Episode 2: Balancing kindness with cashflow

Liam Dann
New Zealand Herald Business Editor at Large
19 MIN

A global pandemic forced Kiwi businesses to re-examine how they operate. For two businesses on the cusp of the latest tech trends, it inspired more than just creative solutions – it inspired altruism. 
In this episode we speak to Sam Ramlu, from creative interactive studio Method, who created tools and resources designed to help other SME business owners juggling the digital transformation of their business and create joy for kids stuck at home over Easter, and David Kelly from SME digital transformation agency Zeald, who pledged to give away 500 ecommerce websites to SMEs during lockdown and beyond. 
Hosted by New Zealand Herald Business Editor at Large, Liam Dann. 

The guests featured in this podcast are sharing their own views and experiences. As this podcast is for general information purposes only, content should not be relied upon as professional advice. Always get your own independent advice that takes into account your personal situation. If you’d like to access a transcript of this podcast, you can view it online at blog.bnz.co.nz/podcasts.

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Transcript

Liam Dann:

This podcast brings together two innovative businesses to discuss how they’ve navigated change since New Zealand’s lockdown, what they’ve learned, and how they are looking to the future. In this episode we speak to Sam Ramlu from digital-led creative agency Method, and David Kelly from SME digital transformation agency Zeald.

LD:

It turns out, for businesses on the cusp of the latest tech trends, a global pandemic inspired more than creative solutions. It inspired altruism.

LD:

I’m Liam Dann, New Zealand Herald business editor-at-large. Welcome to BNZ Connect SME.

LD:

The guests featured in this podcast are sharing their own views and experiences, as this podcast is for general information purposes only. Content should not be relied upon as professional advice. Always get your own independent advice that considers your personal situation. If you’d like to access a transcript of this podcast, you can view it online at blog.bnz.co.nz/podcast.

LD:

Sam, first up, how would you describe your business?

Sam Ramlu:

We’re a creative experiences studio, so we’re very much on the storytelling side, so creative and tech, bringing that together to create awe-inspiring content that essentially engages and connects with people. So that covers everything from exhibitions, interactive exhibitions, to creative websites, to augmented reality and virtual reality, all the buzz words.

LD:

Cool. And David, how about Zeald?

David Kelly:

Well, we’re a website design and e-commerce agency for SME, so we specialize in working with small- to medium-size businesses, and we really work with them to help them transform themselves digitally, and get online and get trading online.

LD:

Sure. Look, I want to jump to the kind of crazy times we’ve just been through. David, I noticed on your website for Zeald that you’ve got a line there that, “The world as we know it ended in March 2020.” Quite dramatic, but obviously masses of change occurred in a big hit.

DK:

Yeah, it did, and I guess it’s just our view as an organisation as well, as we think that it has changed. It’s not going to ever be the same again. There’s things that have changed and have changed for good. So that’s what we’ve been talking and working with a lot of small- to medium-size businesses as to what do they need to do to really adapt themselves and to evolve as an organization.

LD:

So what’s the biggest change there? What is it that is not going back to the way it was?

DK:

Well, there’s just this huge transition to digital. It’s almost like COVID has been a bit of a catalyst. There’s been this evolution going on where things have been progressing steadily, but it’s like that really accelerated. And so you’ve got a big change with consumer buying behaviour. You’ve got people wanting to engage in contactless commerce. And so you’ve got all these kind of different things, some of which are health-related, but also where you’re just getting changes of behaviour that have occurred.

LD:

Yeah. Sam, how about you guys at Method? Have you felt that?

SR:

Yeah, very much so. I mean, we play in the creative tech space, so we’re always at the cusp of technology, right on the edge of it, basically, and feel like we’re ahead four or five years. And I guess the thing is everyone’s just… They’re still not quite there, but everyone’s moved two years advance, really.

SR:

And I was talking to someone the other day, and I guess that there’s two ways to look at it, because everyone’s talking about digital, but there’s two parts to that. There’s digital capability, and then there’s the digital marketing and storytelling side.

SR:

And so digital capability was a key thing, and what are the tools and resources that businesses have got, to ensure that they can continue operating? What does it mean? Like how can we start to connect with people internally?

SR:

And then there’s a digital storytelling and marketing side, and that’s what does the face out to consumer look like? How can we tell those stories now? We found that we had clients coming to us going, “Well, this has been on the back burner, but now, because we can’t spend the money on this, we’re going to accelerate digital.”

SR:

So there’s a really great opportunity for us, and especially when I look at what we’re doing in the creative tech space, is to try and capitalise on it a little bit, as awful as it might sound. But as a business, how can we make sure that we can-

LD:

Yeah, find the opportunity.

SR:

Yeah, to find those opportunities.

LD:

Yeah. Tell me about the time around going into lockdown, because there must’ve been a moment, David, where you realized that this world-changing event, you know, it just escalated. We heard the news growing and growing, and at some point you go, “Wow, this is not business as usual.”

DK:

Yeah. I mean, from quite early on, we could see that this was going to get pretty serious. And so we went to a full work-from-home model quite early. So two weeks out from lockdown occurring in New Zealand, we already had all our staff working from home.

DK:

And at the same time that that was occurring, we were just getting more and more businesses reaching out to us and saying, “Look, we’re in deep trouble. We really need to get online. We needed to be online probably years ago, but now we need to do it with real urgency.”

DK:

And so it was as that was occurring, and we could see these sort of changes occurring, that we were really looking at things as a business and saying, “Okay, this is pretty exciting for us, and we’ve got all this demand,” but also really questioning ourselves as to whether we should maybe be doing more, given that there was such a need.

DK:

You’ve got these organisations that are really struggling, that are facing an incredibly uncertain future. And they know that they need to go online, they know that they need e-commerce, but they’ve got the situation where they’re pretty rapidly running out of capital.

DK:

And so we decided that we would go to the market and offer 500 free e-commerce websites to SME businesses. So that was quite a significant thing for us to do. And there was a fair few challenges around that, like at first, I mean the obvious thing is like, well, how on earth are we going to do this? It’s great to have these kind of visions, but you’ve got to get down to the practical reality.

DK:

So a lot of our thing came from… Was just really sitting down with the team, talking about the vision, talking about the need that’s out there, and that we felt that as an organization we really needed to be doing more if we could, and we felt we really could.

DK:

And then out of that, it was just incredible to see the ideas, the thinking. There were so many things that we thought would have been impossible, but that sort of fresh thinking and that kind of stuff all started to come through. And so some of the stuff that we achieved was stuff that, in the past, I would think would take us years and years to achieve. But when you really put the pressure on yourself and really challenge yourself, I guess the creativity, the creative thinking, really comes to the fore.

LD:

Yeah. It’s almost like the strict parameters that these conditions have brought sort of were a motivating force, I guess.

DK:

Yeah, absolutely.

LD:

Yeah. I mean, Sam, did you feel that demand coming from customers who sort of had to escalate what they were doing?

SR:

Not immediately, because we’re less in the sort of e-commerce space, so I think for us it wasn’t immediate. And in fact, we had a couple of projects that were kind of pulled back on.

SR:

But one of the things we decided very early on for us, we really enjoy bringing joy to people and creating that really great customer engagement, and we just felt this very, this heaviness across everyone. And Easter was coming up, and we just got together, it was like, “What can we do to try and help people?”

SR:

So one of the things we did really quickly, and this was mainly because I was starting to see just screeds and screeds and articles, recommendations on the best video tools to use, the best comms tools to use. Now, we’ve been using them for years, and I was thinking, oh, these poor businesses who aren’t there yet who are going to have to read paper after paper after paper, what could we do to make some of this information interesting, or sort of just easier to get to?

SR:

So we did some really quick infographic-style work-from-home visuals, just to go, “Here are the few top things we would recommend, go and check them out,” just to try and make some of the information easier.

SR:

I remember also there was the essential business question, and again, you had to read articles to go, “Which businesses are open?” So again, we did one graphic that showcased what businesses were open, what were closed, so at a glance you could see some of these things.

SR:

And then also, we started an Easter project, and it was probably one of the best things we did as a team as well, because it brought us together, unified on a project where we were trying to bring joy to the world, really. We did this augmented reality Easter egg hunt. It was really fun for us as a team, but also something we thought, for all these poor kids who were in lockdown, how could we bring a bit of Easter magic to everyone’s life?

LD:

Yeah. I mean, David, it sounds like it might’ve been a more linear process for you guys. People needed websites.

DK:

Yeah, ours was very much, I guess, driven and inspired by the need that we were seeing. And then it was very significant, and there was almost an element of desperation around it. And so we really felt that we had a decision as an organisation, where we could kind of sit back and just do what we do, and we were I guess one of those reasonably fortunate businesses that people were really needing what we were doing, or we could actually challenge ourselves to do so much more.

LD:

I like coming back to this word pivot, because we’re hearing it a lot, and we’ve heard from businesses that have had to effectively change their whole business model. But do you guys feel like you had to sort of pivot?

DK:

Yeah, I think you’re continually having to do that as an organisation when you’re within the spaces that both our business and Sam’s business is in, because you’ve got a sector that’s just evolving so rapidly. And so it almost becomes sort of a part of your standard operating procedures, doesn’t it?

LD:

Yeah, yeah. So you’re sort of geared up for almost constant change, I imagine, Sam.

SR:

Absolutely. I mean, we didn’t have to change what we were doing. Businesses were pivoting towards what we were doing. I think when we heard the announcement, our accountant slash quasi business advisor called and said something, and it stuck with me the whole time, and I just left it up on my Trello board, which has my to-do list, which was, “Keep playing to win, not just to survive.”

SR:

And it was actually one of the most important things he could have said, and that was, let’s not fall into just doing jobs for jobs’ sakes, or projects for projects’ sake, but actually apply it a lot wider than that. So I’d have clients talking to me about they want to put this in place, and I’d bring that up and go, “Just make sure that it also ties into your long-term strategy. I understand there’s a need to do something now, but if you do something now and it’s not relevant in three months, is that the right thing to do? So just consider that.”

SR:

So we did a few workshops with clients. We went through that, because there was a little bit of that urgency need, and I think people were jumping on things without really thinking it through. And so that was really important to kind of make sure that people were still thinking about their businesses long term.

LD:

I mean, it sounds like you’ve had quite positive people around you. Was there much resistance, or did you have to overcome many challenges to push the business along during this time?

SR:

Personally, I couldn’t say enough about my team. They were amazing. And I feel, again, we were already a great whānau to begin with, but it’s brought us all so much closer together. And I think that was the thing, this comradery, and just the care. Obviously the word kindness has been used a lot, and we made sure that that was something that was shared right from day one.

SR:

We’ve always had a really close-knit team. I remember coming into a Google Hangouts, which is where I was doing a lot of video calls, and I’d set one up for later with the team. And I came back into one that I’d used earlier, and a couple of my team were still there from the morning meeting, just had it on, chatting to each other, working throughout the day. I’m like, “Hey, get out of my meeting room.”

SR:

But there was just some really really awesome stuff happening. And I tell you what, everyone was just amazing. We’ve come back sort of better than ever, and I’m just proud of them. I’m just so proud of them.

LD:

That’s great. Can I ask you both about… There are a lot of businesses out there that were suddenly caught out by this because they aren’t online or they don’t have a tech strategy. What sort of businesses were you dealing with? And how is New Zealand looking in that space?

SR:

Well, it’s a real mix. And again, I think it comes back to that digital capability versus digital marketing storytelling. I remember I was talking to a recruiter, and they had to go into the office to do their invoices, and I was just gobsmacked. So I think there was a lot of people who were caught out. And that’s where we kind of looked at what are some of those resources that we can help provide people to bring them up to speed a lot quicker.

SR:

And of course we have found it so natural. We work in Slack, Trello for our boards, and email and video calls and all of that. It’s just very normal of how we work.

LD:

So the shift to home wasn’t horrendous at all for you guys.

SR:

No. And actually, for us the horrendous part was the fact that people couldn’t see each other, and people were missing-

LD:

The social aspect.

SR:

The social aspect, and then also, a lot of our creative work is groups of people getting together, throwing ideas around, putting papers up on the wall, and white boarding stuff, and all of that. And I think that’s the bit we really miss and have really enjoyed coming back to. But everything else was sorted, like we didn’t have to worry about our systems and processes.

SR:

And it’s been really interesting talking to some of the clients and kind of going, “Look, here are some really easy, quick things you can do.”

SR:

I think the thing is, again, it was what David was saying, is if there’s a time limit and you have to do something urgently, how quickly people can actually come up to speed. And it’s taken years for some corporates to go, “Oh, I don’t know about the system,” but suddenly they’ve done it because they had to do it. And actually it wasn’t that hard.

LD:

Can I ask you both, but I’ll come to you, David, how optimistic does this leave you feeling about the next few months, but also the New Zealand business scene further out?

DK:

I think there’s both positives and negatives. There’s definitely a lot of businesses out there that are really hurting, and that have got some real struggles ahead of them, so that’s going to be very challenging.

DK:

But there’s also so much opportunity as well, like there is, I think, in every crisis. And I see a lot of positive change happening as well, as a result of it.

LD:

So, Sam, I was reading an article that you were quoted in where you said tech is not a solution, it never has been, it’s an enabler. I guess for you it’s been an opportunity to show people what is possible with technology?

SR:

Yeah, absolutely. We had a new client come in, a brand new client, one week after lockdown, and we’re doing some amazing work for them. We met them in person for the first time last week. There were hugs all around, which is… It was really just such a heartwarming thing that we’ve become this wider family through COVID and working with this team. And the project that’s coming out of this is something they’ve never done before, and it’s massive for them.

SR:

And I guess the thing is with something like this, I can only look at the silver linings, because you can’t dwell. And so, “What can we do to help those who really do have something to offer, and how can we keep them going?” is very much there, but also on one hand, the silver lining is there. It’s made that capability, the digital capability part, just really catch up a bit for people. And it’s a shame it’s taken a pandemic to do that, but it has brought people… just moved them forward a bit.

LD:

Yeah. Can I ask a little bit about connectedness as well? New Zealand’s a very small place, so there’s sort of two degrees of separation from everyone anyway. What you guys do is really in the business of connecting people. I mean, how has New Zealand business gone through this in terms of connecting with other businesses?

DK:

Yeah, I think probably one of the most obvious ones has just been the acceptance of meeting over a video conference. And so there’s been a huge reduction in, I guess, reluctance to use that as a tool. It’s become very accepted. And so that suddenly meant that you don’t have to be within a certain physical proximity to really connect with someone and develop a relationship.

SR:

Yeah. An initiative I’m part of is the AMO Group, which came out as a result of this. It was essentially looking at our screen sector and production sector. But as a production centre, we’ve created a campaign called Creative Business Now which came out of this, which was basically, the production sector is here, ready to go. For those international companies out there who want to finish off their projects, they might have started some stuff, what can we do here in AR, VR, motion graphics, animation, VFX, all of that, to help finish your project? Because essentially, New Zealand is open for business.

SR:

And so we very quickly joined up as groups of leaders across the creative and production sector, going, “What can we do to work together a bit more?” So there’s been a really really great coming together over that. We’ve formed a directory out of that which showcases creative production companies across New Zealand. And this took us weeks to do, and hasn’t been done in years. So I think there’s a lot of stuff here that people have gone, “Yeah, okay, I’ve been talking about this a lot. Let’s just do it.”

LD:

Yeah. I mean, it feels like New Zealand business has been quite supportive of each other during this process. I mean, it’s what you’d hope at a human level, as individuals, but in the business world as well.

DK:

Yeah, I think you’ve definitely seen a pulling together of the business community now. That’s really good to see.

SR:

It’s also come across in a very genuine way, in that the first thought, I think, in most people’s heads has been, how can we help? I’m part of a couple of groups that were formed basically in the middle of lockdown on how we could go and help SMEs out there. And so I think, again, kindness and how can we pass it on was the first thing in people’s mind. And how can we get together and use all our collective force to do something really really good?

LD:

Yeah. I don’t know whether you’re big fans of this concept or not, but what do you think of the mindset, the Kiwi ingenuity idea, has that been to the fore through this process?

DK:

I think it’s really important, because it’s that whole thing, that, the number eight wire, the grit determination, punching above your weight, all these different concepts. And I think they’re more important than ever in a crisis-type situation, and in a situation where I guess things can look pretty bleak if you look at it from a certain perspective. But you need to be able to kind of go, okay, you acknowledge that, but you’re still able to say, “I can see a path through this. There’s no obstacle that’s too big to overcome.”

LD:

And New Zealand businesses are kind of used to doing things without masses of resources behind them, I guess-

SR:

Yeah. We’re really good at being flexible. And I’m going to reference something. I think it was when the Black Caps made it to the finals, and there was that punching above your weight comment. And we say it a lot. Everyone says it a lot. But actually, this is our weight, this is the thing. And I think the thing is that this is what we do. We are really good at what we do. Let’s not shy away from it. Just because we’re a small country doesn’t mean that we can’t deliver that.

LD:

Sure. I want to ask you both about ideas and a bit of advice for businesses. It’s probably a good time now just to remind listeners that what we’re talking about here is individual experience, and of course always obtain independent advice that takes account of your own circumstances.

LD:

But can I get you to talk through maybe what you would tell businesses about dealing with crisis, after what you’ve just been through?

DK:

I think there’s a couple of things really that I would say. One is that it’s really important to be flexible and to try and get your business so that it’s adaptable. And the more that you can do that, the more you’re in a position to be able to cope with whatever gets thrown at you.

DK:

The other one is very much about planning for different scenarios, so that if things get worse, then you’re not suddenly in a case of analysis paralysis. You’ve already kind of got your plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D situation worked out.

LD:

So you’ve thought through worst case, best case, and maybe a central case?

DK:

Yeah, I think at the minimum you need to the best case, worst case, most likely case. But I think that ideally in a situation like this, where it’s very, very hard to know what’s going to happen in the months and year ahead, to have more than that. So we’ve actually got sort of six or seven scenarios already mapped out, some that are actually great scenarios, and others that are some of your more worst case scenarios, so that as the situation develops, we’re not in a situation where we’re starting to do a whole bunch of deep analysis. At that point, we already know how we’re going to respond in those situations.

LD:

And Sam, what have you learned through this experience that you’d share it with businesses now?

SR:

Yeah, look, we’ve actually also been through the GFC, so there was a little bit of that. I know it was completely different, but there was a little bit of that that came to mind when we were starting to go into this. And I think, again, that line that I said earlier, the, “Keep playing to win, not just to survive,” was first and foremost.

SR:

And the importance of good people, and I think don’t underestimate that. If you can get your culture right, and people fit in with your values, then it’s not just an individual’s responsibility. And I feel very much like our team rallied around me so that I didn’t feel like I was alone. I’d go on calls with them and check in with them, going, “How’re you doing?” And so many of them asked me the question back, “How are you doing?” And I think that just shows the strength of a great team.

LD:

Yeah. Let me ask you, how do you make the time and find the time and can I ask where you go and do your thinking, your blue sky thinking and your planning, that kind of stuff?

DK:

Yeah. I mean, I have two things, and they’re kind of two extremes, really.

DK:

One is, I think, quietness and journaling, where I just like to sit in a quiet place with a nice cup of tea and just journal down my thoughts, and I find that’s a very powerful process.

DK:

But we also have… There’s a number of people within Zeald and a few people who are external to Zeald as well, who are deep thinkers, very, very sharp, and so I use them a lot as well, just to sort of bounce-

LD:

Bounce ideas.

DK:

Yeah, off them, and get fresh perspective on things.

LD:

So we’ve had a few tips and things. I’m just interested to know what you might have learned about your business and yourself through this process. Are there things that you would tackle differently? Or do you feel pretty good about where it landed?

DK:

There’s not a lot I would do differently, really. Often I’ll see business as commercial, and then outside of that you do giving and supporting, and it’s looking at how you can combine those more. And that’s one thing that COVID’s I guess really challenged my views around that, and has caused a bit of a shift in thinking, really, as to how those things can be combined. They don’t necessarily have to be separate.

LD

I mean, did you guys get those 500 websites built, or is that still a work in progress?

DK

That’s still a work in progress. So yeah, we’ve done well over a hundred now, and those are making some real differences with these businesses. So you see these different organizations and how they’ve really adopted a new style of business that they really just didn’t think was possible at all.

LD:

And Sam, do you feel like you’ve learned things through this process?

SR:

Yeah. Look, I wouldn’t change anything either. I actually think, how we responded, I’m not sure if we’d be able to do that again, really.

SR:

But in terms of learning, I guess more so in our space, in the creative tech, interactive, and gaming sector, it just doesn’t get the attention that it really deserves. And how can we accelerate that? Our interactive sector and gaming sector has no government funding. You look at the film sector. And we bring in so much without the funding. Imagine what we could be doing.

SR:

And so I guess for me, I’ve always been on my high horse about it, but it feels like it’s an even higher horse now. And I just want to make sure that we come out of this going, “You know what? We have an amazing, amazing lot of talent here, a lot of amazing companies that do amazing work. How can we make sure we can retain this talent, we can retain these companies, and we do even better work going forward?”

LD:

That’s great. Finally, we’d love you both to sort of reflect on another business or business leader who has inspired you during this time, and I guess has had some ingenuity that you’ve drawn on. Can you tell us about another business or business leader like that, David?

DK:

Yeah, I mean, there’s a few of them, really. I love Elon Musk. I guess a lot of people do. Not necessarily all his business ethics, but I like his approach in terms of nothing’s insurmountable. He’s willing to just… Things that appear impossible, to really take them on.

DK:

But I guess also within the New Zealand context, I think Vaughan from Vend, and also Zoe, with their Institute of Awesome down in Raglan. I mean they’re just examples of really inspirational New Zealand leaders.

LD:

Sure. Sam a business that inspires you?

SR:

Yeah, I mean those guys are great as well. And I think there’s a couple New Zealand companies. Manaaki that Andy Hamilton and Pat MacFie set up, which was basically about just helping other SMEs, and I think just the speed with what they did.

SR:

And the others, Nanogirl, and they pivoted massively. They went from worldwide staged events to going digital, and I think that takes a lot of courage to do that with your business. And I think they’re flourishing, which is amazing, but just that resilience, and just getting onto it. And I think that’s where Kiwis really have that edge, is just being able to get on with it.

LD:

Well, that’s fantastic. Look, I just want to thank you both, Sam from Method and David from Zeald, for being here and sharing all your experience and some advice and some tips. So thanks, guys.

LD:

This Connect SME podcast was brought to you by BNZ in association with the Business Herald. Subscribe to the series to hear more stories of SME businesses who’ve navigated sudden change as a result of COVID-19. Hear about the decisions they made and the lessons they learned along the way. The resources, links, and transcripts of this podcast can be found at blog.bnz.co.nz/podcast.

Liam Dann
New Zealand Herald Business Editor at Large
Liam Dann is one of the country’s most respected business journalists and has been a business editor for the New Zealand Herald for more than 10 years. He writes opinion and commentary covering markets, economics and politics and is host of the weekly Economy Hub video show.