How did you come to set up International Volunteer HQ?
I quit my first job out of university after three days and wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. So I headed back to the family farm in Taranaki to figure that out. I thought I'd go overseas and volunteer as a way to push myself out of my comfort zone and have a great experience.
But when I went to do it I was really shocked firstly at the fact I had to pay to do it - unless I wanted to commit about a year of my life to the likes of the VSA - and secondly at how expensive it was.
I ended up teaching at a school in the middle of Kenya, and the whole thing was brilliant except what I'd had to pay for it. So while I was there I began to do a bit of cost analysis and I realised there was a pretty large discrepancy between what I'd paid and the actual cost of the programme.
I backpacked through South America on my way back to New Zealand and started thinking about the possibility of starting something that was more affordable and transparent in its pricing structure. And when I came back to New Zealand I kicked it off.
At the time I was 23, and I knew no one else starting a business, let alone on an international scale. So to go to my parents and borrow the money, and then go to the countries where I thought these programmes should be run in and try to pitch an idea without even having a website was a pretty big challenge.
But I got those initial partnerships set up, came back and had a website made, taught myself the basics of online marketing and we launched in the middle of 2007.
What international markets are you now in?
We have two markets: there are the countries where we have programmes that people are going to - and we're now based in 30 different countries. Initially we just started in developing countries, but over time we've started to push the idea that you can travel anywhere in the world and do something good. So we've just opened in Italy, we opened in Fiji a few months ago, and we're also hoping to open in Australia and New Zealand this year.
The other side is where our customers are coming from. Ninety per cent come from the US, Canada, UK and Australia. But we're also seeing China growing at a rate of knots. It's grown to the extent that we've started a kind of sister company called China Social HQ, which provides social media marketing services to the Chinese market.
At the heart of our marketing is a really strong social media campaign that fosters our community, creating thousands of ambassadors for our brand. The issue we had with China is that none of those channels we use, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram, are actually available in China.
So we've had to develop our presence on new platforms there - the likes of Sina Weibo, WeChat and Youku. Again we found it really hard to find a company that was doing it affordably but also effectively, so we decided to start our own.
How have you gone about establishing these global markets for your business?
We've gone from placing 400 people in the first year to over 13,000 a year now. I think our success has a lot to do with a lot of things coming into play at the same time. The volunteer travel industry is developing really quickly and we're at the forefront of that now, given we're the world's largest company operating in this space.
So we've tried to take the lead in developing the industry and setting best practice for what is a good volunteer travel programme. And I have no doubt that without social media we wouldn't be as successful as we are now.
As well as managing growth, what have been the main challenges in terms of internationalising your business?
We're based in New Plymouth, and that's been interesting trying to grow an international company out of a provincial town. Mainly that's been around convincing people we're legitimate. We've developed as a business during a time when online businesses are just coming to the fore and people are starting to feel comfortable with online spending.
So to have people put their trust in a business that's based in New Zealand that's going to send themselves or their son or daughter into a country like Kenya, has required us to establish a level of trust. That's where social media has been so good for us.
Another big challenge has been managing the consistency of the experience with the programmes. We've had to try to find a strategy and system to realise how a programme should best be run in a particular country and we spend a lot of time on the ground with local teams to establish those norms.
What's a key piece of advice you'd have for other internationalising businesses?
If you understand your market, have a clear idea of what you're trying to market and how you'll do that you've won half the battle. You can have the best product or service in the world, but if you don't know how you're going to effectively get in front of the right people then you're going to really struggle.
Coming up in Your Business: What are some of the challenges of developing new products when you're running a small business? How have some business owners managed to do this - and fund it - while still keeping their day to day operations going? If you've got a story to tell drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org