Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. Today Simon talks to Deanna Yang about the ups and downs of selling cookies and milk.
About two years ago the rent went up on a much loved cookie shop near the Civic in Auckland. Moustache Milk and Cookie Bar was facing a 40% rent hike. Owner/founder/manager Deanna Yang, a constant presence in the store – and online, through her energetic, revealing blog that charted the ups and down of business – wasn’t going to take this.
Deanna is an entrepreneur in her early twenties, from a single parent family, a woman, and a Kiwi of Singaporean Chinese descent. She had faced a lot of uphill battles so far and she wasn’t going to let this one get her down. She’d baked, invented, shared and given a lot back in her short run in business and used this community as a springboard to a successful $91,000 crowdfund. Even Lorde was keen to #savemoustache. Deanna used the campaign to evolve the business, ditch the OTT rent, fit out a bus and tour the country taking the cookies to the people and now open three stores. All in less than six years in business. These goals have all been set and nailed, against the odds and against an environment that New Zealanders like to think is pretty easy for people that aren’t Pākehā. In Deanna’s experience, it isn’t plain sailing – but there are a lot of good people out there too.
You went out there into the community and raised $91,000, which is amazing. Lorde chipped in and said “support the Save Moustache campaign” when the rent questions were on. And then you used social media in the community to drum up custom. You said “tell us where to drive the bus” so you were creating customers before you even headed out there. Looking at it with hindsight it looks like a series of very good social media campaigns and some great advertising, but it was all real along the way.
When we had the crowdfund I had hundreds and hundreds of emails and messages all saying their first memories of the shop or even that the person they married they actually met in our shop. And how it’s become sort of an institution or icon of the area and we’re only two years old. It was a really humbling experience to raise $90,000 in four weeks to save Moustache, and it was just so nice to see the community back us and give us that validation.
So you toured around the country with the bus and went and visited Moustache fans up and down the island. Then came back and set up stores again. So what’s the current footprint of the business?
We went around touring in the summer. That was two months of visiting all these people. That was a really great experience, very one-on-one. Then we came home and we opened the Auckland University store first and that was always a thing I’ve wanted to do, was to have a store on campus. Because a lot of our fans are the younger generation. Then after that we had the K Rd store open. It was unfortunate timing because we were meant to have the bus for a good length of time – about a year or so – settle in, open the next store. But it just so happened that the lease we’d signed for K Rd, the building construction was fast and then it just happened. Auckland University approached us about a month before that was meant to be built and then everything just kinda happened at the same time.
So you suddenly ended up with two stores and a bus.
Within the space of six months we had three little stores, which was beyond my expectations. At the time this was all happening I was actually in Wellington with the bus. I moved my life down to Wellington thinking I’d stay in Wellington for a bit and then suddenly everyone was like “nope, we’re building this store and this store” so I had to come back home and bam, we had three stores.
Is that the scale you need for it all to make sense? Does that make it easier or harder? What changes when you end up having a chain like that?
Sometimes I think back and think “oh man those good old Wellesley St days when I just had one store and a small set of staff”. There’s been so many challenges going from one store to three, it’s a very different game. Also we’ve never had an online store before and now we have one. Now 50% of our sales come solely from the internet. So how Moustache operates now to how it operated five years ago is completely different. Online is a game changer. We also started doing vegan cookies in the last six months and now we sell more vegan cookies than we do our regular cookies.
It’s fascinating that when you go into something you need to fall in love with the process and not so much with the product – because five years I wouldn’t have thought my whole business would be making vegan cookies. Back in the day we used to get a few vegans into our Wellesley St store and they’d be like “do you guys do vegan?” and I used to scoff a bit because I likened it to going to a butcher and being like “Do you not sell meat?” I just thought it was such a strange thing to come into a milk bar and ask. But we do it now. You should never say never. So the business is always developing and I have no idea where it’s gonna take me. Because six months ago I didn’t even know that we’d be pumping out hundreds and hundreds of vegan cookies every single week.
How do you stay open to allow those opportunities to happen? I look from the outside and have been following your journey for the last few years and have really admired the way you bring the community in and you co-create things. Whether it’s the size of the cookie or the cookie dough idea or the vegan cookies. How do you stay open to those opportunities?
I think it’s just not having the arrogance to believe that what you’re doing is always right. There are new ideas out there, different niches out there. I would say that I’m somebody that would give everything a go and I’m happy to be proven wrong. So I was very sceptical about doing vegan products. I thought it went against the grain of what we did, really. But I thought I’d give it a go, and the more I looked into it the more it made sense. And like I said, it’s now our biggest seller.
Vegans deserve treats too.
Exactly! Now I’ve learned so much about veganism I’ve cut down my meat intake drastically and am changing my own ways. It’s so interesting how the world takes you on a journey.