On this episode, I’m talking with Emma Sharley, an experienced and very successful brand and marketing consultant in Australia. She works with retail, technology, and lifestyle client companies on setting up market and brand strategies, brand positioning, transitioning markets, and marketing new products lines. She also has a complementary start-up in the retail technology sector called ShopYou, which she co-founded in 2016. Emma has worked with both large corporations and smaller operations, and she’s joined me today to talk about the keys to success that have taken her consulting business to the next level. She shares three major tips for building out your portfolio, finding the all-important work-life balance and — you’ll have to hear it to believe it — why 4 a.m. is the magic hour for her most effective work. It just may inspire you to start waking up early as well, and it’s all in this episode of the The Consulting Success Podcast with Emma Sharley.
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How to build up your portfolio, keep your momentum going, and find the critical work-life balance.
3 Steps To Building A Stand Out Portfolio With Emma Sharley
I’m very excited to have Emma Sharley joining us. Emma, welcome.
Great to be here.
For those who aren’t familiar with you and your work, explain what you do.
I am a brand and marketing consultant. I have been consulting for over two years, primarily working with retail clients, technology clients, and all those in the lifestyle category. I essentially work with the clients internally to set up marketing and brand strategies for success. If they need to provide an ongoing strategic advice to their business beyond the strategy development, it’s anything from brand positioning for new brands launching in market to a rebrand. It might be those looking to move into a new region, new market, launching new product line. It’s a multitude of different reasons as to why someone seeks out my services. I also have a startup in the retail technology sector, I’ve got a product that’s complementary to the consulting work I do.
What size of clients are you typically working with? Are these smaller businesses, mid-sized? Are they corporations?
My first client was a corporation, Westfield. Since then it’s varied from startups from those that are launching in market to SMEs to some larger fashion retailers in Australia. It depends on what they’re after. Most of the corporations come wanting to work on a project basis. Smaller organizations are seeking out that ongoing mentoring, ongoing consulting, and the ongoing strategic advice.
Take us back to the early days. You said you’ve been running your consulting business, but before that what were you doing?
I graduated from a commerce degree out of Adelaide in Australia. I then moved to London to start my marketing career. I initially started out in Sports Marketing, working for Lord’s England and Wales Cricket Board, which was fantastic because it’s England being one of the big homes of Cricket. I’m working on site at Lord’s. Got a real foray into that industry over there and was able to apply my marketing skills. I then moved into fashion retail marketing, working for Diane von Furstenberg, so luxury fashion brand. Then moved into telecommunications working for T-Mobile. Those roles that I had were fantastic. That allowed me to move around and to understand the nuances between the sector and how marketing can be applied to each one. I then came back to Australia and worked in financial marketing for short time. During that period, I missed the fast paced and this is an old retail marketing.
At that point, I stepped back into working for Westfield, which was fabulous. I worked all over Australia across head office centers. I’m working with hundreds of retailers in the Westfield portfolio, as well as working on the brand as Marketing Manager in that role. It was during my time there that I saw a great opportunity in market. Marketing has changed so much, particularly in that seven-year period that I was there. It became the driver of business and the marketing department became the real custodian of the customer. We had access to a lot more data and a lot more importance was being placed on customer sentiment, customer research to understand what they want. The products and services were developed from there. I could see there are many retailers that didn’t have the resources to bring a marketing team in-house and needed someone that they could tap into for ongoing advice.
They also didn’t have the resources to work with an external agency. I then decided to start consulting. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mind. I’m always doing things on the side. It was perfect in terms of combining that love of starting something of your own, but also continuing the work that I was doing and being able to fill a gap within the market. Westfield was my first client, and over that time since I’ve started, I’ve built up a portfolio of mainly retail clients but also in tech and lifestyle.
What did that transition look like? You’re working with Westfield, so they were your employer. They also became your first client when you launched your consulting business. What did that conversation look like with them? Were they very supportive? Was that something that you had to keep working on for a period of time?
They were very supportive. Over that seven-year period, I developed some great relationships. Very talented people I worked alongside, a lot of mutual respect. When I stepped out of the organization, there was a project that I picked up to launch one of the new centers in market. It was my first project, five months. I worked on that with the team and it really a transition from being an employee to coming in two to three days a week to work on this project and this project only. It did take a little bit of adjusting because I’m used to sitting in all the meetings and all the presentations. Doing it that way and transitioning from the employee to consultant opened my eyes to the value of a consultant and what they can bring because of the single focus on the outcomes that you are delivering.
There’s much less noise and other priorities around you when you’ve got a project, or you’ve got a retailer that has certain deliverables and you can focus on that and deliver that well to seek the best outcome for the client. In terms of starting out your business and from a confidence point of view, it was perfect. It was great because I could see the value that I was delivering day in, day out. That set me up quite nicely to then go and have conversations with others from there on.
What do you do at that point? The employer’s become your first client, which is a great transition, one that I’ve always recommended. You’re in that position to move from corporate into consulting. You have an employer, that’s a great starting point. What was the first step you took to build the portfolio? Were you reaching out to your network, to connections? Did you do some other marketing? Where did your next clients come from?
I set up my own channels. I’d always been quite active on LinkedIn and Twitter. I’ve got a website and became more active in those channels in terms of sharing content. I went to a lot of events. Working in corporate, there is a certain limit on your time because you’re in the office so much. Being able to run your own schedule and go to as many events as you like or have as many meetings as you’d like that are related to other people and you find out what they’re doing is fantastic. I made the most of that in the first couple of months. Sydney is brilliant for marketing events, business events, take events. There’s always lots going on every single night as in other major cities around the world, but I was able to tap into that quite easily.
My main focus in the first few months was developing a network of those who were doing similar things and doing some exciting and great things in the market to find more about their journey. Out of that came a few partnerships, so other consultants I’ve worked with since I have complementary skill sets to what I do. It was never the intention to go out and seek people that I could bring on for projects or to seek clients. It was more around to ground myself in the landscape, find out what was happening, understand that ecosystem, and building network. Your network is extremely different when you consult in comparison to when you’re working for someone. Completely different mix of those that are running their own business and doing their own thing that you’re able to then bounce ideas off and tap into when needed.
The events played a big part in the first couple of months. I also started teaching with General Assembly, so hosting workshops with them. They run a series of different classes, workshops, events around digital marketing, brand and marketing technology. That was a great start to be able to share my knowledge in a forum where there were fifteen, twenty businesses in each session to refine my positioning and the value that I could bring to market to understand where the gaps were a little bit further.
Did you get clients from teaching?
I did have a few comes through. I do that regularly and there’s always a couple that reach out for work. It’s more about sharing that knowledge to as many as possible and workshops are great ways to do that in line with blogging and content. The conversations and the teaching and meeting so many businesses in the first few months helped me understand what value I could bring in, where I want to position myself in the market. There weren’t a lot of other marketing and brand consultants at the time. For me, it was important I was clear on what particular industries I wanted to work with, how I wanted to work with them, so I could make sure that I was working with the right clients to set them up and set me up for the best success long-term.
When you started your business in the first six months to a year, what did you find most challenging? What was hard for you or that you spend a lot of time maybe worrying about or feeling unclear about or was challenging for you?
In the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of information around the consulting model. The pricing in the beginning, for me, was the challenge. Placing a value on your time and what your time looks like as well. You can place a value on 40 hours a week, but it’s not 40 hours of work that you’re delivering per week. It’s more than that. Factoring many other things that are not necessarily related to client’s work. Probably the time and the pricing. Over time, that’s become a lot easier. For anyone that’s looking to launch a consulting business, I’d say spend time on that. Don’t rush it because it’s important to get that right.
What else stood out for you? What are the challenges came up for you?
The other piece would probably be finding people to work with you. My skill sets are mainly on strategy development and the brand piece. Clients need specific skill sets around SEO, social media, outreach, PR. It’s being able to find people that I can bring in that I trust, that I know are going to do good work, that are running similar models. It’s more of a partnership model rather than bringing the agency. A lot of the clients that I work with, they may have worked with agencies before and they came to look at more of a flatter structure or they want to bring someone in-house. It’s hard to find those people that are doing great things that you can bring in or recommend as a resource for the client to take internally. That’s something that’s built up over time and all that time spent going to events and speaking to people and building a network was valuable because I was able to tap into good people along the way. It did take some time to build that up. It wasn’t there from the get-go.
What have you found to be most effective for you? What are you doing on a daily, weekly basis to get more clients? What’s working for you?
I still run the workshops. I do quite a bit of speaking as well. I’m big on community, so I love organizing events to bring people together to talk about what’s happening in the industry, the latest developments, and what the future of marketing retail looks like.
How do you do that? What does that look like? Are you using like Meetup.com or with your Facebook? What’s the approach there?
I run the Retail Tech Sydney Meetup locally here. We’ve got about 600 members. That’s been fantastic in terms of having the conversation about how retail and technology can be combined because at the moment, they’re sitting quite separately particularly in the Australian market. The collaboration and bringing people to that comes naturally for me. Out of that, there have been a couple of clients that have approached me on the back of the events. I’m also involved with a couple of global think tanks. IFAB, the Independent Fashion Advisory Board and also Remodista.
Being able to have conversations with those in Australia but also overseas on what they’re saying, what I’m saying. Coming back to that complementary skill set piece, there’s been a few people that I’ve partnered up with that I’ve met through these think tanks and we’ve collaborated on projects together. Being able to find those like-minded people that are also working on projects in this industry or projects that are pushing the boundary is crucial because then you are able to not only learn and associate yourself with those types, but also potentially partner on projects as well.
I sent an email asking for those in our community who wants to tell their story, who wants to share, who have reached a certain level of success in their business. That’s how we connect and that’s how you reached out. We have some very specific criteria. We’re very selective in who we want to bring onto the show and who we feature. You’ve achieved a level of success in your business. Even though it’s only been a couple of years since you started your consulting business, what would you identify or highlight as maybe your biggest learning? If there was one that you could identify maybe there’s two or three and you can share those as well. What stands out for you as being something that maybe once you figure it out how to overcome it or you put it into actual practice in your business made the biggest difference for you in terms of momentum and revenue growth?
Reputation is everything, not only if you are sole consultant but also if you are running a consulting business with the team. I’ve spent a bit of time cultivating my personal brand over the last couple of years. I see other consultants in the market that don’t have a strong personal brand or they don’t run any marketing that don’t have any content going out. I was aware of that from the beginning, but over time, I’ve understood the power of that. Essentially, people want to do business with you based on who you are and based on them being able to trust you and being able to have a good relationship with you. The personal brand, you’re able to validate that even before you meet them, if they’re looking at you online or if they’re reading your content or they’re listening to a podcast. It’s a good way to start to build that trust even before you have that initial conversation.
That’s probably been a learning for me coming from corporate and coming from a business environment. I did know it was important at the time when I was working for organizations, but you barely spend time cultivating that internally and also externally. That would be my biggest learning. The second one is being able to value your time. In the beginning, I would schedule my week so that I was constantly delivering work every single hour assigned to getting something out, meeting a deadline. Over time, that’s evolved a lot. I block out half days, full days. I start my days at 4:00 AM in the morning. The first three, four hours dedicated to getting the work out, the strategic that needs a lot of focus where I can deep dive into it for a couple of hours before then going off to meetings or running through my inbox. I’ve realized the most important thing for any consultant, anyone who’s selling their time is how to make the most of that throughout the week.
Also allowing time to replenish and take time out because you’re constantly in output mode, so being able to take a day off or even if it’s not a holiday, at least take a couple of days off to relax and step away from the screen, step away from any work. For me, that’s where the ideation and the creativity come. It can be difficult to foster that if you’re in running mode and in deadline mode the whole time. I’d say those two things, reputation and taking time to nurture your schedule and what that looks like for the best possible output.
I especially love that you shared that second one because what I continue to observe and all the work that we do with consultants is the time, the way that people manage their schedules can have such an impact. So many consultants find that they are very busy, whether it’s delivering on client projects or they have family obligations. The first thing that ends up taking a hit and getting put to the side is their marketing. If they’re business developments, working on building their business and their brand. It is so critical to find what I often refer to as like holy time. For you, it starts at 4:00 AM, but for people to find a time where they can block out consistently and nothing else comes onto their calendar at that time because that’s their holy time. That’s the time for them to work on what’s so important for them.
The moment that you stop doing that is the moment that you allow your business to coast. Like a car, they can coast for a period of time without your foot on the gas, but it will slow down and then later come to a stop. Doing that consistently is so important. What you just shared in terms of your example is a great one. Talk to me about the 4:00 AM. Where did that come from because some might go like, “That sounds crazy, 4:00 AM.” Was that hard? Was that easy for you? Why and when did you decide to start doing that?
I’ve started that habit this year. It came about from feeling like I wasn’t able to fit enough into a day. I was starting about 8:00 or 9:00 AM and then working through into the evening, staying up late and then getting to bed about midnight or 1:00 AM and then starting again the next day. My energy levels were okay, but I was drinking a lot of coffee. I thought, “There’s a better way to do this.”I am a big reader. I read a lot of content online from those like Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, particularly Tim. He is big on routine and I was unpacking what his routine looks like, but also those that he has stated in his books and within his content. I thought, “I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m going to try shifting up my routine.” It took me about a couple of weeks to settle into it, but essentially, it’s structured. It’s every morning, 4:00 AM, I do my run in the morning, have my rituals before I then get into the work.
It gives me a clear head in the morning. I fit my exercise in every day. I don’t have to worry about the end of the day going for a run or going to the gym on a weekend. My energy levels have doubled I’d say. I don’t drink as much coffee. It’s incredible with the change and shifting the time. I do go to sleep earlier than 1:00 AM, but getting a start at 4:00 AM.It feels like you have got a start on everything else in a way and everyone else. You’re able to be a step ahead the whole day. Whereas prior to that, there were times and days, those were back to back or hectic with deadlines that I always felt like as a step behind. This allows me to always feel like I’m a step ahead and be organized and deliver consistently on what I need to without feeling like I’m running to the finish line.
You’re getting the priority items done or the big things at the start of the day, which means it doesn’t matter what comes up throughout the day. Life throws all kinds of things at all of us. The important ones are often the hard ones. The ones that we maybe have some fear against doing or the things we don’t like doing as much in some cases, so you get put off. By doing them at the beginning of the day, you’ve already made great progress regardless of what else comes up in your day. You’re a step ahead.
Most of the consultants I’ve met thrive on that achievement and accomplishment and are driven by that. By doing this, one big thing that you’ve got on your list and you have that since every day. It may just be one-on-one only piece that you’re accomplishing, but it’s done. Then you can move on to the next day and look at what’s the most important for that day rather than trying to fit in ten or twenty urgent or important items. It’s breaking it down into what’s the one or two things I need to get done today that’s going to set me up for tomorrow or going to set me up for this project. That’s where that come from. I’m a big advocate for it now. Once I came to shift that routine, I highly recommend it.
That’s such a great share because it can benefit so many people to get the importance of done. Also, to make time for yourself in terms of creativity. You shared like stepping out of the office, going for a walk, booking a hotel room to change the environment. When I wrote my book, The Elite Consulting Mind, I was in Japan at the time and I booked a couple of nights at a hotel. Went off separately from my family, locked myself in the hotel room. Luckily, I have a nice view of the river, but it was that that new environment that sparked creativity.
I know a lot of people, I used to feel this way as well, are very creative. They’re able to produce a lot more content or to get a lot more done by working from coffee shops of all places. Every other book that I’ve written was written or started in a coffee shop. I know that others also feel that way. It doesn’t really matter where it is, it’s about allowing yourself to change up the usual routine, breathing different air. Those are great messages that you share here, and I appreciate that you’ve shared them.
To your point, the environment is key as well and thinking about breaking out the week or the month into different time slots. It’s also where you are. Booking into a hotel room or might be going away for the weekend or it might be spending a day at the gallery or in a coffee shop. It can have so much impact on your thinking. I underestimated that prior to consulting when you’re in an office day in, day out. You don’t think about your surroundings, but it is incredibly impactful on your creativity and how you think. Whether you want to be surrounded by people to feed off their energy or whether you need some time on your own to bunker down and do what you need to do. It’s setting up those environments to allow you to produce the work that you need to from that.
What’s the best way for people to learn more about your work and to connect with you?
Emma, thanks so much for coming on. I appreciate your time and sharing a bit of your story with us.
Thank you, Michael. My pleasure to chat.
Mentioned in This Episode:
Emma Sharley’s LinkedIn
Emma Sharley’s Twitter
Emma Sharley’s Instagram