Within five years of finding himself out of work as a lawyer in New Zealand, Tim Brown is running New Zealand’s newest daily deals site, Wishper. His story is a retail rollercoaster involving casual labouring jobs in Australia; Groupon; the modeling industry; retail supply, and Chinese super-retailer Alibaba.
The story behind Wishper begins with a redundancy. Before 2010, Brown was working as a lawyer in positions which involved the Ministry of Justice and the Hui Taumata Trust. Political changes meant Brown lost his job, which threw him completely.
“I didn’t know where to go. I had become specialised, I had all these skills and I didn’t want to start again.”
Feeling directionless and “very low”, Brown decided to head to Australia, where he worked casual labouring jobs. Speaking of the kind of work he did at this time, Brown says it was very basic: “I’d get a phone call saying something like ‘Hey, we need someone to move some lawnmowers from one factory to another.’”
The transition from the high-flying life Brown used to have was rough. He was too unhappy for a full-time position, but over a year or so, Brown regained his equilibrium and started to think about his next move.
Brown says he has been entrepreneurial ever since childhood, when he sold his mother’s pot plants from the front of the family home. Brown felt comfortable with many aspects of founding a business, but knew he had to master sales and marketing if any business he founded was to succeed. To that end, he joined global daily deals site Groupon’s Australian sales team in 2011.
Brown, 34, describes himself as “a slow mover on the whole internet thing” and not naturally drawn to IT or ecommerce. At Groupon, he learned all about web-based businesses worked, and watched closely as the company moved from selling experiences into product sales.
At the time, Brown says, market conditions for Groupon’s suppliers in China were very favourable. Competition was high and deal sites would all move quickly on any opportunity: “They just signed on anyone in China.”
He felt he could do better. By the start of 2012, Brown had convinced his fiancee Kristina Pham to go into business with him and the pair arranged for him to move to Huzhou, a tier four city of three million people in Northern China.
Brown had a small amount of experience with China. Back in his lawyer days, he had run a uniform-supply business on the side, and had visited the country to deal with suppliers. Huzhou was chosen because a Chinese friend Brown had met at university lived there – the pair remain good friends.
Pham joined Brown in Huzhou once he was settled. She has been vitally important to the business, Brown says: “None of this would be real without her… she has made all of this work.” The pair are to be married in Thailand in February 2016.
Brown says picking a smaller Chinese city for a base turned out to be a great move.
“Lots of Kiwis go to a big city in China, but there you’re a really small fish in the biggest pond you’ve ever been in.”
As one of very few foreigners in Huzhou, Brown was interesting to potential business partners and various other Chinese businesses. Among other adventures, Brown ran a modeling studio for a while. There he made friends with Patrick Rosevear, a Kiwi living in China who found fame on mega dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao and is now making it big in showbusiness.
Brown says a firm called EMS China Post gave him a warehouse and access to other resources because they felt he represented a unique opportunity. With its support, Brown founded a supply company called Goodz.com.au.
Brown had pictured his retail business as being based online right from the start, as he perceived the retail sector as being difficult to break into. The niche he had identified was “fast movement of an undefined number of goods”. Through Goodz.com.au, Brown began supplying goods to group buying sites across 16 countries.
Around this time, Brown connected with Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce site taking the world by storm. The site had 8.5 million users as of June this year and on ‘Singles Day’ last year, it reported sales of more than $9 billion.
“I was using their services a lot and went to Hong Kong to chat with them,” Brown says.
He was invited to a conference for other buyers, and was used as a “reference point” in marketing material for Alibaba. Brown didn’t get to meet Alibaba’s famous founder Jack Ma, but did shoot a piece to camera in Ma’s office. Here's a video shot at the Hangzhou campus.
Six months after Goodz.com.au’s launch, a Chinese firm approached Brown with a partnership opportunity. The firm did similar work to his but at a much greater volume, meaning it could offer its clients lower prices. Joining the firm allowed Brown access to better cashflow as he could sell items without purchasing them first.
Brown changed the name of the company to 360dsc.com, and when he and Pham moved back to New Zealand this year, it became nztradingsolutions.co.nz. It continues to supply Groupon and GrabOne in New Zealand.
Wishper was set up in February of this year. Since he already had the supply chain covered, Brown says, it made sense to set up a vertically-integrated distribution outlet. The site took 10 months to build, and was launched two weeks ago.
The response so far has been good, Brown says. Asked whether the market has room for another daily deals site, he says he doesn’t believe so, and adds that he doesn’t think this model is what the market wants either. Instead, Brown is aiming to sell his goods at the lowest possible price while mixing in some deals, leaning more towards the model adopted by large ecommerce sites such as The Iconic and Book Depository.
He stresses that the Wishper team does not see itself as competing with existing group buying or daily deal sites, and says the companies he supplies, which include Groupon and GrabOne, don’t object to his site.
“We see what we are creating as a new sales platform using some techniques that customers will be used to seeing, like weekly deals.”
Brown’s motto for Wishper is “No surprises”. He isn’t impressed with hidden fees and “strange [charges] added on at the end” of the purchase process by other sites, and aims to be as open as possible with customers about Wishper’s shipping costs.
Those who subscribe to its newsletter get free shipping forever, and browsers can choose from landed stock and dropship stock according to how impatient they are.
Brown is currently seeking to attract more quality Kiwi suppliers to Wishper. The increased profit margin provided by selling his own goods means he has more flexibility to offer suppliers, he says. Brown doesn’t see a disconnect between his stated aim of selling his goods at the lowest possible price and this push for quality – he believes he can create “huge value” with packaging and combined offers.
“We think we can reconcile the usual concerns around pricing by packaging together unique deals,” Brown says. “The race to the bottom is pretty scary. You can create unique value for customers without having to race to the bottom every time.”