Spend With Us - Helping Businesses affected by Bushfire, Drought and COVID-19

Case Study: A great example of a purpose-driven initiative is Spend With Us, an online marketplace supporting rural businesses across Australia.

In 2020, an increasingly irreversible environmental crisis has been added to the global health crisis, which has brought the local economies of many countries to their knees, especially impacting small and medium-sized enterprises.

In 2020, an increasingly irreversible environmental crisis has been added to the global health crisis, which has brought the local economies of many countries to their knees, especially impacting small and medium-sized enterprises.

In 2020, an increasingly irreversible environmental crisis has been added to the global health crisis, which has brought the local economies of many countries to their knees, especially impacting small and medium-sized enterprises.

In Australia in particular, 2019-2020 has been one of the most challenging two-year periods the nation has ever witnessed. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the country had to face what is to date the biggest bushfire and drought season in centuries. The environmental crisis first and then the health crisis later have posed a serious threat to the survival of many rural communities.

In this context, the joint initiative of many passionate business owners resolutely committed to helping their communities has been fundamental to help small rural businesses survive. A great example of a purpose-driven initiative is Spend With Us, an online marketplace supporting rural businesses across Australia.

Founded in early 2020 by three passionate entrepreneurs from rural communities of Australia, the platform allows businesses affected by the bushfire, drought and COVID-19 to sell their locally-crafted products directly online, getting a vital income in a period of extraordinary economic downturn.

With 250,000 total sales registered through the website and more than 2 million website page views since its launch, the platform and online community is an extraordinary example of what can be achieved by adopting collaboration, digital innovation and a purpose-driven business mindset.

Unity is strength

In the fall of 2019 the long time friends Sarah Britz, a web designer from New South Wales and Lauran Hateley, a clinical psychologist from rural Victoria, were both experiencing a feeling of sadness and helplessness as they saw bushfires raging across the country.

Living in rural areas themselves, they were experiencing in first person the dramatic situation many families and rural businesses were living in: the bushfires and drought not only caused incalculable environmental damage but also a sudden and prolonged lack of income for many family businesses relying on tourism. Moved by their strong will to help their community, they developed the idea to create a platform where rural businesses could keep selling their products online in a period where in-store sales dropped dramatically.

Once I started speaking with business owners who were unsure how they would be able to pay their rent or staff due to the complete lack of tourism trade, which these towns rely on so heavily during the summer months, I knew I had to do something to help. - Sarah Britz, founder, as seen on kochiesbusinessbuilders.com.au

Leveraging on their personal skills and rural connections, Sarah and Lauren joined forces and launched the Spend With Us website in January 2020. Sarah developed the website during her free time, whilst Lauren supported it through social media, leveraging on the "Vic Spend With Us" Facebook page she created in late 2019 to support rural businesses in the region of Victoria.

In just a few weeks after the launch, their efforts were repaid: the initiative has been a great success in rural communities, with hundreds of businesses joining the platform and receiving great attention on social media and the news, which both contributed to the growth of the website.

Later in the year, Jenn Donovan, a passionate entrepreneur from a rural community of New South Wales, was also growing a community of people willing to support small businesses affected by the drought across Australia. Her 'Buy from a Bush Business' Facebook group, where rural businesses could promote their products went soon viral, growing to 260,000 members in only 6 months.

Inspired by the incredible work Sarah and Lauren were doing with the website, she initiated a conversation with them and over the summer of 2020, Sarah, Lauren and Jenn launched Spend With Us - Buy From a Bush Business, version 2.0 of the first website.

The platform is today's Australia's largest marketplace for rural businesses, with buyers from Australia around the world eager to support rural communities across all the rural areas of the country.

A platform open to all

With the slogan "connecting the city and the bush" Spend With Us provides an online platform where rural and regional business across Australia can create their own website store and sell their products directly to customers without intermediaries. In this way, anyone in Australia (and all over the world) can support struggling businesses in the most rural areas of the country.

As opposed to many e-commerce websites, on Spend With Us communication and transactions are handled directly between the business and the customer. Businesses can create their online store on the platform in a few simple steps, and start receiving orders, payments or even donations instantly. The signing up process is purposely straightforward, allowing even the least tech-skilled sellers to join.

Subscription to the platform is completely free, with businesses being only required to fill in a form for approval. Once their request has been approved, they are sent a link to an interactive page builder tutorial that helps them to customise their page, adding a business logo, a banner and a brief story about their business products on sale. As a final step, they are requested to add their products and a PayPal email account to manage sales.

The business model

The website is primarily conceived to be a free platform supporting businesses affected by bushfires, drought and COVID-19, to whom, a special "Bushfire Support Plan" is offered. Businesses who meet the eligibility requirements of the plan are granted complete free access to the platform and benefit from zero transaction fees for a period of 12 months from the date of subscription.

To ensure its own profitability and to maintain the website operative costs, the platform offers affordable paid membership plans for any other business that is non-eligible for the Bushfire Support Plan but still wishes to improve its online sales. Any business is in fact free to create an online store, but a 5% transaction fee per order is applied once the store makes more than $200 in total sales. Still, with such a low transaction fee, the platform represents an affordable alternative to traditional marketplaces, which traditionally apply fees up to 15% on transactions.

The platform also offers paid "VIP" and "Plus" plans were transaction fees are cancelled for an annual subscription of $147 and $ 97 respectively. The two plans also offer premium marketing features, such as featured products and business page on the website homepage, featured products in the newsletter, blog articles, podcast interviews and paid social media ads.

The dual approach adopted by Spend With Us, alternating free and paid subscription plans, not only ensures the long-term financial sustainability of the platform but also helps the website further grow and improve its services and online reach.

Giving back to rural businesses

The three founders Sarah, Lauren and Jenn were fully aware of the struggles small businesses have been facing during 2020. With their brick and mortar shops forced to close, first because of the bushfires and later for lockdown restrictions due to COVID-19, many businesses were in desperate need of selling their products and earn an income. Most of them though simply lacked the knowledge and/or the financial resources to rapidly and efficiently switch to e-commerce.

I realised that many businesses had no way to receive donations or continue to sell their products when their bricks and mortar stores were closed. Previously, their only sales would be made by customers physically visiting their shops, now consumers across Australia can purchase and enjoy their products - Sarah Britz, founder, as seen on kochiesbusinessbuilders.com.au

Also, many of the impacted businesses had no system in place to accept donations and payments online, and this represented a huge missed opportunity, as many Australians were eager to support businesses by those means.

The platform was created precisely with the aim of make up for the lack of knowledge and financial means of rural businesses, offering them the possibility to freely sell their products online and accept donations quickly and easily.

On the consumer side, the platform allowed many Australians who were eager to support bushfire affected businesses (but didn't know how) to find and directly help these businesses and communities. The one-stop e-commerce platform allowed them to discover and purchase products otherwise impossible to find.

Through online sales and donations, Spend With Us brought money back into communities that have had no tourism come through for months, saving many from bankruptcy.

Later in the year, when bushfires ceased and lockdown restrictions started to be lifted, the platform provided a significant secondary income for businesses across rural Australia, which could complement their in-shop sales with online sales through the website.

Going beyond e-commerce

Something that makes Spend With Us standing from other marketplaces is definitely its 'charitable' aspect. Going beyond pure e-commerce, the website provides heavily impacted businesses with concrete support not only through the sale of physical goods but by different means of financial support.

For example, with the 'Pay It Forward' initiative, anyone can purchase 'virtual' meals, services, or everyday essentials from one of the listed businesses that will in turn be passed on to a local in need. Every purchase can also be integrated with a personal message for the business, indicating for example to gift the purchased meal or service to a local family or to anyone in need.

To support especially tourism businesses, Spend With Us has also developed special vouchers that allow anyone to buy tours, experiences and activities in advance valid for an unlimited period of time. This initiative allows many small tourism businesses to obtain fundamental financial aid helping to contain the impacts of the crisis.

The role of Spend With Us though is not only limited to give businesses financial support through e-commerce but also to provide members with more 'psychological' support. Every business is in fact given access to a private B2B Facebook group, where Lauren, Sarah and Jenn run free workshops and support sessions for businesses, and where anyone can exchange tips and get free advice.

“Many rural and regional business owners have experienced a lot of trauma – some lost property in the bushfires and now they have the uncertainty of COVID-19 to contend with. Through our page, they’re able to reach out and connect with each other.” Sarah Britz, founder, as seen on on businessaustralia.com/

Looking into the future: a consumer shift

The 2019/2020 bushfire season and the COVID crises have further accelerated consumer trends that were already on the rise over the last decade: the increasing need for buying locally, choosing genuine products and supporting small businesses.

This difficult period has made Australians keener on buying domestic rather than international, looking more closely at where products are coming from, what is the real value behind products and how each purchase can support small communities across rural areas. At the same time, people are becoming less wasteful than they previously were, and tend to increasingly make more informed and conscious purchases.

Spend With Us, with its strong charitable and purpose-driven components, fits perfectly within this trend, tapping into the new needs of the market and creating great value for both businesses and consumers.

Being in tune with the latest consumer trends is a significant advantage for the platform, whose success is most probably only at the beginning. The platform is in fact constantly growing, with dozens of businesses joining every week, a growth that the three founders see with optimism and that they expect to be steady even when the crisis will be over.

“Our big, audacious goal is that we become the Amazon for rural and regional Australia and become a household name,” Jenn Donovan, founder as seen on smartcompany.com.au

The crisis has thought businesses that even when things will get back to normal, bricks-and-mortar shops, even if fundamental, can be efficiently supported by e-commerce, which can be incredibly beneficial to generate extra income and make businesses less dependent on the foot traffic they have traditionally relied on.

The bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis have demonstrated how important can be for small businesses to invest in online presence and digital capabilities to respond to sudden changes in demand, a factor that can be decisive during unexpected emergency situations but that can also make a big difference in the longer term as well

Key Takeaways

Published on:
June 2020
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