At the table with Samantha Wills - Part One
Raised in Port Macquarie, Regional NSW, Samantha Wills always had a passion for her craft. Hand making her own designs Samantha, would sell her jewellery at the Bondi Markets as a hobby, before she launched at Australian Fashion Week in 2004. Since then Samantha has turned her hobby into an international business success, with the likes of Eva Mendes, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, just to name a few, wearing her designs. Now based in New York, Samantha shares her journey with us in an interview for young women everywhere looking to turn their passion into action.
Samantha, can you please tell us about your journey so far?
Its hard to sum up in a few sentences, 13 years in now since the official launch of the brand in 2004, but I was hustling for a few years before that.
I grew up in Port Macquarie, I finished high school in 1999, so it was a time when the internet was just starting to become an access tool. I had no idea that a ‘Creative Director’ was even a job title. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and as such, didn’t go to university. I moved to Sydney when I was 20, and started making jewellery as a hobby and selling it at the Bondi markets. I then had the opportunity to launch at Fashion Week. I had $509 in the bank at the time, and the fee to be in the showroom at Fashion Week was $500. I took it, hoping to make one order back and ended up writing $17,000 worth of orders. I quit my ‘real job’ the next day and have been doing this ever since.
I am now based in NYC, which is a very long way from Port Macquarie. I pinch myself everyday.
What advice would you give your 15 year old self?
To go out and explore. Travel. See the world. To question things. Do not just simply accept what people tell you is the way. Challenge the
status quo, have an opinion that is your own, but always have an open mind and open ears. Never stop learning, don’t be a bystander.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when working to turn your dream into a business?
There have been many. When I was first starting out, I knew how to build a brand, but I had no idea how to run a business. I got myself into $80,000 worth of debt, and at 23 years old – that is a scary place to be. I got very frustrated, I knew the brand could be so much more, but I just didn’t know how to get it to the next level. I look back now and am proud of myself for having this frustration, it shows hustle and perseverance.
People assume, the more well known you get, or the more ‘successful’ they see you become (and success is defined differently by everyone, so there are many different gauges people are making assumptions on) that the problems or challenges simply disappear. In my work with the SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION, I am very adamant to state, the problems do not go away, and they do not get smaller. In fact, the bigger your business gets, the more problems you will encounter, what you hope though, is that you are better equipped to deal with them, even possibly at some point have the experience to proactively anticipate them so that you can best prepare your business and team for them.
How many jobs did you have before launching Samantha Wills?
Here is my CV before I launched SAMANTHA WILLS Pty Ltd! ☺
1993 SAMart JEWELLERY – (Made Jewellery for my Mums Boutique)
1996 NEW ZEALAND NATURAL ICE CREAMERY – Port Macquarie, Scooper!
1997 FANTASY GLADES - Port Macquarie, Cinderella
1997-98 PORT VENTURE - Port Macquarie, Deck Hand
1997-99 INNER VISION SURF & SKATE - Port Macquarie, Retail Assistant
2000 STARFM – Port Macquarie, Promo Girl
2000 2MC – Port Macquarie, Panel Operator
2000 HOGS BREATH CAFÉ – Port Macquarie, Waitress
2000 BILLABONG – Northern NSW, Fit Model
2000 PROUDS THE JEWELLERS – Port Macquarie, Retail Assistant
2001 BEACH CULTURE – Sydney, Retail Assistant
2002-03 SURFDIVE’N’SKI – Sydney, Retail Assistant
2003-04 BILLABONG (SDS) – Sydney, Retail Assistant
2003-04 SAMANTHA WILLS JEWELLERY PARTIES (I would drive all over Sydney
in my little Toyota Hatch back, and do party-plan style showings in peoples homes!)
Did others doubt your vision? And if so, how did you respond?
Yes – a lot of people did. And I can understand why, I was a 21-year-old kid. A lot of people say to me now "You were so brave to start your own business so young" but I wasn’t brave, I was naive and obnoxious. I had no idea how hard it would be – and I value that because, if I had of known, I wouldn’t have ever done it.
I guess, to answer the question, I didn’t really respond. I just got about proving them wrong. Throughout the journey, I actually am grateful for people who have told me I cannot do something, I keep those little comments, and draw on them when I feel like giving up. They act like a fuel on the fire to keep going.
What is your strategy for turning negatives into positives?
Perspective. Stepping outside the current moment – its really hard, and its taken me many years to learn – but when something goes wrong, sit with it, re-look at it, re-route. Also take time to reflect back at different points. I like to do this when I find myself in a situation that I have been in before, and look at how I handled it previously versus now.
Opportunity comes when you are prepared for it. If it passes you by, it means it was not the right time. That is hard to see at the time, but when it re-presents itself, and you acknowledge how much more prepared you are the next time, you can look back and have an appreciation of why it didn’t work out prior.
What keeps you motivated?
Doing different projects. I am currently writing a lot. I want to start painting also. I think it is important to step away from things at times, not only does it allow you to get inspiration from other places, but it also allows you to re-visit with fresh eyes. It is very valuable.
With the current focus on encouraging more women to consider working / studying in the Science Technology Engineering and Maths fields, what advice to you have for young women who are interested in the creative industries?
I think the focus on women to study / work in Science and Maths fields – is AWESOME. I am a huge supporter of this, and if you do not already know of her, be sure to check out Dharmica Mistry. She is a boss in this field, and I have the utmost admiration for her.
For creative industries, my advice would be to go out & explore, intern, research. See what draws you in! It would be so exciting to be starting your career in this generation, where you have access to see everything that is available. I wish I had that type of visibility when I was starting out!
If you're creative and have a dream to have your own business / brand, my advice would be to also educate yourself on business and finances. It may not be your forte and you may actually hate every second of it! But it will serve you well to be versed on both sides of the business.
How important have vocational and/or tertiary education qualifications been throughout your journey?
I went to a local public school (Port Macquarie High School). While I did not use my tertiary education to further my studies (I didn’t go to university), that’s not to say I don’t think it’s important. I think the more strings you can add to your bow, and the more educated you are, obviously the better, in your career and in life. What I would also like to say however, is that SO much pressure is put on students, especially in grades 11 and 12 to make decisions on what they want to do – I think this is a hard ask for a 16 year old. So, I hope that I can be an example, that if you don’t know what you want to do when you are in senior high school – that is OK. I also hope that the $80,000 debt I found myself in at 24 years of age, encourages students to be much more educated on business & money management than I was.
I think vocational education played a really big part in my journey. I had a job as soon as I was old enough to get a Tax File Number, and have been working ever since. My extended time in retail in my teens and early 20’s has been priceless to building the SAMANTHA WILLS brand. My parents always had small businesses and I learnt SO much about wholesaling from spending time with each of them on the job.
There is no bad experience, or no bad education. The more you know, the more you know, and as I often say, when you are looking at making a career change, or at the very start of your career – it can be very overwhelming, especially if you are not 100% sure on what you want to do. So also recognise that there is just as much power in realising you don’t want to pursue something. Realising this allows you to narrow & hone your focus.
What skills do you wish you had gained earlier in your career?
I definitely wish I knew financial management and business management earlier in my career. Maths was never something that came easily to me, and I when I started my own business, I naturally just lent towards things that I enjoyed doing – and as such, got myself into a real financial dilemma!
Did you/do you have a mentor or role model, if so how has that experience supported you? If not, is it something that you would have found worthwhile as a teenager?
I get asked this a lot, I also get asked if I will mentor people. I think it is a very traditional way to look at things.
We are alive in a society that encourages us to see more, do more, travel more, have more than one career. We have access to the world through digital – this makes everyone you meet a mentor in my opinion. You can study people you admire due to the transparency of digital. You can study their successes and their failures. You can join forums of like minded people. Even people you meet that you don’t like, I think is a way of mentorship, because you can identify what you didn’t like about them / their character / the way they did business etc, and know consciously, that is not something you want in your repertoire / personal brand.
Business / your career, is all about people. It is about connection, and interaction. Ask questions. Show up. Step outside your comfort zone. Research. ‘Mentors’, are everywhere.
Part two of our interview with Samantha Wills will be released Thursday 22 March
Come back to re-join us at the table with Samantha Wills as she shares with us her experiences
with sexism, work/life balance and her tips and tricks for young women who are looking to follow their dreams.
In the meantime, let us know what your thoughts are so far!