NZ’s SOSbusiness: 5 steps to e-commerce success

The initiative helping small businesses during the COVID-19 lockdown shows how to quickly set up an online sales operation.

New Zealand currency focusing on the 10 dollar note [NZ, money, currency]
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The initiative, which was created on the eve of New Zealand’s national COVID-19 lockdown to support small businesses, is on the verge of changing hands. When it does it will have completed the final step in a successful e-commerce venture—from conception to exit—in less than three months. For other New Zealand businesses, it shows how to quickly adopt e-commerce technology.

Lessons learned: 5 steps to fast e-commerce adoption

Given the New Zealand government has set up a $10 million fund to encourage small businesses into e-commerce, is a useful case study on how to create a valuable e-commerce site. Here are its five steps to success.

  1. Use existing tools. was created by its founder David Downs in an afternoon, originally on the platform Squarespace before moving to Shopify. Downs later found out about the New Zealand-owned e-commerce platform Storbie. The tools exist and they are relatively easy to use for businesses that want to get started and iterate along the way. Downs began with an ‘MVP’ (minimum viable product) approach that evolved over time.
  2. Go out to your network. Downs realised almost straight away that he didn’t have all the answers and skills, so he sought out people he knew who could help him. Within just a few days of operation, Downs was fielding questions about security and privacy, such as the potential for fraud (people posing as vendors to get the vouchers) and compliance with anti-money-laundering laws. He called a lawyer friend for advice, then revamped the terms and conditions. He also found volunteers to help him vet each vendor that wanted to participate, which often meant having to validate unusual email addresses. Throughout the entire three months, they didn’t find any examples of fraud.
  3. Push message through social media and PR. The initiative has been covered in most mainstream media outlets—including TV and radio. Downs says one of his volunteers was skilled in using social media to get the message out to vendors and customers. This was no doubt complemented by his own skills as a writer and speaker. While Downs has a public profile, what stirred interest is that he told a compelling story—which is the key to generating media and social media engagement.
  4. Adapt to changing circumstances quickly. Unexpectedly the model changed from selling vouchers to customers to selling vouchers to large companies wanting to reward their staff and suppliers—corporate organisations approached Downs wanting to buy vouchers as a way of rewarding staff and suppliers, while at the same time supporting their local communities. The business was nimble enough to pivot to a new revenue stream, while at the same time continuing to serve its primary purpose: helping local stores and cafés.
  5. Prepare for a successful exit. A successful exit is part of the small business life cycle. In this case, Downs wants to see continue as a sustainable initiative, as long as it has value to the people who use it. Exiting the business will also let him focus on his day job as general manager for projects at NZ Trade and Enterprise.

The inspiration that led to, and what’s next

Downs created the site on the Shopify platform on 23 March, the day Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand was going into full lockdown. The premise was that people could buy vouchers to their local café or buy services such as from their hairdresser, which could be redeemed post-lockdown. Its success prompted enquiries from Australia, UK and Latvia, with similar sites emerging in those countries, such as in the UK.

david downs David Downs

David Downs, founder of

To date, has sold more than $1.8 million vouchers to 2,500 businesses around New Zealand. Along the way, it has attracted sponsorship from Mercury Energy and Kiwibank to fund its operation, although most of the work is done by about 20 volunteers whose skills range from legal to social media marketing.

Downs is now looking to transfer the site to commercial interests in order for it to become sustainable for the long term. He wants the new owners to ensure participating vendors—local shops and cafés—will continue to participate free of charge. He says transforming from a voluntary initiative to a commercial business model can potentially be done by charging corporates that bulk-buy vouchers

He’d also like to recover costs and reward those volunteers who have helped him with the project. “If we end up with any leftover money, we’re going to throw a huge party for everyone involved, including the vendors [shops and cafés],” he says.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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