Online Startup Offers Local Shopping Experience

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Craig Hanson’s idea for Thriving Locally, an online marketplace with all local products, came to him in 2010 after making a purchase  in downtown Nanaimo’s quaint, rustic Old City Organics. The store had only recently opened its doors when the then 38-year-old business savvy Hanson walked in to peruse their wares. After going home and wanting to find out more about his new purchase, Hanson browsed the internet only to discover a Nanaimo company hosted by a very poor and inconvenient website. Further research only uncovered more sloppy, out-of-date sites.

“The sites that I did find weren’t very well done,” he says. “They weren’t maintained, and information was scattered all over the place. Some said ‘call for pricing,’ and others said ‘we can arrange delivery on the corner.’ It’s all these little hurdles that make the most keen ‘buy local-er’ shopping online say ‘you know what, I just can’t do it.’”

Four years later, in September 2014, the Thriving Locally website was launched. Hanson and his three co-founders — Andrea Huhn, Will Zouzouras, and Cleary Donnelly — were all armed with a concept: What if there was an online platform that could provide local stores with a convenient, easily maintainable online presence? Not only that, but what if shopping locally was also made easy by incorporating delivery?

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From left: Founders Cleary Donnelly, Will Zouzouras, Craig Hanson and Andrea Huhn. Photo courtesy of thrivinglocally.com

For $10 a month per shop, or, as Hanson likes to put it, “the same amount as two expensive lattés or a half day of camping,” local business owners can be a part of this community. The green bannered front page of the Thriving Locally website has links to browse through a variety of shops, services, specialized holiday collections and find deals. With recent item listings found under these headings, users also have the option to create a free account to receive specialized emails and deals. Delivery of products costs customers $3.50 per stop.

“We are anything local,” says Hanson. “It’s not about the product, it’s about the business.”

Without a background in business, Hanson always admired the entrepreneurial spirit.

“Small business owners, I feel, are the people that have the courage to follow their dreams. It’s not about making a million dollars — it’s about making a life worth living.”

Inkyfingers Papercrafting, a card and papercraft business established in 2011, has been with Thriving Locally since the very beginning. Owner Laura Buechler has sold on Etsy as well, but prefers the Thriving Locally experience.

“What’s different between one and the other is that [on Etsy] you pay to put your ad up, you pay when you make a sale, and it’s guaranteed that you will have to pay a lot of shipping costs because it’s not someone who lives down the street,” she says. “It’s a totally different business model, and it isn’t always worth it. With Thriving Locally, I put [my ad] up, and it’s there until I decide to take it down. You just pay for your shop — you can have one listing, or you can have a thousand listings.”

“It’s a really great concept,” says Buechler.

But Thriving Locally doesn’t just sell items — it sells services as well.

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It’s Thrive Online Program provides shop owners with an eight-week mentorship, primarily intended to provide the shop owner with assistance in “getting their shop in order”.

“We sit down with a small business owner for one hour a week, and [the program] is designed to give them homework.”

The program also offers strategies to avoid a “digital dead end,” where the consumer is presented with a desired product with no further links to direct them to its location. Thrive Online also  help shop owners build a more complete online presence, show the importance of design, online promotion and maintaining an active online audience.

Thriving Locally has also targeted the restaurant industry, but that has proven to be a tougher nut to crack. “[Services are] used to advertising online, but not necessarily selling direct, and we’re a direct selling site. You buy it now; we don’t just offer it and the consumer has to go find it,” says Hanson.

To address the problem, they have devised a Local Eats initiative, where the consumer can peruse a restaurant’s menu on the Local Eats Facebook group, purchase a meal, print and present a ticket as proof of purchase. This works especially well when it comes to specials or deals offered by the restaurant that customers don’t want to miss out on. With a few on board, like the Lighthouse Bistro, Let’s Eat Guilt-Free, Coco Café and, more recently, Dish, this initiative looks promising. Still in the works, the Facebook group hopes to be up and running in January.

Two Chef’s Affair is also interested because they sell pre-packaged foods,” says Hanson. “Dish is also excited to get into catering as well.”

Hanson’s co-founders Zouzouras and Donnelly have since moved on to other projects, and the team now boasts Tali Campbell  as a member. Though the feedback from the 28 businesses already on board has been generally positive, getting more to join has proven a challenge. Hanson likens many small businesses to the proverbial thirsty horse.

“You can bring the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink.”

What it really comes down to, he says, is educating the masses and finding “creative, attractive, and sustainable” ways to engage the community.

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This “Christmas pledge” adorns the Thriving Locally Facebook Page banner.

“A lot of things about buying local comes down to consumer awareness, education, and understanding the value of their dollar,” he says.

Statistically, buying local has a trickle down effect, with 300 per cent of each dollar staying within the community, and local businesses tend to buy local products, like local produce for restaurants. Not only is it a greener way to do business, but the consumer also gets a special connection with the seller.

Hanson is optimistic about the future of Thriving Locally.

“What satisfies my insanity is that when you heard about Facebook, did you jump on it right away? You probably heard of it from two or three people before you figured out what it was and, four times later, actually tried it.”

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