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In this Best of Series episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we feature Co-Founder of The Real Estate Stylist, Sara Chamberlain, on being a rebel, becoming unemployable, and knowing your business inside-out.
I interviewed Sara for this podcast in September 2018.
A serial entrepreneur, Sara has been in business for 20 years, launching her first internationally stocked homewares range at just 21. She has bought and sold businesses, worked on the world’s largest advertising accounts in London, including Coca-Cola, Cadbury and Pizza Hut, and doubled the turnover of a retail store in under 18 months.
Along with her sister, Amy, they created Australia’s premier property styling company, The Real Estate Stylist, with the business growing from effectively a one sofa enterprise to a multi-million dollar one in a short space of time.
Their list of clients include A-listers such as Rebecca Judd and Zoe Foster Blake and the team is regularly called upon for partnerships and collaborations with RealEstate.com, Domain, and The Collective.
Sara has also launched a business coaching seminar series, published a small business strategy guide and trained as an executive coach.
In this episode we talk about:
- How the stories we tell ourselves reflect the life we live
- Her resilience through brutally tough health issues as a child
- The importance of not making your hobby your business and why she became unemployable
- Knowing your business inside-out and building human-to-human experiences.
Connecting with Sara Chamberlain
Books and resources
The Power of Now – by Eckhart Tolle
“It's not about starting up, it's about staying up.”
On critical health struggles in her early years
- It's a story that doesn't get shared, because I think you come from a place of the future I think. I've never dwelled on the story. Mum and dad never created a space for me to own that as my true story. I mean we tell ourselves stories. We are always in our own mind, and what we tell ourselves is what we believe, and what we believe is what we manifest.
- My entire mindset was driven by my mother's resounding, compelling belief that her daughter was absolutely fine, and I'll pick her up and I'll take her back to Wagga, and she will be 100% normal and she will miss all of year three at primary school, and she'll just pick up and walk into year four again. That's exactly what happened.
On your internal story and being a rebel
- And if you think it enough, then you believe that, and that becomes everything. I think to be gifted that level of awareness at such a young age, it changes you so fundamentally.
- I've never ever really wanted to follow the doctor's orders anyway. I'm a complete rebel by definition. Doctor's would say come and see us again in 12 months, and I would just delete their number.
- Look, I just don't like playing by the rules. I think you really have to be able to listen to your body, listen to your intuition, listen to your instinct, and then go and show them what you're made of. Do whatever you want to do.
- I've always felt like I was in a rush to run the world. That's been like a fire within me for a very long time.
On being stifled in a job
- I liked the job, I hated working for somebody. I can remember I wanted to negotiate with them a flexible start time of between 6:00 and 10:00, and they couldn't get their head around it. They actually said, “You have to be here at 9:00.” I'm like, “But what if I'm here at 6:00?”
- And that was not acceptable because they just couldn't believe … and this was … I won't name them, but it was baffling to me, because the space that we were working in really should've been a little bit more progressive around that, I believed. I felt completely caged. I felt stifled, I felt I would go home and I'd write up presentations, I'd come up with ideas, I would create products that I believed that we could sell throughout Asia.
- I wanted to get onto a flight and go and meet with potential clients, and all of that was a no. It wasn't in my job description.
On being an unemployable thoroughbred
- Thoroughbreds are Type A personalities who just are very ambitious and need to get shit done, and you're always moving. Right, this is you, right? You're this kind of individual.
- But what tends to happen is, when you go and work for a big organisation, you get thrown in the paddock. There's someone who leads that paddock, right, but what is going on is, there's all kinds of different horses in that paddock. There's draught horses, there's pastoral horses, there's maybe one other thoroughbred, but what a thoroughbred does, is it goes, “Let's run! Let's run over here. Run everywhere. Let's go!”
- And you run like crazy, and all the other horses are like, “But there's really good grass right here. Why are you running over there?” And you're like, “‘Cause we run everywhere we go.
- It's not in my makeup, and you can't do that. I mean I think that comes back to that inner child rebel in me that was like if you told me that I couldn't do something, or I wasn't capable of doing something, then it was like a double dare.
- I am pretty adamant about the fact that I'm a business person first and a stylist at the moment, second.
On starting a business with her sister
- I was a sucker for going back into business with my family. I think there's some very big headlines that say, “Don't go into business with your family,” and I've now done it twice.
- I'm not quite sure why I'm so addicted to that, but honestly I think it's been one of the best chapters of my life, being in business with my sister. In a small industry with absolutely hardly any money to our name, we don't have a silver spoon in our mouth, we've generated a company that we're quite proud of. Being able to move into a position in the industry that we're incredibly proud of.
On being a business owner not an entrepreneur
- I think advice that you get from your parents is some of the biggest foundations of who you are as a person. And in business, Dad had always advised Amy and I of a couple of things, and one of them was, “Don't go outside of your area of expertise, and don't make your hobby your business.”
- I think that you have to love the business side of it more than you love what you're actually doing, because you go into business to do the things that you love and you end up doing that 5% of the time.
- The grass is greener analogy is … it probably couldn't be more true in that dichotomy. Like the people who are driving into the office are assuming that everybody in the entrepreneurial seat is having a better day than them. I completely agree, Greg, and for me I have had some of that personal insight being a liquidator's daughter, but I've also seen it with my peers, and I've also seen it rise and rise as a trend.
- Now, I would say I'm possibly what you would call a serial entrepreneur, but I am that by nature. I can't actually change that, I'm not that person because it was a cool, trendy thing to do.
- I would never ever tell anybody that I'm an entrepreneur. You give me a form to fill in or you give me a category or whatever, if it came out, it spelled out entrepreneur, I'd just roll my eyes. I completely agree with you, but things become blurred and people assume so many things around what success is when you're owning a business.
- We started off the segment with a goal setting exercise that was all about what they wanted personally in their life, and I think every single one of those participants were shocked that that's what we did, because they were getting into the cushion, they wanted to know about the colour blue.
- And we stood up there and said, “It would be remiss of us to encourage you in any way, shape or form, to consider a career change or an opportunity if we didn't understand what … and if you didn't understand what your personal definition of happiness and success looks like, what your goals are, what your risk assessment is, how your family will support you, what skills you can draw upon to bring this into fruition. This is not a game guys. This is your actual life. This is your family, this is your mortgage, this is your children's future and your financial security. This is probably one of the most serious conversations you're going to have. If you think you're here to learn about cushion, you've got another thing coming.”
On using data to drive decisions
- From a strategy perspective, I think that any business is really only as good as its data. I think you really need to have an understanding of your numbers and what is your important points. So for us we've spent a long time getting a handle on what the figures look like for us. I'm not talking figures in P&L sense. I'm talking figures in if you pull this lever, how does that impact on our overall ability to deliver a product?
- it's the data that's going to lead us in the next section. If things are turning in a direction that we're not comfortable in terms of ability to deliver, or a big margin squeeze, or changes in area or geography, or things that impact on our operational efficiency, then we need to make decisions around how do we deliver.
- So I think we're going to have to look for efficiency's in technology/ Every single business, every single sector and every single person has to acknowledge that technology is a threat to them.
- In all of it. I don't think there's really a bum on seat in any job that doesn't necessarily think that technology could maybe come along in some way, shape or form, and improve how they operate.
- When you say they will work it out, the AI people will probably be not even working it out, the AI itself will work it out.
On breaking through career crossroads
- I think we get stuck in going through the motions rather than feeling the emotions, and we end up getting into a rut. We stop looking for things that we actually fundamentally enjoy, and being grateful for the things that are already fantastic in what we have around us.
- I think we have an oversaturated advertising market where we now look to the ideals on television and the ideals in an advertising culture, not only for our consumer purchases, but what our life should be. We spend too much time comparing ourself to others. So the questions that they need to ask themselves is, who are they and what is it that make them happy in their life already?
- You can't ever rush the process. If you're looking for a next challenge, you need to ask yourself what are the things you really enjoy, and what is it that you would like to become better at, or know more of, or that you would adapt your current skillset to in a way that you could go back to the old fashion achieving goals.
- The way that you overcome boredom is start setting yourself some goals again. Start looking at some of the things that you actually enjoy. When you're not at work, what are some things that get you interested? Are you listening to podcasts around a particular subject? Is there something in a meeting at work that comes up that makes you think, “I'd like to know a little bit more about that?” Is there somebody in another sector in your business that is doing something that you actually end up talking about in the pub?
On setting and achieving sales targets
- We have a budget, we have a sales force, we have different people across the team who have different levels of success with their sales, and we monitor those conversion rates.
- And we break it down daily and weekly for everybody to understand, this is what it's going to look like, this is the workload that I'm going to need to shoulder, and these are the targets that I personally need to hit. I think if you take that target or that average and you want to be a high performer, you add 20% onto it and then you break it down, you'll still find that the company is setting a target that is achievable within your timeframe, workload, talent, access to clients, all of the resources are going to be there.
- I think we become complacent that technology is a tool that will replace the human relationships in the sales space, and by sending something through to somebody and making the assumption that that has been received, read and understood, you're doing yourself a really big disservice.
- The only way you're really going to make cut through, is committing yourself to an ongoing personal relationship, and driving a sense of understanding around what that consumer needs. So we say in your team often, “People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
- You can be sending through a proposal, or you can be chasing down a target, you can be looking for a sponsor, you can be putting dollars and cents and features and benefits in front of a customer, but unless you take the time to really understand what's driving them, and what decision factors are behind them, then you're just another option on the table.
- The first time you ask them, “What's in this for you? How can we help you meet your target?” Because everyone else has got somebody else on their back, and every single person has a deadline to meet and a budget to hit and a criteria that they have to do, in order for their performance to be what it needs to be for them within their company structure.
- So I say to my team, if somebody can't hit that budget, it's not because they don't want to spend the money, it's because they don't have either the authority or we haven't hit the criteria in that proposal. So you need to understand what that is.
On being vulnerable to clients
- Well, when did we foster a culture where everybody believe that they have to pretend they know everything? What happened to asking the question of, “I don't know?” And if you can sit there in a meeting and you can drop that guard and say, “I actually don't know that. Can you explain that to me? Can you give me some more insight, how does that work? I'm curious about that.”
- If you start opening up, you're going to get given answers in spades. Now that might not play out in that particular meeting because you might not have the opportunity to change the presentation there and then, but you take that away and you craft and you develop and you respond, you can be a lot more agile.
- The next time you're going back and you're sitting in front of them, you're going to wow them, and they're probably going to forget you had that conversation, but you've basically just asked them, “What do you need?” And you've got all of these answers in a whole new way, because you put your curiosity hat on and you put down your ego, and you said, “I don't know this. Tell me more.”
- And it's so powerful and everyone is human, and they're happy to share. People love to talk about themselves, and they love to talk about their problems.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- Am I looking forward to coming into work, and am I looking forward to going home?
- I think we have to appreciate that what you're doing with your time and how many hours you are committing to your work environment, you really want to be enjoying that. You really want to be able to say that you didn't just go through the motions for 40 years. I think we're moving away from the early days where everyone just had to get a job and they stuck to that job.
- I mean my poor father would be an example of that, he hates being a liquidator, but he had graciously done that to support his family in the way that he has. There are opportunities these days to create your own journey, and to ask a lot more questions around what makes you happy in order for you to have some fulfilment at work, because it's going to be important in your overall healthiness and health. I think that's really important.
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