Founder: Nicola Todd
What problems do you solve and what products or services do you sell?
Zay sell practical, durable and beautiful bags that support our customers to be kinder to our planet by providing an alternative to single use plastic bags, while improving livelihoods for the weavers that create them by hand in Myanmar.
The fact that I’m able to provide income security to the weavers and their families is why I really love my business. I have big visions for these weavers, including a community centre and more. This is what keeps me going when things get tough.
Who and where are your target customers?
My customers are people who really care where their products are made, how they’re made and who’s making them.
They understand that you can do good in the world through thinking about what you’re purchasing and consciously taking the time to purchase things that might be a little bit more expensive, but that create good in the world.
They vary hugely in terms of demographics. I did a market recently where I sold bags to mostly women, but I had some men purchase them, as well as a dad who bought a little basket for his five-year-old, for example. Then I had a fisherman buy one the other day because they’re easy to clean. So it’s really anyone who carries bags.
How and when did you first come up with the idea for your business?
I was living in Myanmar at the time (I lived here for three years) and I’d use these incredible bags when I’d visit the local markets.
I wanted to see who made them so I went searching. It took me about three months to find the first weaver. No one could understand why I wanted to meet the people who made them, but I was really curious.
The weaver I met was working in front of her house. She was using all upcycled materials which I just loved. So I got her to make me some bags to take back home to my friends and family in New Zealand.
Then I thought, ‘Actually I might do some markets in New Zealand’, which I did during the two months of the year that I lived here. They were really popular, so I began thinking about creating a business out of it.
When Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand was going plastic bag free, I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this aligns with everything I want to do. I want to support these incredible people that I’ve met in Myanmar and I want to create a connection between myself and Myanmar’.
I’ve lived in other countries and when you come back home, it really is hard to keep that connection alive. The people in Myanmar had been so amazing to me. I wanted to give something back.
So I decided that day that I’d do it. I rung my husband and said, ‘Oh my gosh, these are just such a perfect alternative to plastic bags and such a great shopping bag. I just know the timing will be amazing’. Then I went for it.
What are three things about your business that you are proud of?
1. That I’ve been able to provide income to the weavers who previously had no means to other markets and limited ability to increase their incomes.
2. The incredible people I’ve found to help me along the way who believe in Zay and the connections I’ve made in New Zealand and Myanmar, which have blown me away.
I feel so appreciative of organisations like SODA Inc that support new businesses in New Zealand, my incredible business mentor Brianne West who gave her time, quality advice and encouragement, and my Te Mata women’s business group. Not to mention all the family friends and talented freelance contractors who also believe in what Zay is doing and have offered advice, time and connections. It takes a community!
3. Our growing list of stockists – since March last year we have stocked almost 100 retail stores across New Zealand with enquiries from Australia and other countries. We also went online with an Ecommerce store during the first lockdown selling across New Zealand and Australia.
How do you market your business and what advice do you have for others around marketing?
I think good photography is really important when it comes to marketing. So is social media (I wish I had gotten onto that earlier).
Hiring the right people when it comes to marketing is also key. It can be really hard, financially, when you’re starting a business and you sometimes feel like you’re taking a big risk to pay people, who’ve got incredible talent, what they’re worth and to get them onside and onboard with what you’re doing. But it’s worth it because then you’re working with people you have that connection with and who want to see you succeed.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your business so far?
Logistically, it can be really challenging working in New Zealand with people from Myanmar, particularly transportation and communication with the weavers. COVID has obviously made it difficult – not being able to travel to Myanmar adds to that.
What is the biggest entrepreneur lesson you would like to share with other kiwis thinking of starting their own business?
Find a product that people are actually prepared to pay for. Not just one that just your friends think is a good idea or a lovely thing to do. Test it on people who will tell you the truth rather than what you want to hear. People have got to be prepared to spend money on what you’re doing or it’s not going to succeed.