Sisters Sarah Gamble and Jayne Foster have utilised the tools of online commerce to take their modernised noticeboards to the world.
By Kevin Kevany.
Their desire to help each other as siblings – and later, help other families – and keep on top of their busy lives, has seen Sarah Gamble and Jayne Foster create a highly-successful online business.
Run largely from homes in Wellington and Christchurch (it has an office too), the business, Chart Noticeboards, gives them the flexibility to work around their youngsters’ schedules, pick-ups, and being parent-help at school.
While both are alumni of Otago University – Jayne trained as a lawyer and Sarah has a BA (Geography) – they had little training or immediate background to base their business prowess around. So they engaged the tools of modern commerce: Skyping daily and using web-services like Dropbox, Shopify, Mailchimp and Xero.
And just to make their challenge a little tougher; they’ve built a business around an outdated concept of noticeboards, using colour and design to schedule – and revitalise – time-deprived home and business lives.
“What truly drove us to succeed was our own need,” says Sarah. “We have five children between us, from three to 14. The phrase, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ springs to mind.
“Being parents, we both tend to be good at multi-tasking and we’ve realised this, more than anything, is a critical skill when running a small business.
“We are both generalists and tend to do a bit of everything, but it’s great because we are learning all aspects of the business together. Our complementary skills help too,” says Sarah.
“You can guarantee there will be hurdles in any start-up. You need to be a problem-solver and be persistent.”
Chart products provide an original way to display information, so they have a purpose and function, as well as look good. The business started quite organically. Initially, Sarah painted boards ‘to order’, in her spare time, in the garage. She drafted some different designs and had an engineer make up a metal jig, “so I could get lines straight”.
“Initially I looked for a home organiser to display our family’s weekly schedule, but failed, and so I decided to make it myself. I sourced some Perspex and painted five colours into a striped pattern on the back of the board, so I could write on the front with whiteboard markers. I hung it in our kitchen and many friends and visitors commented on it and asked me to make boards for them.”
With orders rolling in they realised hand-painting the boards, in the garage, wasn’t viable in the long-term or scalable. They “needed to get serious” and create a sustainable manufacturing process.
“It was a total leap into the unknown and involved testing printing processes and logistics. It was one of our biggest challenges; how to scale the business so early on.
There were many challenges with production. Undeterred, Sarah bought the URL address for Australasia, plus the ‘.com’. Next came a Shopify account and their online store was in business.
“For a SME like ours, the Shopify service is excellent. I had quotes to set up a website, from $5,000 to $15,000, but we managed it ourselves and it looks professional.
“There is a massive benefit in being able to alter your own website. We make timely changes virtually every day, at no cost. It also manages our orders, payment gateway, basic inventory, and our customer database. Both Jayne and I can see what’s going on with the business in real-time from our different locations.”
Why did they opt for local production instead of offshoring that aspect of the business?
“Our decision to print locally was driven by several factors,” explains Sarah. “As a SME we needed to maintain efficiencies, so our business model was to print-to-order. Logistics and shipping costs played a part too.
“We enjoy the fact that we support local manufacturers. Our prices reflect the decision to stay local, but we make sure our customers know they are supporting New Zealand businesses when they buy from us.
“Shipping has also been a huge learning-curve. Couriers are integral to our customer-service and we couldn’t survive without them. Once the product is dispatched, an element of our customer-service is out of our control. We’ve learned to package our products very carefully and adapted our packaging to make sure products arrive safely.
“Chart Noticeboards only sells online at the moment. We are looking at new ways to introduce our product to companies and individuals, but always with the intention of pointing everyone to the website, the shop-front of our business.”
So has it all been plain sailing?
“From time to time you doubt yourself and think ‘will anyone actually like these boards, are they using them?’ Then we get feedback from a customer, plus a photo of their board covered in their weekly schedule, and tell us how much they love it,” says Sarah. “Immediately you feel reassured as a business-owner; you’re producing something that’s definitely worth believing in.
“As well as faith and confidence in the product and yourselves, you have to get your head down and work hard to make it happen, and not be phased by the odd setback. You can guarantee there will be hurdles in any start-up. You need to be a problem-solver and be persistent.”
As for marketing, Sarah says most of their business to-date has been by word-of-mouth, which suited the gradual evolution of their production processes. The first real boost to sales came with the appearance of the boards on Mitre 10 Dream Homes.
“Early on when the business didn’t have a marketing budget we used whatever tools we had; especially social media, to gain more exposure. Once my daughters and I grabbed a Union Jack board off the wall, to hold during the Royal walkabout, and Prince William took us by surprise and asked if he could take it home,” says Sarah.
“A friend captured the sequence on video and we posted it to YouTube. It gave us a further boost in sales.
“When you are selling a product online, and using social media to market it, you absolutely have to think globally,” says Sarah. “Chart Noticeboards has followers from all over the world on our Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Houzz accounts.”
They have already had numerous requests from Australia, England and the US. “So we know there is a market for our products elsewhere. That’s our next challenge.”