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Unusual ways these 4 Aussie entrepreneurs made their millions

The New Investors video series brought to you by Yahoo Finance reveals the secrets of the most successful entrepreneurs and business people in Australia today.

In the fast-moving digital era, there’s no such thing as a ‘textbook’ method to money-making anymore.

Before million-dollar businesses were million-dollar businesses, they were once just ideas, hobbies, or even just a broken surfboard.

Photos of Australian entrepreneurs Samantha Wills, Andrew Maloney, Gretta van Riel, Hayden Cox.
Australian entrepreneurs Samantha Wills, Andrew Maloney, Gretta van Riel, Hayden Cox. (Photo: Yahoo Finance/Hayden Shapes/Supplied)

And while they’re trailblazers of their respective industries now, four entrepreneurs on our New Investors series each shared the wild idea they had that turned into an empire:

Gretta van Riel: Using Instagram as a sales platform

These days, you wouldn’t even dream of launching an online business without also setting up social media profiles for it.

But there was a time when social media was not yet a core part of every business’ advertising strategy.

One of the first to lead the charge with a business social media profile was Gretta van Riel, founder of detox tea SkinnyMe Tea.

In 2012 – when Instagram was still finding its feet – van Riel had set up a profile for her business on the image-based social media platform.

By the end of the year, the tea label had amassed 200,000 followers.

“I think Nike had about 10,000 followers at the end of 2012,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“So we… pioneered that Instagram presence for some brands and that’s where I started growing my following from.”

A photo of SkinnyMe Tea founder Gretta van Riel in the studio of Yahoo Finance as she reveals her business journey.
Gretta van Riel in the Yahoo studio. (Photo: Yahoo Finance)

Taking lessons learnt from the blossoming online business, van Riel moved onto other ventures, setting up The 5th – a watch company that only goes on sale on the fifth day of the month for five days – that racked up over $100,000 in sales on the first day.

On 5 December 2015, the watch venture turned over a whopping $1 million in sales in a single day.

And the savvy know-how has now seen van Riel become a sought-after expert: she now teaches other entrepreneurs and businesspeople how to market their products by using social media and influencers through her current venture Hey Influencers.

WATCH: The full episode of Gretta van Riel on the New Investors series

Andrew Maloney: Solving students’ money problems and Student Super founder Andrew Maloney’s journey as an entrepreneur began as a 19 year old uni student when he found himself struggling to pay off an expensive loan for a computer.

The banks were offering a deferred loan where you would pay nothing for three years, at which point the banks would begin chasing you, he explained to Yahoo Finance.

But there had to be a better way to pay this off. “I thought: the simple solution would be to have a weekly payment loan,” he said.

As luck would have it, he knew a friend of a friend that was the head of retail banking at Commonwealth Bank at the time, who he met to pitch this idea.

As bad luck would have it, three days before the meeting Maloney got into a motorcycle accident that tore up the entire left side of his suit.

But instead of borrowing a friend’s suit, he patched up his own with gaffer tape and walked into the meeting. He came out with $3 million to get his computer financing program idea started.

And that’s been at the heart of his roaring success ever since: seeing a problem and fixing it.

A year and a half after Maloney proved he was a pro at marketing the computer finance program, CBA asked him – then only a 20 year old entrepreneur – to do marketing for the entire bank across all the university campuses.

Thirty years on and it’s a relationship he still has – you’ll still catch him flitting around Sydney’s top university campuses and mixing with the students.

And he didn’t stop there.

His next venture was Student VIP - to help students swap textbooks they would never use again.

Meanwhile, after seeing that accommodation was becoming a major problem for students dealing with rising rental prices, he decided to kick it up a notch on what is now perhaps his most well-known venture:, which he co-founded back 1990.

He sold it 26 years later to REA Group for a whopping $32 million.

And in true entrepreneur spirit, Maloney’s drive to solve students’ problems hasn’t gone anywhere: Maloney’s current project is Student Super, which aims to help students side-step high fees charged by other super funds.

WATCH: The full episode of Andrew Maloney on the New Investors series

Samantha Wills: Making jewellery on her kitchen table

Before Samatha Wills was at the helm of a global jewellery empire, she was just an 11-year old girl from Port Macquarie who had gone to beading classes at the behest of her mother.

She moved to Sydney as a 20-year old and was stockpiling hand-made jewellery at home until friends suggested she set up a stall at Bondi Markets.

But she didn’t think it’d get anywhere.

“I was like, ‘No one's going to pay any money for something that I've made on my dining room table’,” Wills told Yahoo Finance.

A picture of Samantha Wills. (Photo: Supplied)
A picture of Samantha Wills. (Photo: Supplied)

But a friend invited her to a spot in his show room at Australian Fashion Week that would set her back $500.

With $509 in the bank, she took up the opportunity hoping to make just one order, but found herself heading home after the four-day trade show with $17,000.

It was enough impetus to quit her job as a retail assistant and commit to being a jewellery designer, which 15 years later would see her at the helm of a global jewellery business producing pieces that would feature in the second The Sex and the City movie and worn by the likes of Eva Mendes, Taylor Swift and Pink.

WATCH: The full episode of Samantha Wills on the New Investors series

Hayden Cox: Breaking his surfboard

Like Maloney, surfboard label Haydenshapes founder Hayden Cox began the building blocks to what would become an international surfboard business as a 15 year old when he broke his surfboard.

“I was on my summer holidays, I had my board and I broke it,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“And I didn't really have that much money, so I was like, Well, what's going to be the cheapest way to get a new board?’ And that was to build one myself.”

Combined with a love for design and technology, Cox created a surfboard using new technology he developed that made for a more flexible board that bounced back to its original shape more quickly.

He learnt some tough lessons along the way about patenting, but the uniqueness of his designs saw him create surfboards for world champion surfer Tom Carroll, who became the guinea pig for Cox’s new technology.

“We went out and surfed at the Newport Peak on the northern beaches. And his first experience, first wave, was like, ‘Wow, there's something special here’.”

But Cox knew the success of his product would hinge entirely upon the experience the rider would have with the board.

It’s his dedication to the experience that has seen him push through the edge of bankruptcy and the day-to-day business struggles with cash-flow and HR issues.

Now, Cox’ boards are sold in more than 70 countries; he’s won Surfboard of the Year twice in a row; and he can say the likes of the Beastie Boys, the Hemsworths as well as numerous prominent surfers enjoy riding Haydenshapes boards.

It’s an empire borne from the passion of a 15 year old with a broken board.

WATCH: The full episode of Hayden Cox on the New Investors series

The New Investors video series brought to you by Yahoo Finance reveals the secrets of the most successful entrepreneurs and business people in Australia today.