10th February, 2022
Samantha Finnegan’s desire to help small producers flourish after fires, floods and a global pandemic resulted in Madebox, a gift box business that connects regional producers with new customers.
The year 2020 will surely go down in history as a time of unexpected change.
For Australians, the year began halfway through a record-breaking fire season, which was followed closely by the arrival of the pandemic. Devastating floods hit many parts of the country just as our first lockdown was announced on 13 March. Two years on and we’re all still working through the aftermath of those events.
For some, it’s been all they can do to maintain life and livelihood since that time, particularly in the case of smaller, regional producers that have faced both environmental and economic headwinds for multiple years.
But, where there’s challenge, there’s opportunity.
“We’ve witnessed a significant amount of change at home and at work in the past few years,” says MYOB General Manager of SME, Emma Fawcett.
“In particular, the pandemic has motivated a huge number of entrepreneurs and business operators to rethink their operating models,” she says.
“Where we’ve seen the greatest amount of innovation, there have been some incredibly powerful success stories.”
As a product of entrepreneurial mindset in the face of severe turbulence, Madebox represents an excellent case-in-point for what happens when an authentic, community-minded attitude and business opportunity collide.
The outpouring of support for communities most impacted by disasters has been huge, stoking renewed passion for homegrown goods among consumers and creating a rallying cry in ‘Shop Local’ to bolster the nation’s small business retailers, wholesalers and suppliers.
Like many of us, Samantha Finnegan had watched the devastating news arrive, staying in touch with her friends and family in country Victoria throughout. Samantha heard how hard many small producers were being hit, and realised she was sitting on a solution that had been waiting for just this sort of problem: how do you shop local when you’re stuck at home?
“Small, local producers really add to the tapestry and personality of a region – what were these people going to do with it all while everything is locked down?,” she says.
With no tourists going to regional areas (and with great uncertainty as to when they would return), the career advertising professional and mother of two decided to take on a new challenge.
“I just spent my nights researching and working on the concept,” Samantha tells us. “It started with five regions: Blue Mountains, Bright and the High Country, Gippsland, Kangaroo Island, Daylesford and Macedon Ranges.”
Samantha’s approach was to reach out to producers impacted most heavily by fire and loss of tourism numbers, and offer them a platform to get their brands and their stories in front of potential new customers online.
“When you go to a region,” Samantha says, “you want to explore the local area and you do it because it’s the personality of the place – the food and products you find in those regions are what makes up your experience – I didn’t want to see the regions lose any of that richness and personality.”
The resulting business concept offers a selection of gift boxes for individual and corporate customers, each one a mini-smorgasbord of the best Australia’s regional producers have to offer.
“We work with producers that, first and foremost, have an excellent product,” attests Samantha. “But we also look for ways to put a spotlight on our producers’ stories.
“I’ve always been fascinated with people who are really excited about producing one thing and they do it so well – I could never do that, personally, but I love to meet them and their stories have all been incredible to hear.”
It’s stories like those of Bilpin-based honey producer Ben Porteous and Spargo’s syrups and cordials producer Natasha Morgan that bring authenticity to the regional character of the Madebox offering.
Ben Porteous was a builder by trade before being stung by his father’s beekeeping obsession.
“Dad got started in 2014. He was doing all the bottling, marketing and distribution – it just grew out of his beekeeping hobby.”
Based in Bilpin, a couple of hours out of Sydney, Ben says the Blue Mountains location is perfect for flowering trees, fruit trees and, of course, producing honey.
“It’s mainly an apple orchard,” he says. “There’s different types of fruit, but a lot of people come up here on the weekends to pick apples and check out the local produce.”
Having taken on the logistics for his father’s now-blossoming honey brand, Bilpin Bush Honey, Ben took the next step of opening a local cafe in early 2018, which he named The Hive Berambing, confident the two ventures would complement one another.
But the visions Ben had of visitors packing his cafe season after season were about to be put on hold.
“This area is great for growing fruit and keeping bees, but once the fire came in 2019, it burned probably 90 percent of the flowering gums – which was not going to yield much honey.”
With a week or less before the Gosper’s Mountain fires were predicted to arrive, Ben found he had some hard choices to make if there was any chance of his business surviving – beginning with the removal and transport of 150 bee hives.
“We had to move 150 hives down to Richmond, where we knew that the fire wasn’t going to go,” he says. “We did two trips, carrying around 70-odd hives each run.
“We also had to make a decision whether we were going to stay and try to protect the cafe or go home and protect the house. We chose to defend our home.”
With a few days of warning, people in the area had some time to make last-minute preparations and enacted their fire plans.
“Luckily the fire was manageable for us and the cafe also survived unscathed.”
Ben notes that he and his family are among the lucky ones, even if business conditions have taken a serious hit.
“For a lot of people it’s been a lot worse, regardless of whether they chose to stay and protect their properties or left to seek shelter.
“It’s impacted everyone differently, but it definitely took a long time before we saw any tourists in the area again.”
Now on the road to recovery, Ben tells us Bilpin Bush Honey is bigger than ever (with a little help from Madebox), and has 500 hives in operation, while visitors are also returning to the area as well as The Hive Berambing.
Natasha Morgan’s treechange lifestyle was another vision abruptly up-ended by the events of early 2020.
Stepping away from her career in landscape architecture and architecture, Natasha had originally dreamed of taking on a quiet, more regionally based landscape and architecture project, and her chance arrived in 2014.
“As a landscape architect I’d been looking for a country property that was still relatively close to Melbourne, had high rainfall and good soil – I was looking for a canvas.”
Natasha found her canvas online when she stumbled across a listing for the old Spargo Creek post office.
“It had a whole history of community and exchange,” Natasha recalls. “It was a pub, it was a general store and it’s got the most magnificent, 150-year-old trees.
“I literally stood underneath those trees and just went, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to make this happen?’.
“It was a point of clarity for me.”
Reborn as Oak and Monkey Puzzle, the fully renovated house and five-acre surrounds took on new life as a place to host events and workshops.
“Pre-COVID we had a huge calendar of events scheduled that included lunches for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and we were running workshops on everything from drywalling to marketing, fermenting to floristry, photography and more,” Natasha says.
As lockdowns arrived in March, the tourism and events business disappeared almost overnight.
“We had international guests, it was, you know, bumper to bumper. So when COVID hit it was quite confronting to be honest.”
But not quite as humbling as realising how reliant we’ve become on ready, everyday access to consumer goods.
“To find myself going into town to walk into the supermarket and find the shelves empty; that’s not something I’ve experienced before,” explains Natasha.
“I stood back on this property and I looked around at what I had, and realised everything I needed was right there.
“I have soil, I have water, sky and space. So while we might have been eating a lot more silverbeet, we were totally fine.”
The single mum of two kids had already been tinkering with jams, preserves and fermentation, and she realised they represented a way forward for Oak and Monkey Puzzle.
“It was really about coming back to my roots and understanding what I had here.
“Rather than ‘chase restrictions’ I could focus on the business that allowed me to homeschool – and that’s where the syrups and the preserves really came to the fore.”
On the lookout for stockists, Natasha connected with Samantha Finnegan, subsequently becoming a proud Madebox supplier.
“It’s a business partnership, but it’s also become a friendship because I really believe in what she’s doing.
“Basically, Sam just asks me, ‘What’s the best that you have at the moment?’ and then she pitches my products to the world.
“So for me, Madebox has become a wonderful platform for getting my story out there, but it’s also brought together this whole community of friends and fellow producers.”
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While the country is taking significant steps towards moving on from the events of 2020, the demand for solutions like Madebox is on the rise.
More growers and producers around the country have been seeing the benefits of online platforms that can turbocharge their marketing efforts, just as many of them are turning to cloud solutions for other aspects of their business.
For Samantha Finnegan and Madebox, the year ahead is shaping up to be one of growth.
“We now have over 150 producers on board and we’re beginning to introduce more from all around the country,” says Samantha.
“We’re also launching experiences, where people can go and visit the regions and their producers, with activities like foraging for gin botanicals in the Macedon Ranges, or making sourdough in the Blue Mountains.”