Coronavirus social gathering restrictions have completely shattered the events industry, and the small businesses that work within it. But one entrepreneur in the industry has made a swift pivot into alcohol delivery, to keep his business alive and his employees on the books.
The brand new business Boozi, offers a range of beers, wines, spirits and mixers, delivered to doorsteps within a 15km radius of the Sydney CBD.
Founder Michael Watson had been running his events business, Wat’s On Events, for 11 years, managing bars and pop-ups at events big and small, all over New South Wales.
He was looking forward to a packed six months, but once the dangers of COVID-19 in Australia started to become clear, the cancellations started coming, and didn’t stop.
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“It was all very sudden,” Watson tells SmartCompany.
“The week it all started to really blow up in the media, we had six events on that weekend,” he recalls.
Within the space of two days, all of them were gone.
“One by one, every phone call … it just steamrolled,” he says.
The next week, long-term events started to be cancelled, too. Wat’s On Events was due to manage the bars at Sydney’s Vivid festival, and to operate a national tour due to start in May.
“Basically, within the space of a week we lost every single event and didn’t have a single thing to do up until November,” Watson explains.
“I was quite disappointed on the weekend we lost the six events one by one, but once I got the first couple, it was just expected.
“I was waiting for the phone to ring for all the others to just fall like dominoes as well,” he says.
“Once the ball started rolling they were all dropping like flies.”
This sounds like every small business owner’s worst nightmare. And for Watson, he says nothing about it felt real.
“For a two-week period it didn’t really sink in that I’d gone from quite a successful small business, thriving in events, to not a single thing on the calendar.”
Soon, panic set in. Watson has six staff members, all of whom he was desperate to keep.
“That was the biggest thing for me,” he says.
“At one point, it’s going to bounce back, and if I lose them all, it’s going to hurt in a big way on the other end.”
Licence to pivot
Once everyone started to understand the effects of COVID-19 were not going to be short-lived, Watson got the team together for a serious brainstorming session.
“We don’t want to sit around here doing nothing,” he explains.
“How can we utilise what we already do to keep everybody busy?”
As it happens, the business has a package liquor licence that it’s been renewing but not using for some 10 years. That’s the licence that allows for online sales and delivery of alcohol.
“That was a very good head start,” Watson says.
“Honestly, I don’t even know why I kept the licence. We utilise a different licence for the majority of our pop-up bars,” he adds.
“I’m very fortuitous that we kept it, because it’s come in really handy now.”
Accessing this particular licence would have been a significant barrier to entry for a new business like Boozi, Watson says.
“We would have had to have waited for six to nine months for a licence to come through,” he explains.
Within two-and-a-half weeks of the initial brainstorm, Boozi was launched, with a brand new website and branding, and a logistics plan.
“It’s not the way I would prefer to start a new arm of the business,” the founder says.
“But, given the current climate and the pressure that we’re under to make sure that we could pivot, I guess it was do or die.”
It’s only been up and running for a week, but things seem to be tracking well for Boozi, so far. In its first three operational days (Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, with a mandated break on Good Friday), it made about 87 deliveries.
“I really didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, to be honest.”
In fact, at one point, orders were coming in so fast that Watson, who had been planning on coordinating logistics from the office, had to jump in a van and complete a few himself.
He also had to rope in another staff member who wasn’t supposed to be working that day.
“It’s better than sitting around twiddling our thumbs,” Watson says.
Considering the team hasn’t done much marketing, or had much press attention yet, it’s a promising start.
“The first week has been really good,” the founder says.
“We’re stoked about that.”
Survive and thrive
For Watson, Boozi’s main purpose is allowing him to keep his staff members on the books — even if they’re now acting as delivery drivers rather than events managers.
“They’ve really embraced it,” he says.
While the government’s JobKeeper stimulus package will help the business, only three of the six staff members are eligible. One of the others is a casual worker who hasn’t been with the business for 12 months. Two more are on sponsored visas.
“That’s not ideal,” Watson says.
“It would be great if they could re-visit the temporary visa holders, especially the sponsored people,” he suggests.
“They’re essentially citizens for tax purposes, but they’re not getting any assistance.”
But launching Boozi has meant he can keep everyone on the books. While it was important to support his team, it also gives Wat’s On Events the best chances of bouncing back once the crisis has passed, the founder explains.
“I know at one point, when this is all over, people are going to want events. If I don’t have a team behind me to be able to put on those events, that’s where the business will fall down,” he explains.
“As soon as the events come back, they can slot back into their positions and I haven’t lost them,” he adds.
“That’s the most important thing for me.”
That said, when things return to business-as-usual, Watson says he will “100%” keep Boozi up and running.
“Now has been the most perfect time to kick it off, to be honest,” he says.
“I’ve been able to give Boozi some consideration and the time it needs to kick it off.”
In the future, the venture will complement the existing business. Watson has the warehouse space already, and he has the licence required.
And, through Wat’s On Events, Watson often finds himself with surplus stock that he can’t return.
Boozi offers “a great avenue for us to be able to get rid of some of that stock”, he explains.
“The plan is for it to be a long-term play, and to be a household name within two or three years.”