In this series Caitlin Salter talks to two retailers in their twenties about what drove them to start their businesses, George and Willy, and how the ideas of the young can revitalise New Zealand’s retail industry.
A cut above
Sometimes businesses just fall into place, as the founders of Mt Maunganui-based company George & Willy discovered. Will McCallum, 26, and his friend and business partner George Wilkins, 25, started designing and building homeware products in their parents’ sheds for a bit of fun.
When they realised they had no set plans for the future, the idea to turn their backyard hobby into a business popped up.
Four years on, George & Willy is based in its own workshop, and sells attractive and functional items all over the world, often to retail stores. Their biggest product is George & Willy’s brown paper rollers, which are distributed throughout the United States to commercial outfits such as cafes as well as in private homes.
Will McCallum explains they got lucky with their gap in the market.
How do you balance tradition in the industry with new ideas?
We started straight out of university and because we had no experience, we didn’t know what the traditions were. One way we are different from a traditional retailer is that we’ve never had a store - we keep it all online. It’s good as it allows us to sell all over the world. With 65 percent of our sales being exports, we couldn’t do a lot of what we do with a bricks and mortar shop.
What drove you to start your business?
We just started making things together, including a swing which we thought was cool to give away as Christmas presents. Because we had no plans after university we just kept it going. I studied design and marketing and George did management and design, but we both minored in design, which is useful because the business study is the really helpful thing. I don’t think it would work if we were both designers.
Do you think your age and perspective have contributed to the business’ success?
We’ve got a young crew - I’m the oldest at 26. Everyone is pretty up-to-date and digital savvy. We’ve mastered Facebook advertising and photography. Having a popular Facebook page has been the most important thing for credibility; it helps a lot when we’re trying to reach overseas markets. We’d probably be better off if we had someone a bit older. We joke that we need an adult around but we all work really hard.
Tell us about the support you’ve had.
We’ve had a couple of mentors in their 30s who have helped us - they’re the people we can ring up with questions. We haven’t done much planning, but we’ve tackled things as they come up. It’s all been organic and we want to keep that vibe.
What’s next for George & Willy?
We want to crack some big retailers in the US market. We’re trying to get a deal with our paper rollers - that’s our biggest product by far, which was a complete accident. We just knew they were cool, we didn’t know there was such a big market for them. One of our goals is to streamline the whole business and make it stress-free. We’ve had points of running around like headless chickens and it’s not fun - we want less of that.
What wisdom and skills can young retailers bring to the industry?
Being young is good because you don’t get stuck in your ways, you have to think outside the box - everyone these days has so much choice. People can be non-committal, but it’s also a good thing because there’s a broad scope.
How can different generations help each other improve Kiwi retail as a whole?
One thing we did is hold a Thought Lab - where we met in our workshop one day and invited as big a range of people as possible. Someone from every age bracket. We had a sausage sizzle and did brainstorming and tried to figure out what’s best for our business. It was a great success, I’d recommend it to all retailers – just get a bunch of people together for two hours and pick their brains.