How Queensland startup Shop My Town is sticking to its vision of bringing life back to regional Australian towns
By Melody Jarvis | Founder, Shop My Town
Founding Shop My Town was an act of desperation, watching small towns suffering on a wide scale. I was so frustrated with being unable to find my local shops online, as they couldn’t afford websites. In Christmas 2014 I realised with shame that I was planning my yearly shopping trip to the city, and that I was the problem.
We all want to shop local, but we don’t. It is harder, escaping your town for a break is fun, and we’ve let a negative perception of local business sink in. And that’s a lot of money siphoning out of our communities every Christmas.
Although I had my grand idea already nutted out, I was so under resourced. Pushing a pram and using a dodgy smartphone, I started a Facebook page and chronicled my mission to shop local for Christmas.
I instantly catapulted these shops to fame. We still use the same technique today, simply walking into shops, taking photos of the owner, and several shots inside. Small town business have a lot of different things on offer, that local people don’t know about. The shoe shop will repair handbags, and sell hats, bags and jewellery. The phone shop has a 3D printer and a JP service. There is nothing but innovation and tenacity everywhere you look, but their greatest asset – their story – never gets told.
In April 2015 we launched the first Shop My Town website, hacked together on Squarespace, built into the early hours of the morning in the back room of my accoutant’s office. My playgroup friend, Olivia worked with me after her nightshift finished. Today, she’s my Team Leader.
The second month after launching, we had 10,000 visitors to the site. This is an astonishing result for a hyperlocal website, built for one small region.
By the middle of the year, I had a full time employee and we were being called out west, to help get the movement started in Wandoan. We quickly had 50 businesses on board, our product is a one page website on a high traffic site, with a blog and a social media training program. The product & program is a move to close the digital literacy gap for regional business.
By November the rapid growth and my failure to get a sales team launched saw the wheels quickly falling off. My full time employee took leave overseas and I couldn’t replace him. Personally, I was burning out trying to do sales, build product, and manage customer service. While we set up the business, we were also building it to scale, ready to rollout nationally.
I finally admitted defeat in December, firing staff, and closing the office for a month. The bank had shut the door on any more funding. It was the worst Christmas of my life and I’m so thankful my children are very young and won’t remember.
I didn’t stop to take a breath, getting on the road alone, selling advertising on our high traffic sites. I brought the remaining team back on board, and we made a plan to sell regional sales distributorships. Within a month, I had a banking contact pitch to buy the rights to sell nationally. It was a small initial investment, plus his resourcing the development of a national sales team.
After six weeks of negotiating, I had agreed to go right outside my vision, and take our product to the city. We have built an amazing product, and I had so much pride in giving it to small town business alone, as they are so disadvantaged in every other way. However the distributor felt it was not commercial to be limited to regional.
On the day we were meant to sign the contract, I made a final stand based on our ethics, as to what advertising we allow on our site. The deal immediately collapsed and as I had invested so much in going to the city, and getting ready for a large sales team, the dream would have ended.
I got straight on the phone and within five hours had an offer from a venture capitalist, a deal that has turned out to be five times more valuable than the one that fell over. We are now back in our vision, to save small towns for the future of our children, and I am not overstretched with resources.
I have boiled down to a very small team of four now, and outsource a lot of things. The journey has taught me that failure only comes to those who sit still. If you keep moving forward without fear of the mistakes, you will achieve your vision.
Staying inside your vision is also key. There are so many different ways to do things, so many rules you have to break as you re-make a world the way you see fit. I am obstinate in my belief that I will turn the tide for regional Australia and create a successful future for small towns.
My children depend on it.
Image: Melody Jarvis. Source: Supplied.