Eight years on: growing a digital marketplace with hardtofind

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When Erica Stewart launched online marketplace hardtofind.com.au in November 2008, she was confident that it could turn into a very special and successful business. We caught up with the business on season 4 of Kochie’s Business Builders, and today we revisit the business to see how the revolutionary retail concept has become a multi-million dollar earner that’s growing strong.

“Eight years on, I now have 13 full time staff, an office in Manila with 10 full time staff, a multi-million dollar turnover and no outside investors. Earlier this year I was listed as one of 7 entrepreneurs to watch in 2016 by the SMH, so I’ve come a long way since those early days,” said Stewart.

“I took a pretty big leap of faith,” said Stewart, who used her maternity leave in 2010 to make the business her priority. It was during this time she realised the true potential of the idea and decided not to return to her media sales job.

hardtofind specialises in sourcing clever, fun, gorgeous quality gifts and lifestyle finds from small creative businesses across Australia and the wider world. Bringing them together on one tightly curated site, they make it easy for customers to find fresh and unique products with a story and a soul – plus connect with the makers directly for a much more personal and charming shopping experience.

It’s this mix of ingenuity and genuine connection that Stewart believes help hardtofind to stand apart.

“For us it’s about that moment of discovery. There’s a sense that customers are becoming fatigued with the same-old mainstream offering. We’re building a business that disrupts the traditional retail experience by connecting customers who are hungry for something genuinely different with independent craftspeople and manufacturers from around the world – all hand-selected by us. As a brand we’re all about things that are fresh and new and interesting and remarkable, not only in the makers we work with and the products we select, but also in the way we run our business.”

And it’s working. hardtofind has gone from strength to strength since its inception, experiencing annual growth of more than 100 percent in the five years from 2008-2013 alone.

“As a business, we’re constantly evolving and innovating, with a big focus on brand, technology and service. We continually look for ways to make the shopping experience better for our customers, the brand more engaging and our customer service even better than it already is (our feedback score sits at 95%+). Driving traffic and customer acquisition is only half the equation. Retaining those customers and making the hardtofind experience so wonderful that they keep coming back again and again is key. Our repeat purchase rate is greater than 50%, which is pretty high.”

The business has leveraged traditional and digital marketing to drive business growth, choosing to focus on visual branding to create strong brand recognition.

“We don’t get the same ROI as we used to from print however, so over the years we’ve moved more into the digital realm. We mainly focus on SEM and social media marketing. The influencer network has also become an increasingly important part of our marketing mix. We’ve cultivated our own influencer network (known as the HTF Influencer Squad) and can now reach more than 1 million followers with a single brief.”

hardtofind is scaling rapidly and the ongoing challenge is always to ensure that the business is prepared for the growth from a resource and process point of view.

“As soon as we get traction in any particular area, be it marketing or technology, we huddle together as a team to discuss our plan of attack before ramping up. This means we’ve already thought through potential pain points and planned for the growth. I’m big on process and documentation. Getting the team right has also been integral to our success. I’m lucky that I’ve got an incredibly hard-working team who are passionate about the business and brand.”

Stewart said they have always made sure the business is adaptable to trends within the online landscape – a major company value that sees them dedicated to being at the forefront of technology and staying creatively curious. Their website is the core of their business and is constantly being maintained or improved.

“Our custom-built platform is continually evolving. We’re doing some pretty exciting things tech-wise, particularly around automation and harnessing customer data to improve conversion and retention.”

And as for the future, it’s all about expansion, “We want to be a global marketplace for artisans, designers and small creative businesses to access a much bigger audience than they could otherwise hope to reach alone. We now have sellers from 20 different countries and sales from international customers have increased by more than 100 percent in the last year, so there’s a huge opportunity offshore. We’ll be building our multi-currency platform this year.”

Chloe Potvin
Chloe Potvin is the Online Editor of Kochie's Business Builders.