Comment: ‘Down under – and on the way up’

Jennifer Boggiss, the CEO and co-founder of Heilala Vanilla, discusses how agile small businesses will be the ones that prosper in the long term.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s not the big brands that will lead the charge in post-Covid-19 economic recovery. While restrictions throughout the pandemic have delivered a heavy blow to them, small businesses are the ones that have stepped up the most over the past several months to provide critical services and support. And it’s small businesses who have fostered a sense of resilience, community and camaraderie often much more than their industry-leading competitors.

In New Zealand, this feels especially true. Business owners have used the restrictions to pivot into areas they hadn’t before – either because they had never needed to or because they’d never thought to. It has resulted in thinking up brave new ways to innovate, proving that the country is very much open for global business.

There are far too many businesses to call out, so I’ll name just three. Chia Sisters pivoted from its line of nourishing health drinks to launching its food hamper, Little Box of Sunshine, in collaboration with its favourite food and drink brands from its South Island home of Nelson. Olympian-founded Les Mills pivoted to free virtual workouts that took fitness classes from the gym into the lounge. Waikato beer brewery Good George produced hand sanitiser from the very same distillery that it had previously used to make spirits, without stopping its product innovation stride and releasing two new flavours right in the middle of lockdown.

My own vanilla bean company has also shown resilience. When Covid-19 began to take its toll around the globe, our farmers in Tonga were at high risk. Hand sanitiser had become a scarce commodity and we realised that our best-selling vanilla extract actually had some properties in common with sanitiser (ethanol, glycerine). So we immediately got to work and sent three shipments of the resulting sweet-smelling sanitiser to the main islands in Tonga, for both our vanilla-growing communities and the local hospitals.

After we posted about the initiative on socials, we received an overwhelming influx of consumer requests for the product. Within 24 hours, we were selling it online and seeing a huge influx of new customers visiting our website, and 35% of the sanitiser sales also resulted in the purchase of additional vanilla products within the same order. We went on to launch a line of hand wash, dishwash and surface spray, all incorporating our signature vanilla bean scent. We also launched a skincare line drawing on the anti-ageing properties of vanilla, something we had been investigating behind the scenes for several years but somehow hadn’t ever quite got around to.

All of which shows that, in an uncertain time that has prized quick innovation and pivoting, the small business owners that took the initiative and forced themselves to think on their feet are the ones who have come out the other side. As we look to an equally uncertain future, we’re aligning ourselves with the entrepreneurs who have left no stone unturned in using innovations adopted during the pandemic to drive revenue and generate new opportunities as the economy recovers. New Zealand has plenty of these businesses – thankfully, we’re not the only ones.

This article was first published in Courier issue 39, February/March 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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