Six regional small businesses share the hurdles they’ve had to jump over the past year.
WHEN POLLY MET MURPHY BALLARAT AND DAYLESFORD, VIC
We run boutique homewares and indoor plant stores in two beautiful regional towns. I opened our first store in Ballarat in July last year, and after our first six weeks of trading we were forced to close for six weeks due to COVID-19. After the build-up of opening the store and the high of welcoming customers, it was the emotional hit of not being able to be in my beloved space that hurt the most. Thankfully, we were financially set up to cope with not being able to trade for a period of time, but adjusting to not having the purpose in my days that the business offered was really hard. Thanks to Instagram, we were able to keep customers all around Australia up to date with what we were doing via regular posts, which established a lot of excitement about our ability to reopen. Since opening up again we’ve been loving using Square as our point-of-sale tool, because it works seamlessly at our counter while we’re busy explaining plant care or potting up plants for customers, plus the digital receipt function means we’re not wasting paper.
PIP BRETT, JUMBLED ORANGE, NSW
Jumbled is a colourful store jam-packed with fashion, homewares and art in a renovated old Masonic Hall. Everything I love is under one roof. During the worst part of COVID, we were closed for three months. It was such a scary experience because it was all so unknown. We were able to pivot and focus our business on online sales. It was a challenge, but it paid off, and now our challenge is to turn all those first-time buyers into regular shoppers. We tried to make the experience of our online store as immersive as real life, which meant taking photos of the garments on different staff members so people saw how they hung on real bodies, and including more information in our descriptions (like fit, measurements and styling advice). We chose to use the same language we would use in store to make people feel comfortable. In the early days, it was hard to convince brands to be stocked in a regional store, because they didn't think there was an appetite for it out here. We've been able to prove them wrong – regional stores are really thriving!
JO DOYLE, ALLUVIA FINANCIAL BENDIGO, VIC
I run a bookkeeping and business advisory firm that supports small businesses to manage (and nail!) their finances. We use Xero and other best-in-market apps to ensure the processes run smoothly. After advising clients on how they can set their business up to suit their lifestyle goals, I looked internally and realised there was work to be done in my own business. I was working too many hours and sacrificing spending time with my family and friends. I was stressed. I remember a weekend in May last year when my family came to visit, and instead of spending time with them, I worked all weekend. I had so much to do in preparation for the end of financial year and not enough time or resources to do it. During that time, I made a conscious decision to never put myself in that position again. So I worked hard to streamline our processes, adding efficiency apps and recruiting talented colleagues. A particular challenge of working in a regional city is that it can be tough to find skilled staff with the experience we need. Sometimes when we put job ads out the options are a little scarce.
SUE HEWARD, SINGING MAGPIE PRODUCE
We grow and produce sun-dried fruit such as figs and quinces in our family orchard. A real issue for small producers in rural areas is transport. I have providores interested in our products, but transport can be very cost-prohibitive. To cut down on this cost, I also work with distributors to supply artisan businesses in Victoria and New South Wales. I find juggling a small business and a young family while doing everything myself rather difficult, so putting accounting programs like Xero in place is absolutely vital. Adding to all this, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2020. It’s not something you plan to deal with in your life, but as a small business owner, the reality is that there’s no paid sick leave like a salaried job, and living in a rural area meant I had to travel weekly to Adelaide (a six-hour round trip) to have treatment. This disease has shown me I could never do it all (even when I didn’t have cancer) and I needed to put other strategies in place: hire more staff, change the way we sell online and become comfortable selling out of products.
ANGELA AND LOUISE PANNELL, WOODEND GENERAL
Woodend General is a carefully curated lifestyle store that stocks ethical and sustainable options for your home, garden and family. After living in Woodend for a couple of years, I could see a gap in the town’s current offering. We’d planned to open our store in March 2020, the week that everything was getting shut down around the country due to COVID-19. Being told we couldn't open after months of planning and having everything ready to go was pretty stressful! The good thing was that it gave us the time and motivation to get our online store up and running from the get-go. We worked tirelessly to get all our products online and we launched with a click-andcollect offering. It was actually a good way to open: we got to have a soft launch and iron out any issues before opening our physical doors a month or so later. While we are regional, we’re also a tourist town, and benefit from being an hour or so from Melbourne and Bendigo, with lots of visitors flocking in on days off. We’ve established a loyal local following, but we’ve certainly felt the impact of Melbourne’s lockdowns.
TRISH AND ANDREW DAVIDSON, MOONTIDE DISTILLERY
Moontide Distillery is a microdistillery focused on small-batch spirits, which we produce and sell at our purpose-built distillery and cellar door. We love Broome because it’s different and vibrant. Sometimes being regional means communication is difficult – we need to stand on our verandah to make a call as the mobile network doesn’t work inside our house. However, technology allows us to monitor our still from our iphone – a bonus when you work in a remote area. It also means it can be tracked by the still producer in The Netherlands! When the internet is working, we can hold online meetings with distillers and suppliers across the globe. We scrapped our business plan when we opened in July last year to deal with the changing environment of lockdowns and travel restrictions. Broome received an unexpected benefit because West Australians were unable to travel outside the state. Thankfully, they headed north! We work with uncertainties: the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, cyclones, climate change, staffing and lack of accommodation. We just adapt the best way we can and get on with it.