Erica Stewart started her empire while on maternity leave.
Erica Stewart started her empire while on maternity leave.

From maternity leave to a $15m online empire

IT'S a problem we've all encountered at some point in our lives, probably more than once.

What do you buy the person who has everything?

For many people battling that question, Erica Stewart's website hardtofind has come to the rescue.

Stewart, who is "40-ish" was working as a national sales manager across a number of different lifestyle magazines in Sydney when the seed of a business idea was planted.

"Working in magazines, I used to see all these amazing products coming into the office for photo shoots that the stylists had inevitably sourced from some little, out-of-the-way boutique," she recalls.

"I had this idea that it would be cool to start a website where you could buy products from independent designers that were otherwise hard to find."

In 2008 she launched her online marketplace selling gifts, lifestyle finds and fashion with her business partner Trudi Jenkins (who left the business in 2015).

According to Stewart, the website "brings the best 'where did you get that?' designs to people looking for something genuinely different.

"Many of the products listed cannot be bought elsewhere," she continues.

"Curation is absolutely key to what we do. Online shopping is such a cluttered space, so we try and simplify it for customers so they don't have to search far and wide to find amazing products".

Erica Stewart's family — her husband Josh stays at home with the kids. Picture: Supplied
Erica Stewart's family — her husband Josh stays at home with the kids. Picture: Supplied

Originally she started the business as a side project because she couldn't afford to leave her day job.

"In the early days I had to cold call potential sellers and try to convince them to give us a go," she recalls.

"The marketplace model was very new to Australia (not to mention online shopping) so I really had to educate our sellers about the benefits of being part of a bigger online community."

It was while working on the business during maternity leave in 2010 that things really started to take off, so she took a leap of faith and quit her job to work on the business.

But it wasn't easy juggling family life with a new business.

"When I made the decision not to return to my job in magazines, I found myself at home, caring for a new baby, working for no salary out of our tiny front room and doing everything from customer service to marketing strategy, social media, finding new sellers," she recalls.

"I was working long hours and wasn't very present for my older two kids. I carry a bit of mum guilt around about that, even though the kids don't remember".

Eventually, they decided that her husband Josh would leave his job to be a stay-at-home dad.

"Josh actually came to the decision himself," she says.

"He literally came home from work one day and said he was going to quit his job (in media) so that I could focus on the business. He'd obviously given it a lot of thought and I'm forever grateful that he made the sacrifice.

"Having that support at home was such a relief in the early days but equally, the stakes were higher because suddenly I was the bread winner. The kids are older now, and Josh helps me out in the business while they're all at school, but he's always home for them in the afternoon, sorting out after school activities, homework, dinner etc. He's amazing and I'm very lucky".

The gamble has paid off for the family. Hardtofind has announced an increased turnover to $15m in 2016, which is expected to increase to $20m in 2017.

Close to 10 million people visit the site annually and they now have an office in Sydney and Manila (there are 26 people on the team).

They source their 33,000 plus products from 25 different countries and Stewart says many of the sellers are making six figures through their association with the site.

Personalised products (that allow buyers to add a special message, name or date) remain a top seller.

She believes the brand's "playful" personality is key to its success.

"Hardtofind is irreverent and relatable. We're not a saccharine, worthy or overly serious brand", she explains.

Over the years the website has developed a loyal following of return customers, with some big names among the shoppers.

"We do have a few celebrity customers," Stewart admits.

"I can't tell you who they are but it's always exciting to see them shop with us ... There's one in particular who has spent $10K with us this year already".

She's also getting a kick out of everyday brand recognition.

"Often when I meet people for the first time and they find out what I do I'm rewarded with complements about how much they love hardtofind," she says.

"Those are always 'pinch myself' moments. To think that there are actually people out there who know my business ... My kids call me a Z-list celebrity. I'll take that".

News Corp Australia

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