In 2018 there is strong optimism growing within West Coast business circles – driven by digital technology, focused leadership, and recent initiatives such as the popular #BoostYourTown workshops. NZBusiness flew to Westport to investigate.
You may think the West Coast of the South Island is the last place in New Zealand that would undergo a genuine technology-led business revival – after all, the news headlines around the region’s job losses and economic restructuring in recent years have painted a picture of doom and gloom.
But you’d be wrong, and I’ve seen the evidence – innovative businesses demonstrating their online marketing skills and mining social media technologies to connect with customers worldwide and grow sales.
I’ll be honest, I was sceptical before leaving Auckland. But what a difference 24 little hours can make!
The positive impressions began as early as the Sounds Air service from Wellington – I’m referring to the spectacular views of the snow-capped Southern Alps.
They continued with a mini-tour of some of Westport’s most surprising innovative companies; through conversations with local business development officials; and through time spent at the town’s very welcoming EPIC Westport innovation hub.
The good vibrations culminated in the excellent #BoostYourTown workshop at the hub in the evening – powered by Facebook, supported by Development West Coast (DWC) and delivered by Steve Adams, the entrepreneur behind New Zealand-based digital platform AboutUs.
Such was the turnout it was standing room only.
Since May, Adams has conducted #BoostYourTown workshops in 13 towns across five regional provinces identified in the government’s Provincial Growth Fund, delivering social marketing training and advice to around 800 businesses – with the goal of building new connections and reaching new customers. Following hot on the heels of Hokitika and Greymouth, the Westport workshop was the series finale.
In Westport, and throughout the region, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are vital for achieving business growth. The workshops were aimed at sharpening the digital skills of small business owners on both platforms.
Having completed all 13 Facebook workshops Adams says he’s been impressed by how business communities around regional New Zealand are far more receptive to building their online presence than they were three years ago when he first started collaborating with Councils. “Almost every hand went up when I asked groups who has a Facebook page; so there is a real hunger for knowledge on how to build presence,” he says, and particularly by women, who made up around 80 percent of workshop attendees.
“And when we asked attendees if they wanted us to come back for more workshops, 100 percent said yes. So the future is looking bright!”
Adams was a popular person after each workshop, helping business owners create Instagram business accounts on their phones. But his favourite moment came in Westport when a Facebook group was created on the night by local businesses to help them share each other’s Facebook page details and connect with each other.
“Within days that group had more than 50 businesses signed up and it is now a thriving, growing support channel,” he says.
Adams was not surprised by the turnout and the level of engagement with digital technology on the West Coast. His theory is that the story of the region has always been about pioneers leveraging the latest technology in order to build a life there,
“from the sawmilling days through the mining years and now with digital tools”.
“West Coasters are isolated so they have to be creative and innovative about how they operate, and we saw that in the almost 300 businesses that attended the #BoostYourTown workshops.”
He was especially grateful to DWC for its work in promoting the events and getting word out on the street.
“That’s real community leadership in action.”
DWC chief executive Chris Mackenzie and project administrator Aaron Rees took NZBusiness on a whistle-stop tour of digital businesses – starting with Nuzzle Baby’s Tessa Lindsay, who has been marketing her home-sewn and hand-painted organic toys for babies since 2015 purely using Facebook, Instagram and her website – although nowadays most business is conducted through email and nuzzlebaby.co.nz.
Originally from Queenstown, Lindsay and her plumber husband moved north for a change of scenery six years ago. A trained childcare teacher, Lindsay’s self-taught on website development, understands the basics of search engine optimisation, and has signed up to Google Analytics.
The mother-of-three sees no disadvantages in being on the Coast – quite the opposite.
“There are a lot of online businesses here so we can network [face-to-face] or just open up a group chat on Facebook.”
She’s often faced with early starts or late nights to meet sales demand – but expects that will ease when she employs a local sewer. She’s also adamant that small businesses need to be visible online so customers can find them, and Facebook makes an excellent first step.
Another example of how business-friendly the West Coast has become thanks to online technology is Daimon Schwalger’s Nomad Audio and Video. In his well-equipped studio, the celebrated DJ, musician and producer explained how he has also worked on large-scale multimedia video projection projects (aka video mapping) and TVCs, but made the transition to high-quality professional video and audio production after having “the crazy idea” of moving to Westport in 2016. However, he hasn’t given away his musical career entirely, and still performs as ‘The Nomad’ four times a year around the country.
Schwalger and his fiancé love the stress-free Coast lifestyle. He also loves the fact that he has minimal local business competition, and the cost of living is relatively cheap.
Through his website, Facebook and word of mouth Schwalger accesses client from all over New Zealand and the world.
“It’s taken two years, but we’re now at a point where business is booming.”
He’s versatile – promoting local shows, videoing local businesses, covering events such as the Buller Marathon and Hokitika Wild Foods Festival, all which totally suit his drone camera – and he’s busy, so busy that he’s looking for someone to do his prep-editing.
A self-confessed perfectionist and workaholic, Schwalger also has advice for businesses utilising Facebook. “Be consistent with it, and always check your grammar and photo quality,” he says. “Consider the use of video banners, get involved with tagging businesses and organisations, sponsored posts, and run competitions.”
Our next stop was a restored railway shed, home to desktop CNC machine manufacturer Vertigo Technologies. It’s owner Brett Cottle – ex-truck driver, sound and lighting producer and mechatronics engineering student – showed me around his spotless operation, which is based on lean manufacturing processes.
The business was set up originally to manufacture drones, but his quest to find a suitable desktop CNC machine to manufacture them revealed a gap in the market for the latter product. It made sense to pivot the business.
Cottle was originally keen to set up in Christchurch, but a ‘meet and greet’ held for the opening of the EPIC Westport business hub, and a chat with its co-founder Ben Dellaca convinced him to stay in Westport and be the hub’s first tenant.
To initially fund the business, Cottle remembers driving trucks from 5am to 6pm, then working at EPIC until midnight.
Vertigo sold its first CNC machine in June 2016, and after a number of refinements and redesigns, they are currently selling up to 16 machines per month. Again, the bulk of sales and enquiries are generated online – through their Facebook page and website.
Raising capital and securing skilled staff have been challenges, admits Cottle, but there has been more interest in West Coast businesses lately from angel investors.
Vertigo’s strength lies in its agility and ability to solve any customer issues. He attributes their online marketing success to the creation of user groups. “Creating an active forum in a public zone where people can voice their likes and dislikes.” It ultimately leads to customers doing your marketing for you, he says.
“Look after your user group and they’ll get passionate about your product.”
Overseas sales interest has come from Australia and Vertigo is in the process of appointing a reseller in Canada, while seeking funding to “pre-emptively scale up” the business.
Cottle says if the CNC market slowed for any reason, his company is agile enough to pivot to new products before there’s any squeeze on cashflow.
He’s particularly excited about the desktop or IoT (Internet of Things) market.
“We have this ingrained mindset that we can do anything!”
That ‘can-do’ attitude pervades right through the new generation of digital-savvy entrepreneurs NZBusiness met on the West Coast. It’s certainly evident at EPIC Westport, which is located a just a couple of doors along from the iconic
Emily Miazga has ‘can-do’ in spades – which is why the self-confessed “mountain girl” won the unforgiving 242-kilometre Coast to Coast endurance race three times before retiring
The expat Canadian and former clinical dietitian is now the ‘Powergirl’ behind Em’s Power Cookies and a tenant at EPIC. She produces hand-crafted energy snacks for the New Zealand and Australian markets, inspired by the cookies she made as a kid, and describes the innovation hub as inspiring and motivational – “a place where you get a lot more done”.
Miazga identifies strongly with Pic Picot, from Pic’s Peanut Butter in Nelson – a man who built a brand around his passion and personality – a style she emulates nicely with her infectious, outgoing personality and racy Powergirl outfit “which my husband thinks I should stop wearing!”
Miazga often gets asked why she chose Westport as her business base in 2006. “We originally came here for the lifestyle, the sheer beauty of the Buller, and my endurance training.”
While it might make sense to be based closer to the main markets, Miazga says that’s not going to happen, because she and her husband made the conscious decision to stay out of the ‘rat race’.
EPIC has proved to be the conduit for local business support, Miazga explains. Advice on social media marketing through the support network has proved invaluable.
“On the Coast we have to think outside the box, to support each other and refer custom to each other’s businesses – sometimes even if they’re a competitor.” A competitor can build a market niche for you, Miazga explains, where there’s room for everyone.
Similarly in her endurance racing days, she wanted to win but she also wanted her competitors to do well. “Because then if I beat them it makes victory that much sweeter, and the event much stronger.”
Other tenants in EPIC Westport’s co-working space are further proof that the West Coast is still about leveraging cutting edge technologies just, as Steve Adams pointed out, like it was many decades ago in its sawmilling and coal-mining heydays.
Jeremy Cadillac’s Lootwinner produces content for the global real money gambling market.
Ben Dellaca is co-owner of Lootwinner and his Cerebral Fix company provides software for games to global entertainment companies such as Disney.
Ben and Tash Dellaca also set up EPIC Westport in 2016, which is modelled on EPIC Christchurch. The building, owned by Ben’s uncle Richard and run by his father, was once part of the family’s Postie Plus clothing empire which originated in Westport.
The Dellacas are proud of the results coming out of the well-designed co-working facility, and they know it fires up other businesses.
Tash says when they first opened the hub there wasn’t a culture of innovation in the community, but with the gains they’ve made more recently there has been a shift to a more commercial focus; to cementing relationships and building value.
“We’ve been floored by how open people are to what we’re doing here,” adds Ben. “Everyone’s so supportive, and that’s across a stratosphere of demographics.”
Ben has a passion for blockchain – EPIC Westport is hosting New Zealand’s NEM Blockchain Hub (NEM is a high-performing plug and play blockchain platform) – and with CerebralFix at the forefront of gaming, there’s been liaison with local education providers. A support partnership’s been established with highly popular coding and robotics clubs at Westport High School.
“The robotics club is now the biggest on campus,” reports Tash. “Four of the students are going to Mexico to represent New Zealand, and that’s exciting.”
Both Ben and Tash agree that it’s difficult for people to shake off the long-standing stigma associated with the West Coast – but they’re excited by the region’s upgrade “in terms of its narrative and brand appeal” – forget dusty coal-towns off the beaten path. Now read ‘Untamed Natural Wilderness’ – and thanks to the many digital business initiatives, it’s becoming an epi-centre for innovation.
“Talent attraction is directly linked to this transformation,” says Ben. He believes bright kids graduating from the likes of Auckland University can now be really excited by the prospect of relocating to Westport for the opportunity of working “on some really amazing blockchain technology”, or in the gaming space perhaps.
“That’s just not something that was realistic two years ago. And attracting talent internationally here is even easier.”
Ben jokingly confesses that the size and scope of his vision for EPIC Westport and the region may have landed him in the ‘crazy madman’ category for many people; nevertheless he sees a big future going forward. “I see no reason why we can’t have a vibrant, healthy eco-system of new technology-based businesses tight here on the Coast that are solving real problems for rural New Zealand, as part of a programme to export that excellence globally, and solve the world’s problems.
“On the 25-year horizon I don’t see why we can’t generate 1000, 2000 or 3000 jobs doing this kind of thing.”