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Small town living, big sky dreaming: Is running a global business from the regions better than the alternative?

Thanks to the sophisticated tech platforms at our fingertips, more Kiwi companies than ever are swapping city slicking for the small-town life, but is the grass truly greener on the other side? We have a chat to four businesses who are running global businesses from the New Zealand’s regions about the perks and challenges that come with it, as well as their top tips for others looking to make the move.

After a hectic 2019 spent heaving in traffic back and forth across Auckland to get to my office – a tale as old as time – I spent my New Years and early January break deep in the belly of small-town New Zealand. The oxygen seemed cleaner, my toes got soggier and my breathing slowed down a few notches.

Whangamata, Mount Maunganui, and Raglan were on the itinerary, and the longer I kept the Super City at bay, the more in love I fell with the slow and steady rhythm of small-town New Zealand.

I found myself pondering the question, was life better out of the major cities? And was it more feasible in 2020 than ever for someone to see small town living as a realistic prospect, and not have to sacrifice their career or business success?

New Zealand’s main centres – Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – have always been the obvious choice for businesses for various reasons, including attracting top talent and maintaining a strong, in-person relationship with clients.

But Stats New Zealand’s most recent New Zealand business demography statistics released in February 2019 found that 15 out of the country’s 16 regions had more paid employees than the year previous.

Bay of Plenty’s paid employee count was up 3.5 percent, Otago’s up 2.7 percent and Waikato’s up 2.6 percent. The hub of economic activity, Auckland, trailed in behind them at 2.3 percent.

This may play into the trend of companies increasingly turning to the regions to grow businesses remotely – or edutech centres, in Vaughan Fergusson’s case.

The Vend and OMGTech! founder recently bought an outdoor education centre in Raglan to transform into an enviro-tech camp and retreat for students, corporate teams, travellers and more.

But Fergusson is a unique case in the sense that he’s still straddling the city and small-town divide. His time is split 50-50 between Auckland and Raglan due to Vend’s headquarters being based in the big smoke and his kids being in school.

“The most noticeable thing is the change in energy you can feel within minutes of being in each place,” he says.

“Raglan: Less stress induced, and more positive vibes. Auckland: I must do all the things and WTF, traffic! In Raglan, things feel slower but more productive. You are not trying to do 500 things at pace, you focus on three things.” 

Views from the Institute of Awesome.

He says cities no longer act as the nexus of everything like they used to, as technology is helping bridge the gap between city living and small-town life.

“You can reliably work remotely, social media keeps you in touch with the many while you create more real connections with fewer,” he says.

“The ability to be self-sustaining is achievable outside of cities where you have more space, and are more connected to a community. Raglan is a great example of this, pioneering plastic bag free since ages ago, the strong zero waste ecosystem, a tonne of local craftspeople doing their thing, a big push into solar and other alternative energy sources, good healthy food and permaculture, low carbon miles on things consumed and so on.”

But would he move Vend, a global point-of-sale software company, down to the regions anytime soon?

“I am almost too scared to ask [staff] in case there is a flood – but yeah, I think so. I have had some of the team come hang out at the Institute of Awesome and would love to see more come stay and work remote, and perhaps help with one of our community projects we do there.”

He says one concern to keep in mind is when people from the big cities move into smaller towns, it can displace the locals by pushing the cost of living up and putting pressure on housing.

“Instead, I’d love to see more employers moving out into the regions to create more opportunity for people already in those communities, otherwise you just end up with a few cool towns full of Aucklanders,” Fergusson says.

“Cities used to have the monopoly on jobs but don’t have the monopoly on smart, passionate and talented people – they are everywhere. Create new opportunities in the regions and you will find amazing people.” 

Further down the country, Chia Sisters co-founders Chloe and Florence Van Dyke say they decided to base their drinks and seeds company out of Nelson because sustainability is an important part of their company ethos.

“Living in Nelson has enabled us to live and breathe this ethos, which is hugely advantageous in staying true to our values. In 2018, we utilised Nelson’s high sunshine hours to become New Zealand’s first solar powered juicery. Now we harness up to 16,000 watts every hour while the sun is shining which powers our factory – and then some,” Florence Van Dyke says.  

It’s a lot more hands on than its operations would be in the city. The apples that go into Chia Sister’s fresh-pressed juice are collected just minutes away from the juicery, while the company still hand delivers drinks to local cafes. It also measures and offsets its carbon emissions next door in the Rameka Forest, which is regenerative farmland at the top of South Island.

Chia Sisters juices, made in Nelson, New Zealand.

Florence Van Dyke says one other notable warm and fuzzy aspect of doing business in a small town is the tight-knit community and the support that comes in spades for local businesses.

“Whether it’s our local Fresh Choice supermarket or Pic from Pic’s Peanut Butter who sits on our Advisory Board, Nelsonians have been behind us from day one,” she says. “They go out of their way to support local making it the perfect place to start a business. Entrepreneurship is growing in Nelson and we like to help each other out.”

Personal finance and smart budgeting software company Pocketsmith has ten of its 18 employees working in Dunedin, and the rest working remotely dotted around the country.

Pocketsmith co-founder and CEO Jason Leong says he believes one of the biggest differences he can make as an employer is assisting in their staffs’ journey in finding suitable places to live.

“While location will be a key contributor to quality of life, a more tangible measure of success is that of achieving mortgage or rental payments of less than 30 percent of gross income. At present, a viable way to get there is to live outside the major centres,” he says.

“We’ve been privileged to see many of our staff buy their first homes in Dunedin and Whangarei, live in beautiful, remote locations – like off-grid in the native bush of Kopu in the Coromandel and complete the build on a tiny house destined for a sunny paddock somewhere. Being part of that chapter in their story has been really gratifying.”

The Pocketsmith team, the majority of which is based in Dunedin, New Zealand.

He says there are several factors for businesses to consider before adopting a remote-working model. One is to ensure everyone has equal presence in meetings, particularly as accidental exclusion can happen on communication channels like Slack, in video calls or in-person meetings.

Another is to hire specifically for a remote team by looking for people who have the ability to communicate excellently over chat, as nuances of phrasing are important and can lead to mistakes when interpreted wrong.

In Tauranga, Hadleigh Ford is the CEO of SwipedOn, a visitor management software system that counts 90 percent of its customers as offshore.

“Being in New Zealand was already an issue to solve – why not take it that one step further and head to the regions?” Ford says.

He says while initially he was concerned that SwipedOn wouldn’t be able to find the right talent in the region, it was a worry that was unfounded.

Hadleigh Ford has run SwipedOn out of Tauranga from day one.

“We have a great bunch of people who are here for all the right reasons. There is good alignment with the culture, our purpose and general outlook on life,” he says. “We attract employees that want good balance, living in a great area. Yes, you can probably head overseas and earn more money – but there are a lot of intangibles that we provide in spades.”

He says SwipedOn suits the remote working model due to being a global, marketing-led organisation with online sales and support, but different structured companies might have a harder time.

“Good luck to them, we’re happy leaving the rat race behind,” Ford says.

Are you running a business from the regions? Get in touch with us to have a chat at [email protected].

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