Small business: Mature owners - Rhondda Sweetman & Justine Kingi

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In 2001, Rhondda Sweetman and Justine Kingi, two sisters, developed early online retailer, KiwiArtz.co.nz when they were in their 50s. They sold the business ten years later, in 2011

Rhondda Sweetman and Justine Kingi of KiwiArtz.co.nz.
Rhondda Sweetman and Justine Kingi of KiwiArtz.co.nz.

Why did you start this ambitious online retail business as you were heading towards your retirement, years before anyone knew much about the area?

We began it at a time when we had eased up on our full time jobs. Rhondda had been head of science at McCauley High School and was then doing part time teacher training at AUT University. Justine lectured in social policy and social work on the Bachelor of Social Practice degree at Unitec Institute of Technology. We both had an undeveloped interest in NZ art and craft and, with the then well-publicised advent of on-line shopping, thought this would be an interesting way of sharing this work with the world.

What was the timing like?

Despite our interest in online selling, this form of retailing was, in 2001, still in it's very early days as was the internet itself. Nobody knew a great deal about their possibilities.

People were also still very apprehensive about revealing their credit card and other personal details to retailers such as ourselves and were wary of the retailers honesty in delivering the goods they had paid for. For this reason, when we opened our online shops, we were very careful to detail our address and contact details, and provide photos of ourselves on our sites, so they would know we were real people. We felt like pioneers in the field.

Initially we were lucky to have Justine's husband Sydney, who had extensive computer knowledge, guide us in the field and build our first website.

However, as the business built up and sales increased, we discovered we needed automated web sites developed by professionals in the field to make it much easier to enter and change data and sell our products. It followed that over time we learned a huge amount about how to operate both a these systems although as it was a time of great fluidity in the computer world there was always so much more to learn than we could keep up with. As older people, we had to work very hard at trying to understand these new worlds as opposed to the knowledge and skills we saw among the so-called computer "natives" who were moving into the workforce.

How did you finance the business?

We started from the bottom up by putting small amounts of our own money into the business as it was needed. Over time this was supplemented by sales, mainly from our online shops but also from those made on Trade Me and eBay.

Popular selling pieces from our Kiwiartz site were Maori designed greenstone and bone carvings, other iconic NZ silver and gold jewellery, art glass and ceramics although over the course of the 10 years we noticed many different fashions among buyers for different genres. Tony Street's nude copper sculptures were one of our early best sellers although the fashion for these declined as architectural styles changed. We had to keep up with these.

From our Fromnz site, we sold many iconic NZ products such as clothing, sheepskin boots, possum fur, merino mix garments, NZ honey and many more. In the initial stages the low New Zealand dollar against the US dollar worked in our favour which made it very easy for us to sell into America but we also learnt that the dollar had a most unfortunate tendency to fluctuate.

Our primary selling relationship with most artists was as a broker in that they shipped the goods either directly to the buyer or to us for transhipment when a sale was made. All our suppliers were very reliable in this respect. We maintained a very small stock of popular selling items which we would ship directly.

Maintaining a large warehouse of goods was never envisaged by us.

How successful were you?

We got to the stage where we were representing over 100 artists and other suppliers. Some of these people and manufacturers did very well out of the business. As the business grew we were consistently busy all year round and rushed off our feet ahead of Christmas and other public holidays. In addition to ourselves we employed another worker for about 30 hours a week and could have done with employing yet more staff. We also automated our accounting system as our accounts became more complicated and purchased other systems to help with various aspects of the business, for example, Photoshop.

What were the challenges?

The big challenge was learning how to market the business to the world. We quickly learnt that internet marketing, for example, through Google Adwords, was far superior to any paper based marketing and advertising. Juggling time commitments was also always a problem as Justine was still in her lecturing job and Rhondda was doing other part time work . Fraud was something we had to learn about early on but it was never an overwhelming problem as long as we kept our wits about us. We learn't how to differentiate potentially fraudulent orders from those that were genuine. The introduction by banks of security numbers on credit cards was a godsend. If an order looked strange and the customer couldn¹t supply this number we immediately knew they didn't have the card they were using in front of them. It also helped that goods were only shipped after the credit card had been processed although in saying that it often took banks several weeks to find out that fraudulent cards had been used. If that happened we, the supplier, would have the payment withdrawn from our bank account.

How did running an online retailer affect your lifestyle?

It gave us a lot more flexibility. Nowadays with smartphones this would be even more so as one could run the business from anywhere although an office base, as we had, would still be necessary for receiving and despatching orders. Having said that, it was also quite hard work as keeping up to date with the hundreds of products we advertised and supplied was very demanding. We are both lucky to have supportive husbands.

What did it do for you personally?

Learning new things as you get older is incredibly important. We both have a can-do attitude. We knew very little about computers but had enough self-belief and nous to give it a try. We weren't intimidated although in hindsight it is probable that we didn¹t foresee the potential pitfalls and challenges which lay ahead of us. Rhondda has maintained an interest in the field as she now co-manages the Devonport Rotary website.

She recognises she has skills in this area and can talk to others about it.

Any tips to others thinking of setting up an online business as you approach retirement?

We both recommend starting such a business taking an inductive, building it up as one goes, low cost approach. As we were developing ours we found ourselves competing with a Telecom funded internet "Emall" type site, Ferrit.co.nz, which had many millions of dollars poured into it. It is worth noting that Kiwiartz is still going strong while that site is no longer around.

It was a fascinating job to have. We loved working with the artists and other suppliers.

They were very good to us as we also tried to be with them. If you have something to sell that the rest of the world wants, go for it. Although we were fortunate to receive very good advice along the way, we also learnt hugely from our mistakes. But isn't that always the way?


Next week: Aucklanders will have noticed that there are all kinds of restaurants springing up at the moment - Peter Gordon's in the Sky Tower, Al Brown has a new place opening up next to The Depot, and the Cityworks Depot complex has attracted the likes of the Food Truck's Michael van de Elzen. I want to hear from hospitality businesses who are building something they think will last and the challenges out there. How do they keep in touch with customers between meals? Meanwhile I'm trying out My Food Bag this week. Are these kinds of businesses threatening restaurants? Is it a replacement to eating out? I will report back.

- NZ Herald

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