Episode 3: Innovating out of adversity

Liam Dann
New Zealand Herald Business Editor at Large
20 MIN

What do you do when a global pandemic wipes out your customers almost overnight? Joe Bradford from Fiasco, a road case manufacturer for the events industry, and Olive Tabor, who owns a boutique burger and ice-cream truck called Patti’s & Cream, are two innovative businesses who weren’t going to let lockdown smother their business ambitions. Discover how they created entirely new products and distribution channels overnight, transforming their businesses in a matter of days.
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 Joe Bradford from event road case supplier, Fiasco, and Olive Tabor from food truck business, Patti’s & Cream. Both only had a matter of days to reinvent their businesses, and there’s nothing like a crisis to concentrate the mind.

LD:

I’m Liam Dann, New Zealand Herald Business Editor at Large. Welcome to BNZ Connect SME. 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/podcasts.

LD:

Joe, coming to us from Hamilton, and Olive from Dunedin. Hi guys.

Joe Bradford:

Hey, Liam.

Olive Tabor:

Hey, Liam, how are you doing?

LD:

Great. Look, I wanted to start by talking about the moment that the world changed for you both. Joe, can you tell us a bit about what you do at Fiasco, which I know is pretty specialist. It’s those very cool looking boxes that you see the roadies wheeling into gigs and events with the wires and equipment and stuff, and then how COVID-19 meant you had to take radical action.

JB:

Yeah. So, Fiasco, We started in 2013. It was a bit of a hobby to start with, and then we got pretty serious about it. And in 2015, ’16, ’17, we started being pretty forceful about expanding from New Zealand into the US. So, we’ve had a lot of change over the years. We became a reasonable or big size fish in a pretty small pond here pretty fast. And so, we expanded. Last year, we launched our whole US business as a full time thing. It wasn’t no longer remotely controlled by us here in New Zealand. And it was actually that link into the US that meant we realised that COVID was going to be a big problem when South by Southwest cancelled, which happened about 10 days before we went into lockdown. So, we launched our Screen Serve business, and also Work From Home Desks since COVID started, so the 7th of March.

LD:

So, you realised there was going to be at least a hiatus on what you’re doing with Fiasco and decided to take a huge step, really, which is to start making something completely different.

JB:

Yes. But we used the same team, we used the same resources, so it’s very, very different, but we were able to pivot sideways very fast.

LD:

Sure. Look, I’ll come back to the challenges of getting there. I just want to talk to Olive for a second. You are similar in the sense that you were a food truck business selling gourmet burgers and high end gourmet ice cream, but you were not a digital delivery business. So, you also faced that moment, I guess. I’m just wondering when you realise that the business wasn’t going to be sustainable as it was when you went into lockdown.

OT:

Yeah. I suppose we had… We’re trading in Dunedin. We’ve been operating for just over two years, and the business has been growing quite rapidly, especially in the last year and a quarter or so, but in the two weeks before lockdown, we started noticing a massive altering of consumer patterns with the truck. We just had a lot of people coming, buying enormous amounts of food off of us.

LD:

So, it must’ve been a slightly terrifying moment probably for both of you. We just realised that this is going to make business as usual unsustainable.

OT:

Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I think like for me it really did hit on that Monday announcement. Obviously, like with everyone, the quick escalation. We’re interacting with thousands of people every week at the truck. So you’re just starting to pick up on people’s mood and people are talking a lot about it. And then, yeah, it was just that moment when the announcement was made that was… I think I got back to our kitchen, our commercial kitchen. I just sat outside on the ground and just was like, “What am I going to do? What’s the plan from here? I’ve got all this stock. I’ve got all this product. I’ve got outstanding bills.” Just the normal momentum of a business. What’s the plan from here? Just go into survival mode. What are we going to do to survive?

LD:

Sure. I mean, and that is how you get there. So, you’ve both realised, this is big, you have to act. It’s what next? So, Joe, how did you get from that moment to what has effectively been the launch of a new business?

JB:

Yeah. So, first totally gutted, like Olive is saying, and then what do we do? What do we do to survive? And so, for us, there was a whiteboard, which often is at Fiasco. And we put down about 20 different ideas over a couple of days, bouncing around between the team thought long and hard. And a couple of days into that, both met, and I met my business partner, made some calls to say, right, we’re going to do screens and we’re going to do desks. And from that point on it was about 12 hours before we had our first prototypes and about seven days till we launched publicly.

LD:

So, you were able to leverage the connections you had around getting things built, but also switch your design processes. And also there’s a little bit of stroke of genius there if I may say. You’ve realised, and everybody’s been talking about working from home, but you were able to see that early on that that was going to be a trend.

JB:

Yeah. Definitely felt like we were going to be sent home.

LD:

Yeah. How about you, Olive? Can you take us through the what next from that moment sitting down outside, and feeling a bit sick about it all? How did you get the energy and how did you mobilise the team to effectively what you’ve done is start a digital business from scratch in lockdown?

OT:

Well, we had, obviously, we with those two days before lockdown. So, we just did… It was a bit of a that. That’s what kind of gave me the idea about how this needed to be turned into an e-commerce platform for us going ahead and probably in level three becoming a online delivery service for ice cream. We had just an amazing response to try and just to, bottom line, trying to generate some revenue into the business before we went into lockdown. So we did a big sale of ice cream direct to customer. So people just… And that was through that direct messaging through social media.

OT:

I had myself and two other people replying to messages for nine hours straight. It was insane and it’s just such a slow process because people are messaging, you haven’t displayed bank account numbers because we were trying to do it… We’re doing obviously contactlessly with the delivery. So that was just like the world’s slowest process. You just felt like you were sinking in these two days.

LD:

So is that Instagram, Facebook kind of stuff?

OT:

Yeah. Instagram and Facebook. We’ve got a really, if you know the size of population in Dunedin. We’ve got a really strong social media. Both are sitting around the four and a half, 5,000 mark followers and everyone’s quite engaged. So, yeah. So when we put up that post, it just came in like a flood of ice cream pre-orders.

LD:

It was sort of a marketing tool initially, but then it became actually, an order system of sorts.

OT:

Yeah, it did. So, yeah, so that was… But you know, obviously we were like, it was very manual at that stage and that really having that massive… I think we completed 240 orders in two days, individual people ordering and we’re selling everything from five litre tubs of ice cream to get you through lockdown right back down to just our half litre tubs that we traditionally did just for delivery. I needed to clear some freezer space that we needed to freeze down milk. And we had so much produce and products that we were going to lose if we didn’t get some space in our walk-in freezers. So, yeah. So, that was amazing. That kind of support, but also made me just once I’d slept for about three days after that, it made me think if we go back into this, when we come out of COVID I can’t be in the same structure. It has to be through an online platform where people purchase, and automated.

LD:

I mean, normally, this sort of process is something you might’ve been considering going through in a year or two or something. Are you a naturally techy person? Was it easy to learn all this stuff on the go?

OT:

No. I love the social media side of it. I ran a business here in Dunedin before, a restaurant, and we were one of the first restaurants here in Dunedin to even have an Instagram and Facebook. That is back, nine years ago or so. I love that side of it, but definitely when it comes to building a website or how you have a functional e-commerce portal within that.

OT:

I had another friend of mine that we worked remotely together. So, we had half of the site already built, but it’d been sitting there for a year because business happens. You’re just busy. We were so busy just trading that it had just been sitting in the background waiting to get… I’d actually only ever thought about using it just to put pretty pictures up, really. It’s just going to be a way of getting people to be like, “Oh, that’s nice.” But in the end actually I was like, “No, the purpose of this…” We used Squarespace to do the website, and we upgraded to their premium package just to be able to put in that shop portal for it. So, yeah. But lots of challenges trying to do that. You can’t actually… We couldn’t see the product for the whole time of lockdown. So we’re having to do hand drawn little drawings to illustrate what we were trying to… Because we weren’t… I wasn’t operating in level four at all.

LD:

Sure. So Joe, let me ask you. What would you say was the biggest specific challenge or obstacle you faced as you embarked on this process?

JB:

Quite likely just understanding what the customer wanted. We obviously designed products and we could produce them. We could get the supply and we could get it out the door. But you face this fear of what we’ve designed, is that what people want?

LD:

Yeah. I mean, and it had to be a bit of gut instinct. I mean, there wasn’t much time for things like market research, I assume.

JB:

No time at all. But on that, we did do enough that we knew it had to go flat. So, it had to be flat pack. It had to have no tools. Those were day one decisions we made so that we could build a product that we could actually ship and deliver to a customer because there was no point in making something as large as say the radio desk that I’m sitting at. It just wouldn’t ever get to the customer.

LD:

Yeah. I’ll ask you both this, but I’ll come back to you Olive. How did you take the idea to market? I mean, you’ve got a website. How do you start telling people that?

OT:

I suppose just for us it’s purely social media channels. We obviously we’re a food truck that doesn’t have that bricks and mortar presence. So, it’s quite an ephemeral business food truck. Even though we obviously have the actual truck, but so we’re just so heavily reliant on the Facebook, Instagram side of things. I don’t think this business would have even worked maybe three or four years ago because I don’t think people were as engaged. So really those channels through Facebook and Instagram.

OT:

I suppose I did have a better time. I had that whole level four period of swinging in and out of business depression as everyone was.. Like how are you going to survive this? And watching the bank account just slowly eat itself alive pretty much with fixed costs. Because even though we are a food truck, we have a fixed kitchen. We’ve got a lot of business loans, etc  that are still coming out the whole time. So, yeah, I was still pretty active on our social media. I made that decision at the start that I’ve got to keep people engaged this whole time. And then when we came about a week out from level three, we launched the website. We launched it before we actually started taking orders, so people could get themselves familiar with that side of things. So that was just a really… That’s a great route to get people straight to your site. They’re excited just to look at pictures and look at the shop before it was even open.

LD:

And was that a moment where people were just very excited about getting a nice food delivered and any treats were a bonus at that time.

OT:

I think from a food point of view, and I think just for any business, if you’re operating within level three, if you were able to operate on some scale, it was a pretty valuable time for your business. Like our delivery, once we posted the first one that we were starting to take orders. Getting an order every 30 to 40 seconds for two hours straight, so we had to close the shop again. So, it was just… But actually it’s suddenly having that control that we could take all this volume of orders. It was quite a surreal feeling I’m sure, Joe, once you see your orders coming through. You’re like, “Well, people are going to buy this.”

LD:

Yeah. Joe, tell us a bit about how you managed to market the desk business because again, it’s a challenging time to get stuff out there.

JB:

Yeah, definitely social in the first instance. So Instagram, Facebook. We pushed pretty hard on that. Some skills transferred from what we’d done in Fiasco in the past, and then really deciding early to partner with experts. So, Google advertising, if you type in work from home desk, we should pop up. If you type in standing desk, we should pop up. And getting our name everywhere as fast as we possibly could really did it. We just engaged the experts and said, “Hey, look, we’re going to put this money behind it. You’ve got to get the word out. How do we partner together?” And they were all sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring anyway, so that worked for us.

LD:

Yeah. I want to ask you both a bit about what advice you’d give other business people who may face something like this or may still be in the thick of facing something like this, losing a customer base and looking to change their business. Olive, I guess if I start with you in terms of what you’ve learned and if things that really worked for you, what sort of advice would you offer?

OT:

I suppose it really does depend on what kind of product you’ve got.

LD:

Sure.

OT:

We’re lucky that we’ve got a product that we can work at a margin that we can operate as a delivery model. Not all food operations are like that. I’ve felt quite sorry for looking at some businesses that were trying to move into that delivery space, and you are quite aware of the lack of margin and if you’re doing individual deliveries. But there is always routes to market and there’s always opportunities even in a crisis to build something else out of your business. But also at a time like that when there’s not really any other options, is there? You come up with an idea, and as Joe said, you pick it out of a list of other ideas of what could we do right now, and you’ve just got to run with that. Is that the thing that’s going to work?

OT:

For us, obviously, delivering burgers was not going to be an option at all. We were very fortunate with the product that we’ve got and that we have such a supportive customer base. And that in the space of three weeks we could fill 700 orders, which is what we ended up doing once we got into level three. One of the biggest help technology wise was that we used to… It’s like the dark ages when I look back at how we did things like our basic delivery model when we were operating the food truck fully as well. We’d just write it down and try and map out the route in Dunedin, which I was always quite… It was a stressful process. Like where do we go next? Where do we go next?

OT:

So, we actually found this American app called Road Warrior, which we started using, which you could put up to 120 locations in, which we’ve been looking for something like this for ages, and it just popped out on the app store in, I think December. We happened to find it just when we started these big deliveries. So, things like that were moments that if we hadn’t been able to have something like that I don’t think we could be able to get to all those locations. It was just like suddenly put in all your locations, it optimises it all. And you’ve got the most compact route. And the best thing is that these things you add to your business, they’re not going anywhere. They’re staying. We’re keeping hold of that, obviously. That’s a great new feature. Such a time saver and time’s money in your business. And when you’re paying staff to do stuff for you, you’ve got to make it as compact as possible to actually make that work.

LD:

Absolutely. Joe, similarly, are there any advice or tips you’d give people. And I guess just in terms of that kind of radical pivot that you’ve had to do, any thoughts on how to do that?

JB:

Yeah. I think there’s a couple of philosophies that I’ve had for a few years now. And they were definitely reinforced during this pivot. One of them is this idea that we were climbing a mountain. And so you’ve got your team and the people you’re working with, and if you can paint a picture in front of them, that kind of looks like a mountain and say, “Hey, that’s where we’re going, but we don’t know how we’re going to get to the top. So there could be a million different routes up this mountain.” That’s really helpful.

JB:

One, they’ve got a vision, two, they know that we’ve got to be explorers on the way, and be somewhat flexible. We might go out the wrong path for a little bit, have to cut back and then go up another path. And like in our pivot, we built our entire website one Monday, and we rebuilt it, the entire website the next day on Tuesday because at the end of that day, we were like, “Actually, this isn’t going to work.” And that was for the US market. It just wasn’t going to work.

JB:

The other philosophy I’ve got is that businesses have resources, their people, their machines, their supply chains, and customers are part of that resource. And if something changes… I’ve had times in the past where supply chain issues have forced us to change quite drastically. In this case, it was the customer and the product has to change, but we had machines, we had staff, we were all a team. And so, as long as we could paint a new picture relatively fast and then work together using our skill sets, and using our supply chain, we could pivot and change to something else. And I think that knowing those two kind of concepts was very helpful because I was definitely thinking along those lines and able to communicate. We’ve got language around the mountain and language around change within our business that allows us to paint new pictures, take new paths very rapidly.

LD:

Sure.

OT:

I have a question for you, Joe. What was the reception of your staff to suddenly working this different business model and producing completely different product to what they’d been used to? Was everyone on board?

JB:

Yeah. Well, everyone was on board and I haven’t any resign, which is awesome.

OT:

Perfect. I don’t think anyone’s resigning right now from any job.

JB:

Which is fair. There’s definitely been frustrations in the last 12 weeks, but we are all very well aware that our industry hit a wall and continues to hit a wall. The guys that we were signing up large deals within the US early March, by mid-March had lost their jobs. So we didn’t have a choice. And I guess maybe in six or 12 months when we’re finally figuring out what we’re doing long-term, which is hopefully both, by the way, we might have some staff changes of people who want to move, but everyone has been great so far.

LD:

Have you learned things about yourself through the process?

JB:

Yeah, I’ve definitely… I love the challenge of it, I think. So, for me, making sure that I find a new challenge in the future will be really cool. And I’ve had a lot of challenges over the last seven years, but when I get a bit stale, I’ll have to make sure I find a challenge.

LD:

Yeah. Sure. Olive, how about you? Obviously, it is a very personal journey that people have been through in the last few months. What have you learned about yourself?

OT:

I think it’s an interesting test of your own resilience just to… I probably get calmer in a crisis, so that’s something

JB:

Yeah, totally.

OT:

Really, I don’t know. It’s a weird way to think about yourself.

LD:

It’s the classic thing where you worry about the little things. When the big thing happens, you’re in the zone.

OT:

Yeah, totally. Like the problems that we had, any little things going on in the business in the background before that just all became nothing of any importance at all because you’re so focused on the main goal of what you’ve got to do ahead of you. But yeah, I suppose, it’s been amazing to be so embraced by the Dunedin public.

OT:

It’s given me a renewed want to go forth and do more stuff with the business going forward, which has been really, really amazing to have that level of support. When you know, when you’re thinking you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people every two days just eating your ice cream. That’s pretty amazing for such a small team and such small business. Yeah. So, and it’s just, I think we’re very lucky down here in Dunedin we’ve got a really supportive community. So yeah, yeah. That stuff like… Yeah, that’s really made me feel very grateful to be sure.

LD:

People talk about Kiwi ingenuity and the number 8 fence wire sort of thing. Do you think that there is an aspect of that to what you’ve been through, Olive?

OT:

Oh, definitely. When I first started this business, this was literally on just going to… It’s funny, full circle to Joe, a music festival in America. We’re going on this trip to the States to go to this festival called Sasquatch. When we was over there, we were going to do a big food trip. And so, we went back in from the Gorge and Washington state and went to Portland, which I’ve always wanted to go and hang out and see their food scene. And I got carried away with this ice cream idea when I was over there.

OT:

And at that time I was actually just running a restaurant here in Dunedin for a group of shareholders. And I’ve been there for five years and I’d put in some… I’ve been running all day-to-day operations and helping with menu design, with the head chef, real hands on roll running 40 staff with that business. Big, big restaurant, but ultimately didn’t own a stake in it.

OT:

And so I came back with this idea about ice cream. Went to Portland, saw this business called Salt & Straw. This amazing ice cream business, which is owned by cousins. I’d actually gone over there to look at burgers, and then I came back with this ice cream. And I spent a year after that thinking if we’re going to have to give up going to music festivals or something. I really liked that. I started this business not even knowing how to make the product that we now make. So, that’s the kind of… I suppose there’s not many countries in the world you could probably get away with that, you know?

LD:

Joe, I’ll ask you the same thing and you’re getting some insight into the manufacturing in China and that the business side of it in the US. Have there been… Do you feel like you have an advantage being on this side of the world, and in the New Zealand business culture?

JB:

Massively, I think that one small team is super helpful. That mountain philosophy really comes out of Sir Edmund Hillary, and then even what we’ve seen with Peter Blake and the others over the years. And then, you look at sport and I love telling my American staff, look at your American sport and who’s this at the head of IndyCar, who are the big names, who’s the power forward in the NBA. Just constantly referring back to Kiwis and going, we do take on the world and we’re pretty good at it. And I think the reason that we’re pretty good at it is because we’re not confined by a whole bunch of regulation. It is that Number eight Wire, and I love it. And I try and impart it to Chinese partners, to American staff. I really push people all around the globe, and I think they find that pretty frustrating at time, but the Kiwis seem to love it, which is great.

LD:

Yeah. How are you feeling about the next few months now? And have you already started dreaming or planning about what next?

OT:

Yeah, definitely. We’ve actually signed a lease for a bricks and mortar building here in Dunedin, just three weeks ago now, which had been a plan pre-COVID, which I actually have switched last minute. We were going to do a bigger expansion, but I don’t think the timing’s right for it at all. So, we’ve actually scaled that right back down to a secondary option, which that makes it sound like it’s not good. It is good. It’s just a smaller site. It’s going to be more achievable financially-

LD:

There’s still a lot of uncertainty around the virus itself and where it ends up right?

OT:

Yeah. I’ve been looking at wanting to do some kind of expansion for the last year or so, and yeah. We’ve had a really good run in Dunedin and not being so dependent on tourists. That’s definitely helpful when you’ve got a business that’s based off of local customers, so yeah. That’s really the push now is you’ve got to have, hopefully that four to five week is going to have this physical site open. So just opening up an ice cream shop in the middle of winter in Dunedin because you know, you can.

OT:

But a lot of that as well, we just wouldn’t be here without a lot of the government support. I’ve got family in the UK and I look at how they’ve faired over there with small businesses compared to here and it’s a completely different landscape.

LD:

Sure. Joe, how about you? Fiasco is still  making plans and dreaming about the next phase?

JB:

Oh, absolutely. And I think what we’re probably most excited about is that New Zealand is fairly free of COVID and hopefully the events industry and the film industry can really take off. Not for our own benefit, but more for our customers. I just really hope to see them thrive after what they’ve been through. But yeah, I’m stoked for the coming year, but I’m also petrified for the world. I do love a challenge. And so looking and saying, I’ve kind of proven to myself and as a team we’ve proven to ourselves that we’re not going to go down without a fight. So, that’s pretty inspiring. I’m hoping that we just stick to the channels that were currently made, but if we have to pivot again by, in the next 12 months, so be it.

LD:

I guess you now know that you can do it.

JB:

Yeah. We’re pretty confident about that.

LD:

Finally, we’d love you to both reflect on another business or business leader whose ingenuity has inspired you during this time. So, going to you first, Joe, can you tell us about a business or a business person that’s inspired you?

JB:

Yeah, there’s actually two. There’s one here in Hamilton called ACLX and another one called ShowPro over in LA, and both of them have taken the same philosophy. They’re events businesses. Their businesses hit a wall, and the owners have stood up and said, “Look, I’m going to keep my core staff. And as many of my staff around as I can and invest in those guys and girls and in my team so that we’re better when we come out the other side of this.” And I was so encouraged to hear that from both of them because I looked at their business and went, “Man, at least I’ve got things I can pivot to, but I don’t know what they could.” And they have. They’ve just said, “Look, we’re going to re-enforce our great team and make it stronger so that we’re better for our customers in the long-term,” and I’m inspired by that.

LD:

Sure. That’s great. Olive, any thoughts in terms of where you draw inspiration, I guess.

OT:

I suppose, over to the States, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, it’s an ice cream business I’ve been following for ages. They’re another American wide one. They’ve got scoop shops closed everywhere. So they’ve moved, again, to that delivery model as well. They already had a pre-existing delivery model, but that’s really impressive to see that they seem to be still surviving, especially with America still being in lockdown as well.

LD:

Yeah. Look, we’ll wrap it there. Thank you very much. It’s been fascinating stories. So, thanks, Joe, and thanks a lot, Olive.

JB:

Thank you, Liam, and thank you, Olive. I’m looking forward to coming down to Dunedin and trying some good ice cream.

OT:

Sure. Same Joe, looking forward to seeing you in Dunedin.

LD:

That’s great. Look, thanks for listening and tune in again to the next episode. 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/podcasts.

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.