A move to Wairarapa brings lots of pluses – long hot summers, plenty of fresh local produce and a strong sense of community are just some of them. But there are challenges, too. Along with the sea being a good hour’s drive away for most and ethnic eating a little light on the ground, local job opportunities can sometimes be harder to come by.
For some people, this means a commute over the Rimutaka Hill to Wellington and others can shift their work from someone else’s office to their home. But for a number of new imports to Wairarapa, it’s an opportunity – often through necessity – to start their own business and do something completely different.
For Karyn Carter, the move to Featherston was motivated by a need to change her lifestyle, due to illness. Seeking a slower pace and fewer demands, Karyn moved over from Wellington and away from a fulltime career in marketing in 2013.
“Because I hadn’t been well, it was really simple – I needed something small I could do from home,” she says.
After winning a kitchen whizz in one competition, and a cake mixer in another, what Karyn came up with was handmade, gourmet dog biscuits.
“When I shifted, I was struck by all the amazing fresh produce over here and the fact there were all these dogs – outside the supermarket, outside the pub, in the cars. So I thought perhaps I can use my new kit to make dog biscuits – despite the fact I’d never baked before.”
Karyn made a calculated decision – she saw an opportunity and decided to take it.
It took six months from conception to the first of her ‘doggytreats’ biscuits going on sale at a local market – and it was six months of hard work.
“A lot of people say to me ‘I’ve thought about making dog biscuits’. But it’s not that easy. A lot of effort went into this. All the recipes are mine – I did a lot of research about what was good for dogs. The biscuits are all grain and gluten-free. The flours can be hard to work with, and I hand-grind the flax and sunflower seeds myself,” she says.
“I wanted [the biscuits] to look good, I wanted people to feel they were good enough to eat themselves.”
Working from a business plan, Karyn took a strategic approach. She thought about her market and had a good feel for what the product should look like. Little things, like resealable bags, means the product is practical for dog owners as well as good for the dogs.
“A lot of time was spent making sure the label looked right – I didn’t have the money to get it wrong.”
Now Karyn sells her doggytreats at Wairarapa markets, local vets’ practices, supermarkets and online. A recent big win has been getting her product into New World in Thorndon – and the biscuits sold out within two weeks. But although she’s reaching further afield, Karyn attributes a lot of her success to local support, like the Featherston baker who advised her on equipment, and the butcher at Fresh Choice in Greytown who answered her questions about various kinds and cuts of meat.
“I have found the people of Wairarapa to be incredibly friendly and happy to be approached for advice, which is exactly what you need when starting up a venture,” says Karyn.
For Hayden Frew, a move to Wairarapa was what led to the opening of the Martinborough Brewery.
Like Karyn, he also identified a gap in the market. He’d been tasting Martinborough wines with friend, and now business partner, Stephen Fox (aka Fish). They talked about how great it would be to do the same for local craft beers.
“We decided the region needed a great beer. We’d seen growth in the craft beer market and thought it would fit well in a wine town like [Martinborough],” says Hayden.
Hayden had worked establishing and running small businesses for 10 years. He’d gone on to start his own engineering business in Wellington but, following a move over the hill at the end of 2007, he was looking for opportunities in Wairarapa.
In 2012, Fish and Hayden decided to set the brewery up as a hobby business – in a shed on Hayden’s lifestyle block – to test the market. Keen craft beer drinkers, neither of them had brewed before but they were pragmatic about which beers to try first.
“We started with a dark beer. The water profile here suits dark beer, similar to London and Dublin.”
Within months, Black Nectar, their oatmeal stout, became the first commercial beer Fish and Hayden sold at the inaugural Greater Wellington Brewday in Martinborough in April 2013.
But running a brewery was hard work, with the pair working ten to eleven hours a day each weekend after a full week at their regular jobs. And there was more to think about than just making beer.
Even though it was in a shed on Hayden’s land, the brewery needed resource consent and the thumbs up from all their neighbours. Hayden also needed to be licensed to sell alcohol, and right from the start, he was thinking about the logo, the branding and the website.
“A lot of people are good at [producing what they make] but not at setting up a business. We were quite business focused,” says Hayden.
The business focus paid off and, in 2014, the business had grown to such a level that to keep up with demand, Hayden and Fish needed to invest in a bigger brewery.
“We couldn’t spend all those hours [brewing] without a return. It was pretty futile making small batches. We either needed to give it up, or take it to the next level.”
So they bought a 1200 litre brewery and committed to building a retail outlet in Martinborough – The Tasting Room. Once the Tasting Room opened in January 2015, Hayden’s wife gave up her job at Mitre 10 and took over front of house.
“For that first year [in The Tasting Room] I was struggling to have enough time to brew. I was still juggling two businesses,” says Hayden.
At the beginning of April 2016, Hayden took the plunge and sold his shares in the engineering business. It meant he and Janelle were now solely reliant on the Martinborough Brewery to support themselves.
“It was a lifestyle choice. The other business had a better long term return but needed to grow internationally which meant more complexity, more overseas travel, more time away from home. I’ve found since I have given up the other business I’m more content, happier. It’s a nice balance between the physical work in the brewery and then the office work.”
Jennifer Taylor is a business advisor based in Wairarapa – she’d approve of Hayden’s rational approach. She moved just outside of Masterton five years ago with an intention of setting up her own business, and also enjoying a “more rural life”. She now runs WaiBiz, providing support and training for businesses.
“There are definitely limited jobs here, so coming [to Wairarapa] with an idea and a passion for business is good,” she says. “There are certainly good support networks like the Wairarapa Chamber of Commerce and all the towns have business groups.”
But she cautions people to think carefully about setting up on their own. There are challenges like patchy digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, which can be limiting for businesses with a heavy reliance on a good internet connection. Limited trains to Wellington outside of regular commuting times, occasional problems with access over the Rimutaka Hill and no direct flights to Auckland from Masterton can make linking with bigger markets more complicated.
But that’s no reason not to investigate the possibility of starting a business.
“So many people don’t follow their dreams. But if you are looking at [your business] as a sole form of income then think very carefully. Do planning and research before you dive in. A common problem I see is that people don’t think through how to market themselves. I tell people to visualise your ideal customer and keep that person in mind,” she says.
She can see why Wairarapa has so many boutique producers, like Karyn and Hayden.
“[These artisan businesses] are called cottage industries for a reason – most need some land and you need to like a ‘cottage’ lifestyle. By that, I mean a simpler life and a bit less money.
“When you’re in your 40s, 50s or 60s, you want to stop and smell the roses. We have different priorities.”
Tips on starting your own business:
Ask for advice. Do it once and do it right.
Hayden Frew, Martinborough Brewery
Have a partnership where each of you has different strengths, or get some expertise so you can focus on what you’re good at. A retail model worked well as money came in every day, which was good for cash flow.
Jennifer Taylor, Waibiz
Put a hold on the bells and whistles (like a flash logo and a business card). You can pour a lot of money down the drain before you know you have a viable product. Relationships are important due to the provincial nature of Wairarapa. Work on your networking.