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How digital changed my business

Even successful businesses recognise and embrace digital engagement as key to maintaining a competitive edge and customer appeal.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: Digital engagement for an SME can open up a world of new possibilities– new possibilities in terms of sharing what it is your business does with a much broader audience, customers potentially from right around the world. Here at Cottage Garden Threads, what might have been thought of as a folksy business of dyeing threads and fabrics is actually right at the leading edge of using digital technology to find people as passionate about this gift, this skill– turning fabric and thread into wonderfully interesting products. They find those people. They share stories. People share what they are achieving through the digital platform.
It’s a great way of letting people know that this very special business is there to service a global audience. Let’s find out how Katie and Pam do it. Katie Dawson, Pam Spurway. Great to see a dynamic mother and daughter combo running a fantastic business. Tell us a little bit about your enterprise.
PAM SPURWAY: Our enterprise is hand-dyed threads for embroiderers and sewers, the likes. It’s quite a few different people that use them, different ideas and techniques that are being used. A fairly new idea. Certainly I do it a very niche way. It’s very different to the norm. It’s very hands-on, all hand-painted.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: An ancient art of thread dying, but you’ve transformed it into a really here-and-now business using digital engagement. How have you gone about that?
KATIE DAWSON: Well, the thing is that it is such a niche business, and the processes that Mum has developed mean that we are at the top of our game with the processes and particular things like colour, colour running, and the feel, the softness of the thread when you’re using it. So it’s not just the colour. It’s love the colour, feel the difference. The potential is endless because of digital technologies and social media and things like that. We in our small little town can reach the entire globe instantly, absolutely instantly, and have that connection with people.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: So you’re created a whole new world of customers where– Pam, you were known by specialists working with thread and fabric that, if you wanted something really quite unique, you were the go-to person. But now you’ve broadened that fraternity to the threaders, the Threadies, the whole– I suppose the passion around working with the material you produce. You’ve created a much larger market, and through that a far, far stronger business.
KATIE DAWSON: We have. And it’s because we are now quite transparent in letting people into our business to see, and to not talk about ourselves in the third person. We speak to people as we are. And quite often I’ll say Mum instead of Pam because we’re a family business. So people do get to see little bits of our business– not just the products, but they get to know us and who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going as well. And that creates a lot of excitement.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: So the Threadies are an online community–
HON BRUCE BILLSON: –which probably has as many people in it as your hometown.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: And it reaches all corners of the globe.
KATIE DAWSON: It does, yeah.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: How does that work? How did the Threadies come to be a part and influence what you’re doing in the business?
KATIE DAWSON: Well, in my personal studies of finding business things– because, as you know, I’ve got five children at home and I can’t do– I can’t be trotting off to uni or to things like these. So if there’s something that I want to learn about, well, I jump online and I learn about it, and I seek it out. And one of the those was a bit about Facebook, and how it’s not– your Facebook page is important. But now people are wanting that engagement, so having a group is almost more valuable than your actual Facebook page, because you’ve got that audience that is already there, really wanting to know about you and to be a part of it.
So that’s why I created the Threadies group. And it just took off, and it’s great. It is like its own community. And people get on and chat to each other and help each other out if anyone has any issues. Because we can’t be on the computer instantly. Then there’ll be someone else around the world that’s there to help them and to encourage them and to share their work. For people that are isolated that may not have a group, like a stitching group or something, that you can jump online and they can share their photo and get that feedback from people, which is really lovely.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: And you also get good customer feedback, and the conversations provide aha’s about what else the business could be doing, and I suppose some inspiration–
KATIE DAWSON: That’s happened recently.
KATIE DAWSON: That has happened recently where the– one genre of needlework is the cross-stitching that we aren’t– we’ll, I’m not all that familiar with. Mum is more so. But by having– being able to get online on Facebook pages and things like that, you can see that there is a huge market of cross-stitchers around the world, and I would prefer to have their threads uncut or un-snipped, whereas we do. And that little bit of feedback has opened up a whole new market for us. And by just doing one slight alteration to our product, it’s opened it up to a whole new market, which is really exciting.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: That’s fantastic. Now, you’re an analytical and reflective woman and a creative woman.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: If you had your time over again, or a young entrepreneur is watching this presentation, three lessons, three pieces of advice that you’d give them.
KATIE DAWSON: OK. Don’t let anything limit you. It’s out there for you to know. You just have to want to know it and go out there and seek it. Your knowledge is everything, and you can’t know too much, ever. And trust in yourself and your ideas. So putting in that analytical, and the way that happens is with acknowledge. You’ve got creative and you’ve got your knowledge. Pair them together, and yeah.
HON BRUCE BILLSON: Congratulations to you both. A wonderful story, and really grateful you could share some time and thoughts with us today.
KATIE DAWSON: You’re welcome.
PAM SPURWAY: Thank you.
Even successful businesses recognise and embrace digital engagement as key to maintaining a competitive edge and customer appeal.
Once-successful SMEs may be comforted by a history of profitability and strong market share, only to find that without changing anything things are changing around them.
Rivals or new entrants may be lifting the bar on what’s expected in your SME market segment. And while you’re still doing what you’ve always done (even if you’re doing it well), new ways of engaging with customers and delighting them with improved value, better service and storytelling is leaving you behind.
While academics have a very specific definition of disruption*, the displacement of your position in the market may not arise from a better targeting of customer needs in areas of over-servicing but from a rival simply doing what you aim to do in a better and more engaging way.
Katie and Pam from Cottage Garden Threads may not be big-scale disruptors but they’ve tapped into communities that are online rather than local, and so have disrupted the notion of local in the process.
*Disruption is a much-used and often misunderstood term according to Harvard Business School professor and disruption ‘guru’ Clayton Christensen. Disruption ‘describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses’ (Christensen, Raynor & McDonald 2015, p. 4). To read more about disruption, click the link to the article in the reference list below.

Your task

​ Provide an example of how the traditional SME advantage of being local and convenient has been displaced by the use of digital technologies in your sector.


Christensen, CM, Raynor, ME, & McDonald, R 2015, ‘What is disruptive innovation?’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 93, no. 12, December, pp. 44–53.
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SMEs and Digital Engagement

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