Many Kiwi companies are realising the huge benefits to be gained by e-commerce, especially given our geographical distance from markets. However not everyone is maximising the potential to sell online globally, as Sophie Howard found out when she ventured into the world of Amazon and made $1.5 million in sales in her first 18 months.
When I spoke to Sophie she was literally mid-move with her family on the road to Wanaka from Wellington, having bought a house in their dream location. This was made possible by the successful sale of her very first Amazon store, which sold New Zealand wool products that were exported to the United States and Europe.
Sophie got into e-commerce after having her second child. She had a choice to make: either go back to her day job and employ a nanny, or start her own business. After taking an Amazon course, developing her own unique approach, and drawing on her background in working with start-ups, within a year she had built up a high-value business.
“I had just done my tax returns in April and thought ‘I wonder what my friend Jock the broker in LA would say this is worth’. So I contacted him and he found me a US seven figure offer the next day! From there it was all amazingly straightforward overall.”
Sophie’s husband has now also quit his day job running the business improvement team at Sport New Zealand, and has joined her in running Aspiring Entrepreneurs and sellglobal.co.nz – which she co-founded with business partner Hamish Conway. She also has two Amazon stores – one selling organic loose leaf tea called Higher Tea, and the other selling incontinence products.
“I came up with the idea for selling incontinence products after hearing Bernard Hickey talk about how in Japan they sell more adult diapers than baby diapers. Mine have a point of difference in that they are black instead of white, have higher absorbency and charcoal in them to take away the odour. All very glamorous!” laughs Sophie.
Sophie has a team all around the world – two in Canada, one in the United States, a Kiwi who’s on his OE based in the Philippines and a friend at Massey University. They take care of customer service, Amazon shipments, inventory orders, stock-taking, tech support, pricing and supplier research, and design.
“Design has been really important, especially with the tea” explains Sophie. “The packaging of the tea is what’s got the tea noticed. Because you’re selling it online, customers can’t smell it or taste it – all you’ve got is something to look at. So I’ve spent a lot of money on branding related things and not a lot on much else!
“Everyone who works for me is on a remote, freelancing arrangement, so I don’t really have any overheads. Lots of New Zealand companies pay quite a lot for the services I outsource. It’s not perfect but it allows me to go fast. If you focus on everything being perfect, you might not ever get anything done! Outsourcing everything has been quite liberating and has allowed me to just focus on new products.”
Sophie believes that if you want to be a profitable exporter, it pays to minimise office costs. “For example, so many companies pay someone to sit as a front desk not doing much, whereas you could move the whole thing virtual, back office. It’s nice to be able to work anywhere you are in the world with your laptop and know that everything still happens.
“My plan now is to keep life simple,” says Sophie. This includes focusing on their Sell Global business, imparting the knowledge and experience gained from selling on Amazon over the last few years to other Kiwi businesses. “My husband will be working on the NZ client side, scaling up our operations to support Kiwi exporters.
“A lot of New Zealand companies have got products that would sell well in the markets we’ve got to know, so we’re keen to help them. Our team basically treat clients’ products as if they’re our own – we write their listings and manage all of their day-to-day accounts. We’ve already got clients pulling in US$40k a month just on Amazon within their third or fourth month. It’s such a cheap experiment, compared to setting up a sales team, distributors and sending people overseas. You know within the first 6 months if it’s going to work or not.
“In the next year we’ll be building our team, and getting out there telling Kiwi exporters more about the joys of selling online.”
Catherine Beard is Executive Director of ExportNZ, which serves its members via regional offices throughout the country. To find your nearest office go to www.exportnz.org.nz