Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. This week he talks to Ben Nathan, CEO and founder of Container Door.
You might have, like me, got an email out-of-the-blue from a friend asking you if you’d be keen to grab a piece of outdoor furniture. Or maybe a scooter, a mattress, or anything else you can think of in order to help them fill up a container and get it shipped here from overseas.
And then, like me, you might have gone to the website to find out what on earth they were on about and found a lot of things you weren’t aware you were in the market for. But they look pretty good and well priced, so you decide to fire off one of those emails to another friend yourself…
If you still don’t know what I’m on about, I’m talking about Container Door – an ingenious idea from long-time entrepreneur Ben Nathan. Prior to Container Door, Ben had taken many of the best-known brands in New Zealand apparel and found new homes, wider markets and new opportunities for them. If you’ve been keeping an eye on fashion for a while you’d know that brands like Norsewear, Principals and Barkers have all found new leases of life with Ben.
To talk the journey, the power of a brand and sourcing things people just need to have, Ben joined the podcast.
Tell me about the rag trade, something I’m fascinated in. How did you get started in it, and what was the rag trade like? It used to be a huge industry in New Zealand, didn’t it?
I got into the rag trade through my family. My father was a New Zealand manufacturer back in the late 1960s and my mother was the designer. My father would go around and buy fabrics, organise production, and travel around the world. I grew up with my family travelling, rag trading, and that was a very traditional manufacturing business. It would get manufactured in New Zealand, and they would go out and sell garments to some of the older retailers – there aren’t many left now – and all the independents through New Zealand.
As I was growing up I found school a little bit difficult [so] I ended up going into the rag trade. My father sort of taught me from the very start [to get on an aeroplane to] China. He was quite an early adopter. By the age of about 23, I was jumping on aeroplanes two or three times a year to learn about China, importing, and negotiations. That’s really what got me started in the rag trade.
You’ve taken a number of large brands in New Zealand’s fashion landscape, and given them new lives when they’ve fallen on hard times or when the owners have decided to sell. How do you get into that?
I don’t sleep a lot so I’m always thinking of new ideas, and opportunities present themselves. It’s an industry I know very well and I suppose that I saw an opportunity when these brands came up for sale. I thought ‘hey I can make that work, I can fit that into my overhead structure, I can get that going’.
Rather than jumping in and buying it, I’d go around and make sure I had a market for it first before I spent any money on it. Once I got that ‘yes, we’re keen to do business with you, Ben’ then I’d purchase one of the brands.
It’s amazing. Every single time I’ve bought something or purchased a business or brand, it’s been very different. It’s when you learn from either your mistakes or your failures, or ‘I won’t do that again’. The next time you go and buy a brand or a business you go ‘oh I remember from last time, I’m not gonna do that’, so it’s really character building. You do learn a lot.
How did that sourcing inform your next business?
Maybe about 10 years ago, I was up in China and in a factory that was making some very well-known brands – those feather-down jackets – and back in those days it was the hottest thing. I saw these jackets going through the production line, and I think it was for Patagonia or North Face, or one of those big American brands. They had a retail ticket on the back of the neck saying US$400, and I went ‘woah, this is crazy!’ I asked the factory, ‘look at the cost price, what are they paying for it?’ I don’t remember the exact figures but it might have been something like US$60 or $65.
There’s a whole lot of money in between, so you know someone’s making a lot of money. I just had this thought [that] one day, surely, consumers will be able to group together as a community, and purchase the same item… from the factory themselves for maybe $75 or just a little bit more. So I went back to the hotel room and started sketching down these ideas. This was ten years ago.
[With the name], I was trying to think of consumers filling containers together, and once the containers are full the doors would close, and ship to people’s front doors… I wrote down all the categories: I thought we could do sports goods, apparel, homewares, and furniture. I started to get overexcited, which I tend to do. I took some A4 refill, wrote it down, put it in the bottom drawer, and I thought ‘the timing isn’t right, I’ve got a great apparel business, but one day I think this is gonna change’.