This year, Vogue Codes shines the spotlight on rural and regional entrepreneurs building community, and creating opportunity for others to benefit from their success. By Victoria Baker.
All I can see from here is paddocks and sheep,” says Birdsnest founder Jane Cay from her home office on the farm outside Cooma, New South Wales, where she lives with her husband and three children. The bucolic view belies her busy life as founder and ‘Big Bird’ of one of Australia’s earliest ecommerce success stories.
The story is now folklore: after buying a retail store in Cooma in 2004, Jane created Birdsnest, stocking a range of international and local fashion brands. She launched the business online in 2008, at a time when online fashion shopping seemed like a slightly outlandish proposition in Australia. Today, the business supports a team of almost 150 in Cooma, and has a turnover of around $30 million.
Jane’s story could have been different if she hadn’t “fallen in love with a boy in a cowboy hat”. After growing up near Cooma, she had followed a well-trodden path to the city to enrol in a commerce degree at the University of New South Wales without looking back. “I just assumed all opportunities were in the city, and I didn’t think I’d be back,” she says.
A scholarship offer led to her specialising in information systems. “When I first started uni I didn’t even know what a floppy disk was, and I thought computers were only for nerds and boys,” says Cay. But after engaging with database design, ecommerce and artificial intelligence as part of her degree, “the idea that I could have an exciting career based around technology” took hold and she started her career as an e-business management consultant at IBM. The knowledge and confidence she gained there were central to her push into ecommerce with Birdsnest.
How does she see opportunity in rural areas now? For business, things have undoubtedly improved. “When we launched, the internet was very slow, we really only had email, there was no social media, there were no smartphones,” she says. “Technology has made us much less isolated from the markets we want to reach. I prefer to think about most issues as quality problems and try to find opportunities to make the best of what we have here.” Citing newer challenges such as sustainability and the changes wrought by Covid, Cay cites flexibility as a key skill. “I like the Charles Darwin quote about it not being the smartest or the strongest
but the most adaptable who will survive. I think any business, anywhere, needs to work hard and fast to adapt and change quickly.”
It’s also now possible to build an ecommerce business without an in-house tech team. “Building a software development team is hard anywhere, but especially in regional areas,” says Cay, who started with a single uni student developer based in his parents’ Canberra garage and now has a larger team in Cooma. But the availability of off-the-shelf ecommerce systems (think Shopify, Squarespace and BigCommerce) has also simplified the process. “You just need to understand your business and the problem you’re trying to solve and there’s generally a software solution that can help you. Then it’s about partnering with people where you have gaps,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s about understanding what problem you’re solving for your customer and how the technology will help you do that.”
Technology has also increased access to education for those based outside cities. Cay herself is currently taking part in a nine-month Inner MBA online course associated with New York University. At school level, there is continued government focus on closing the opportunity gap between rural and metropolitan students. This year the NSW Government launched a three-year Rural and Remote Education Strategy aimed at ensuring better access to resources and devices, connectivity and virtual teaching resources and experiences to more than 200,000 students in more than 1,000 schools. The Federal Government has also committed sums for recruiting high-achieving teachers to rural and regional areas.
As connectivity and access to technology improves, educational and social needs evolve. The Optus Digital Thumbprint, a government-accredited project launched in 2013, aims to educate primary and high school students and their parents on being safer and smarter online. “As a leading telecommunications provider, we recognise the role that we play in empowering the next generation,” says Maurice McCarthy, vice president retail and channel sales at Optus. The project has just wrapped up a regional road trip, visiting more than 70 schools from Far North Queensland to Tasmania with workshops on protecting your identity and building safe relationships in the online world. “For us, it’s all about investing in the communities we operate in,” says McCarthy.
Cay trained as a careers counsellor before moving to Cooma, thinking she might teach. “Part of my role with IBM was to go into schools and talk about my career in technology consulting,” she says. “I just loved opening up a sense of possibility for those students, and I think there’s still more work to be done to get the message to rural students.” Birdsnest operates a 12-month traineeship program, training a cohort of young people each year in different parts of the business. “We sometimes struggle to get applicants from our own area,” says Cay. “I think there’s still a perception that nothing cool can happen in your own town!”
Pip Brett, founder of fashion and homewares business Jumbled, is part of a group mentoring Year 11 students in Orange, New South Wales, where her business is based. “There is plenty of advice about going away to uni, but I’m also trying to open their eyes to the opportunities and entrepreneurship here at home,” she says.
Brett grew up in Orange, and left to study a Bachelor of Design in Fashion and Textiles at the University of Technology, Sydney. But she returned and opened her own retail shop at 22. “Ignorance is bliss when you’re young,” she says of that decision. “It would be more stressful now. But I didn’t have people relying on me back then.” Jumbled has now expanded to become a fashion and homewares emporium and cafe that’s on every must-visit list for Orange, and is run by a “small but mighty team”.
Initially a local business, Brett launched online sales “very reluctantly” around nine years ago. Holly Cardew, then consulting for Brett (and now an entrepreneur in her own right), convinced her to join Instagram. “It felt like just another thing to add to my list every day, but it completely changed our business,” says Brett. The online component, now serviced by two team members, also allowed an element of drought- and then Covid-proofing. “Our community was in drought for four years and [social media] enabled us to reach other markets. When we closed the shop for three months during the pandemic, the online part of the business went gangbusters.” Building community is a strength of the Jumbled brand, with its alwayscolourful images and optimistic tone reaching an Instagram following of almost 145,000. Brett attributes this success to absolute authenticity. “When I post, I’m totally being true to who I am and what I love, so it’s not a conscious effort, or hard,” she says. “The store is everything I love under one roof and my goal is purely to bring joy. I think that’s an advantage of lots of the regional stores and businesses that are doing well now. We’re not trying to be bigger or better than we are, we’re just telling our own stories and being who we are.”
Last year, Brett launched The Huddle, an event in Orange for 450 aspiring entrepreneurs, and hopes it will be even bigger this year. “I’d wanted to do it for years but I didn’t have the confidence,” she says. “The drought really clarified the need for rural families to create off-farm income. The Huddle is for women who are crafting new businesses and lives for themselves, and that’s something that’s really exciting.”
For both Brett and Cay, their teams and their culture are crucial to their success. “Recently I’ve realised that first and foremost I want to work with people who are really kind and generous,” says Brett. “You can train people in the skills you need them to have but I want kindness and generosity to permeate the workplace and our customer service.” For Cay, the sudden and devastating effect of the pandemic last March, when she worried for a time that the business would go under, reinforced how much Birdsnest means to her. “These roles are not just a way to put Corn Flakes on the table for their families, but a real part of their identities. To build a community that looks out for each other, that cares about the women we serve and about the world we live in is ultimately our mission.” To find out more and book tickets for Vogue Codes, go to vogue.com.au/vogue-codes.
“I prefer to think about most issues as quality problems and try to find opportunities to make the best of what we have here”