It’s early and outside; Melbourne has turned on a grim, grey day befitting the middle of winter. It’s cold too, and wet. And did I mention early…?
But inside Port Melbourne’s Rose Diner, it’s like Christmas in July as the League of Extraordinary Women gather for their regular breakfast. Around 65 women are packed into the cosy space, networking enthusiastically and knocking back caffeine ahead of the formalities.
A room full of high powered business and career women has a certain electricity but it’s a different kind of charge to what you’d expect at an equivalent back-slapping bloke-dominated event. Rather than competitive strutting and crowing, there’s a conspiratorial hum of cooperation as women make the newbies feel welcome, greet old friends and solve the world’s – and each other’s – problems.
I’ve never been to one of these before but I don’t feel like an alien here.
The event kicks off with an unexpected segue. Co-founder and owner of Cupcake Central, Sheryl, has just completed a half marathon. The group warmly applauds, celebrating her achievement with sincerity. I decide not to eat a second muffin.
Today’s guest speaker is Jodie Imam, former GM of Leona Edmiston’s eponymous fashion brand and now owner of Occasional Butler.
Her concept is clever; essentially connecting people with big or little jobs to trusty tradies who can deliver the goods. But not just tradie skills – Occasional Butler can handle any kind of job. I wait for the usual air-brushed story ending with, “…and that’s how we became millionaires”. But clearly I’ve been to too many men’s breakfasts!
Jodie’s story is much more interesting.
She fell into the fashion industry by accident after a successful start in IT left her bored.
“The money was good and I travelled the world but I found it dry and boring so I quit after four years,” she said.
“I dabbled in a few things before I finally settled on fashion as the one thing I wanted to do.”
And that’s when fate intervened.
“I’d sold my car when I quit my job and one day I got a letter in my mail box from Leona Edmiston. She wanted to rent my car space!” Jodie said.
“If I hadn’t quit, I wouldn’t have had a car space and I might not have recognised her name on the letter. I’d probably have tossed it in the bin.”
Long story short: a meeting over coffee to discuss a car space led to a glorious 9-year career with Edmiston, starting at the bottom as a volunteer and working her way up to General Manager.
But it’s the failures that really draw Jodie’s audience in. She is honest, peeling back the full horror of her small business start-up nightmare.
She and her husband decided to leap into their business with both feet when Jodie had their first child. In the face of blanket opposition from friends and family, the pair quit their jobs, moved to Melbourne and made a start.
“We didn’t even have a business concept when we decided to do it,” she said. “We had no support for the idea and we also had no idea for the business!”
They brainstormed, developed their idea, forged ahead with it, hired a marketing assistant and on July 13, 2012, Occasional Butler went live.
“In the first hour, one job got posted,” she said. “It was to buy a packet of Doritos, eat it and take a photo. Of course, I was running around like a crazy person wondering whether it was a real job or whether we should flag it as inappropriate. My husband was much calmer.
“When we did a bit of digging, we realised it was a user testing guy at our nearest competitor. So we got a very good friend to do the job and that was when we realised our payment system had a bug.”
It was months before another job came in. Meanwhile, Jodie panicked, the marketing assistant was let go and money was running low.
“At my lowest point, a customer called and was screaming at me because the system was so hard to use. When I got off the phone, I burst into tears.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We’d been so conscious of making the site secure that we’d actually made it too hard for customers to actually use it.”
Still the money wasn’t coming in, so the couple decided to buy and fit out a warehouse and lease it as a shared office space.
“It was three months before a single customer rented a desk from us,” she said.
“So now I had the rejection of Occasional Butler and the rejection of people coming through the office space and not renting it. I was asking myself, ‘wasn’t I nice enough?’ and taking it really personally.”
Jodie said joining the League of Extraordinary Women helped her to gain much-needed support and perspective from people going through similar experiences.
“I found a mentor who made me realise it doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “It has given me peace of mind that it’s very normal and it takes time to build.”
A year on, Jodie says the dream is starting to become a reality.
“We have 1200 butlers and 300 customers and hundreds of jobs completed with real customers – not just family and friends!” she said.
“Best of all people are raving about their butlers.
“Ten businesses are working in our shared office and it’s now cash flow positive and we have actually collaborated with some of them.”
Jodie said she’s learned some critical lessons for success.
“Don’t be afraid to have big dreams. Write it down. It’s amazing when you write it down, how much you are able to achieve,” she said.
“Give yourself six to twelve months before you start to have any traction in your business. And keep networking. Connections are everything.”
It took Jodie a year just to reach the baseline she thought she’d be starting at on day one but despite the setbacks, she stuck at it. I find myself feeling proud of her and everything she’s overcome. It makes me feel like my own dreams are within reach. And it makes me want to share the skills I have to help others like us.
And that’s the secret of women’s networking.
By the end of breakfast, I know these are my people. I signed up on the spot and I’m already looking forward to the next one!
To find out more about the League of Extraordinary Women and check out their regular events, visit www.leagueofextraordinarywomen.com.au
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