Think of women who have risen to the top of Australian entrepreneurship and the list gets thin fast.
Ever rarer is a woman who has succeeded with her own name as the brand, who has become a celebrity herself in the process.
Samantha Wills, who grew up in Port Macquarie and now lives in New York, is a tycoon of her time.
Samantha Wills’ jewellery is now stocked in 80 countries. Photo: James Alcock
Personable, open and yet also guarded and private, the 34-year-old businesswoman appears to effortlessly blend an air of celebrity with social media fanaticism and a unique product.
But she says success has been a hard slog and she wants the many young women who worship her to know just how difficult it’s been.
“I think millennials are a generation of ‘slashies’. They’re a DJ/entrepreneur/fashion designer. With all those slashes between your job titles, you lose depth and integrity,” she says.
“Narrow down what you want to be good at, then focus on that. It might not work for the first six months or the first 18 months but it took me 12 years to become an overnight success.”
While she doesn’t go into gruesome detail, Wills was clear that growing a business took a hit on her personal life.
“I think the downside of having success was that when my friends were going off and having a good time, my business was in its infancy so I couldn’t have those normal early 20s experiences.”
Wills started her company at the of age 21 after moving to Sydney.
“I was working in retail during the day and making jewellery at night to sell at the market. A friend offered me a spot at Australian Fashion Week which would cost $500. I though I would possibly make enough to cover the cost of the stall, but I ended up writing $18,000 of orders that day. I quit my job the next day.”
Now Wills is turning over $10 million annually and is stocked in eighty countries around the world. She has offices in Japan, Korea, Europe, the US and Australia.
Wills credits much of her success to her business partner Geoff Bainbridge who was able to commercialise back-end production and helped launch her to into foreign markets.’
“Naively, when I first went to the US in 2010, I thought I was going over with a successful Australian brand and that would be enough. You think you can replicate that over there and it’s not the case,” says Wills.
“You need a much more refined offer. You need to know who your business competitors are and your media competitors. We ended up doing 18 months of research about the US before we moved our first order.”
The orders started coming thick and fast once actress Eva Mendes was snapped on a red carpet wearing Wills’ Bohemian Bardot ring. Wills’ jewellery has also been worn by Katy Perry, Miranda Kerr, Lady Gaga, Kate Bosworth, Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Lopez.
“That ring Eva wore continues to be our best seller and we’ve made it now in 150 colours. It kind of became our signature piece.”
Wills has recently signed to be an ambassador for Optus’ Believe Big campaign targeting small businesses.
“We filmed a campaign flashing back to 2004 through to my life now. I really want people to know the struggles and hurdles of funding success.”
While Wills credits her naivety for much of the company’s strengths, she sometimes regrets the decision to get going without any formal business training.
“Every day I wish I’d studied business or management. But, I learn as I go. I might have learned the harder way on the job.”
Asked why a New Yorker is the right person for this campaign, Wills says she still considers herself not just Australian but a “small-town” Australian.
“I still go to Port Macquarie five to six times a year because my family live there. We stock the range at one shop in Port Macquarie and every time I notice the town is really growing and evolving very quickly.”
(Article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald)