Covid-19

Tech maverick fast-tracks SME help site

Need someone to give advice about moving your SME business to remote working? To work through the complexities of the Covid-19 wage subsidies? To help take a classroom-based programme online? As from today, there’s a free, volunteer-designed web platform for that.

Tech entrepreneur and maverick Vaughan Fergusson reckons when Covid-19 struck big-time, he was probably three months away from launching Voluntarily.nz, a not-for-profit aimed at matching volunteer time at technology corporates with teachers needing help moving to a digital curriculum.

He was probably three years from expanding the programme to help small businesses and NGOs.

The coronavirus changed all that. Suddenly online digital nous was no longer a good-to-have for SMEs. It was a critical part of keeping them alive and their employees in work. 

Last Friday, Fergusson (formerly known as Vaughan Rowsell and the founder of cloud point-of-sale platform Vend) and his partner and Voluntarily.nz co-founder Zoe Timbrell, decided to bring the whole project forward - to the following week.

Self-isolation build party

All through last weekend, a group of 100 or so mostly tech people from big companies like Datacom, Spark, Westpac and Xero came together - virtually - for what they called a “self-isolation build party”. 

The aim was to get a website up and running to link volunteers with business and other skills (including remote working and cloud experts, accountants, HR people, lawyers, psychologists and small business advisors) with SME businesses, schools, NGOs and individuals struggling with moving from a pre-Covid to an in-Covid world.

They hope to provide experts who could hopefully help businesses survive, schools continue to teach and NGOs provide services in unprecedented times.

The fact that Fergusson and Timbrell are in voluntarily self-isolation themselves having returned from North America earlier this month didn’t stop them. Nor did the fact that the weekend of the self-isolation build party, they were waiting for Covid tests, having started feeling not that great.

In better times, Vaughan Fergusson and Zoe Timbrell run the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust, which launched Voluntarily.nz. Photo: Supplied.

Helpers to build the site swelled to 140 this week, and Voluntarily.nz goes live this afternoon.

Not just another crisis

Timbrell says she was working at the Employers and Manufacturers Association during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. 

“I saw what that recession did to small businesses - the stresses on owners who cared about their employees. And that crisis was spread out.

“New Zealand is a country of small businesses, so we realised we had to do something now.”

Both volunteers and people needing help can register on the site, with the main areas being SMEs, education, and NGOs, although individuals can ask for help too.

“On the business side, people are confused. They need information around wage subsidies, around how to make their business operate remotely, about marketing in the present environment. They need to know about mental health and resilience. 

“The goal is to guide people to find tools they can use and people who can help.”

So far, the volunteers are mostly from partner companies Xero, Westpac, Spark, Datacom, plus the Ministry of Education and Ateed. Often people working at these companies get one volunteering day a year, but many haven’t used it, Timbrell says. But she hopes once the site goes live, other big companies and volunteers will come on board. 

“There is the expectation that a volunteer could help seven people a day, giving an hour to each. They will be walking people through what tools and policies they will need, and importantly which ones could be effective.

“Right now there are a million articles online about setting up remote working. But if you are an expert, you can pull out what’s the most useful for a particular business.

“Every day counts at the moment.” 

Timbrell says Voluntarily.nz won’t replace advisers.

“But the fear is good services get overwhelmed, so business owners can’t get in front of people to give them good advice. Or they pick something that doesn’t work for them.”

Not-for-profits

She says Voluntarily.nz can also be used as a platform for charities wanting to set up a safe online way to coordinate their own work. The team is already talking to the student army, she says, and organisations helping the homeless and other vulnerable people.

The team has put a lot of work into screening volunteers and offers of help to keep out scammers and other non-desirables.

“Unfortunately during times of crisis, there is the potential for people behaving badly. In a situation like this, the lead time for police vetting is so long, but we want to know the person who’s offering help is who they say they are - and that they are a real person.”  

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