This week’s Ambassador Feature is with Emma McNeilly, Expressions Australia
2017 Silver winner of AusMumpreneur Regional business category
Tell us about yourself and your business?
I founded Expressions in 2000 when planning to start a family, I am now proud mum to Charlotte 16, Samuel 15 and Benjamin who is 9 years old. Expressions, known to many as ‘the tea towel company’ has since become a trusted supplier, helping schools, child care centres and community organisations Australia-wide raise much-needed funds.
We specialise in customised printed tea towels, aprons and bags, featuring children’s hand-drawn portraits or handprints. The children’s artwork is compiled to create gorgeous mementos of childhood friends and teachers. The products then provide a personal, profitable, and sugar-free fundraising option which can be on-sold to parents and community. Our aim is that everyone involved enjoys the project and is left with a treasured memento.
When I started Expressions I was a one-woman operation, working with a handful of schools from my back bedroom. Today, we are a national business that has completed over 18,000 community projects, sold over 2 million tea towels and helped to raise many millions of dollars along the way. Our products can be found in kitchen drawers and keepsake boxes in homes all over Australia.
Over 1000 schools and child care centres trust us each year with their precious artwork, ranging from large city schools to tiny remote communities. To accomplish this I employ a team of 5 people to manage different aspects of the business, we have embraced the effective use of digital and online technologies which allows us to work together nationally between Sydney, Margaret River in WA, Tasmania and Burleigh Heads in SW QLD.
What was your inspiration for your business?
My aim was to create a feel-good business that would be flexible enough for me to raise my family, allow me to be actively involved with my children during their school years, while enabling me to earn an income.
Did you have any experience in running a business or in this industry before?
Prior to starting Expressions, I worked as a self-employed contractor to a firm that specialised in photo fundraising for schools and child cares. I didn’t even know such a market existed and if you don’t have children or work in childhood education, why would you? The Fundraising Coordinators I spoke with were always looking for new ideas – the market was there and all I needed was an idea for a product that satisfied it’s needs.
At the time a lot of fundraising involved selling something sweet and I saw an opportunity to instead use childhood mementos to raise this much-needed money. Parents and staff alike confirmed that there was a definite market for a long-lasting, client-centric and environmentally sustainable product and service and Expressions was born.
What’s your point of difference that makes your business special or unique?
Expressions provides a win for everyone involved at every stage of the process. Funds raised, proud children, delighted clients and a healthy business. Everyone really is a winner. The tea towels are celebratory and inclusive, and the business has a genuine feel good factor. They have become a tradition for so many of our clients, the sentimentality of kids being surrounded by their friends and favourite teachers creates a warm and fuzzy for all.
We really focus on customer service, and I understand from first had experience how precious volunteer’s hours are, so we strive to ensure our projects are easy run, everything is supplied, and in turn everybody loves them.
We have thousands of glowing testimonials. A testament to our service is a near perfect Net Promoter score. Half of our annual workload is repeat bookings and hundreds of Coordinators and organisations have worked with us over many years. Our practical products make a lasting memento and the designs encompass a real sense of community, so they sell well for our clients.
What have you learnt about yourself since becoming an entrepreneur?
I have learnt that I love being my own boss! It has pros and cons, as many reading this will understand. It allows me the freedom to choose when I have time off and when I fit in the hours I need to work. The flipside to that freedom however, can be the very opposite, I have never worked so hard in my life and at times it is simply impossible to step away.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?
Juggling family while building a business can be love hate, it has been rewarding but also tough at times. In the early years it was much harder than I could have imagined, with long hours and late nights. Friends and family often didn’t understand why I worked so hard or respect that it was a real business – but that just drove me to prove that it was and I could!
There were times with a toddler at my feet and baby on the boob that the phone would ring and rather than celebrating I simply burst into tears from sheer exhaustion and not enough time. I even gave up actively marketing for a year or 2 early on but the bookings just kept on rolling in. I had started something that was growing organically by referral and rebooking and it wasn’t going to stop. This was reason to celebrate of course, but also called time to let go of doing it all myself and learn the art of delegating, once I embraced this it was a life changer.
Cash flow has been my biggest challenge in business: to import, pay for and store whole container loads of stock – which I would not print on and on-sell for up to 6 months later has been testing. For years I felt I was chasing my tail, always juggling finances and playing catch up with loans.
I negotiated a very significant change of terms with my long-term supplier a couple of years ago and switched to a pay-as-you-use model. This was a true turning point. I just wish I had had the confidence to approach my supplier and work through these terms years earlier.
What lessons have your business taught you about life?
– It’s Ok to ask for help. In the business or at home, outsource if you can, hire a cleaner, engage a bookkeeper, whatever works.
– You can do anything you want with self-belief and hard work.
– Old habits are hard to change, but you need to keep learning and adapting.
If you could go back to when you were starting your business and give your younger self some advice what would you tell her?
To allow your business to grow and keep enjoying your life you need to learn to hand over some of the workload. Systemise all your processes and document all your procedures so it’s easy to train, then hire people that are better at something than you are and then let them do their job. The aim is that your business is secure and can operate without you.
What’s next for your business?
To diversify our product range and give our existing clients the opportunity to earn more, we are working on complementary products that will result in an even higher return on investment for our customers with little additional effort.
The fundraising space is seasonal and continues to become highly competitive. To combat this, we are strategically expanding the business providing high quality customised merchandise and commemorative products into three new areas: retail, bridal and promotional.
If you could change the world, and money was no object, what would you do?
No one should have to worry about where they will take shelter and when they are going to get their next meal. So, if I had to choose one thing, it would have to be a world without poverty. There are too many people, worldwide and here in Australia suffering.
To learn more about Emma and Expressions Australia, please visit