Being an industry outsider
Friday, June 10, 2011/
California-born Carl Harwin is the founder of frozen yoghurt business Wowcow, which recently announced its plans to become a nationwide franchise.
With no prior experience in the Australian marketplace, Harwin concentrated his energies on bringing America’s service culture to consumers, and makes no apologies for the foreign flavor.
“The states are known for their customer service… I grew up with that service culture and mentality, and I think that’s really helped us stand out,” he says.
After arriving in Australia in 2007, Harwin says he saw a gap in the market for frozen yoghurt and desserts, and proceeded to develop a frozen yoghurt brand.
He devoted a year to research and development before securing a site in Sydney’s northern beaches and opening the first Wowcow store.
Harwin used the store to test the product and tailor his offering to suit the Australian palate before relocating 18 months later.
“In May 2009, I opened up the flagship store on Victoria Street in Darlinghurst,” he says.
“Over the past few years, the business has developed its retail store model, its events and catering business as well as its wholesale business, and is now ready to embark on its national expansion drive.”
The business employees 15 staff and recorded revenue in excess of $700,000 last financial year. But it hasn’t been without its hiccups.
In addition to starting a new business, Harwin had the added challenge of being new to Australia with a wife and two young children to support.
“There was an enormous amount of pressure. My wife was very supportive and she believed in the opportunity as well, but we both didn’t realise the amount of pressure we were actually faced with and how long that would last,” Harwin says.
“Things just didn’t move as quickly as we were hoping. We didn’t have any initial investors; we used our own capital.”
“Our son was born shortly after we moved here so then we had two babies. No family, no support system, a very limited network, especially in the business community.”
“All those things compounded. You don’t really realise until it happens – you can only pre-empt so many things.”
Harwin says the only thing that kept him going was his belief in the idea and the positive reaction from the public.
“Also, you get so deep into it that you can’t turn back. You have to succeed because failure’s not an option,” he says.
There were, however, some perks to being an outsider. Harwin says he was initially seen as the underdog, which resonated with industry players.
“When you’re new in a place, people hear your story and they tend to want to help you and turn you on to other good people,” he says.
Being an outsider also meant Harwin had no concept of state-based competition, viewing the country as one big opportunity.
“I just looked at the country as being one place rather than Sydney versus Melbourne versus whatever. I built a network very quickly just by having that approach from day one,” he says.
“If your world is Sydney, Melbourne is your competitor, so you’re thinking of reasons why Sydney’s better and they’re thinking the same. But when you come from the outside, you just see it as one beautiful country with one family of people.”
Having no bias towards a particular state has enabled Harwin to build the business as a national brand, set to be rolled out in the near future.
“The country’s small and I feel that the [Wowcow] concept… is going to work wherever we go. I’m thinking about all the different regions,” he says.
“Over the past few years, the business has developed its retail store model, its events and catering business as well as its wholesale business, and is now ready to embark on its national expansion drive. Very exciting times.”