isle20: the origin story

isle20: the origin story

isle20 started as a message to a few friends in early March, where I joked that I might put together directory website of island businesses and call it isle20. That way, people could come and do their shopping in the islands even if they couldn’t make it over on holiday this year.

I was mainly tickled by the pun. I do like a good pun.

On a serious note though, I and many others, were becoming increasingly aware that tourism in the Scottish islands was going to be badly hit in the wake of Covid-19.

It was particularly acute for me at that time as I sat with a few thousand pounds worth of tea in my spare room. I had just taken my first proper steps into creating a wee tea label – Tiree Tea – with the intention of selling tea over the summer months. It was further compounded by the fact that just before the pandemic reared its head, I had decided to walk away from my main contract (as a Product Manager in software development) and take a few months break – selling tea and picking up work here and there.

My timing has never been good.

So yeah, a lot of tea, no work, no tourists… And then I got thinking. Back in the late 90s (gasp) when I was discovering the internet and starting to build pages, there were a world of directory sites. This was pre-google, poppets. Pre-google. I’m old.

Not only were there lots of niche directory sites, but there were site rings, where one site had a link at the bottom to send you off to the next site in that niche. Interest groups helped each other by collaborating and sending traffic to each other.

So I dusted off my web hosting, re-aquainted myself with the ins and outs of WordPress and got going. 8 hours later, I sent a tweet out on my personal account asking for wee island businesses to try signing up for a free listing – after all, if I was going to create a directory – I needed some listings that were’t just my tea. And from a Product Management perspective, I needed to see what the uptake was – even at that early stage. If no-one was interested, then further work would be a waste of time.

For once, my timing was spot on. Businesses started signing up, the tweet got shared, and word of mouth got on the move. Six or seven weeks later there are almost 360 island businesses listed on isle20. At first it was a single page, then I added the option to view listings by island, then by category – it’s been a learning curve, and I’ve been building on the fly – no fancy staging enviroments here, just coffee, beer and swears. I’m not a developer by any stretch – I duct tape things together and hope they stay stuck. If you’re a dev wondering what my QA process is, I send my mother off with her tablet to try things out. If anything will bring up flaws in my tech or my user experience – it’s that!

Once the listings started increasing, I turned my attention to driving traffic to them. I threw caution to the wind, created a logo (I’m no designer either – let’s be clear about that!) and spun up some social media accounts. It might as well look real, I reasoned.

Then I got some lucky breaks – it was shared by the Peter and Jane Facebook page – who has a HUGE following, it was picked up by BBC Alba, and even managed to feature on the Guardian live blog. Slowly but surely it gathered momentum. A huge part of the success has been the social media sharing, where the business who are signed up share isle20 posts, regardless of whether they themselves are mentioned – which in turn drives traffic to everyone. Old school solutions for new problems.

Less than 2 months in, there are almost 360 businesses, there have been 30,000 unique visitors to the site, and by my rough Google Analytics tracking, there have been over 25,000 clicks through to small business websites. The annual tourist numbers to Tiree are roughly 20,000, to put that in perspective. Still a ways to go, but not a bad start.

In creating isle20, and increasing digital footfall to island businesses, I had found another problem, and created yet another.

The problem I had uncovered was that a large percentage of the businesses who had signed up only had a facebook page to direct people to. These are often wee businesses making beautiful, high quality products, but relying on local retailers or passing traffic. And whilst there are plenty of ecommerce solutions out there, even the supposed simplest ones can be daunting, and expensive.

As the Covid crisis gathered steam, people had approached me about building them websites – which I can do – but the risk was the upfront cost, coupled with on-going maintenance.

The second problem was the one I had created (I’m good at creating problems). I had created a full time job for myself – helping people get signed up, getting the word out, creating social media posts each day showcasing islands, or product categories, developing the site, keeping the site online… Back when I first set it up, some folk had urged me to take payments for listings, but I was resolute that I wouldn’t – there was no guarantee the thing would work, and I absolutely did not want to profit out of a crisis or folks’ fear.

However, working for free is not sustainable – eventually I would likely come to resent working so hard on something all the time for little return. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely got a few more tea sales out of it (no such thing as true altruism!)

A marketplace seemed like the obvious solution to both those problems. So I built one. It wasn’t that easy, but for the purposes of this already too long blog post, that will suffice. I launched it yesterday with 15 businesses signed up to sell through isle20.com/market. I do pretty much everything for folks – set their accounts up, add their products – in one case I did their photography – copy writing, you name it. An end to end service!

10 of those first 15 businesses listed previously had no online shop, and a number of those didn’t have a website or facebook page either. I’m so excited to have got them online – whilst anyone can approach me to sell through isle20, the folk with no online presence at all were the ones I was keenest to find a solution for!

It runs counter to my nature but I’m not doing it for free. A few commission free sites have sprung up doing similar things at the moment, but I have bitten the bullet and I am taking a commission on items sold. I am doing it because it means no upfront risk or cost to the business I am selling for. It means there is the possiblity I might get a wee bit of income for almost 2 months hard graft, and it means that I won’t come to resent isle20, rather I will continue to have the motivation to promote it. I’ll keep doing my best for all the businesses, and I’ll be able to do it for longer.

There will always be the option to sign up for a free listing, though. That’s not going anywhere. That was the seed that set the whole thing off. I’m hoping (assuming I don’t stretch the metaphor too far) that when the the dust settles on 2020, I might be left with a seedling that can be developed further to support island business to sell throughout the year – not just in peak summer – and help create more resilence in our tourist based island economies.

(If you want to try selling online via isle20, give me a shout – info@isle20.com – if you want to list your business for free and join in that way, you can do that here.)

Rx