Samantha Wills racked up $80,000 in credit card debt to start her business -- here's her advice to others

Samantha Wills/ Instagram

Samantha Wills is a great Australian success story.

From attending beading classes as a kid in Port Macquarie, northern New South Wales, to featuring her jewelry on international fashion runways, Wills encompasses the hard work and determination that is required to make a small business succeed.

We caught up with Wills, who has just been named part of the latest Optus’ small and medium business campaign, which also recently featured Mark Wahlberg, to hear how she made her startup idea an internationally acclaimed business.

“I’m from Port Macquarie originally, and my mum put me into beading classes when I was 11 years old,” she said. “So I attribute learning the basics to back then in the school holidays.

“I moved to Sydney when I was 20 years old. At 21 I was working in a retail job at SurfDiveNSki five days a week and was doing jewelry parties at night.

“I was throwing all this handmade jewelry into Tupperware containers into the back of my 1984 Corolla hatch back, zipping around Sydney hustling friends of friends to have these jewelry parties, kind of like Avon-style. So if you had a party or you booked a party you got a $50 gift voucher — I had no idea what I was doing — but it got the wheels going on cash flow.

Wills then shifted her business to Bondi markets every Sunday. She would get up at 3am, pack the car again and go down to the markets.

“Back then you had to line up,” she said. “People would still be out raging in Bondi at the pub, while I was sitting there on a bean bag waiting for the markets to open because they would allocate your spot at 7am.

Then an opportunity came out of the blue. Wills was offered a spot on a showroom wall at Australian fashion week in 2004 for $500.

“At the time I was like, ‘Oh my god. That’s a whole weekend at the markets’. But I threw all my money at it, and thought hopefully I would get one order back and cover the cost.

“I ended up writing $17,000 worth of orders in four days.

“I had a triplicate carbon copy order book, and I was telling my customers that a two-week delivery would be no worries. Then at the end I thought, ‘Oh shit. I’ve just promised $17,00 worth jewelry in a two-week delivery to all these boutiques across Australia’. And I was hand-making it myself.

There was only one option. Wills quit her job and threw everything she had at getting the orders done.

“People tell me I must have been brave to get into all this as young as I did,” she said. “But I wasn’t brave, I was naive at the time.

“I often say: if you knew what you were going into into with small business, and you knew everything that was ahead of you, you probably wouldn’t do it. I think naivety was on my side at that time.”

Wills says she wouldn’t have been able to have done it without her strong support network in the early days, and tells a funny story about her friends who have been around the longest.

“I can tell my original friends from back in the day because their earlobes are a bit saggy because I’d get them to wear all these really heavy earring when big jewelry was on trend,” she laughs.

It wasn’t all a fairytale though. Wills openly admits to having trouble starting out, not knowing how to sustainably fund the business as it grew.

“When I finished school I didn’t go to university, I didn’t know business and subsequently got myself into $80,000 worth of debt because I just kept throwing all the money I had and every credit card I could get my hands on at the business to keep it growing.

“What essentially happened was I built the business profile up to something that completely outweighed my capabilities as a manufacturer and a salesperson, as a complete sole trader.

“I knew it was unsustainable from the start, but I did not know how to get over or around it! I was not even living hand to mouth as I was sinking further into debt.”

So she brought in Geoff Bainbridge as a business partner, using his experience and wisdom to establish a new financial strategy to get the business back on track.

“The strategy that was applied was forecasting,” she said. “It was not something that as a 24 year old, I knew how to do. I met my business partner and he put this in place managing sales forecast and cash flow.

“If I had my time over, I would have recruited external help. Even in a consultancy way back then, I was running blind and focusing only on what I knew.

“Surround yourself with people who are good at what you are not.”

Now, without any paid marketing, the business has a turnover of more then $10 million a year, with 70% of revenue coming from Australia and the remainder from the United States, Japan, France and Korea.

Drew Barrymore wearing Samantha Wills. Photo: Fergus McDonald/ Getty Images.

Celebrities including Eva Mendes, Taylor Swift, Drew Barrymore and the cast of “Sex and the City 2” all wear her pieces.

The growth can be attributed to the massive following her social media accounts have.

Her Instagram platform was rumoured to be worth more than $7 million when it had 127,000 followers in 2014. She now has 219,000 followers.

“[The growth] been very organic, it’s been very social media driven,” she says.

“I think when the brand is your name you can have very natural conversations with people. Our consumer is very highly engaged, and she’s talking to us on a day to day basis about what she likes and what she doesn’t.

“All this market research that you used to pay thousands of dollars for is now there [for free].”

Looking back, Wills reiterates that she doesn’t know if she would have got into it now that she knows how hard it was to get to where she is, but says the government’s new startup incentives should make it easier for those starting out now.

“Startups are HARD, any assistance is fantastic. It is great to see that the government is there as a support to not just get you on your feet as a startup, but to support you grow.

“It would have been great in those early days… There were times when it was really dark, and really hard and really isolating. But the hard work pays off.

“Having this support is obviously great financially, but also emotionally.”

Wills says now that she’s grown her business to the success it is, it’s time to give back.

“There’s a responsibility as facilitators of influence… that we not only publish the polish, the glamour and the success stories… but also the struggles, the hardships and the hurdles,” she said.

“If that’s the only story you’re telling it’s also very boring. It’s about sharing our vulnerabilities and experiences, that you not only connect with people but you empower them.”

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