NAME: Emma Hicks
COMPANY: The Wandering Paws
TITLE(S): Owner + Operator
How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
Passionate, down to earth, kindhearted, generous, compassionate.
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today?
Around 20 years ago I started in the house & pet sitting world, helping out friends and their families when they went away on holidays. Like many twenty-something year olds, the lust for travel got me and I set off for a two year working holiday to London in 2001.
Within 6 months I had run out of money and was just scraping by in an expensive city on a backpacker's wage. A group of us staying at the same hostel had become really good friends & talked about moving into a big house together, but after that fell through, I was offered a bed in a “squat” by two French girls from the hostel. And so began a life less ordinary!
Here I was a 24 year old backpacker from Sydney’s Northern Beaches living in a building that had been occupied by squatters since the 70’s; I had never expected to find myself here. Over the next 18 months, all of my friends from the hostel and I had joined forces and together occupied several other pieces of real estate in some of North London’s most exclusive areas. It was during this time that I learnt some handy life skills; how to adapt quickly to the surroundings I was in, how to share absolutely everything in my possession, and how to improvise. I famously built us a kitchen from old doors, ladders and other bits and pieces lying around. We also had no hot water in one place, so had a production line of kettles and huge water bowls we would fill each morning to have a bath. It was an incredible and eye opening experience.
*Editor's note - YES, this is absolutely true! I had the pleasure of hearing this story over drinks one night, (having known Emma for quite some time) and she still managed to leave me staring at her in disbelief through the evening. I can confirm Emma definitely leads a life unlike that of anyone I have ever met!
After living in London, life took me to Africa with my then boyfriend, and I found myself living in rural small town South Africa, farming pigs, cattle, goats and chooks, each morning donning my knee-high gum boots and climbing through the electric fence at dawn for feeding time. I was a world away from London, and Australia, in a place that was raw, dangerous, where bribery was rife and freedom as I knew it was nonexistent. This was life as I had never known it. It was a place that challenged me in so many ways. I remember thinking, “what on earth have I done”!!!!
Ignoring the will to flee back to safe Australia, I ended up spending two years in South Africa, and despite being one of the biggest challenges of my life to date, I am forever grateful for that experience. I not only gained my fully fledged housewife training (Jamie Oliver taught me how to cook every morning on tv), and a heap of experience working with animals in some tough conditions, but what I gained the most was a whole new outlook on life.
It was here that I learnt that those who have the least really do have the most to give. It makes me emotional thinking of our staff, mostly our Zulu maid, Joyce, who in the time she worked for us lost one son to malnutrition, and the other was murdered for his weekly pay packet, the equivalent of $5. It was their incredible bravery facing troubles in life that deeply affected me. I was surrounded by people that had next to nothing, people who were working hard, living in poverty, things I had never even encountered in my life and it was these people who became my friends and who brought joy, laughter and friendship to my world every day. I had to leave South Africa quite suddenly, and I had to leave behind almost all of my possessions – it was here I learnt that possessions were just “stuff”, you can replace stuff, it’s not important in the grand scale of life. Africa really taught me a hell of a lot.
Returning to Australia was hard, despite my initial reaction of literally wanting to kiss the ground, to be safe, free and in a world where everything is just so easy, I found it hard to settle after the life I had lived for the last 4 and a half years. Needing money, I quickly returned to working in the corporate company I had been in before I left Australia and it was here I stayed for close to 10 years. Fast forward to 2014 & I was really unhappy in a job I hated, not living a life I wanted. The tragic loss of a dear friend, a real adventurer & integral part of my London family, in an accident in 2012 had deeply affected me and again made me reassess my life. In 2014 I left my long term corporate office job, spent some time travelling and volunteering through Sri Lanka and after a soul soothing heart opening time in Bali, I came back to Australia with no idea what to do next.
Upon my return a series of events quickly led me to moving from my rented apartment, selling, giving away or donating almost all of my belongings and beginning a new life journey - one which has turned into three years of full time house and petsitting across Sydney's Northern beaches & Byron bay. As the word spread about my petsitting services, the demand steadily grew and slowly and organically began my journey into establishing The Wandering Paws at the end of July, 2016.
I think it is really important people can explain their main message in a concise paragraph – if the above is the full version - What is your elevator pitch on what you do?
I am a pet + housesitter. I stay in people's homes to look after their pets & property when they are away!
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago?
No way! I was never one for planning ahead for the future so really had no idea where I would be now, but can honestly say I never expected to find myself making a career out of living in other people's homes and hanging out with their pets.
Other than putting money in a super fund, that's about as far forward as I think. I am not one of those 5 year or 10 year plan type gals, as I'm very aware that I am mortal, so life could end at any time - I live very much for the "now" and tend to go with the flow, life is forever changing and I roll with the changes! Last year I mentioned to a friend who had also joined the free petsitting circuit with me that "we could turn this into a business". She simply said "Yes, we could. You should do that Emma".
And here I am.
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’?
Success is living life on my terms, and being true to me. It is having time to go slow, enjoy all that is around me and spend time with my friends and family. Success to me is not power, or money, status or possessions. I couldn’t even tell you how much I earn in a year; I just know it’s enough.
What do you still want to achieve (personally and/or professionally)
Professionally, I want to grow my business along the East coast into the Northern Rivers region up to the sunshine coast. It’s happening slowly …
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in?
Most of the qualities you need in my job cannot be taught in a course. I have studied a pet first aid course, but that’s it.
Over the years I have acquired some rather adverse life skills that have really come in handy on the job. Squatting in London taught me how to adapt very quickly to my environment & also how to improvise. I therefore find it very easy to settle in other people's homes and feel at ease.
You also need to be able to stay calm, think quickly, and deal with a lot of things that go wrong. And trust me, working with animals and being in unfamiliar (often luxury) homes, things do go wrong. A couple of weeks ago I found myself up a ladder at the back of the house I was looking after, on the phone to the owner who was in Hong Kong giving me instructions on how to get inside. All the while the cat was stalking me from the inside demanding I feed him, with his owner on the phone saying “make yourself useful would you Archie and open the door”. We had a really good laugh about it!
I've dealt with all kinds of crazy things, like needing to call the SES in the middle of a category 3 storm when part of the roof blew off, I taught myself how to siphon a flooding pool using YouTube, hit the floor when lightning struck the house, dealt with a collapsed ceiling, a flooding house, multiple dog attacks, storms, being locked out, nursing sick, injured and stressed animals, it goes on. There is never a dull moment.
You also need to be very observant with animals to look out for signs of stress and anxiety in their owner’s absence. I find that when a pet is in my care I am often reporting things to the owners they have never noticed as I am so focused on the behaviour of their pet. I take my duty of care and responsibility very seriously. Reputation is everything in my industry, as is integrity. I try to always do the best thing by my client and keep an open line of communication at all times!
What have been the most rewarding things in your career to date!?
Oh where to start, there are so many.
Firstly the job satisfaction is the best I've experienced ever. There is not a day when I don't turn up to a doggy’s house where they are not overwhelmed with pure joy and happiness to see me. It is a proven scientific fact that dogs have a positive effect on people making them happier - how often does that happen in a job?
Then there are the amazing clients that have become friends. Their love, ongoing support, kindness, humour, gifts (WINE!) and encouragement are what keep me going. The trust that often complete strangers put in me to stay in their home, our most intimate space, I never take that for granted. I'm connecting with some of the best people I've ever met; and they are literally saying to me things like “help yourself to everything, please eat the food in the freezer, here is our wifi password, here are the car keys, this is your home while we are away” and I have met them once for a half hour visit. It actually blows me away to know that there are so many warm, welcoming and trusting people in this world - it makes for a very happy existence and drives me to want to do the best I can do to help them out.
I also LOVE to see how adored these pets are by their humans – it is heartwarming. There is one dog I walk whose owner is sometimes home when I drop her off and I open the door and he exclaims "ohhhh you are so beautiful, gosh look at you, we love you so much". And no, He's not talking to me; he's talking to his dog. It's true love and makes me smile endlessly!
Tell us about your workspace ?
My workspace is one of the main reasons why I chose this to be my job. I am a huge nature lover, I am happiest by the ocean, at the beach, in the sunshine and the great outdoors. So this is where you will find me; usually with a dog or 4 in tow. It took me a really long time (about 40 years to be exact) to realise all of these years I have been working in an office that I was in the "wrong place". When I announced that I was starting up my business last year a friend said, “I always found it strange that someone who loves the outdoors so much was working in an office". I am so grateful to live where I do in this beautiful place - I've found my happy place finally.
What are some frustrations you have experienced on your career journey?
Aside from the amount of clothing I lose in “transition” all the time? Well, working for so long in a corporate job I had lost a load of self worth. Therefore when I started my business I was underselling myself and not realising my true value. It took several people to say to me “that is not what you are worth for what you do” to finally get me to start raising my prices and feeling confident in myself. I've changed that outlook a little but I do still struggle with setting pricing for my services & especially asking friends to pay me money, by nature I am a very giving person & a people pleaser, so I just want to help everyone!!! Being a “business” woman doesn’t come naturally to me.
When was the last time you were overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work/workload?
Earlier in the year I was really overwhelmed by a job I had felt obliged to take against all of my better judgment & professional expertise. It was the first time (and hopefully the last) that I had to contact a family and say "you need to make a new plan now" for the welfare of the animal.
The situation really affected me and I had a tough time regrouping after that. It was certainly a very big lesson.
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? Has this increased or decreased as you progress in your career?
Absolutely! I’m a perfectionist by nature and I like to feel like I'm always "on top of things", so often have a sense of urgency to get things done and “now” when it's not always necessary. I have lists of things absolutely everywhere. I can drive myself nuts!!
It is beginning to decrease as I now know that if I have four dogs out for a walk together that I need to be 100% there and alert. Therefore it has forced me to not be as immediately responsive to messages, calls, and emails and so on. That has been challenging in our modern society where we are so connected and people almost expect an immediate response.
As a business owner, you often can’t just check out/ have a week off when you are dealing with personal things, how do you keep on keeping on with your business when things get tough?
I meditate & go to yoga. As I am constantly living in the future and have to think ahead I know very well that if I'm out of whack, it's a long way back to balance for me, so it's a priority.
At the moment, each morning I go to the beach and spent 15-20 minutes doing a sound and thought meditation spoken by my friend Em. Listening to the sound of the waves on the shore is epic & brings me back into the present moment. It's an amazing way to start the day & gives me the peace, calm and clarity to get through whatever needs to be done.
Has your career affected your personal life/relationships? If so how?
For sure! I am working harder than I ever have in my life and I'm still trying to work out a balance. In my job sometimes it can feel like I'm on call 24/7 - I used to be that person who was super responsive to messages and stuff, on Facebook every day and rarely missed an event or birthday, but now I'm lucky if I get back to a friend’s text message in a week as I am prioritising clients, especially if they have a pet currently in my care. It's sometimes hard to keep up with all the communications from clients, and friends.
My free time is often when my friends are at work and vice versa. It's getting better but I do try schedule time for me so I can see my friends and not be rushing off to feed a pet or walk a dog or respond to a client message and so on. When I can, I've started turning my phone off every Saturday for as long as possible. It's lovely to be detached and just be exactly where I am right then with my friends or family and enjoy the moment!
Has your journey at times felt lonely?
Honestly, not really, I've always been really supported by my friends and family and community around me. I've had people pushing me and cheering me on the whole way, it's been so great! I get asked if it gets lonely being alone in someone else's home, but I'm not alone, I've got cute furry friends to hang out with, and they're such great company, plus most dog parks/beaches are very social and I've made a tonne of new friends!
It’s only when something isn’t running quite as planned that I miss that colleague to have a “debrief/rant” with!
What causes you anxiety/sleepless nights?
In busy times like school holidays I can be moving from one job to the next consecutively, and I can have so many pets in my care that I'm afraid I'll forget to go feed one of them. I have a digital and paper schedule to ensure things run smoothly! My organisational skills go into overdrive at this point! I also need to watch I don’t overload myself with work, not having any downtime is a huge trigger for anxiety in me, I do suffer badly with it so when it rears its head, I know I’ve pushed myself too far.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently?
No way! Every job, every life lesson, all of that experience and insight I have gained in the wrong jobs have led me to where I am today. Without my corporate experience I would not have my organisational skills or customer service skills. If I didn’t live in South Africa, I would not have gained the skills I have to work with animals, many sick and dying. If I did not live as a squatter in London, I would not have the ability to adapt and improvise like I can. Grateful for it all, the good the bad and the ugly!
What advice would you give your 21 year old self?
Don’t compare yourself to everyone else. God, I still need that advice now. It is relevant to so much, in wealth, career, looks, and status, just so, so much. Also, stop trying to fit in and please others. Say “no” more often and don’t do things you don’t want to do. It’s your life, do what you want rather than try and please everyone else. Stop trying to be someone you are not.
Who are some women in business you admire & why?
Anita Roddick – what a legend. I worked for Anita’s company, The Body Shop, back in the 90’s and there was no woman that stood out quite like she did in the business world – she was a change maker. The Body Shop & Anita were at that time a huge driver of social justice, environmental change & business morality. I was really inspired by her activism, strong support for woman in business and her standing up for what she believed in. The Body Shop was doing really great work and giving back to communities all over the world. I really loved that and to this day support charities as much as I can; volunteer work has been a big part of my life since I worked for The Body Shop.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with?
I personally am not afraid to edit my life and those in it to ensure I have a support network that is uplifting and supportive around me, I think people cling on to all kinds of relationships out of fear. It’s healthy to let go of things that aren’t working in your life.
I surround myself with people from all different walks of life, age groups, race, religion and social standing - my network spreads all across Australia and the world. I guess this is why I am so accepting and open minded. The traits of the people I surround myself with are vast; they are strong, wise, compassionate, supportive, funny, joyful, and open minded individuals.
Work life balance; does it exist (I don’t think it does!) and how to maintain it, or a sense of it?
Eek! In my dreams yes, but realistically, currently, no. I'm just coming through the busy school holidays season and I feel like I've been working 24/7 with early starts and then working into the night responding to queries and messages & updating clients on their pets.
I do try really hard to keep some basic routine in my day as I know I suffer badly from the consequences, which is an aching body and severe anxiety. Yoga, meditation, the beach and a good vegan smoothie to start the day are not negotiable in my daily routine; I also have a pretty good awareness to not cling on to make something happen that I just don’t have time for no matter how much I want it to happen. Making space and saying “no” is important – but definitely something I still need to work on.
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers?
No, no no, not at all. When I decided a year ago that I was going to make this lifestyle a business, there was never any fear. I have had a lovely sense of peace and ease along the journey so far and know where I want to go with my business, I’ve grown it slowly and organically and adjusted along the way. It just feels right, so I know I am on the right path.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do?
People think I'm lying around the pool reading magazines with a dog at my feet, whereas the reality is I'm working some weeks almost 24/7. Once the practical side of petcare is done for the day, I'm then communicating with clients, updating with cute pics, I'm answering new business queries via phone call, text message, email, Instagram and Facebook, there's the social media updates, record keeping and I'm constantly scheduling like a mad woman to stay on top of it all.
A lot of people also wonder if I am homeless and have offered me a place to stay if I ever need one, which is very sweet. But I live a very normal life and have a room at my Mum's house where I leave my stuff and where I can “check out”when I want a break.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry?
Be prepared to offer your services to your friends and family for a few years to gain some experience. I spent a good many years house and pet sitting for friends on and off for free and this is how I gained experience and a reputation. Most of my jobs come through recommendations from friends and family.
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what?
I’m a huge believer in just jumping in and going for it. My Mum used to tell me I was like a bull at a gate. One of my favourite quotes that drives me and helped me take the “leap” into starting my business is “if you wait for perfect conditions nothing will ever get done”. It was very relevant in my situation as when I officially “launched” in October via a Facebook post, I had no idea the attention I was going to get and was overwhelmed with people contacting me left right and centre asking for price lists and all kinds of things I didn’t even have. I just gathered things as and when they came up. I like to think of my business as forever evolving, and there again is my motto of “going with the flow”. I wanted things to evolve naturally and it’s worked a treat - I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be?
She was a free spirited, determined individual, indifferent to the trappings of wealth, and she lived a life less ordinary!
I want to show people that change is not scary and it is possible to live a happy life without being tied down with possessions, rules, regulations and money. We have ideas of how life should be pushed onto us from a young age, but often it’s our clinging to that ideal that holds us back from living our dreams and our purpose!
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important?
Woman in this day and age are still the underdog, we are still forced to prove ourselves moreso than men are and having a support network of other woman is very empowering & encouraging! Go girls!
What are some of your favorite quotes?
The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them – The Alchemist
Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching – C.S Lewis
Your life is your story. Write well. Edit often – Susan Statham
When you move your focus from competition to contribution life becomes a celebration. Never try to defeat people, just win their hearts – Buddha
Authenticity is a collection of choices we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen – Brene Brown
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive – Howard Thurman
They keep saying that beautiful is something a girl needs to be. But honestly? Forget that. Don’t be beautiful. Be angry, be intelligent, be witty, be klutzy, be interesting, be funny, be adventurous, be crazy, be talented – there are an eternity of things to be other than beautiful. And what is beautiful anyway but a set of letters string together to make a word? Be your own definition of amazing, always. That is so much more important than anything beautiful, ever – Nikita Gill