[I] was working in retail through the week, and at night I would kind of drive around in my 1984 Toyota Corolla, selling jewellery at people’s houses … like a Nutrimetics or an Avon kind of setup,” she says.

“And then every Sunday I would be down at Bondi Beach Market selling down there. It was very much a hustle and very much … that very, very start-up phase. It was a hobby at that stage.”

The light bulb moment

However, as Samantha admits, her business didn’t remain in the hobby stage for very long – when presented with a key opportunity to sell more of her handmade wares, she jumped at it.

"Having had $90 in the bank at the time I just – sink or swim – threw myself into it."

“A friend offered me a showroom wall at Fashion Week in 2004. It was going to be about $500 for the cost of about the size of a door for this base to display on. I was like, ‘Oh, hopefully I make one order and make the cost back’,” she says.

But the decision to fork out the $500 paid off big time, netting her a massive $17,000 worth of orders.

After promising every one of her customers a two-week delivery, she quit her retail job the very next day, set up on her dining table and Samantha Wills Jewellery was born.

“Having had $90 in the bank at the time, I just – sink or swim – threw myself into it.”

Taking the business global

After the business quickly developed legs here in Australia, Samantha decided the next step was to expand internationally. That move took her to the USA, where she still resides today.

“Looking back on it, for me, the States I guess was a personal decision as well. I actually wanted to live there, so ... you selfishly choose that market. But the reason that got the ball rolling was [that] celebrity placements were a big part of our brand and our origins.

“We got some really great traction with some A-list celebrities, and with that comes retailer attention and then consumer attention. And what we found was that we were opportunistically sending stock to the States to retailers that we didn’t really know, because we didn’t have someone on the ground there,” Samantha says.

Samantha Wills, SAMANTHA WILLSThere were other reasons for looking at the US, too.

“When we looked at the United States of America, we weren’t looking at it as a cash opportunity. It was more like, when we roll out through Europe and Asia, respectfully, people aren’t aware that you are stocked in Australia.

“They are [asking] ‘What does your distribution look like in the United States?’. We really looked at the USA as brand positioning and how we established and set ourselves up as a global brand,” she says.

Yet actually making your expansion plans work can be very difficult. For Samantha, a big part of the initial work involved networking and understanding the American industry.

“New York is about networking and the hustle, so you’re there taking a lot of meetings.

“You’re still kind of figuring out who’s who and who does what, but it’s definitely the more meetings that you can take, the better,” she advises.

“I find in New York, they’re very much about open networking. So it’s very much, ‘Oh, you should meet this person. I’ll put you in touch’.

It’s this real energy of bouncing off of each other.

“I was just – probably even for the first, not only week, but a few months – I was just hustling every day.”

It is a process she has replicated in numerous countries. And with offices now in Sydney, New York, LA, Paris, Korea and Japan, and around $12 million in total annual turnover, her approach clearly has merit. But despite the size of the business, Samantha says she still spends time at the coalface, just like she did in the early days.

“I still design everything, so I definitely have a great support team around me now, but I’m still responsible for all of the design,” she says.

Lessons to be learnt

Taking a business international is not for the faint-hearted, says Samantha.

One of the very first lessons she was handed was that you essentially have to go back to the drawing board when setting up in a foreign country.

“It’s very naive to be like, ‘Oh, we have this successful Australian brand. Let’s like, replicate it in the States’,” she says. “It’s like, ‘All right, you’re definitely a start-up again’. It’s quite unique to be 12 years into the business and then going, ‘All right. Let’s go back to basics’.”

"I was working in retail through the week, and at night I would kind of drive around in my 1984 Toyota Corolla, selling jewellery at people's houses."

She adds: “It was definitely a lot of closed doors and definitely back, as I said, to start-up mode, which can be really disheartening at times, especially when you’ve kind of come off the success of your home country and all the love that you get there.”

Samantha Wills, SAMANTHA WILLSSamantha also suggests that the value of celebrity endorsements has been somewhat eroded in the last few years.

“[A product] would get placed on, say like a Rihanna, for example, and then it would be in a weekly magazine. It had a lot more value on it because you had to wait for that weekly placement. Whereas now, Rihanna is showing what she’s wearing on a daily basis. While the currency is still there to have a celebrity placement, it’s definitely not as rare or, I think, as valuable as a few years ago.”

"You hold onto things so tightly you start to hinder the growth of the business and the opportunities."

Another big lesson, as virtually all SME owners can attest, is devoting enough time to recognising and celebrating achievements.

“For a long time I was so heads-down – just running, running, running – that I wasn’t celebrating those little moments. Not only for myself, but when you’ve got a team around you, it’s really important to recognise that. It’s all the little wins along the way that make it,” says Samantha.

The biggest challenge today

For Samantha, the greatest challenge in business today is just the same as in her early expansion days.

“The greatest challenge, I guess, is always people,” she says. “You’ve got to have good people around you … the right people in the right roles.”

Those people now number 50 globally, with the majority based at the brand’s headquarters in Sydney.

“We’re at a stage now where we’ve got specialists in industries, in their roles, and it really allows the company to grow, because you kind of step back as a business owner and you work on the business, rather than in the business.

“I think that’s a really big growth area, when you have those people in the right places.”

While she is happy with her current role within the business and the various responsibilities of her staff, Samantha admits that she struggled with delegation in the past.

“The hardest thing for me to let go was the social media element of it, because, obviously, it’s my name, so I was very pedantic, I guess, about the voice and those communications,” she says.

“[But] you hold onto things so tightly you start to hinder the growth of the business and the opportunities. It’s the biggest voice of the brand, but I handed that over and we saw great results because of it.”

"Having the ability to personalise and segment your communications gets the best outcome at a commercial level."

Becoming an SME ambassador

Samantha’s success in business has led her to become a popular addition to the motivational speaker circuit, as well as being something of a mentor for women in business.

These facts weren’t lost on Optus here in Australia, who earlier this year signed Samantha up to be an SME ambassador, alongside the likes of actor Mark Wahlberg.

“It’s surreal, to say the least. When you get a call from Optus [saying], ‘Mark Wahlberg’s signed on to the campaign and we want you too’, I was like, ‘Have you got the right number?’. It’s very humbling and it’s an absolute honour,” she says.

Samantha admits that plenty of other small business owners and start-up entrepreneurs have asked her advice over the years, but due to the time constraints of running her own business, she hasn’t always been able to provide as detailed responses as she would have liked.

“From that, I launched the Samantha Wills Foundation, which is a foundation, a digital platform I guess, that I wanted for small business owners and young entrepreneurs, being on the journey of entrepreneurship, to be able to log in at 3am [for example], when their mind is ticking – and that’s how small business owners think,” she says.

“I wanted this platform where they could kind of log in and not feel alone in their journey.”

The foundation provides a diverse range of information for business owners, from the basics of how to get a professional-looking headshot or get your product into a glossy magazine, through to case studies of other successful business leaders and inspirations from Samantha’s own experience.

“Just things that people assume everyone knows, but it’s kind of these little elements that have been successful in my business,” she says.

Unlocking future potential

Samantha Wills, SAMANTHA WILLSWhile many people in business worry about the implications of technology and the sheer ease with which customers can always find something better or cheaper, Samantha says the digital age is a thoroughly exciting time to be a business owner.

“I think it’s a really exciting time to be in business and to be building a brand, because you get this insight into your consumer on a daily basis,” she says.

“They’re gracious enough to talk to you, [whereas] it used to be thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of research. Now, you know, you log onto Instagram and she’s showing you how she’s wearing it or where she’s wearing it, what she likes and what she doesn’t, and it’s a really unique – and I think a really luxurious – time to be building brands.”

This belief is evident in Samantha’s own business, with its multi-pronged approach to targeting consumers.

Despite being stocked in department stores and independent boutiques worldwide, Samantha Wills Jewellery generates “about 48 per cent of our revenue” from its own website.

“Being in the digital age, you can kind of pull all the levers with your own online portals. So you could activate a sale or you could activate promotions,” Samantha says. “But I think the most powerful thing with digital, in that sense, is segmenting your database. Say we’ve got 100,000 people on our database. You don’t want to be speaking to them all the same way, because they don’t buy the same way.

“Having the ability to personalise and segment your communications [helps you achieve] the best outcome at a commercial level.”

Samantha adds that if you aren’t collating and understanding your customer data, “it’s dollars you’re missing”.

“Data is critical to us and it’s really powerful to our business. We look at where [customers are] going before they get to our website, where they’re going after that. We look at their highest engagement times. We look at click-through rates.

“It’s all this information that you pull together and it really does dictate not only how you’re speaking to them, but when you’re speaking to them.”

Fast facts:

  • Samantha Wills started her own business at 21 years of age in 2004 using a $500 outlay. The first item she sold was a pair of earrings.
  • It took 18 months for her to gain traction in the US market.
  • She now has offices in five countries, selling into more than 80 countries worldwide.
  • Nearly half (48 per cent) of her business' revenue comes from its own website.
  • Around 70 per cent of all sales are still made within Australia.
  • The business now employs 50 staff globally.
  • In 2016, Samantha was nominated for the Australian of the Year Awards.
  • Her jewellery has featured in TV shows such as Sex and the City and been worn by celebrities including Hollywood icon Drew Barrymore and singer Rihanna.

 

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