Pinni Goodman is a born entrepreneur. Some business owners choose entrepreneurship out of necessity or because there is a problem they want to solve, but not Pinni. His dad used to joke that high school was getting in the way of his business, and he has never been employed by someone else. Instead, he’s learnt ecommerce from the ground up, beginning with a Motorola walkie talkie and bidorbuy’s auction platform.
“My brother-in-law sent me a gift from New York – a Motorola walkie talkie – which was a lot of fun for a while, until I got bored of it and put it on bidorbuy
to see what would happen. It sold almost immediately,” Pinni says. And just like that, he had a business idea. He teamed up with a friend, Ari Oppenheimer, and started importing walkie talkies from the US. They set up a new bidorbuy profile, adding computer parts and other imported gadgets to their ‘product portfolio’.
They were soon one of bidorbuy’s top sellers. “I couldn’t believe how easy it was. All we were doing was importing products from the US through the mail and posting items with a small mark-up.” It was a valuable lesson that would shape the success of Geewiz
Most successful businesses are doing something no one else can do. They put in the work to remove friction from other peoples’ lives – and that is something that customers will pay for. Product is important. Customer service is essential! Finding a niche
“Eventually, we thought to ourselves, why pay extra fees to sell via a third party. Let’s rather launch our own platform and grow our customer base, and that’s just what we did,” says Pinni, outlining how Podzone was created. At the time, iPods were still relatively rare in the South African market and it was the perfect product with which to launch their own platform.
In many ways, what Pinni and Ari were doing was fairly simple. Anyone can make a website, put products on it and sell. But even in the business’s infancy they had key differentiators that were laying the foundation for sustainable organic growth.
First, they knew that setting up a website is one thing – people buying from you is another. In the online world, credibility is everything. “We had a bidorbuy profile that proved our credibility, so we made sure to leverage on it. You can’t link out from bidorbuy to your own website, but we could include our bidorbuy profile on our own site. We also listed our site on PriceCheck
Second, importing goods from the US (and later China) is possible for anyone to do, but most people don’t want to go through the hassle of researching various options, sourcing products and then figuring out the best solutions themselves. They want local support and advice. They want to know that an expert is there to assist them. This realisation changed Pinni and Ari’s business model.
Branching out from iPods, they rebranded the business to Geewiz and started including a range of additional products. Most importantly however, they made themselves accessible. Anyone purchasing a product from Geewiz could speak directly to Ari or Pinni, receive advice and even fetch the product themselves (the company’s head office was a back room at Ari’s parent’s house).
The start-up model was working. The combination of a profile on bidorbuy lending the brand credibility, an actual location that customers could visit, and a focus on customer service that ensured advice was only a phone call, email or sms message away, meant that the business was steadily growing.
“We have never taken a cent of funding or finance,” says Pinni. “Our growth has been slow, but it’s been organic and consistent.”
This is not to say that there haven’t been expensive lessons along the way. When Ari and Pinni launched Geewiz, they were in their early 20s, living at home and able to draw tiny salaries because their expenses (and responsibilities) were small. They had saved up R30 000 from bidorbuy deals and were ready to import their first shipment from China.
“We thought we were using a reputable shipping company,” says Pinni. “The shipment arrived water damaged, and what wasn’t damaged, had been stolen. We hadn’t taken insurance and the shipping company didn’t care. Our savings were gone and we had nothing to show for them.”
Fetching empty boxes makes an impression on any business owner, but Pinni and Ari didn’t let the setback stop them. They borrowed R30 000 from Ari’s mom and tried again – this time with a different shipping company. The loan was repaid within three months and the business partners started building strong relationships in China with manufacturers and traders. Solid bases and capitalising on trends
Geewiz operated from the back of Ari’s parent’s house for eight years, with Pinni and Ari doing everything themselves, including sourcing products, packaging, shipping and customer service. They even assembled inverter battery kits themselves.
“One of the most successful ways that we have attracted customers is through Google AdWords. We run and manage campaigns ourselves, but the key is knowing what people are searching for and then supplying a solution.”
A great example of this in action is the inverter kits that Geewiz sells. Since 2015, load shedding has become increasingly worse and each year South Africans look for solutions to their power woes. Ari learnt about inverters, researched how they work, and the team found suppliers in China that could ship them components. “People needed a solution, and we gave them one,” says Pinni.
“We ran the site by day and built inverters by night. It was exhausting, but the word-of-mouth referrals to Geewiz were incredible because people shared with each other how they were handling load shedding.”
Once again, customer service and technical expertise became a key differentiator for the brand. “Most people don’t know the first thing about inverters. They don’t know how they work, what they do, their limitations or their capabilities. The technical expertise that we offered along with advice helped our customers make the best decisions for their circumstances and needs.”
Today, Geewiz carries a large range of inverters, and Pinni and Ari are no longer building them themselves, but the lesson they learnt has remained a foundational element of the business.
“We took our time building a reputable brand in the market, and then we capitalised on our brand equity when there was a trend,” Pinni explains. “You should never cater to the spike – going all in on inverters and hiring more experts and staff to handle boom periods during load shedding would add overheads that would kill our business when there isn’t load shedding. We’re very transparent with our customers about that and let them know when spikes are slowing down our turnaround times. But we also know how to make the most of a trend. During the 2010 world cup, we imported mirror socks. We were one of the first sites to sell fidget spinners. If you pay attention to the trends and don’t over capitalise you can have steady boosts to the business.” Slow, steady, sustainable growth
Ari and Pinni have found a good balance between when to take a risk and when to be more conservative in their approach. “In our early days, we experimented with R1 and no reserve auctions on bidorbuy,” explains Pinni. “bidorbuy did all the marketing and our name – geewiz.co.za – would be on the site. Sometimes we didn’t make anything on a product, but people were getting to know us.”
On the other side of the business, Pinni and Ari are careful not to over capitalise and this includes their product inventory. The business imports and holds certain product ranges, but more specialised items are sourced on demand. Similarly, local products are subject to a ‘virtual inventory’ model similar to drop shipping, although instead of the supplier sending out the order, Geewiz will fetch products from suppliers, curate orders and deliver (most being processed the very same day).
“We have thousands of options on our website and we are expanding all the time,” explains Pinni. “Doing the hard stuff is what makes any business difficult to copy. Anyone can source these products, but where we differ is on the level of technical expertise we have across a wide range of products, the number of people in our customer service team and the sheer number of products and categories that we have sourced through the strong relationships that we have built up with our suppliers locally and internationally. It means that we’re a very tough act to follow.” PINNI SHARES HIS TOP LESSONS LEARNT Be niche.
The fact that we are niche means that we have a high level of in-house expertise that much larger platforms with broad product ranges cannot deliver. Build relationships.
Our strong relationships with our suppliers mean that we can source products quickly, particularly when it’s a niche item that we don’t carry, and we receive competitive prices. Remove friction for your customers.
Most people can get something done themselves if they really want to, but convenience is king and they want to rely on expert advice. Eat, sleep and breathe customer service.
Every business talks about customer service but exceptional customer service takes a lot of time, dedication and hard work. It’s worth it though. Customers come back for the service they receive, not the product. Put customers first.
We ensure that you can easily speak to a human without jumping through hoops and we offer good advice – not sales advice. We will even down sell someone if they are interested in the wrong product for their needs. The result is extremely loyal customers. Slow and steady wins the race.
We’ve taken a mature approach to building our business. Instant success is few and far between (if it ever happens). Slow and steady growth builds a sustainable business, so have patience and put in the work. Climb into your customer’s shoes.
Understand their wants and needs instead of guessing. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Cash flow, cash flow, cash flow.
We’d rather lose out on a few sales than sit with aging stock, and because we diversify all the time, we’ve avoided falling into the trap of over capitalising. Instead, we’ve always maintained a very healthy cash flow, which is a big part of our success. Invest in systems and processes.
This can’t be achieved overnight, but it’s the foundation for a great business!