Craig Hanson’s idea for Thriving Locally, an online marketplace with all local products, came to him in 2010 in downtown Nanaimo’s quaint, rustic Old City Organics. The store had only recently opened its doors when blond-haired, blue-eyed Hanson walked in to peruse their wares.

With the elderly shopkeeper eagerly looking on, Hanson was left to his own devices without another soul in the store. After settling for some Busch tea, he went to the counter and paid. It is only when he went home and browsed the internet that he discovered that his delicious new purchase was made by a local Nanaimo company, hosted by a very poor and inconvenient
website. Further research only uncovered more sloppy, out-of-date websites.

“The sites that I did find weren’t very well done,” he said. “They weren’t maintained, and information was scattered all over the place. Some said ‘call for pricing,’ and others said ‘we can arrange delivery on the corner.’ It’s all these little hurdles that make the most keen ‘buy local-er’ shopping online say ‘you know what, I just can’t do it.’”

Three years later, Hanson now had three other cofounders— Andrea Huhn, Will Zouzouras, and Cleary Donnelly—all armed with a concept: What if there was an online platform that could provide local stores with the means for an online presence? Not only that, but what if shopping locally was made easy, with convenient delivery? With a background in architecture, Hanson always admired the entrepreneurial spirit.

“Ever since I was 13, I’ve had businesses on the side,” says Hanson.

With side projects ranging from opening up a video arcade to a snow cone stand, Hanson proves to be a man of many trades despite his post-secondary education.

“Small business owners I feel are the people that have the courage to follow their dreams,” Hanson says. “It’s not about making a million dollars—it’s about making a life worth living.”

September 2014 saw the launch of Thriving Locally, an online marketplace for small businesses in Nanaimo. In the year since their launch, the company itself has seen many changes in its first phase. The company has now expanded to offer services on
Gabriola Island and seeks to expand nationwide in phase two, which is expected to take place sometime within the next 12 months.

“At this point it’s a bit too early [to launch into phase two],” says Hanson. “We’re ironing out the wrinkles, making sure everything is running smoothly.” Zouzouras and Donnelly have since moved on to other projects, and the team now boasts Tali Campbell, a former Nanaimo city council candidate as a member.

For only $10 a month, or as Hanson likes to put it, the same amount as two expensive lattés or a half day of camping, local business owners can be a part of this community. Though the company offers an online marketplace, it also offers delivery of products to its customers for a fee of $3.50 per stop.

Not only is it great for businesses, but Thriving Locally also provides shop owners with an eight-week mentorship to help them build a presence online. “We’ve created what we call the Thrive Online Program,” explains Hanson. “We sit down with a
small business owner for one hour a week, and [the program] is designed to give them homework.”

Primarily designed to provide the shop owner with assistance in “getting their shop in order,” the Thrive Online Program gives strategies to maintain an online presence by minimizing the risk of a “digital dead end,” where the consumer is presented with a desired product with no further links to direct them to its location.

Unlike monolithic, worldwide online marketplaces like Amazon, Thriving Locally doesn’t just sell items—it sells services as well.
“We are anything local,” says Hanson. “It’s not about the product, it’s about the business.”

Though Thriving Locally offers physical products, selling services and involving the restaurant industry has proven to be a tougher nut to crack. “[Services are] used to advertising online, but not necessarily selling direct, and we’re a direct selling
site. You buy it now; we don’t just offer it and the consumer has to go find it,” says Hanson.

To get restaurants involved, the Thriving Locally crew has devised a Local Eats initiative, where the consumer can peruse a restaurant’s online menu on the Local Eats Facebook group, purchase a meal, and present a ticket as proof of purchase. This works especially well when it comes to specials or deals offered by the restaurant that customers don’t want to miss out on. With a few restaurants already on board, like the Lighthouse Bistro, Let’s Eat Guilt-Free, Coco Café and, more recently, Dish, this initiative looks promising. Since its launch at the end of November, the Facebook group is already gaining more attention.

“Two Chef’s Affair is also interested because they sell pre-packaged foods,” says Hanson. “Dish is also excited to get into catering as well.”

Though the feedback from businesses on board with Thriving Locally has been generally positive, getting local businesses to join the project is also a challenge. With the company being so new, there is a general reticence to jump on board, as expected. Hanson uses the term “thirsty horse” when referring to small businesses getting involved with the movement.
“You can bring the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink,” he explains.

Inkyfingers Papercrafting, a card and papercraft business since 2011, has been with Thriving Locally since the very beginning. After an outreach from Hanson, owner Laura Buechler believes the business model is promising.

Comparing it to a “local Etsy” store, Buechler believes that if people view it this way, Thriving Locally has the potential to dominate local online shopping.

“It’s a really great concept,” says Buechler.

Despite previous sales on Etsy, Buechler likes Thriving Locally’s online experience.

“What’s different between one and the other is that you pay to put your ad up, you pay when you make a sale, and it’s guaranteed that you will have to pay a lot of shipping costs because its not someone who lives down the street,” says Buechler. “It’s a totally different business model, and [Etsy] isn’t always worth it. With Thriving Locally, I put [my ad] up, and it’s
there until I decide to take it down. You just pay for your shop—you can have one listing, or you can have a thousand listings.”

With the Christmas season coming up, Buechler hopes to see a spike in sales, coming up with card “variety packs” for the holidays. Hanson believes that what it really comes down to is educating the masses and finding “creative, attractive, and sustainable” ways to engage the community.

“A lot of things about buying local comes down to consumer awareness, education, and understanding the value of their dollar,” says Hanson. Statistically, buying local has a trickle down effect, with 300 per cent of each dollar staying within the
community, and local businesses tend to buy local products, like local produce for restaurants. Not only is it a greener way to do business, but the consumer also gets a special connection with the seller.

When asked about the future of Thriving Locally, Hanson is optimistic.

“What satisfies my insanity is that when you heard about Facebook, did you jump on it right away? You probably heard of it from two or three people before you figured out what it was and, four times later, actually tried it.”