I’m about to meet Emma Isaacs. Standing in the middle of a sea of thousands of empowered women at the annual 9 To Thrive Summit in Sydney, I wonder how I’ll find Emma, let alone get a chance to chat to her. However, like the proverbial parting of the Red Sea, Emma appears amongst the throng and greets me with a warm hug and a huge smile; she is, without doubt, one of the most genuine women I’ve ever met.
Emma has a knack for making everyone she meets feel special; like she has all of the time in the world. With a global empire to run, books to write, countless projects on the go, and 5 small children to raise, Emma’s time is, I suspect, a precious commodity. However, it’s her unique ability to inject her values and personality into Business Chicks that makes it the power-house networking brand it is today.
In 2006 Business Chicks was run by not-for-profit group Kids Helpline. Each quarter they would hold a networking breakfast for the corporate women who formed a major part of their donor base. It was their way of both recognising the women who supported them and raising funds for the charity. After attending one of those breakfasts and learning that Business Chicks was for sale, Emma, who was kicking goals with Staff It, her first business, bought it “as a side project”. Fast forward to 2019 and Business Chicks is a global networking community boasting over 44,000 women and growing. Their mission is simply to help “women to realise and step into their own personal power and professional power”.
Emma speaks to me about becoming an entrepreneur and all things business. Enjoy!
Flossi: When did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Emma: “I don’t think I ever consciously made a decision to become an entrepreneur. Like a lot of great things, I suppose it found me.”
Flossi: Do you think there’s a formula to develop a successful business?
Emma: “For sure there’s a formula to develop a successful business. It’s not as prescriptive as we’d all like, but if I had to try write the recipe I’d say you need demand; an audience; a strong customer base who are interested in what you offer and have a willingness to pay for it. I’d say it’s leadership; how well you can attract great people and keep them engaged and aligned to your mission and ideas. I’d also add that it’s mindset; how curious you are about educating yourself in business and whether you actually believe you can be successful.”
Flossi: A lot of businesses fail – we don’t often get to hear about those. What do you think is non-negotiable when starting your own business or buying a business to help ensure its success?
Emma: “You need to figure out how your business makes money and focus on that. It sounds simple, but I see a lot of business owners working hard but focusing on the wrong things. Maybe they’re running a plumbing company and spending too much time on what they should post on Instagram. Or they’re an accountant who is wondering what their podcast should be. At the end of the day, you have to be making more than you spend. Get that right, build a solid customer base and then you can spend some time on the ‘fun’ stuff.”
Flossi: What advice would you give to someone wanting to jump into their side-hustle?
Emma: “Understand what you’re willing to risk. I would never encourage someone to give up their job to start a business or mortgage their house to fund it. It’s much smarter to start a side hustle, test the waters and see if the business idea really is a viable one.”
Flossi: What part of the start-up process was the most challenging; what was the most rewarding?
Emma: “Managing and leading people is without a doubt the most difficult and most rewarding part of running a business. Seeing my people grow and develop and achieve amazing things still gives me a massive kick. There’s a core group of team members at Business Chicks that have been with me forever. It’s as if we’ve grown up together, having babies and figuring it all out as we’ve gone along. They’re very special to me, as the whole team is.”
“The best part about business is when one of them does something that makes me stop and think ‘Holy crap – that was really, really well done and I’m so proud of them’. To be inspired by, and learn from, my people is an absolute privilege.”
Flossi: How do you navigate the challenges that still inevitably arise in business?
Emma: “I think it’s about being willing to back yourself and make tough calls. As an entrepreneur, even if you have all the confidence and self-assuredness in the world, there’ll be plenty of times that you’ll doubt yourself; those times usually come when the challenges arise. I’ve never gotten to the point of completely wanting to throw in the towel. There have been many tough times like when we’ve had to restructure the business or let someone go because they’re not performing; these are some of the hardest things a leader will have to do, but if you’re a true leader you’ll make these calls because your role is to ensure the health of a business and protect its culture.”
Flossi: How did you make the decision to scale and go for it in the US? Was it what you expected?
Emma: “From the time I bought Business Chicks, I’d always wanted to take our brand global. By early 2015 I knew the time had come to shake things up. We’d become such a trusted and established brand in Australia. Being a typical entrepreneur I’m never truly happy unless I’m experiencing some sort of discomfort or fear.”
“We always knew our growth was going to come from new territories, so the US felt like a good first step. To be completely honest, I looked at where my largest networks were outside of Australia, and that was the US. I have close friends and family in the States, and a great relationship with our past speakers from the US (people like Arianna Huffington and Rachel Zoe who went on to speak at our LA and NY launch events). I’ve lived in Los Angeles for more than three years now and while the business journey has been exceptionally challenging, being in the US has taught me so much and I’ve been exposed to so many new experiences.”
Flossi: What is the key to picking the right team? How important is it to have core values and a shared vision?
Emma: “At Business Chicks our purpose is to enrich the lives of women and help them achieve amazing things. I’m lucky enough to have the most incredible team who live and breathe this vision and bring it to life every day. The key to picking the right team is whether or not you’d want to have a glass of wine with them after work. You have to be able to get along and like each other as humans first and foremost and the cultural fit is super important. No matter how smart or talented or technically equipped, if they’re not going to be great to work alongside or if they have a completely different values set, it’s not going to fit.”
Flossi: You’re a networking Ninja, what advice would you give to someone who wants to network successfully?
Emma: “Stop thinking about it as ‘networking’ and instead think about it as ‘talking to great people’. Also stop focusing on what you can get and instead focus on what you can give. The best networkers I know aren’t the ones who give out business cards; they’re the ones who give without expecting anything in return. And anyway, networking isn’t about attending events – that’s just the start of the process!”
“People are too short-sighted when it comes to networking and building relationships. You’ve got to play the long game and put in the hard yards. Building trust and credibility takes time. It takes shared experiences, doing stuff for other people and patience!”
Flossi: Why was it important for you to write Winging It?
Emma: “I see a lot of women drown in self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence. They’re overthinking and as a consequence, they’re getting stuck in analysis and not taking action. I believe in faking it ’til you make it and just having a go, and I that’s why I wanted to write Winging It; to tell and show people that you don’t have to have all the answers to give something a go and get on your way.”
Flossi: What does “me” time look like for you?
Emma: “With five kids and a global business that spans across four time zones, there’s not much of that. If I can lock myself in a cupboard for five minutes once in a while, that’s a win. All that said I do try take regular massages (generally with a kid peering up at my face through the massage table); and I always try to have something to look forward to coming up.”
Flossi: What advice would you give to your kids?
Emma: “Be kind to everyone you meet; work hard and don’t ever sit back and wait for opportunities to come to you. Go make them for yourself!”
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