The brains behind women’s business network group Business Chicks, Emma Issacs, tells AMANDA GOME how she is growing her businesses while others are struggling, and why nimbleness is essential for every entrepreneur to survive and thrive.
By Amanda Gome
Business networking group Business Chicks is run by 29-year-old Emma Issacs (formerly Brown.) Emma is confident she can expand her female business network, even in the current downturn.
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She talks to Amanda Gome about how she has driven revenue to $3 million, why she has launched a fitness studio, and how she strategically prepared for motherhood.
Amanda Gome: You’ve just launched the magazine Latte at a time the media industry is struggling. How is that going?
Emma Issacs: It’s fantastic. It has been a great time for us. We have had the magazine now for about 10 months.
Our offering is unique in that we can offer quite a lot of media to partners. If they want to promote their products at our events, online or through print media, we can bundle up packages for them and help them out that way.
There has been a lot of movement particularly in the media market, with a few players not doing so well lately and going under, so it has been an opportune time.
To purchase other media companies?
Oh no, I am not interested in acquiring at the moment, but just in terms of our offering and advertisers are still looking to advertise and market in this economy, and they just want somewhere to be able to put their spend.
What market is Latte targeting?
It is a bi-monthly business magazine with a lifestyle focus. The vast majority of our members come from corporate Australia and we produce events and activities in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth now, so we have expanded into those markets and the magazine essentially is a publication for our membership. We print 25,000 copies and distribute it to those people every two months.
You make your money through advertising?
Yeah, the revenue model is through advertising and people get a subscription as part of their annual membership to Business Chicks.
Has the advertising market gone soft?
It is harder to get the advertising spend, people pull back on their discretionary spend when it gets tough. But like I said, we have a fairly unique offering and we are finding that it is still really great. We are just coming off the back of a massive event series around the country where we sold out in Sydney, and did really well in Melbourne, and the numbers were strong on the west coast as well.
In difficult times the first thing to go is events; how have you been holding up so well? What is your model?
When times get tough, people want to get out and network and they want to meet new clients.
So explain the model; what you do?
We have series of events, we run different workshops and master classes, we run a breakfast for women in business which is held every quarter and that’s in all the states, and that is the largest networking event for women in business in the country at the moment. We got over 900 in Sydney, and similar numbers in Melbourne.
What is it that you do at those breakfasts?
There are lots of giveaways and heaps of value. This morning we gave away an international trip which was valued at over $10,000, we gave away a Gucci watch which was a couple of grand, so it is about aligning with the right sort of brands that people want to hear from. We create the vibe and the energy through our production – we’ve got a really great production team.
So there’s music playing; it is the little details. All our volunteers wear a uniform of sorts, we encourage them to have a lot of personality and be the brand at the events. We hire only really professional MCs and make sure we get the speakers right and we give away beautiful gift bags.
People want to be there. It is not their boss saying ‘hey you must go to this event, I’ve bought you a ticket’. It’s people going to their managers or making the decision that they want to be there themselves, so that is a very different atmosphere; you don’t have people standing around drinking champagne, in fluorescent lights thinking oh god, I want to be somewhere else.
You don’t just have one business…
I have three companies and Business Chicks is one of them.
What are the others?
The other one is a similar network, it is more for entrepreneurs and small business owners and that’s only based in New South Wales, and that’s called Last Thursday Club. And I have also just recently launched a fitness studio. Something a little bit out of the blue.
You launched, in this environment, a fitness studio?
The truth of it is I imported this equipment from Austria and had a huge amount of success with this equipment earlier this year, and I just started researching it and it is massive in Europe and not so much here in Australia.
So I started talking to the guys there and ended up importing three pieces of that equipment in to Australia and launched my own studio. I am always looking for different businesses and opportunities and particularly if I can have an experience.
How do you know it is a good opportunity?
If you talk to people about it and their eyes light up, then you can gather that there is an opportunity there. Particularly in the market that I work with, there are a lot of women and that is the demographic that I have the databases for. I suppose it is an easy market for me to target and work with.
What is the revenue for all those businesses combined?
Probably around $3 million altogether.
How many employees have you got?
There are only eight of us.
What are you doing to grow?
There is still a tremendous amount of opportunity to look at with Business Chicks. We are going to go into Auckland next year, and the Gold Coast and Canberra. I don’t really work on massive long term plans. I don’t really know what I am going to be doing next week, let alone in five years time.
What have you learnt, what mistakes have you made in growing these businesses?
I’ve made a million! But I’ve never had to close a business down.
What has been your big one?
I think I would have duplicated myself a lot earlier. You think as an entrepreneur, you need to do a lot of the stuff yourself, but now my latest two businesses I am not operational at all.
I am not interested in being in the businesses whatsoever. People come up to me and say ‘so what is going on with this?’ and I say I don’t really know, speak to this person because it is not up to me to be in the business everyday and be worrying about those little problems. I have very, very good teams and very good people who are better at doing their jobs than I am.
You sound like you recruit well. What do you really look for when you recruit?
It is pretty boring and anyone will tell you this but I am really big on attitude and personality, and if that’s right I can teach people most things and my team can teach them as well, but if ‘it’ is not there, if they just don’t get it, then it is never going to be right. I mean, I hire pretty well but we have all made mistakes and from time to time you get it wrong, but it is all about looking for the attitudinal stuff and the behavioural.
Can you move people on easily? Do you find that hard?
I am getting a lot better at it.
What are you doing online? How is online growing?
To be honest we aren’t really all over our online as yet. We are about to launch a new website and that is going to be great, and that has been a couple of years in the making now. But we can certainly do much better in the online space.
What do you see as the trend in female entrepreneurs? Something that we’ve seen is that many women are starting their own businesses.
Our membership for the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation has gone up from, oh we were at about 10% last year and we’ll be at about just under or on 20% this year. There has been a big surge in terms of interest from women. It is funny, I go and do all these speaking gigs around the place and a lot of young women come up to me and say ‘I want to be an entrepreneur, how can I do that?’.
What’s causing that? Are they sick of their world? Are Gen-Ys more entrepreneurial?
A lot of the groups I speak to tend to be younger and they want to have a level of freedom and they are just sick of having a lifestyle of having to work until 11 o’clock at night.
But what do they think entrepreneurs do?
Well, I think they think it is quite easy. So I am quick to point out that it is not just all fun and games, I can tell you. So it is a bit of a reality check.
How many hours a week do you work?
I am mostly pretty good these days, a good eight hours a day. But I have really learnt to pull back – and I am four months pregnant at the moment.
You’ve prepared well. You have got those people already running your businesses. Was that planned?
Well, I think intuitively I always knew that I wanted to have a family and my husband and I wanted to have a family.
The pressing question, you had a real brand under ‘Emma Brown’, why did you change your name when you married?
There is a huge part of me that is a very modern woman, a very feminist woman, and want women to conquer the world, but at the end of the day I wanted us to be a family. I suppose it was easier for our kids to be a family and have my identity around that. I got a lot flak for changing my name, but it felt right and it’s all good.
Lastly, you are the president of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation. Entrepreneurs are generally optimistic by nature. What are you hearing from them about the current economic situation?
The sentiment remains optimistic from entrepreneurs. The beauty of entrepreneurs is that they are agile, they can move quickly, they can change with the times, they can assess what’s happening and what’s working and what’s not, and then change strategies to move with that.
So really from the group that we work with, they know what they need to do to be more nimble, and they are just getting on and doing it. There is no point complaining about it; no one is denying what is going on with the economy but at the same time it is out of our control and not much we can do to impact it.