Our M2 Editor-in-chief Andre Rowell chats with co-founder and Managing Director of Chooice NZ, Sarah Colcord. Chooice NZ (originally conceived as New Zealand Made Products) is a New Zealand-based online marketplace which allows New Zealand small businesses to sell and market their products and services to consumers through its website and Facebook group, the latter of which has reached half a million followers. Colcord created the company following her previous business becoming less viable due to circumstances brought on by COVID-19. She shares with us the personal gratification she has gotten from assisting others with her business, why she feels her career as an entrepreneur is only beginning and how her lifelong commitment to community is reflected in her work.
When you think about half a million members, do you start to break that down and quantify the impact that you’ve had?
Yeah, I’ve realised that 10% of the New Zealand population belongs to the Facebook group. So that’s pretty mind-blowing, right? It explains why people notice me in the streets now and in some strange places.
There was a certain momentum to it; you set up the group and then within weeks you just had these numbers rolling in. When did it really hit you?
I don’t think it’s really hit me now. I built this entire business on social media and in the digital space, so for me, it’s just numbers. Because we’re still somewhat in the Covid experience, we still haven’t been able to put much human nature behind it, like who are the people posting in the group? Who are the people that make up that half a million? So when I actually meet people face to face who use Chooice, I’m mind blown. I’m like ‘This is an actual person and they know Chooice!’ It’s a beautiful experience.
You’ve had people that have utilised your platform to be able to leave their day job and follow their dream. Can you talk a little bit about any of those stories?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve had people who have been able to bring their business plans or plans for growth that they may have predicted for three or five years out, forward to this year, which is incredible. Many have been able to take on more staff just due to the number of frequent orders that they continually get. Others have been able to leave their full-time jobs to pursue their passion; what would have been a side hustle is now their full-time gig, which is awesome.
Others are stocking in retail stores across the country now and actually, some have now stocked in Australia, which is really cool. I think what’s really exciting as well is a number of them have sent their products overseas for the first time. And when you’re a small business sending your product to Canada, that’s a really surreal moment for you. It’s been really awesome hearing the impact and the stories coming through on a daily basis actually from people using Chooice.
Could you have imagined that that’s the sort of impact that you would be having from the start?
I couldn’t have even imagined that I would be having an impact in the sense that people would be able to leave their jobs, let alone start sending their products overseas. It’s mind-blowing hearing the impact in various parts of the country and the way in which it’s been able to come to fruition for some people and what that looks like in their lives.
Are there little triggers that you can speak to in terms of what is going on in their heads as they take the leap from their day job and into their dream?
Definitely. And again, this goes back to the fact that I built this business online and I very rarely get to meet people in person and hear and see firsthand the impact. But I finally met someone called Nick from Innate Furniture. They flew up from Christchurch recently and we met, which was awesome, and they explained to me that again, their lives have been changed, they’ve been able to sell more furniture in the last year than they’ve ever done. They’ve left their full-time jobs and are making furniture full-time now and what’s really exciting for them is that they’ve secured a number of very large contracts that will continue to allow them to build furniture and essentially stock it in these large retail stores.
Did you sense any kind of trepidation or fear?
Yeah, definitely. What’s interesting is that a number of these businesses are on the same journey as myself, so there’s a lot of relate-ability. Here we are going to get Italian food, almost crying on each other’s shoulders about the challenges that we’ve both had as we’ve been side-by-side growing our businesses. They set up their business at the same time that I set up Chooice. So, we’ve been able to share in some of those challenges and relate to each other in a lot of ways, which is why the meet up involved a few cocktails.
What were some of those shared challenges that entrepreneurs face going into this new world?
The fear of the unknown is a big one. Every day is so different to yesterday. Especially when you’re an entrepreneur, you can’t anticipate anything. You can do as much planning as you want to try and forecast or safeguard your business. But this is a journey that you can’t anticipate in many ways, and you can’t plan for. You just have to go with the flow.
For us, that was where a lot of the relate-ability came into. We were able to have some one-on-one heart to hearts about the reality of being in the space and having to take one day at a time. Those instances where we’ve both equally shared maybe one or two moments, we were like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore’. We’re able to have those honest conversations and be like, ‘I’ve been there and there’s been days where I’ve thought, I don’t know if this business will be here next week’, things like that.
They’ve grown in their own journey, as I have as well, they’ve hit some walls and hit some challenges in the public, just the way in which the community may perceive something, that’s something I relate to. That’s just the nature of the way in which we’ve built our businesses, it’s quite public-facing. Those are things we both can relate to and have dealt with together.
Would you have any advice for how to prepare yourself mentally for those days where you don’t know what the next step is?
I heard Vaughan (Fergusson, founder of Vend) recently at the M2 Summit, talk about how he practiced and lived out his day to day, saying to himself ‘just another day, just another day’ and actually just telling yourself, ‘You’ve just gotta get through one more day’. I could relate to Vaughan in a lot of ways and actually took that back from the M2 Summit and was able to be like, ‘I can apply this to my life and just tell myself, one more day’.
I don’t have any advice around your question, because I’m still going through that journey. I consider myself a newborn in the entrepreneurial space, as well as in the tech space. I’ve only been on this journey for a year so in a lot of ways, I am still going through a lot of the challenges and trying to figure out the solutions to a lot of these things.
It’s fascinating that you consider yourself a ‘newborn’, when you look at the impact that you’ve made. A community of half a million people reaching a local market, but then also expanding into an international market. It’s a profound impact.
Can I just add as well, this week we hit $2 million in sales for small businesses in our economy. That’s an incredible milestone. It hasn’t hit me yet, but that’s the impact, right?
At what point do you think that you will take some of those achievements on board and make the switch from considering yourself a newborn to an entrepreneur?
I don’t know. I don’t like to get too caught up in the stage of like, “okay, now I’m an adult entrepreneur”, or “I’m an experienced entrepreneur”. Because I feel like if I get too caught up in where I’m at in my journey and trying to label it, that ego will come and step into that and start informing the way in which I make decisions. So, for myself, I just try and take every day as it is.
I want to go back to the ‘just take every day at a time’. That seems like a strategy for something, there seems to be this fuel, this overriding drive, this momentum. How do you define that?
A lot of that drive comes from what I’ve been doing for many, many years prior to Chooice, which was working in the community and working in youth development and community development, being in the political space as a 20-year-old.
I have been involved in my community since I was like 12. I was just so actively involved in the community and getting my hands dirty, wanting to make a difference where I could with what I had. That was something I consistently did over a long period of time, which eventually led to being elected to council when I was 20.
In a lot of ways, that’s where my drive comes from, and I liken the Chooice community to the community in which I’ve been able to serve for a long time. In a lot of ways, I liken what I’ve built with Chooice to what I’ve been able to do for a number of years, which is help the community, build a community, develop a community.
So, if you go back to that 12-year-old, where on earth did that drive come from?
The drive was instilled from a very young age, this concept of servant leadership from my parents which all of my siblings and myself have lived out in our own different ways. From a young age as well, I watched my oldest sister serve our community in whatever way she could in her streets. That was very inspirational as a 12-year-old, watching your 16-year-old sister get all of these incredible roles and opportunities.
That was very inspirational and in a lot of ways influenced me to also follow in her footsteps. But again, she was empowered to do that, and I was empowered to do that because of this concept of servant leadership that my parents, from a very young age, had instilled in us.
Did you ever have any entrepreneurial ambition? Were you really just following this pathway of servant leadership?
Does selling feijoas as an eight-year-old count? What’s funny is my parents constantly remind me of the entrepreneurial things that I’d done when I was younger. Even as I’ve been reflecting over the last few months, I’ve had a number of businesses since I was in high school. A lot of people could probably relate to selling feijoas on the side of the road. For me, I was a little bit extra and actually knocked on the doors of my neighbors and forced them to buy a bag of feijoas, right up until high school, when I actually launched probably what would be considered my first business.
I curated secondhand clothes, designer labels and things like that, and set up my first website when I was 17. I didn’t actually realise it until a couple of months ago, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I totally forgot that I had this entrepreneurial spirit when I was like 17, 18 years old’. Again, I probably set up my second non-registered business by 18, I was importing stuff and selling on Etsy, just end of season jewellery and clothing, I was importing when I was 18 years old with my $20.
Going back to the ten-year-old you with a bag of feijoas, did you have to go through a moment of self-check?
Oh gosh, yes. I actually vividly remember standing at the front of each person’s driveway, actually finding the courage to go and ask if they would buy feijoas. I was such a serious ten-year-old.
If we skip forward to when you were going for counsel in your twenties.
2016, I was 20 years old. Just on reflection, I’ve been really big, throughout my entire journey, about just following my curiosity and allowing that to bring opportunities to me or trying to find opportunities and saying yes to them and seeing what happens.
For me, I followed my curiosity of serving the community and it got to a point where I was like, ‘Okay, what’s the next level?’ Because I feel like I’d peaked at being able to do this. I’d done the most that I can, what’s the next level to this? I followed my curiosity, spoke to the right people who shoulder tapped me, and ended up saying, ‘Would you like to run in the elections with us?’ And I said, yes, without actually thinking too much about what I was committing myself to. And then long story short, a couple of months later, I ended up winning my election.
There’s a few clues in there in terms of what you’re saying that I think really could help anyone who’s wanting to take that leap of faith. Maybe not thinking too much about what’s ahead, to just say yes, be open.
That is definitely a big one for me. I follow my curiosity and allow that to introduce me to opportunities. I don’t like to think too deeply about what the risks are associated, ‘What could possibly go wrong with this?’ For me, I just allow it to play out. If whatever worst-case scenario happens, allow it to build character in your life, let it be a lesson.
Building character is one that I continually take with me. I’ve had my fair share of moments of things not working out throughout my leadership journey, no doubt because I’ve put my hand up for so many things. There’s obviously been moments where things haven’t worked out, but for me, those are the moments in which I’ve been able to build character.
I actually lost my re-election. I stood again in the elections, this time I took the courageous leap to jump off of a team and stand as an independent, because I felt like I wanted to stay strong in my principles and what I stood for, and I felt like being an independent was the best way in which to go about that. I ended up actually losing my reelection. For me, that was a huge moment of building character and has actually influenced, in a lot of ways, what I’ve been able to build with Chooice, because what came after losing that reelection was building Chooice.
In New Zealand, we don’t seem to have a very healthy relationship with the concept of failure, but for so many people, failures are a part of that road to success.
I think in a lot of ways, social media contributes to Tall Poppy Syndrome because, let’s be honest, social media is fake. We curate what we want people to think about us and people perceive us in a certain way, and if we’re only painting a certain picture of our lives, that’s the perception that people are going to have of it.
For me, I’ve been very honest in my journey. I’m very honest in the fact that I lost my reelection. I’m very honest that I’ve had businesses not work out before when I was 17, 18, little stints trying to be an entrepreneur. Those moments for me were lessons that have now enabled me to make better decisions. They have influenced and informed new directions in my life, ones that I’m very happy with.
We can’t get by without truly confronting and learning from failure. But do you think that is a key to your success and your growth and your resilience?
I think what’s been key to my success, my growth, my resilience has been just being in my most authentic self, not trying to be any anyone else or aspire to be a certain way or a certain thing. For me, I just like to play into my strengths, stay in my lane and do it really well. I’ve gotten this far by doing that. I have been involved in the community, many different types of communities, because community is not one thing, it looks different in many different ways.
I’ve been really big about bringing whatever community I’m in at that time, with me on the journey. At present, my community is Chooice and I love to be transparent and honest with them with my journey. I don’t try and paint myself in a certain way or try and put myself up on a big pedestal and say, ‘I’m an adult entrepreneur’. Everyone is very well aware that I am one year in, and I love that because people are able to see the realities of the challenges and the journey I’ve been on. I brought people in on that journey and there’s something powerful in that.
You mentioned before that you don’t compare yourself to others, but do you give yourself a benchmark for your journey? Do you compare yourself to you a year ago?
I don’t give myself a framework. For me, it’s just living to my strengths, being my most authentic self and being honest about my journey and bringing people along with that journey. There’s no benchmark that I set or anyone that I use as a framework. If anything, I use myself two years ago as a framework to aspire to be better. I use my yesterday as a framework to aspire to be better today than I was yesterday. That’s the framework that I use.
That’s beautiful. I know we’ve spoken a lot about these moments of bravery and stepping into the unknown, but when you think back on your journey so far, what do you think is the biggest catalyzing moment in your life?
In the many hats that I’ve worn, in the many lives that I’ve lived? Gosh, there’s been many. What was quite a huge journey for me was politics, as a 20-year-old. For me to make a stand that I would not be compromising who I was, my values, my principles and taking the leap to step away from a team, which would guarantee me a win in the re-election, to instead say, ‘No, I’m not compromising that and if I have to stand as an independent and risk losing my seat, that’s a risk I’m willing to take’.
That was the hardest moment for me because I was 22 at the time, and I felt completely alone and isolated, and I was going through a very public experience with this team. There’s no manual for a 22-year-old being in politics, there’s no manual for how you should navigate jumping off or risking a guaranteed win to not compromise your values. That was probably one of the hardest leaps I’ve ever taken, making that decision. Because for me, it was like, should I just take the easy road, get the guaranteed win? Or do I stand on my principles and not compromise? What 22-year-old makes that decision?
That was a huge moment for me, a very defining moment for me. I had to draw on a lot of straps to make that decision. I wish I could say it was an easy decision to make, but I was like, ‘Oh man, I should just shut up, take the loss and just go with the team and secure my seat for another three years, right?’. A huge defining moment in my journey was that.
You realise that most people would have taken the easy road?
Absolutely, that’s like the easy decision to make, right? With me, I don’t make easy decisions. I like to do the hard things.
What do you think that was? What was it that enabled you to go with your values, as opposed to the guaranteed easy road to success?
Again, it goes back to the fact that I like to be my most authentic self. That means not compromising who I am, the values, the principles that I allowed to form my life, and if I have to lose some things as a result of it, so be it. Many more opportunities will come my way and I would rather be known as someone that was willing to stand on her values and be like, ‘I’m making a stand now’, rather than compromise and be known as someone that compromised. Regardless of whether people publicly had known, or would know that I compromise, for myself, I don’t think I would be okay with that.
You put more value in your values than anything else. Do you feel like you’ve got strength from that moment in your twenties, to where you are now, being totally sure about yourself and totally resilient?
Yeah, definitely. Like I was saying, I don’t have a framework on who I aspire to be or use as a benchmark, rather than I look at who I was yesterday or two years ago and say, ‘I don’t want to go back to who I was yesterday or who I was two years ago, I want to aspire to be different tomorrow’. Ever-evolving.
For me, the resilience comes from using those moments to build character. Again, there’s a theme here; building character. I try not to take things too personally and what I mean by that is not allow the losses in life, the failures, the losing elections to form my identity, but rather use it to build character.
You can’t rely on anyone else but yourself. And so, the best person to upskill and to build on and to be compassionate to, is ourselves. I am big on being self-compassionate because I need to be the best version of myself every day to be able to live out in my most authentic way.
Do you find excitement in terms of jumping into the unknown?
I don’t like to get too comfortable. For me, my most authentic self is not living comfortably, is not being comfortable. The moment I feel I’m getting too comfortable, I get a bit itchy. And I need to move and do something in terms of, ‘Who’s life can I change? What can I do for my community? What new project can I start?’
Comfortability to me is a sign that I have done everything that I could possibly do and it’s time for me to go serve the next thing, create the next project and initiative. I wish there was a roadmap sometimes, but the reality is there is no roadmap.
I know this seems like it’s such an arbitrary question because I don’t think that you could have imagined where you are two years ago. Through the murkiness of these unknown pathways, do you have a vision for where you think you’ll be in two years’ time?
I don’t do yearly goals because for me, I just want to follow my curiosity and see where that takes me. If I’m setting goals, then I’m trying to define and put preconceptions in place of how I want my journey to play out. But for me, what’s been really powerful is the unknown journey, allowing those journeys to just play out naturally and organically and see what it ends up being. If I’m setting things in place, then actually I’m not allowing that journey to play out in ways in which I probably couldn’t anticipate for.
For me, with Chooice, I haven’t planned any of this journey. I don’t have plans for where I’ll be next year, let alone probably next week. For me, part of the reason being is that I’m just wanting to allow this journey to play out in the most incredible way that it could possibly do. If I’m in the moment, and I start putting plans or goals or targets in there, I’m starting to limit the way in which the journey could flow in. I just want to see it live out in its entirety.
If you had those goals in place at that point when you realised that your events business was disrupted, do you think that would have blinded you to focusing on those, and potentially miss the opportunities that had opened up, in terms of people thinking about buying local?
No, I wouldn’t have been as open to them because I haven’t been able to anticipate any of this journey. I couldn’t have even anticipated that I would get elected when I was 20. For me, the reason why I am on these journeys, was because I have not put anything in place that has limited them from playing out to the fullest they could. If I had set goals when I lost the contracts for my event business at the start of lockdown, I could have been like, ‘Okay, I want to secure this many contracts by July or August and I want to be on my feet by this date.’
For me, that would have limited, or actually, I don’t think Chooice would have been here today because I would have been too busy focusing on trying to secure contracts and clients and ‘XYZ’ to get my business to the other side. But in a way, I just allowed Chooice to play out in the way which it did and allowed this uncertain reality of my event business to play out in the way in which it did.
Would you have advice for those out there who know that they want to do something amazing, haven’t quite pictured it yet and are busy reading all these success, self-help books. What advice would you give them?
Again, follow your curiosity and allow that to open up new doors and opportunities that you can say yes to. That’s probably the best piece of advice. There’s no such thing as trying to find your passion, but rather following your curiosity allows you to build that passion because passion is not a singular thing, it’s a range of different journeys, a range of different lives and hats that we wear over a long period of time. It’s not a singular thing. Follow your curiosity, say yes to opportunities and doors that are open to you as a result of following that.
Have there been any moments where you’ve stood back a little bit and looked at what you’ve achieved over the last year? Have you pinched yourself?
Nothing of the like yet. What’s been crazy is I’ve been on this non-stop journey since lockdown last year, so I actually haven’t had a moment of peace to be able to stand back and be like, ‘Whoa, look at this huge monster’. I’m sure that time will come soon.
But no. I certainly have the odd cocktail here and there and be like, “This is cool. And I love who I am today’. Again, I use myself as a benchmark; yesterday and even two years ago when I was in politics as a 20, 21-year-old, 22-year-old. I am very proud of who I am today.