Money & Career

How I Made My First Million

Erica Stewart used her maternity leave to launch a multi-million dollar business

It’s midnight. Erica Stewart has put her three kids to bed and she’s sitting in the tiny playroom of her terrace house in Sydney answering customer queries on her website Hard To Find

That was an average night in 2010; the year Stewart spent her maternity leave working on the curated online marketplace, having first launched the site in late 2008 with $40,000 from her mortgage. Hard To Find gained enough traction during her maternity leave that Stewart didn’t return to her full time job in publishing when the year was up.

“I thought, this is your make or break opportunity Eri. You’ve got to give this a go because you’ll regret not doing so,” she recalls.

She spent two years on her own in the playroom before moving into a shared office with a couple of creatives. After hiring her fourth employee, the creatives kicked Stewart out of the office because there wasn’t enough room for her ever-expanding team. Now, she’s got 26 staff and an office of her own.

Since starting Hard To Find in the playroom of her family home, Erica Stewart now has her own office – and a team of 26.

This year Hard To Find – which specialises in sourcing unique and personalised gifts – is expected to turn over $20 million. Sales have increased by 100% year-on-year since the launch.

While making her first million was a “big milestone,” Stewart, 42, didn’t stop to celebrate the achievement. “I’m always thinking about the next goal,” she admits. “I think I suffer from imposter syndrome, I feel like I haven’t completed the journey yet. Of course I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, but there’s more to come.” 

The thing that sets Hard To Find apart is its product range and personality, says Stewart. “I think we offer something different to the market, it’s not the same old retail experience. Our product ranges are curated and can be personalised. As a brand, we’re playful and a little bit irreverent,” she adds.

Nine years since launching, Stewart’s role in the business has changed thanks to her “awesome team” – so much so that when she goes on a family holiday next month she’ll actually be able to relax knowing things are under control at the office. “Thankfully, I’m not the person who does everything any more,” she says, with a laugh.

Here Stewart shares her practical business advice…

Secret to success: Optimism and tenacity. I had a lot of self-belief when I started out. I weighed up the pros and cons and thought what’s the worst that can happen?

Breakfast of champions: A two-egg omelette with cheese and chives.

Hardest Lesson: I’ve learnt to remain nimble and to be open to change, which has meant I’ve been able to react swiftly to changing conditions. And also… To never sign a contract that I can’t get out of within 30 days.  

Best advice: Aim for a minimum viable product, then wait for user testing and iterate fast.

Top interview tip: Be authentic. Most of my team are hired on personality and attitude, not credentials. That’s worked for me.

Coffee order: A strong English breakfast tea with a dash of milk.

Wind down: Netflix and wine.

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