How I Started An E-Commerce Business From New Zealand
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi I’m Emma from The Green Collective.
We create quality eco products to help you live more sustainably.
I started the business with a friend back in 2014. Six months of research, product testing and designing meant we had a product from the start that we were proud to stand behind.
We started with our "Goodie Bags" - Produce Bags and the response was immediate with it hitting the market just as the awareness of single use plastic was increasing in the media. This very good timing continued from 2015 as the range grew to what is now six complementary product lines.
Each item has its own sustainable story and environmental benefit challenging the way we look at single-use plastics and the quality of the reusable alternatives out there.
For the last 3 years, I have run the business on my own, apart from my various contractors and local businesses. It was an amicable decision with my business partner increasing the hours in her main employment.
I am also a trained Physiotherapist and run my own Pilates business on the side. It’s the perfect accompaniment to The Green Collective. There is more time behind a computer running a business than you ever imagine so to get out and practice Pilates is fantastic and I will never give it up! My body and mind love the balance.
The main two current products are our Goodie Bags, and our SPRUCE. A 100% plant based dishcloth, that is home compostable. The business has grown from appearing weekly at the local market to now having over 115 stockists and a healthy website. Turnover does fluctuate during the year as our products are often a green gift. Average sales approx $15,000 per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As a mother (three boys under 10) you are suddenly thrown into a world of consumables and your awareness levels go through the roof of everything from health, wellness and ideals.
New Zealand has a clean green image that you proudly uphold as a Kiwi traveling and working the world so to come home to live in 2007 was a starting point to dig deeper into what that means.
'Reduce, reuse and recycle' has always been one of my motto’s, then add 're-purpose, re-fresh and re-create' and you start to get a sense of how I see the world and it’s possibilities.
Often when we thought of products that were eco-friendly, the colours beige, or brown came to mind. We thought why can’t they be fun and yet still retaining a low ecological footprint? That was a starting point of combining design, colour and function.
We had a reusable bag from overseas traveling and there was nothing like it in New Zealand at the time. I have always sewed and thought it was an easy concept to look into further.
Researching the fabrics, cords, thread and packaging started and we stuck to our guns on high quality, industrial parts that could handle the frequent use and washing. This took a lot of trial and error to get it right, be happy with the sizes and test our prototypes. We had many bags hanging all over the house weighted by various things to test them!
Knowing clearly what we wanted to create, meant we recognized it when we had it. That’s when we introduced it to friends family and the local market.
You will have to get used to me jumping between ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘we’. It is me behind the scenes day to day but I have a helpful and supportive family, friends and absolutely love the collaborators, designers, sewers and community people I deal with day to day. It is therefore not just me who makes this business run.
I have always worked from the age of 13 when I did the local glass bottle milk run. I enjoy working, and I work hard. I have been told I have too much energy, but as an entrepreneur, I can’t see how that is a fault. I really enjoy all aspects of running the business from the design to accounts but of course, can quite easily procrastinate away time working on something else less important on the day like designing a new SPRUCE.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We made our first 1000 or so bags ourselves before we felt confident to look locally for some sewers to assist us. I was still sewing in the evenings to find enough time to get stock made up for the next market.
I was cutting the fabric at my parents’ house as they had a lot more space than where I was. Hand threading, cording, and packaging. Now, I continue to make custom orders, or trial designs and each bag is still checked, finished and packaged by me. These are still sewn / made in Nelson.
We have a fabulous local Saturday Market in town. Realizing there was nothing like them being sold there, we took the opportunity to sew some produce bags up and try to sell them. We sold out by mid-morning, and from that point, we knew it was worth coming back the following week and seeing where this business could go.
Quickly after that, a local supermarket took them on which helped us step into the world of wholesale and retailers. Our first sale on the website was so exciting. The ‘cha ching’ sound of the Shopify phone app is still such a buzz and much loved. Facebook is one of our biggest sites of referral and provider of new customers.
As I have added new products, I have a clear idea or vision in my mind and to date it has all worked out well with no wastage or errors. I follow the general rule of three quotes before signing, but stronger values of being sustainable, fair and craftsmanship can outway price everytime.
Organic cotton Loot Bags (for carrying your bulk goods, bread or fresh produce) were introduced to complement our Goodie Bag and are made in India by a small Fair Trade family business. They may not be Nelson-based but I really feel that we are supporting someone that matches our values which is important to us.
These bags are pesticide free, 100% organic, and made by staff who are looked after by their manager. All of our other products are designed or made in Nelson including some exciting collaborations with local designers and artists.
Our products are simple, minimal packaging and we use reusable items as much as possible. This is creative, helps reduce costs, adds interest and does ‘good’ all at the same time. I have found manufacturers and designers by word of mouth and by asking questions. Some people don’t like to share, however some do, and you can learn a lot and save time by learning from someone who has already done what you are about to start.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We chose Shopify. We were very fortunate to have Galen King in Nelson at the time who is a Shopify expert. He has been a much-valued mentor, particularly in the early beginnings of The Green Collective. Shopify has been a wonderful sales platform and I feel reasonably confident working within the setup and app options. The help and blogs have been incredibly helpful when needed.
The website setup was like paint-by-numbers, very self-explanatory and easy to modify. Help is always available when needed through the 24 hr chat feature.
Choosing which are the best apps or features to spend money on has been a challenge, and the mixed reviews have left me unsure of what to choose. This is an area I’m still working on to find the best matches for my store and customer base.
Finance was an initial $1500 in each and from then the sales have generated the revenue to move to the next product run or new product. I don’t pay myself a salary yet. This is in the plan for the next 12 months but with some huge orders coming up I have kept everything in to help keep it financed and healthy.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Keeping it personal has been key. Personal notes with orders, aiming to return all calls and emails within 24 hours has received great feedback. Creating conversations on different social media platforms has been advantageous and a fun way to show new products and ideas or tips too.
We regularly attend markets and find they are invaluable for connecting with customers. Face to face interaction and a chance to ask them questions, trial new products and get some constructive feedback.
Conversion rate sits at 3-4%. Top seller is our Goodie Bags & SPRUCE equal pegging. Approx 20% repeat customers. Most customers are in NZ, followed by Australia, United States and then Canada. We have doubled our sales in the last two years and hope to do the same for this following year. It’s looking good!
We are always impressed by how we keep a pretty even mix of new and returning customers. We like to reward our top returning customers with either discount codes or a little surprise product in their order, although we don’t feel that this is expected.
Orders are sent within 24 hours as much as possible in thoughtfully packaged sustainable and recyclable bags or boxes.
I’m currently working towards growing my subscribed followers and strengthening the sense of community. Also currently designing a new range of SPRUCE cloth designs alongside local artists.
Collaborations are great fun and a way to grow ** ** through shared marketing on their social media platforms. I can’t help but see opportunities around and possible product ideas to replace current common ones. We also donate a proportion to charity groups. Our SNAPPER SPRUCE design donates to Sustainable Coastlines, and a new design coming out soon to help save the world's coral. This will grow and it excites me.
The concept and design phase is a blast of creativity and it’s fun to see an idea come from a sketch to manufacturing. You’ll have to visit to see what’s next!
The business has grown very organically and with all the recent changes to social media we are having to keep our posting regular and in line with our core values. We are fortunate to have loyal followers who often return for more product, and the network of customers has grown through this. Blog posts and e-newsletters linked to our store are often found on google and they generate some visitors.
And of course tweaking our shipping options has made a big difference. Shipping is reasonably pricey in New Zealand and reducing our free shipping threshold has been a winning move. We do often post worldwide and our international shipping rates don’t seem to be a barrier for those wanting our products.
Fabulous support through print (free magazine and newspaper features) creates spikes in sales and our presence in more stockist s across online and retail stores is considered a key part of our marketing campaign. Many of our customers are ‘touchy feely’ and like to see what we are all about in person before purchasing.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
This years goals are to attend some big markets. Go Green Expo, Gift Fair and The General Collective Market. These require $ and travel but could spin great rewards. I have a new product close to completion, new SPRUCE designs with new designers on board close to printing and new display boxes and stands coming.
Things are going to look sharp!
Currently 80% sales are wholesale and I am keen to support that but also drive a little extra traffic towards the website.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Learning to deal with other brands arriving on the market. Seeing it in the positive for introducing more customers to eco products and knowing that our high quality will win in the end once people understand the value of purchasing reusables that are actually built to last, tested and locally made as much as possible (there are limits in New Zealand on what is made here without investing in huge setups costs).
I write a lot of lists. Yup, tried all the online options but I seem to be a stickler for pen and paper. I have multiple lists, lists of the lists, and notebooks and a wall planner. A good pen is also something that can totally set me day off on the right foot, as I write my daily hit list!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Currently using the Product Reviews app and like how it integrates automatically sends emails out and shows on the product pages.
GoSweetSpot links to my shipping labels to Post Haste Couriers, Mailchimp for emails and Tailwind for Pinterest.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Shopify blogs are invaluable and on point.
Local small business groups are in every town. Tap into those with similar goals and there is a lot to learn and share.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Just have a go! Work out what your competition is. Order from them and see how they ship, communicate and deliver. Ask lots of questions and when someone says ‘that has not been done before’, don’t stop. Be that first person. Someone has to be first!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
If you design and think you have an idea for a SPRUCE design - let me know.
If you write and have ideas for blog content - let me know.
Where can we go to learn more?
Our website is www.thegreencollective.co.nz/.
We’re also on social media, including Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Connect with me!
The Green Collective has provided an update on their business!
About 2 years ago, we followed up with The Green Collective to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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