23 November, 2009

The Flying Pig Story

Today is the tenth anniversary of Flying Pig. The ambitious New Zealand-owned and operated internet retail store opened its virtual doors for business on 23 November 1999.

Had Flying Pig endured and become the success that was hoped for when it launched then this milestone would today be a cause for celebration. Imagine if you will a giant inflatable cartoon pig resembling the company’s logo floating over Auckland and a glitzy celebratory party covered by the news media.

In reality Flying Pig folded just two years after it launched. In that time the company had endured considerable down-scaling from a staff of sixty-plus at its height to just six on the day it closed.

A number of my former work colleagues look back on the venture with a degree of bitterness and regret. I understand that. Those of us who were there at the beginning were sold on the concept with the promise of expansion, growth and company shares which never eventuated.

I however have generally positive memories of Flying Pig. I am one of only two people who were there on launch day and still there on the fateful day that we were all made redundant, two years later.

I think in some small way I may have helped inspire the company’s creation. During the latter half of the 1990s I worked for the flagship store of Whitcoulls, New Zealand’s leading bookstore chain. I managed the store’s ‘Book Information’ counter, which involved sourcing non-stocked book titles from local and overseas distributors to fill customer orders. On the strength of my performance in this role I was invited to develop a proposal for an up-scaled version of the same service, to serve Whitcoulls’ customers nationwide. I pitched this to the Whitcoulls CEO who signed off on it. I got my own department located in spare space above the shop with a staff of six to eight people, handling direct phone sales, orders from stores and, eventually, Whitcoulls’ own fledgling buy-online store.

From this seed grew the idea of a separate business venture: an internet store with a vast array of books and videos. Flying Pig was masterminded by the very same Whitcoulls CEO who had approved the concept I had helped develop. The Flying Pig online store was the logical extension of that proposition.

My small team was drafted to join Flying Pig in early November 1999. In physical terms this meant relocating from the second floor of the Whitcoulls building to the basement area of a building situated in Freemans Bay. We were set up as the customer service and orders fulfilment team, which was very similar to what we had been doing at Whitcoulls.

I personally felt frustrated at what I perceived as a sideways move, so agitated to join the content management team located in the office upstairs. I was given responsibility for managing the Video & DVD category. At the time DVDs were very new on the New Zealand market; when I initially set up the DVD category there was perhaps only fifty titles available.

Flying Pig opened its virtual doors to the public for the first time on 23 November 1999 with a huge amount of promotion that included billboards and students carrying placards around the streets. Unfortunately the site wasn’t able to cope with the huge volume of online traffic this generated and promptly crashed, resulting in many calls and emails from frustrated potential customers, and unfavourable comments in the media. It is hard to assess in hindsight how much this incident affected the Flying Pig brand, but internet customers are in my experience a generally unforgiving bunch, quick to criticise and slow to forgive perceived wrongs, so I am certain that we lost a portion of our potential customer base.

Despite this early setback the entire staff enjoyed a great company outing to Waiheke Island as a Christmas party and team-bonding exercise. Who knows how much additional ‘team bonding’ might have taken place had our drunken plans for an impromptu night-time skinny-dip not been curtailed by the perhaps fortuitous arrival of the bus to take us back to the ferry!

During the early months of 2000,the company continued to grow. More staff were hired, a new larger location for the business was located, plans were developed for the addition of such diverse categories as tools and wine, and Flying Pig was to be floated on the sharemarket with staff to get shares in the business.

All of these plans for expansion came suddenly and badly unstuck in March 2000 when the so-called dotcom bubble burst with the collapse of the NASDAQ in the US. The shockwave effect on local investors who had contributed to the company’s considerable start-up and operations costs resulted in an immediate need to downscale. Plans to expand the online store, to move premises and to issue shares were abruptly shelved and some staff members were made redundant. Not long after this we vacated our sunny office space and joined the customer service and despatch team downstairs in the gloomy garage/basement area.

Those of us who survived this downsizing rallied together to make the best of a dispiriting setback. We held weekly barbecues and drinks and a light-hearted team atmosphere prevailed most of the time.

In early 2001, following further down-scaling, Flying Pig was acquired by Auckland-based magazine publishing company IT Media and a much-reduced team relocated to share office space with the likes of Rip It Up, NetGuide and NZ Rugby magazines in Kitchener Street. By this time I had been promoted to oversee the general content for the website as well as still handling the ever-growing video and DVD categories.

Within a few months IT Media also fell on hard times and began shedding titles and staff. Flying Pig’s General Manager left and I was encouraged to fill the vacated post. Despite my initial insistence that I wasn’t equipped to run the entire company, by May 2001 I found myself as the head of what was by now a rather small operation with just six staff.

The crunch time came seven months after my appointment as GM. A protracted dispute between a creditor and IT Media that I was powerless to resolve came to a head with the receivers called in to close down Flying Pig. We turned up for work one morning in early November 2001 to find the website down. A short time later we were told to leave as we had all been made redundant.

I arrived home around midday, suddenly unemployed and in a state of mild shock at the turn of events. That very afternoon I received a call from a old Flying Pig colleague, now working with Noel Leeming. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming to work at Noel Leeming to use my experience to help set up their online store. As one door closed, another one opened, and I'm happy to report that I was later able to bring on board a couple of my former Flying Pig colleagues.

New Zealand's most popular website, Trade Me, was established in 1999 around the same time as Flying Pig. Who knows, had things turned out differently perhaps Flying Pig might have enjoyed similar success, and ten years later, I might still be working for the company. It is perhaps unlikely though that had this been the case, that I would have ended up as the General Manager!


Anonymous said...

Gosh, 10 years already! I am part of that small group who can say 'yes, I was a piglet once' and what a rollercoaster ride it was!
I think the company grew too fast and got a bit distracted from the logistics of a mail order business. Like you I don't have many bad memories and when the end came I recall being not at all surprised. The best thing was always the great team of people, the laughs and the camaraderie. Cheers, Louise

Paul Rawnsley said...

Happy Birthday, us.

Dude, when it was good times, it was the best of times. When it was bad it was shithole, evil, diabolique bad.

Though for that golden period there, still the best place I've ever worked; and with the added benefit of making friends that I still hold dear, and am still in contact with, to this day.... Read more

I would point out, to those that had a bad experience with The Pig, that the staff always tried their best to do what they could, but it often felt like we were working with a hand tied behind our backs and always hoping the Pixie Caramel really was going to save our ass.

In vain, it turned out. But over all, I don't regret working there for a second.

Erica Suranyi said...

For we were jolly good fellows....
Someone had to tell the story - and I'm proud it was you - you were there from the cradle to the grave.
When the pig crash landed we had bacon sandwiches for breakfast!

Gary Sinclair said...

man I miss that place....sooo many friends...thanks Paul

Nicola Rawnsley said...

Thats cool dude - I had a short career at the Pig but I'm glad for it! As always it was the people.........Happy Birthday to all ex-piggers!!

Lisa Sellar said...

Bloody hell, have Aaron and I been together that long?? It is spookily coincidental that we are now pig farmers. Flying Pig - short but sweet!

Gary Sinclair said...

Hi Paul
I was there with you and shared some of the golden hours....we could look back with regrets....but better to look back and say we shared something....I love my friends I made & miss those days....wow what a dream
thanks for sharing this Paul...love to catch up at our next reunion.....Gary :--)

Anonymous said...

Mr S,
This is a great summary of a great team's attempts to navigate the choppy waters of early stage e-tailing. I miss you all (including the wonderful Judith). Wish we started with a different array of "supportive investors" but I look back with fond memories of the launch and warehouse juggling. Best wishes to you and the team. Jimmy C