Erica Stewart: I know, I feel like a dinosaur now! Hardtofind has always remained true to its original USP, which is connecting artisans and designers with customers looking for genuinely different products. Hardtofind was born out of the belief that people are looking for products that are unique and have a story to tell and they care about provenance and quality. Through technology, we knew we could connect all these creative businesses with those people.
That’s still the premise of the business today. I think we’re in an age now where we’re seeing the emergence of the microbrand and it’s great for us. We’re effectively an amalgamator of microbrands.
Curation is still absolutely key to what we do; we knock back 90 per cent of people who want to sell with us. It’s put us in good stead with bigger players coming into the market like Amazon. Hardtofind sits in its own niche in the market and we’ve been able to flourish in that space.
IRW: I feel like you’ve always had a good idea of the importance of aesthetics for your customer and having great imagery on your site.
ES: I have a background in magazines and before that it was advertising, so I’ve always had a good understanding of how to make a brand look good for the audience they’re trying to reach. We don’t compromise on that ever. So what’s evolved is our support for these small businesses which perhaps don’t get brand in the same way – they produce great products, but they don’t get digital photography or they might not have the best e-commerce platform of their own – and that’s where we come in. We recognise their product is great for our customers, so how can we help them across the business?
Photography is one of the things we do. We can organise it for them or we can give them tips so they know what we want. Then they can go away and resubmit imagery which can get them on our platform. I’m really strict about that sort of thing.
IRW: What are some of the other ways that you help your sellers?
ES: We have a bespoke CMS and sellers get access to their own little area within it, so they can manage their stores and revise copy. We have an inbuilt messaging system so they can communicate directly with customers we bring them through Hardtofind. We’ve built a self-serve marketing platform, so they can get involved in our various marketing activations and people can pick and choose from different packages.
Then we overarch that with regular seller newsletters with hints and tips, what’s trending this month, how to take a good picture, new features we’ve released on the site that they can utilise and other things like that.
IRW: It sounds like supporting small businesses is a big part of Hardtofind.
ES: Definitely, it’s what we’ve always done and continue to do. I think it’s getting harder to gain traction in the online world – it’s more competitive and more expensive. You have to pay to play, and I think for a small business it’s hard to compete. So Hardtofind gives them another avenue to market and it’s cost-effective because they don’t pay unless we make a sale for them. It’s great exposure for them and positions them against other like-minded brands; the sum of the whole helps to elevate everybody. Over the last decade, we’ve tried to pioneer the idea of helping small, creative businesses and hopefully we can do it more in many more years to come.
IRW: How many brands do you have on your site at the moment?
ES: We have a couple of thousand brands at the moment. Every day, we have applications and everyone has to go through a rigorous approval process – that includes interviewing them to make sure they are set up for logistics. Have they got enough stock for Christmas time or our other key gift-giving times? Is their photography nice? Is their product unique compared with what we sell on the site? We have to physically see samples so we can check quality. When we accept them, they can then start uploading images and selling product and we can start promoting them.
IRW: How has your customer base changed since you first launched?
ES: When we look at our analytics, we’re seeing a younger audience come through and so that requires us to rethink how we communicate to them and what our tone of voice is and we try different things. I think a lot more people now are turning to social media channels to discover new products and brands, versus when we started and were heavily advertising in print. That no longer works for us; there’s just been a shift in who our customers are and how they’re consuming media and finding new products. That’s
been a change for us, but the values of the customers haven’t changed – I think we’re still speaking to a customer who really cares about quality and provenance.
IRW: How have customer expectations changed?
ES: I think they want things quickly, but our customers are prepared to wait for something that’s bespoke. A lot of our products are personalised or made-to-order and because they come directly from a maker or an artisan, customers will wait longer for it to arrive – they get that something has to be hand-engraved, that it has to be measured to their wrist or whatever it may be. Anyone who doesn’t do personalised gifts, they have to ship the day the order comes, that’s part of the arrangement. I think that waiting for a non-personalised item to arrive within one or two days is acceptable. That’s probably the main thing that I’m seeing in terms of what customers want – speed. We’ve never been competitive on price, because it’s not that kind of product we sell. There are a lot of unique products on Hardtofind that are exclusive to us.
IRW: Tell me about your Instant Gift Finder and how it works.
ES: I found that even though I own an online gift marketplace, I was rushing off to someone’s birthday and going, ‘Shit, I haven’t got a gift.’ Then it occurred to me there are probably a lot of people like me.
But say you’re going to a dinner party and you’d like to take a candle for the hostess as a last-minute gift. You can give gift vouchers and they’re great, people can buy what they want with them, but there’s something impersonal about them. So we wanted to merge instant gifting with the voucher concept. So instead of me giving you a voucher to buy something, I’ve already chosen it for you.
Say I find you a beautiful necklace on Hardtofind and via our instant gift feature. I get to choose if I either send you the email to say I just bought you this necklace, or I can print out the voucher and gift it to you. To claim the necklace, the email or voucher will say it’s waiting for you at checkout, you just have to type in a code. There’s credit on your account for the price of the necklace and you simply press ‘purchase’. But if it’s not to your taste, you still have that credit to buy something else.
IRW: You guys have done some physical activations in the past too, right? Where are you at with that?
ES: We’ve done some Christmas markets which were good fun. We looked at it as a potential new business opportunity and it was definitely worthwhile, but it was a lot of work and we decided they’d be best as an infrequent activation. We hired a space at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney and set up stalls. We had about 70-80 sellers selling their wares. For
us, it was a PR and marketing exercise rather than it being about the sales. It was a way to bring the brand to life and take the online experience offline and meet with the Hardtofind community, listen to their feedback and have them meet the small creative businesses we support directly. It was a nice event. Feedback was really positive, people loved meeting the sellers and the sellers loved meeting the customers.
It’s great to pick up and touch a product to get a sense of how beautiful the quality of a product is. I think that’s something being a pureplay retailer doesn’t give you, so I think there’s an opportunity for us to rethink how that might work for us commercially. Definitely, we’d look at doing it again during key gift-giving times moving forward.
IRW: You don’t see a permanent physical space in the future?
ES: I’ve always envisaged Hardtofind as a physical space and I think the markets were our test as to how it might look. It’s not a ‘no’ or ‘never’, it’s a ‘watch this space’.
IRW: Have you seen any change in the business since the coronavirus outbreak?
ES: Not yet, but we’re preparing for change. We think it might get worse before it gets better. I’ve prepped the team and it has made us reconsider where we’re spending money, because if we go into a downturn, we need to prep for it. You want it to be business as usual, but at the back of your mind, you’re thinking it’s probably not going to be. At the moment it is, but markets are crashing and who knows what it’ll do to people’s spending in the next few months?
IRW: There are quite a few more online marketplaces now. What are some of the unique challenges around running a marketplace?
ES: I think differentiation is key. We’ve worked hard in the last 18 months to work with various sellers on original Hardtofind product and it’s certainly a growth area for us. And again, it’s how you maintain the brand and speak to the customer – it’s all the things that make a good online experience that come into play. You just can’t drop the ball in any of those areas, even if there is a downturn because of coronavirus. We always have to produce beautiful emails. We always have to ensure our curation is tight and we’re speaking to the customer in the way they like. It’s basic stuff, but it’s what separates the good retailers from the bad ones.
Gifting has always been about more than just the gift, but the experience of giving it, for both the receiver and giver. You want that whole experience to be quite special and meaningful. In terms of what’s selling on Hardtofind, they’re the products that can be customised in a meaningful way, with a special date or a couple’s name or a map or the coordinates of where you first kissed someone. What we’re noticing is people don’t want to give a gift for the sake of it. They want it to be a keepsake of sorts and I think we’ve always been ahead of the game there in terms of personalisation. A lot of people are doing it now, so I think that’s a shift.
The market’s more competitive than it’s ever been and with all these microbrands and the fragmentation of media, it’s harder to capture people’s attention and find customers but again, if you stay true what the brand stands for and we make sure that we’re instilling those values right through the business, there will always be that niche space for a business to thrive.
IRW: What are some of your plans for the business this year?
ES: Part of why we launched [organic cotton period production subscription business] Juuni was because we were looking at what we’ve built up at Hardtofind and what our great assets are. We have this very robust custom-built marketplace software that is superior to what you can buy off-the-shelf, a huge database of small, creative businesses and female customers.
We began thinking about how we can service these female customers with other products that they might need. I can see other marketplaces like Kogan and Catch that are offering phone plans and insurance and those don’t sit with our ethos, but then I thought, ‘How can I get these customers of mine shopping again and again without having to constantly bombard them with advertising?’ And around that time, my personal stash of period products had disappeared because my 17-year-old daughter had taken them. I thought, ‘That’s annoying. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could just get her
products delivered to her without having to think about it so I don’t have to constantly remember to buy more?’
That’s how the whole concept of Juuni came to be. And what I love about the business is it’s fulfilling a need in terms of convenience, but I also realised there was a gap in the organic market for a period brand that speaks to younger women both in terms of voice and design. And it’s a concept that I could leverage my Hardtofind team and database to build.
Juuni launched right in the middle of the bushfires and right before coronavirus. I launched Hardtofind in the GFC and now I’ve launched Juuni in what could perhaps be the next GFC but it’s going really well and we’re not spending any money on advertising because we don’t have to. I don’t have to spend money on additional team members, because I’ve already got one in place. Hardtofind is humming along nicely and I’ve been able to leverage what I’ve got to create a new revenue stream and area of growth.
IRW: I think it’s such a missed opportunity there aren’t many period products that speak to girls. You could get your period when you’re 12 and suddenly you’ve got a brand like Carefree talking to you.
ES: Our core target for Juuni is 15-35 and it is broad. But also, I’m a mum with three kids, two of whom are daughters, and I want them to grow up feeling comfortable with their bodies and what happens as they become women. I want to open up that conversation at home and shift the dialogue away from it being an embarrassing shameful thing. Let’s make it something to look forward to, that’s why the Juuni brand is so fun and colourful and our boxes come with free gifts.
It’s something you get excited about when you open them up. We’re doing things that other brands aren’t doing. Most women need a mix of regular and super or mini and regular tampons. You normally have to buy a two-pack, but then you’ll only get through half. We’ve made our packs mini, so you can mix and match them. We built our online system from scratch. We looked at the other subscription software out there and there was nothing that would let us customise our subscription the way we wanted. We wanted to make sure that every woman that subscribes to Juuni gets exactly what she needs for her cycle, and she has the ability to change what’s in her box, so if she’s going away for a month, she can skip for a month. It needed that level of personalisation so it’s a worthwhile expense.