Knook #13: Goodnature
It’s no secret that New Zealand has some of the most amazing native species in the world.
But we used to have a lot more. The list of New Zealand species known to have become extinct since human settlement includes one bat, at least 51 birds, three frogs, three lizards, one freshwater fish, four plant species, and a number of invertebrates. Human predation, and the introduction of rats, stoats, weasels, cats and possums (among others) have reduced the number of our native species, and are threatening many more.
A Wellington company is working hard at doing their bit to reduce the impact of pests on our native species. Goodnature makes resetting pest traps out of their suburban factory in Newtown, and have been running for 14 years. I caught up with their co-founder, Robbie van Dam.
“We work hard to be ‘champions for nature’. We’re driven by using a design business as a tool for environmental improvement,” says Robbie.
“The product was originally developed for back country New Zealand but we now export fifty percent of our traps for use in environments that the rest of the world is looking to control - cities and towns as well as the bush. We’ve got three core sales channels - direct to the consumer, professional pest controllers and large scale ecology projects.
“I’ve been very focused on creating a single small thing that has a landscape effect. As a company, we’re very driven by this internal obligation to make things in a well-considered way.”
I asked Robbie how they got started.
“I was working part-time at the Department of Conservation (DOC) while studying design. I was focused on rare New Zealand birds like kākāpō and takahē, protecting them, trying to get them to breed, convincing them there’s heaps of food around - all things that would help the population grow and stay healthy.
“There’s two sides to conservation - either you protect our 4000 really endangered species or you get rid of the 6 or 7 species that make everything endangered, like your rats, stoats, possums, wild cats, etc. If you sort those species out, then everything else will be pretty good.
“So then you have to ask, what limits scale? It’s cost and time - in the case of DOC they have a lot of volunteers (and therefore time) but not much budget to control pests. Cheaper tools are less effective over time - these solutions are more expensive because of the intensity of labour.
“A snap trap has to be cleared. The cost of checking the traps, including hiring a helicopter for the backcountry traps is about $10 per trap you check, so each trap is about $100 a year to check. Toxins cost $35 a hectare - but the effects of these deliveries only last for 6 months. The question that isn’t being answered through these methods is how many things are left? How many other things could you have killed but missed because you couldn’t clear the trap quick enough?
“Goodnature as a concept really started because we set out to develop a cost effective solution that minimised labour costs. In other words, cost saving through not needing to constantly check traps.
“We decided we would make a resetting trap. We had no idea how we were going to do it but that was the idea. We received some innovation money from DOC and went away and designed how it would work. We knew we were looking to have as few potential points of failure as possible, but it took a bit of thinking, and trial and error, to get there.
“One day, Craig [Bond, co-founder of Goodnature] was out mountain biking with his daughter and they popped a tire. A passing mountain biker kindly offered them a CO2 canister to reinflate the tire. Pneumatics have been around forever, but we realised that here was a powerful energy source that didn’t need electricity.
“Within 2 months, we had 2 resetting traps.
“We developed a trap that would work but we had to make sure it was made well and that it was humane. Our end product was fine but not the best. After we had produced a few thousand, we basically scrapped them all and went back to the drawing board to make a better trap. Apart from the pneumatic system we redesigned the entire thing. The end products were one trap for possums and one trap for rats and stoats.
“It got us thinking about where else the product would fit, and who else needed help in the pest control space, aside from government organisations. Conservation starts in the backyard, and we realised it was a product that can help individuals do their bit for their environment too. That’s how we ended up growing into a business that didn’t just sell to government agencies working on conservation, but into a viable commercial business, and a growing exporter.”
I asked what factor has contributed the most to Goodnature’s success.
“To be honest, it’s been tenacity more than anything else,” says Robbie.
“I’m one of those people who gets excited by things that are terrifyingly hard. My approach is always ‘It can’t be that hard right?’ We can ship stuff all over the world. We can hop on planes to anywhere we want to go or drive anywhere we want. We’ve got all sorts of complicated things that we use everyday and we don’t give a second thought to them - so therefore, whatever the challenge is, it can’t be too hard.
“I think the other part that’s been key to Goodnature’s success is having founders with different skills sets, but who see things in the same way and bring a common perspective. At our core, we all have similar values, and these help to guide the growth we’re experiencing in all parts of the business, especially when we have to make tough decisions.”
I asked Robbie what challenges they’ve faced in growing the business.
“Financial hurdles are always tough in making a business financially viable.
“The other significant challenge is helping people understand why we do what we do. There’s a feeling that our product is too good to be true. People can reset a snaptrap and see the physical evidence of the impact they’ve made. With our resetting trap, we need to change perspectives that while you might feel like you’ve done something when you find a rat in a trap, it’s all that rat’s that are left that are the true measure of success.
Fifty percent of Goodnature’s product is exported around the world. I asked Robbie if Goodnature was born global or developed that approach as they grew.
“We started with the premise that whatever we do has to be useful to others, biodiversity decline is an issue for us all.
“At Goodnature, we actively work out how to control species while achieving humane standards. It gives us a valuable offering when we have a clear social driver to what we do, and that resonates across markets. It’s also proof that your trap works really well if you can catch 10 out of 10 instantly.
“We had a global view before we actually started exporting. But our exporting focus has helped us grow in our research and development too. We made some improvements to our possum trap through working out how to control mongoose in other countries. All of that exposure to international pest problems give us valuable insight into triggers and animal behaviours.
“I visited an island in Hawaii a few years ago. The island was used as a bomb range after Pearl Harbour so we couldn’t walk on most of it, but it was also overrun with cats and mice. That trip really opened my eyes to new ways of deploying traps at scale and delivering them remotely.
“The useful part of travelling to develop our export markets is that it also gives me the space to think and that opens up new opportunities.”
Innovation is obviously integral to Goodnature’s ethos. I asked Robbie how they keep innovation at the heart of the business.
“We intentionally hire people that bring design thinking to the role. It means that everyone believes that there’s a better way to do something whenever we discuss how to improve what we’re doing,” says Robbie.
“We’ve been intentional about making sure our team have the capacity to focus on innovation. Whether that’s getting them out regularly to see things that fuel design and innovation, or giving them time in a work week to think on something - it all imbeds this innovative desire in the way we go about our work.”
I ask Robbie what’s next for Goodnature.
“We’ve got lots of opportunities for growth in international markets. There’s a clear social connection with a lot of our business overseas so we can build on that. There’s also some real potential in the product as a service space, so we’re looking to integrate that into our business.
“And obviously New Zealand is looking to eradicate all pests through the Predator Free 2050 initiative. And we want to be at the forefront of making that happen.”'
For more info on Goodnature, and to buy their traps, visit: https://goodnature.co.nz/.