Surviving Cancer Inspired Me To Start A Headwear Brand That Empowers Women
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Emily, and I founded Bravery Co. in 2016. Bravery Co. is a company and community that supports chicks with cancer. We create Australia’s only range of designer headwear for cancer warriors with $2 from each scarf donated to cancer research to end this stupid disease.
Losing your hair is one of the most traumatic parts of cancer. Your disease becomes visible, and you lose a big part of your identity. Bravery is about empowering women to regain their style, confidence, and sense of self.
Our designer range is made in collaboration with world-renowned artists. The scarves are designed to make women feel stylish, powerful, and confident. We want women to feel they can take on the world wearing a Bravery scarf – whether they have cancer or not.
On average, we make 3-5K profit a month, but this is always put back into the business. (Definitely no superyacht story here yet!)
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Bravery Co is a biz born from 3 x cancer diagnoses. I was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 27, then relapsed at 29 and got a completely different cancer, a sarcoma, at 34. The full trifecta.
During my second stint with cancer, I got sick of wearing my wig, and I was frustrated at the lack of cool cancer headwear out there – especially for younger cancer warriors. Everything is daggy and aimed at a much older lady. So I started playing around with scarves through online tutorials.
Once I nailed tying the turban, I suddenly felt more like myself. It was a look that didn’t scream ‘cancer patient.’ I stopped getting pity stares and started getting asked how I tied my scarf. Half the time, people didn’t even know I was sick until I told them!
Before cancer, I was working in advertising as an Art Director. I love the buzz of working in advertising, but it was exhausting, and I was craving work that had more heart behind it. It seemed like my business idea landed in my lap after showing girls how to tie headscarves in chemo wards.
I feel lucky that I can still use my design, writing, and creative problem-solving skills while passing on the sense of confidence I found in wearing headscarves to others going through a similar ordeal.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started super lean by buying 3 different scarf designs from a brand I’d worn when I’d lost my hair. It was the perfect way to launch Bravery quickly, without the overheads or commitment to large quantities of stock.
I went on to source many more scarves. However, I quickly learned that finding the perfect scarf for a warrior was near impossible. They were never the right size, or the fabric was too rough for a bald and sensitive noggin’. I was after natural fibers to help combat hot flushes, and of course, the design had to be big, bright, and colorful. So after raising 50K (AUD) in 2018 through a crowdfunding campaign, I went about manufacturing the first range of designer scarves for cancer warriors.
Tell everyone about your idea. Not only will they get excited but they will want an update next time they see you which will keep you accountable.
Although I had designed billboards, I’d never worked with textiles before. I had no idea what I was doing! I quickly discovered in order to keep the price point relatively low and affordable for my target market. I had to manufacture overseas. I lost days on google searching for a manufacturer that made high-quality scarves and would accept my small quantities. I ended up striking gold through a recommendation from a friend of a friend, and we still work together now.
The first shipment arrived 2 weeks late (I didn’t factor in China’s Golden week holidays into the timeline), and so I had my whole family packaging the 300 scarves that had been pre-ordered.
Now we manufacture hats as well, and although these are made locally, in many ways, the process was a lot more complex. There was lots of back and forth with my pattern maker and I learned about spec sheets, markers, grading, and where to find the best fabric in Melbourne.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The idea for Bravery had been bubbling around in my head for 3 years. I had been quietly developing the branding and building the website, but healing and getting my life back on track took priority.
In 2016 I was given the all-clear from my oncologist, developed itchy feet, and jumped on a plane to join a mob of digital nomads through Remote Year. (A program where each month the group of 60 of us would move to a new city and combine work and travel.) It was in a co-working space on a Thailand beach that I launched Bravery Co. into the world.
Before I left Australia, I’d roped a photographer friend from advertising to shoot myself and another cancer warrior. I knew the imagery had to be as strong as my branding. I know the importance of strong photography - I wanted the brand to feel like it was from the fashion world, not a hospital.
Find your people. Make some friends that have businesses too.
Every Bravery model has had/has cancer, and it’s always been super important to portray the cancer warriors as strong, resilient, and badass women they are - not weak or passive as most other headwear companies do.
For the first 4 years, Bravery was a side hustle while I continued to freelance remotely in advertising and travel. (The stock lived in my parent’s spare bedroom, and my Mum was my distribution queen.) This slow start suited me perfectly as it meant I never had to rely on the income from the business. I could go at my own pace, make mistakes along the way and stay passionate.
However, although my launch was fairly low-key, there have been specific moments that have seen a noticeable boom in sales. These include crowdfunding $50K with the help of ING bank, winning Frankie Magazine Good Stuff awards, and launching our designer range. Ultimately though, it is the P.R. that surrounded these events that got Bravery big attention.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Telling my story has been the most powerful marketing tool. I know it’s been said a million times before but a real and authentic brand will win the hearts of others. I don’t hold back when I talk about cancer - I speak with honesty and swear words which have always attracted the right type of customers.
When I open up and share my story or the stories of other cancer warriors in my One Warrior series, I get thousands of likes and shares. When I write a blog that is honest and real but also helpful and insightful, my website views go through the roof. This doesn’t always result in instant sales but most of my customers say they have been following me for a while but never needed to buy a scarf until their friend/mum/co-worker got diagnosed with cancer and they knew exactly where to go.
The story behind Bravery has also attracted lots of P.R from Women’s Health magazine, Timeout blog even to mentions in Vogue. The most valuable piece of P.R. was when we had a super popular scarf collab in the Sunday paper which resulted in over 100 sales in one morning which was a new record for us!
I’ve played around with paid Facebook and Instagram advertising but it’s hard to see a return as it’s impossible to define a cancer warrior who is in the market for a headscarf. Facebook doesn’t have your health information (thank god!) so the ads have just been used for brand awareness which is hard to track.
Late last year we ran the first Bravery design competition with the ten winners creating our 2022 scarf collection. It went nuts and we got around 900 entries by over 500 artists. This increased our Instagram followers by 20% over the month it ran. (You can see the entries by searching #braveryscarfcomp2021 on Instagram).
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
After Bravery became my full-time gig in 2020 it went gangbusters and that year we turned over 6 figures in sales. However last year I had my first baby so sales have certainly yo-yoed up and down as I get used to the juggle.
I now have one employee who takes care of the packing and logistics and I’m currently looking to employ a social media expert. I’m looking forward to having a team to support me and give Bravery the consistency it needs. The one-woman show is definitely over!
The majority of our sales come from our website but our wholesale side is starting to grow which is really exciting. We’re now stocked by 15 other businesses across Australia and America. Plus, now we post covid, I’m being booked for speaking gigs and scarf styling workshops which is a wonderful way to promote the brand, tell my story, and provide a huge income stream.
We’re in the middle of developing a range of pre-tied hats and headbands for girls to use when their hair starts to grow back. And we have a big lineup of amazing artist collaborations for our collection of scarves.
We’re also planning Bravery events to provide extra support for cancer warriors after treatment has ended. I can’t wait for these as they will give me the opportunity to be face to face with my customers and followers – something that you miss as an online business, especially through covid!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have learned that even though I can do everything, I shouldn’t! At the start, I thought I was going to design the scarves myself which technically I could be honest, my designs kinda sucked. After a while, I had the brainwave to ask professional illustrators and artists. Their designs were incredible and by collaborating with known creative superstars - my brand benefitted. I suppose the lesson there is to trust others with your business baby from the start - sometimes they will do a much better job than you ever imagined!
If you’re working with overseas suppliers, know their public holidays! I didn’t factor in China’s Golden Week while manufacturing my first batch of designer ranges. I am sure no one minded waiting another week for their scarf to arrive but my anxiety went through the roof. Always buff out your timeline with more fat than you think you’ll ever need!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Plann - to organise my Instagram posts.
- Xero is my number one for all things accounting. I hated numbers until I got the hang of using this site.
- I use Lightroom to quickly edit any photos of my phone but also have Adobe Creative Suite for design jobs and more complex photo editing.
- Veed- an online video editor to add captions and edit my videos.
We are in the middle of migrating to Shopify so watch this space as I’m pretty sure I’m going to fall in love with all the time-saving apps.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- The Big Leap by Bay Hendricks
- You are a badass at making money by Jen Sincero
- The Chillpreneur by Denise Duffeld-Thomas
- Let my people go surfing by Yvon Chouinard
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
- Start small. Starting is so overwhelming so break all the big tasks down into tiny tasks and just start. Maybe begin with buying the domain name or Instagram handle. It will start to feel real then and that’s exciting.
- Tell everyone about your idea. Not only will they get excited but they will want an update next time they see you which will keep you accountable. It’s like a mini deadline that will keep you moving.
- Invest in good photography and branding - especially if you’re an online business. It may seem expensive but it is worth it. No one will pay a good price from a website that looks crap.
- Find your people. Make some friends that have businesses too. They will get all the highs and the lows and they are also great people to bounce ideas or ask questions. If you don’t know anyone - join a Facebook group or go to some network events.
- Look after yourself. You only get one body (I learned this the hard way!) and you’re never going to look back at your life and think - wow, I spent more nights working. The to-do list will still be there in the morning - get some sleep!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! We need a social media guru. If you’re Melbourne-based and looking for a part-time gig, please follow us on Instagram @braveryco as I’ll be putting out the call out asap.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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