I was introduced to Emily Somers by the girls behind Bossy at their networking event in London a few months back.
Over a whole lot of cheese and a good few glasses of wine (those girls know the way to my heart) we all stood in awe as Emily recounted the gallant journey she’s been on recently, that’s taken her from hospital rooms to beaches around the world to launching Bravery Co. in 2016.
Knowing full well that I couldn’t hog the Q+A with the countless questions I wanted to ask her (!), thankfully she agreed to sit down with me over coffee in Shoreditch last month so I could delve into the ins and outs of her story in more detail thus far…
ES. So I run Bravery Co. which is an online store that sells scarves for people that hate cancer – whether you have it or not. All of the scarves are young and stylish and have been picked with a cancer patient in mind and ten percent of the profits go to Cancer Research so hopefully we can help to end this stupid disease!
In September 2012, aged twenty-seven, Emily was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma after finding a random lump on her chest. After six months of chemo, she got the all clear but in November 2013 – just as her hair was starting to grow back – Emily was diagnosed a second time around during a routine check-up with her oncologist.
ES. The first time around, I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I just breezed through life as normal as I could but the second time I got it, I was different. I just got so fed up of my tight, itchy wig and I think I was more used to my bald head by then! So I started playing around with headscarves and turbans and just taught myself how to tie them in different knots after watching loads of YouTube videos by incredible African-American women tying theirs! I ended up getting so many compliments from chemo patients on the cancer wards but also from people on the streets just thinking I was some cool hipster!
SC.SD. You’re so Shoreditch right now!
ES. Exactly! I would just stand there thinking, ‘are they for real or are they taking the piss?!’ I wasn’t quite sure what was going on but there were quite a few of them so I’m telling myself that they were genuine compliments!
SC.SD. I have no doubt they were! You’re not the first person to say that the wigs can be really uncomfortable though…
ES. I don’t know how some women do it! They’re sweaty and they give you headaches… maybe it’s because my head was too big for the wigs- I don’t know! Although saying that I do have quite an amazing wig collection… I’ve got some ‘Disney Princess’ ones which look ridiculous on me! There is fun to be had with wigs but in the long term no!
Anyway, the second time round I just started tying headscarves around my head and found that they made me feel younger!
SC.SD. Why do you think your outlook shifted so drastically towards the cancer second time around?
ES. I suppose it’s because I realised it wasn’t working! I was so headstrong and stubborn and determined to not let cancer ruin my life first time around but when it happened the second time it was the biggest kick in the guts. It was so horrible and it made me realise I had to do things differently if I wanted the chemo to work.
I lost a bit of faith in Western medicine so I jumped over to Eastern medicine to help complement the chemo… It’s just made me so much more in tune with my body and even now when I get stressed , or if I’m having a down day, I know I need to take myself out for a walk or remove myself from the situation… I used to run my life at a hundred miles an hour and it was so high paced that you just don’t realise your body is trying to tell you these things!
SC.SD. So you started playing around with your headscarves… what made you realise there was a business opportunity in this?
ES. I think it’s because I couldn’t find anything for younger cancer patients. All the scarves were really drab and brown or off green and you’d only ever wear them if you’re a cancer patient!
SC.SD. And they scream ‘cancer patient’ don’t they?
ES. They really do! When you’re young you still really care about what you look like; especially in your twenties when you’re career focused, you’re friends focused, you’re boy or girl focused… It was just a kick in the face really in terms of the options offered to me. I didn’t want to look like a 70 year old.
Everything was so dated so it came down to the fact that there was nothing out there for 18-35 year old cancer patients. I’d just buy mine in shops. I was always drawn to the really bright patterns and colours but then when it got to winter all of the silk scarves were taken out of the shops and replaced with big, woolly chunky ones and that’s when I realised there was a big gap in the market; when I couldn’t go shopping every couple of weeks and pick up a new scarf that could make me feel a bit better!
SC.SD. There’s a difference between noticing the problem and then actually doing something about it so talk me through the moment you decided to pursue it as a business idea…
ES. I suppose it was a combination of noticing that gap, knowing that I wasn’t happy in my current advertising job and knowing I’d always wanted my own business as well!
Having first toyed with the idea of launching ‘Bravery Boxes’ the first time she was diagnosed (which were to be care packages you’d send to young adults with cancer ), Emily realised the idea would need extensive capital upfront so decided to concentrate solely on scarves the second time round …
ES. I just got sick of working full-time during my second round of chemo so started freelancing as an art director for a couple of months around Melbourne but then I started getting itchy feet!
Travelling was something I’d been putting off since I got ill but targeted advertising did really well because I got this advertisement on my Instagram feed for ‘Remote Year’ which is a program for people who can do their job remotely. You live in a different city each month, with a bunch of other people that can work remotely for a whole year.
SC.SD. That’s literally the dream!
ES. It was amazing but signing up to that was a huge deadline for me! I had this idea floating around in my head for ages and I knew if I didn’t have everything ready to launch before I left, it’d be another year or two before I would be back. Then it would be so far removed from my experience of having cancer that it wouldn’t work as well. I’m such a creative in that I need a hard deadline otherwise I’m a bit of a ‘little bit of work here, a little bit of work there’ kind of person!
With just weeks to go before she was due to leave on her travels – which included stints in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Croatia, Prague and Berlin – Emily got to work on the groundwork that underpins Bravery Co.
ES. I quickly sourced a few headscarves from a girl in Australia – I used to wear her headscarves when I had cancer – and then I grabbed one of my best friends who also had cancer at the same time which was bizarre…
SC.SD. Oh my gosh…
ES. I know! We sat on the same table at work and I got diagnosed with cancer and then two months later she got diagnosed with cancer. It was so weird! Anyway I grabbed her and together we modelled the headscarves because everyone on the Bravery website has either had cancer or they have cancer which has been a blessing and a curse because sometimes you just want friends to model them quickly! I’m running out of models!
Anyway we got those all shot, I left all the stock with my Mum and then I launched the site which I just created on Wix when I was in a co-working space on a beach in Ko Pha-ngan!
SC.SD. I love how my memories of Ko Pha-ngan involve being drunk on a beach at a Full Moon Party and yours involve launching a business…! Let’s talk about that all in a bit more detail though because it’s so easy to say “I launched the website” but there’s still a build-up to all of that isn’t there?
ES. Oh my gosh, there’s a huge build up! I felt like I had the longest, slowest build up too because I’d been thinking about it for two years.
People always want to know if I made a business plan but no there wasn’t one and I’d be the first to admit that! I did this thing called ‘B-School’ run online by Marie Forleo though and through that – via the exercises she made us do – I probably did have something similar to one. She concentrates a lot on, “who is your target market? How do you reach them? How do you communicate with them?” So through that and general competitor research, I had a good idea of where to start.
Then given that I was a designer, I did the logo myself but designing something for yourself is hard- you should see the pages of notes I made! You’re so fussy because it’s not like you know what you want but you know what you don’t want so you end up going round and round in circles! It probably took around six months because I’d design something and then I’d think, ‘ooo maybe I want scriptwriting instead’ so then I’d redesign something else …
SC.SD. There’s so much choice though isn’t there?! For me it was a case of, ‘do I want to go down the Skandi road where everything’s clean and crisp or do I want really bold colours and retro everything!?’
ES. Yes! Yes! Yes! I think when I saw it though I just knew it was right. I handwrote the ‘B’, got the right font for the rest and then spent about five minutes fist pumping like, “YAY it’s finally right!”
ES. I think being in advertising helped but it was also a curse because you know the standard that you want but that’s the standard of multi-million dollar companies that have the budget to pay for the amazing photographers and the SEO and the design! It did mean that I had a good few photographer friends to call upon though!
SC.SD. I bet! And was there a big upfront cost with stock?
ES. No definitely not! I literally just ordered ten of each of the four designs…It’s definitely been baby steps! I must’ve spent about £3500-4000 on it overall and that’s all the scarves, all the packaging, the labelling, the website, branding, everything… Although it all adds up!
I thought having an online store would keep the costs down but I went back to Australia a few months ago and it was a big wake up call to see how much I’ve spent and how much I’ve made because it’s not easy making money in retail and that’s something I’m very much learning!
SC.SD. So you’re on the beach… What did it feel like when the site went live and the first order came in?
ES. It felt so unreal! I’d been talking to friends about it for so long and probably boring the crap out of them but seeing it go live was just amazing! It was about an hour before the first order came in – I’ve got a lot of supportive friends – and I’ve still got a screen grab of it that pops up every now and then on my screensaver! There’s no other feeling like it though!
SC.SD. It’s suddenly very real isn’t it?
ES. Absolutely and I just remember asking so many questions! “What’s the packaging like? What was your customer experience like? What would you like me to change?” They were like “whoah..!”
SC.SD. “Chill love!”
ES. Pretty much yes! I do tend to touch base with my customers and find out if there was anything that was missing or anything I could have done better though. Having return customers is so important to me and that’s another thing… I’m constantly thinking about things like, ‘if they return should I be offering them a discount? Should I be talking to them differently?’ ra ra ra… My head is constantly thinking about all the things I could do and want to do and then I sit there stressed like, “aghh! I just want to sell a scarf!”
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more! My January was spent speaking to sponsors pitching a big event and the overall feedback sounded a whole lot like, “great idea Fi but you haven’t even done one small event yet!” I was sat there like, “ah yes.. about that!” Sometimes you just have to rein in the ideas and concentrate on working your way up slowly don’t you?!
ES. Definitely! I do think that it all starts in the first place because we’re all such big dreamers though! We have all the ideas but then reality kicks in and it’s a case of, ‘okay well I need money, I need time, let’s just start somewhere small for now!’
SC.SD. What have been the biggest challenges that you’ve faced launching and running this business?
ES. I think just the loneliness of running your own business is hard…
SC.SD. Are your family all back in Oz?
ES. Yes – love makes you do frikkin stupid things sometimes! It is hard though – especially coming from an industry like advertising where there is a constant buzz and there’s a set income that comes in every month! It’s so different to how we work now and don’t get me wrong, it’s fun, but you don’t know where it’s going next! “Am I going to be broke? Am I not!?”
SC.SD. Haha I couldn’t agree more!
ES. They’re the big challenges but every day there’s something I need to figure out that’s new. I’ve got a whole load of stock that needs photographing but can’t afford a photographer so I’m figuring out how to take product photos on my own at the moment and after this I’m going home and working out how to retouch those images so that they look good on the website! You have to wear so many hats but again, it swings both ways because I get so bored if I’m pigeon holed into one area! It’s the best job but I don’t know what I’m doing with half of the hats so it’s hard!
SC.SD. Did you realise when you went into this just how many hats you’d have to wear?
ES. No! I also thought that once I had the website live, the scarves would sell themselves and I would have to maybe write a blog once a month..!
I didn’t realise how much marketing I’d have to do and how hard it would be to reach certain people and I also thought at the beginning that my target audience would all have cancer but actually everyone knows someone that has been affected by cancer or they will be affected by cancer at some point in their lives… I’ve had to really shift my marketing message so that it’s now a case of anyone – with cancer or totally healthy – buying the scarves to support those with cancer and give money back to cancer charities… Hopefully one day people will think of Bravery when they next want to brighten their wardrobe, get a Christmas present and of course, buy something to cover a beautiful bald noggin!
Making money from this has also been a bit of a battle for me… Figuring out price points and margins and realising that I do need to charge money for my time has been a massive challenge. We can get caught in the trap of ‘I just want to help people’ easily as females; especially for cancer patients when they’re also paying bills and not working themselves. In an ideal world, I also wanted the scarves to be Australian made, entirely organic and a special type of silk but because I don’t have the quantities to bulk order them, it all adds up… money is so tough.
Putting a figure on what you’re worth is a weird concept and sometimes you need to hang around the super confident people and just take a leaf out of their book I think!
SC.SD. Launching a business can be emotionally draining in general but given your target audience and your closeness to the cause, what’s your emotional experience been like throughout this journey?
ES. There are massive emotions tied up in this and on the one hand, I love it because I know that I’m helping people but then other days I’m reminded of how close I am to my own cancer story and some stories don’t end so happily which can be seriously hard. On the other side, I know that I’m helping women find some confidence and hearing that my blog posts help them make sense of it all makes it worth it!
SC.SD. I can imagine! Let’s talk about those highs more. What else makes all of this hard work worth it?
ES. I think it’s stuff like this and being asked to speak at the Bossy event last month which was fantastic. So many strong and inspirng women in one room. PR in general is a big thing because it makes you realise that, ‘oh gosh someone is listening and it’s having an impact!’ Also, having lovely messages back from people that buy my headscarves and receiving messages on my blog saying things like, “I totally needed to hear this” means so much because not only is there a gap in the market for the scarves but there is also a gap in the market for young adults that have cancer in general. Children are taken care of and there’s a lot of support for older patients and they both tend to have that support network around them but there is this massive limbo land for patients between eighteen and thirty-nine who might not necessarily have a partner yet or a salary to support their time off and getting cancer at that age isn’t as rare as people might think.
The Bravery blog tries to make it less sterile and make it funny as well! Once you get over the fact that you’ve lost your hair, it is kind of funny that we’re all walking around with bald heads! There’s so much heaviness in the space so it’s really important to me that I create a space where they can go to just laugh at the fact that you now look like a boy!
SC.SD. What has your support network looked like throughout this journey and have you seen any relationships evolve for the better or worse over time?
ES. I haven’t had anyone say, “this is a horrible idea!”
SC.SD. That’s a good start..!
ES. I know! Everyone’s been so supportive though! I bought my brother on board after a couple of months because I recognised I needed someone to help me with what I call the “boring shit!” Chris is really smart and he really enjoys all the boring details (!) whereas I’m way more concerned about the bigger picture. He’s also a pilot so it means he flies for a few days and then has a few days off so we have the time to concentrate on things like SEO and Google words! Getting him on board was one of the best decisions I think because even though 98% of this is me on my own, for that 2% I really need him.
My Mum’s my logistics Queen back home too so every time I get an order she packages it up for me! In general all of my family have been amazing though and I think they’re just so happy that something good has come out of all of the shit that we went through.
Also – my boyfriend deserves a medal. He comes home every night and will patiently listen to me ramble on about everything I’ve been working on for the day. He helps with all the daily obstacles, brainstorms bigger and better solutions and just keeps me going. I’m lucky.
I guess my work network has changed slightly though. It’s funny because as soon as someone says that they’re self-employed too, I find myself naturally gravitating towards them because we’ve got something to talk about! I think I’ve become closer to my friends back home who have their own businesses too because we can talk to each other about the small stuff. I can say, “wahhhh! I’ve had a bad day!” and they get it. I do think some people must think I just lounge around all day though. It’s been interesting to see their take on working from home if they don’t have their own business… “You can come out for coffee; just take the morning off!” and it’s been a big learning curve for me to say “no! That’s not what working from home means!”
SC.SD. Hugely! That’s such a common misunderstanding isn’t it? In reality, I’m busier now than I’ve ever been and there’s a constant voice up there reminding me that there’s still work to do… I haven’t made it just yet..!
ES. Yes! Yes! Yes! I must annoy my partner because I get home and say to him, “what do you think about this? How should I word this?” It’s an obsessive thing and I can’t go back now! I’ve spent god knows how long working on this for it to fail and I also think the little wins are addictive! Every time something goes right you just think, ‘yeahhh! I’m so good at this!’ and you just want that next hit!
SC.SD. What do the wins with Bravery feel like in comparison to the wins in advertising?
ES. Just so much more fulfilling and warming! I feel like I’m working on something that actually helps people. Even though a lot of the skills I’m using are the same, the purpose behind it is so different and it means so much more to me!
It’s so nice coming from the advertising industry which is so male dominated with so much bravado into this female dominated world where there’s so much support – It’s such a different dynamic! We can actually be quite open when we’re having a shit day and I’ve learned to be really open when I need help!
I’ve been introduced to so many amazing people since launching this. People reach out all the time and say things like, “oh I’ve got a friend that’s a chemo nurse in the UK… do you want me to introduce you both?” and I just say “yes” to those offers because you never know what you’re going to learn! Going to events and listening to other people’s stories has been the number one thing to help me though. It just reminds me that yes I’m poor and struggling like they were now but I’m also driven like they are so yes I’m buying the make up in the £5 – £10 section now but one day I’ll be buying it in the “la-di-da” section soon!
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite motivational quote?
ES. I’m such a faffer and such a worrier so usually anything that says “just do it” works for me. Also, “don’t let perfection be the enemy of good!” Especially in terms of my blogs and imagery… sometimes you’ve just got to put a time frame on things and do it.
SC.SD. What about switching off… what does down time look like?
ES. I need to go outside; especially living in London at the moment where we don’t have big backyard. I’m such a social person too so even working in a café where I’m surrounded by people automatically helps to make me feel a bit better. Yoga and travel as well though. The minute I jump onto a plane I’m happy… but saying that, long haul flights are when I feel most inspired! I have twenty-three hours to kill and all of a sudden I want to design or write something!
SC.SD. You put me to shame! I’m a make-up off, leggings on and sleep kind of girl! On that inspiration note then, what do your next plans for Bravery look like?
ES. So I’ve started a scheme on the website where you can donate a scarf to someone with cancer but I’ve also been speaking to big businesses to see whether they’d like to sponsor the scarves and buy 10-20 outright which would go directly to The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. The aim is – through that and crowdfunding – to give every cancer patient between the ages of eighteen and thirty-nine a Bravery headscarf….
SC.SD. That sounds incredible! And do you have a timeframe on that?
ES. I’m hoping to launch a Kickstarter campaign in June/July so I’m getting the figures together now and working backwards from there… Again, I thought, ‘oh I’ll just start a Kickstarter campaign’ but then I realised how much planning goes into that! Yes it goes for thirty days but it’s like a whole advertising campaign! I just thought I’d create a funny video, ‘how hard can it be?!’ But there’s so much more that goes into them for it to be successful and to make sure they get enough PR. Apparently, if there’s not enough money in it at the start, psychologically people think it’s not worth donating to but if there’s a certain amount of money it’s a sweet spot and people get on board…
SC.SD. So that first day matters?
ES. Yes! It’s almost like I’ve got to secure verbal agreements from a certain number of people to donate on that first day and then start shouting about it everywhere. It’s honestly a whole new world!
And then my long term goal for Bravery is to become a place or a name where if you have cancer, you know you’ll be able to tap into a younger person’s mind-set where there are swearwords and I say it how it is. It’s such a hard thing to deal with when you’re the first person in your friendship group to go through it and so many of my friends backed away because they didn’t know what to say. I started the Bravery blog because it’s ok to say, “this is shit” and give me a hug and see the funny side in it and that I am still human!
So yes, killing the awkwardness around cancer is a goal too and I want to make wearing turbans and headscarves a trend in general so that when you do have cancer…
SC.SD. It’s not taboo?
ES. Exactly! You could just be a hipster walking down the street! Well, at least on your good days. And one more, I’d love to get my collection printed once I finally find some printers that can actually print them and become more financially sustainable so I can live a life that’s not just baked beans and cheap mascara!
SC.SD. Haha I love that! Last question then, what advice would you give to anyone that’s reading this now with an idea for a business inside their heads that they’re not yet pursuing?
ES. Just do it! I suppose the big driving force for me before I left for Remote Year was just asking myself, ‘what if I get home and someone else has launched it instead?’ Think about that with your idea now… It would be the worst feeling in the world! So start small, buy a domain name, the minute you have a name start telling people and then you’re instantly held accountable! Give yourself a deadline and then just go for it!
Launching a business can be a mammoth test at the best of times.
Not least when you’re doing so thousands of miles from home in a city like London where the cost of living – before you take any business costs into consideration – is so high.
But to launch a business that revolves around a disease like cancer (that has tried its best to destroy you personally twice before) is a challenge unlike any I’ve covered thus far but one that Emily is embracing with all of her might.
Despite being dealt some seriously tough cards in her life – and when I say tough I mean frankly, completely shit – this is a woman who refuses to give in to the moments in life that test us and instead turns them on their head to make light of the dark.
With goals that include tackling the awkwardness around cancer head on; making headscarves mainstream so that cancer patients no longer stand out; and providing young adults who have cancer with a safe space they can reach when they want to vent or laugh or cry or just talk; it’s safe to say she’s got her work cut out.
Yet there’s a determination in her eyes that can’t be mistaken along with another trait that leaves me with certainty that she’ll succeed.
If ever there was a mind-set that radiates ‘glass half full’, it would be Emily Somers’s without a doubt.