Michael Fuyala helps run his family’s wildly popular Misa Christmas Tree Farm in Auckland. But in recent months, he’s decided to venture into something a little bit different, setting up not just one but two startups: an online fundraising platform for charities, schools and clubs called Rewardhub, and an affiliate marketing network called Linkshop. Jihee Junn went along to chat with Fuyala at his Mount Eden farm to find out more.
“Fake trees are a lot more convenient, but the smell of real trees? I think people start associating that smell with Christmas,” Michael Fuyala tells me as we walk across the grounds of Misa Christmas tree farm. It’s the last week of November and there’s a faint buzz of anticipation hanging in the air; December 1 just days away from ringing in the festive season.
“As of this weekend, we’re going to have a line of cars going down the driveway,” he says while pointing to a long gravel path leading out to Mount Eden’s Balmoral Road. “It’s going to be stacked all day long, with seven or eight of us here battling away to keep up with demand.”
Fuyala is used to it though – he’s practically grown up working on the farm since he was just 10 years old. His grandparents, Tom and Antica Misa, first bought the one-hectare property in the 1940s after immigrating to New Zealand from Croatia. Tom’s younger brother, Karl Misa, then became the driving force behind the Christmas tree business, working well into his eighties before his nephew and Fuyala’s uncle, Ron Misa, took over.
Today, despite numerous offers from developers and investors to purchase the property which is currently valued at around $9 million, the farm remains staunchly in family hands, with Fuyala, his brother Tom, and his cousin Ivan Sokolich taking over when his uncle, who had motor neurone disease, passed away in 2012. “None of us wanted to close [the farm] down. We didn’t want to sell the property, so my brother and I put it into a company and we’ve continued to run it with family and staff.”
While the farm is still frequented by many Auckland families, a significant portion of Misa’s business has moved online, including its fundraising programme for schools, clubs and charities who sell trees to its members and communities. To do this, each fundraiser would have its own unique landing page where groups could send supporters to purchase trees online. It turned out to be an easy, popular and relatively lucrative way of running fundraisers and it eventually gave Fuyala the idea for Rewardhub – an online platform that lets you earn free donations for the charity, club or school you care about every time you shop online.
The thinking behind Rewardhub is that groups wouldn’t have to wait until Christmas time to fundraise – they could promote magazine subscriptions, beauty products, or meal kits from various advertisers and earn a commission all year round, just by getting their supporters to purchase through the Rewardhub platform. Advertisers on the platform currently include businesses like Glassons, Mighty Ape, HelloFresh, The Iconic, Amazon, Book Depository and Fishpond, who contribute an average ‘reward rate’ of around 4-5%.
So what’s the incentive for advertisers to sign up? This is where Fuyala’s other startup – Linkshop – comes in. “What it does is it puts some code onto advertisers’ websites so if someone clicks from one website to another, they can track if someone made a purchase or not and they can agree that this blogger or website gets paid a commission,” he explains.
This is also known as affiliate marketing which is a pretty common practice in large markets like the US with publishers like BuzzFeed, Wired and TechRadar regularly making use of affiliate links, earning commission for each purchase they help make. In New Zealand, however, the practice is relatively unknown, something which Linkshop is trying to change while further channelling it into a good cause by using it to drive the Rewardhub platform.
“[Linkshop] has been instrumental in getting advertisers onto Rewardhub because [from their perspective], it’s kind of like ‘why would I go to all this effort for one charity platform?’ But if they can get a whole bunch of other publishers to promote them as well, then it becomes a bit more interesting, but that’s a really slow burn and I don’t know if New Zealand will have the scale for it. But we’re certainly giving it a good go,” Fuyala explains.
“There’s a billion dollars going into performance marketing (ie: marketing whose success can be measured/attributed) and there are all of these charities, clubs and community groups who’ve got massively engaged and connected communities, but they don’t really know how to market themselves. So what if you could shuffle 1% of that Google/Facebook spend into these guys instead?”
Fuyala brings to all this a wealth of experience in digital media having spent the last decade working at NZME before taking up an executive role as head of digital at Bauer in 2015, all while continuing to help out on the Misa tree farm during the Christmas season. He left Bauer in June this year to work on Rewardhub and Linkshop which he co-founded with tech lead Mike Rishworth, and says that while they currently make no money, he’s confident the model has the potential to work, pointing to similar platforms in the UK such as Easyfundraising and Give as you Live which together have raised approximately 40 million pounds.
“Based on the kind of volumes that we need, it’ll be quite a lot of years before it paid off,” he says. That’s because reward rates (ie: the commission charities are allowed to keep) leave little left for Rewardhub to keep. For example, if an advertiser pays out 5% for a sale, the charity would get 4% while Rewardhub would keep 1%. “We can only succeed if people can raise money, and we’d pretty much need a million dollars to be raised to break even.”
“I’m making no money right now. We have [the Christmas tree business] fortunately, but it’s not like it’s wildly profitable. We pay $36,000 in rates, we’re buying a lot of trees from big farms, we’ve got trucks to maintain, we’ve got staff to pay, [and] obviously, it’s a seasonal business.”
“If Rewardhub doesn’t get traction, one possibility is to go back to work while we keep trying to get some sort of scale. But it’s a battle at the moment, especially with young kids… But it’s one of those things where I’m willing to make that sacrifice.
“I’ve been working for something like 25 years, I’ve got another 20 years of working ahead of me. What’s taking a year out to have a crack at doing something fun?”
Misa Christmas Tree Farm are currently selling trees with 40% of all sales going to StarJam, a charity that helps young New Zealanders with disabilities. To buy a tree, click here.
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