Isle Develop CIC began because of isle20.com. isle20 started as a message to a few friends in early March 2020 (Covid times v1), where I joked that I might put together a directory website of island businesses and call it isle20. That way, people could come and do their shopping in the islands even if they couldn’t make it over on holiday this year.
I was mainly tickled by the pun. I do like a good pun.
On a serious note though, I and many others, were becoming increasingly aware that tourism in the Scottish islands was going to be badly hit in the wake of Covid-19.
It was particularly acute for me at that time as I sat with a few thousand pounds worth of tea in my spare room. I had just taken my first proper steps into creating a wee tea label – Tiree Tea – with the intention of selling tea over the summer months. It was further compounded by the fact that just before the pandemic reared its head, I had decided to walk away from my main contract (as a Product Manager in software development) and take a few months break – selling tea and picking up work here and there.
My timing has never been good.
So yeah, a lot of tea, no work, no tourists… And then I got thinking. Back in the late 90s (gasp) when I was discovering the internet and starting to build pages, there was a world of directory sites. This was pre-google. I’m old.
Not only were there lots of niche directory sites, but there were site rings, where one site had a link at the bottom to send you off to the next site in that niche. Interest groups helped each other by collaborating and sending traffic to each other.
So I dusted off my web hosting and got going. 8 hours later, I sent a tweet out on my personal account asking for wee island businesses to try signing up for a free listing – after all, if I was going to create a directory I needed some listings that were’t just my tea. And from a Product Management perspective, I needed to see what the uptake was – even at that early stage. If no-one was interested, then further work would be a waste of time.
For once, my timing was spot on. Businesses started signing up, the tweet got shared, and word of mouth got on the move. Six or seven weeks later there were almost 360 island businesses listed on isle20. Once the listings started increasing, I turned my attention to driving traffic to them. I threw caution to the wind, created a logo and spun up some social media accounts. It might as well look real, I reasoned.
Then I got some lucky breaks – it was shared by the Peter and Jane Facebook page – which has a HUGE following, it was picked up by BBC Alba, and even managed to feature on the Guardian live blog. Slowly but surely it gathered momentum. A huge part of the success has been the social media sharing, where the businesss who are signed up share isle20 posts, regardless of whether they themselves are mentioned – which in turn drives traffic to everyone. Old school solutions for new problems.
In creating isle20, and increasing digital footfall to island businesses, I had found another problem, and created yet another.
The problem I had uncovered was that a large percentage of the businesses who had signed up only had a facebook page to direct people to. These are often wee businesses making beautiful, high quality products, but relying on local retailers or passing traffic. And whilst there are plenty of ecommerce solutions out there, even the supposed simplest ones can be daunting, and expensive.
As the Covid crisis gathered steam, people had approached me about building them websites – which I can do – but the risk was the upfront cost, coupled with on-going maintenance. The second problem was the one I had created (I’m good at creating problems). I had created a full time job for myself. A marketplace seemed like the obvious solution to both those problems. So I built one on a commisison based model and started advertising it. It has shown great potential to help folk sell beyond the crisis – hopefully extending the sales season.
And that’s where I started thinking that what I really wanted to do was keep experimenting.
If you’re on twitter at all, you might have come across my ramblings. Lots of them relate to islands, to culture, to the importance of seeing islands as communities first and destinations second, and to the need to build resilience that takes us beyond reliance on tourism. (tl;dr Tourism is good when well managed to the benefit of residents, but it should not be the raison d’etre of a place. Our islands are more than the sum of our campervans.)
We are islands full of incredible talent and skills not to mention a propensity for hard graft in multiple roles, and a capacity to cope with crises. The traditional island way is to problem solve, to make do and mend, to reuse and recycle and to find new and more efficient ways to complete tasks. Historically, when you were a small community in the middle of the sea, at the mercy of the weather and nature, you were forced to innovate – and to work together. Crops failed, animals died, boats sank – and you had to carry on. All of these things remained true despite having internet and it being 2020.
For me, Covid19 crystalised my thinking. It brought into sharp relief the risks of increasing reliance on tourism. In fact, tourism is only one of the pillars that hold our communities up. We need to remember that. There are many successful businesses in our islands which trade beyond island shores. Our islands have long bred explorers and seafarers who have traveled the world, bringing back new ideas and notions. There are two ostrich eggs in this house that remind me of that every time I open the cupboard and wonder what on earth to do with the wretched things that my Great Uncle brought back proudly from a jaunt to Africa. He also brought a monkey, but that’s another story.
What Isle Develop did next
I decided isle20 should be one of multiple projects under a social enterprise. So I formed Isle Develop CIC and started experimenting with new ideas.
Then I started talking to people about the project and trying to figure out how we could make an impact — both with digital projects AND with the profits.
People kept talking about the islands’ housing crisis. And I kept putting my head in the sand.
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the housing issue, it was that it felt so big and so impossible.
One day, I saw that a property with huge potential, which had been on the market for ages had dropped its price, and I wondered to myself whether I could buy it, put it on a long term let and develop the associated buildings.
So I did the maths and the research, and I discovered that despite being in good full time employment with a software company, and theoretically able to get the mortgage (although I was unclear about where I would find the deposit!) I would be unable to make the mortgage repayments without subsidising it myself, unless it was set up as a short term holiday let.
And that’s when something inside me snapped. Again. (It’s the second snap in a few years.)
The system is broken. Property in the islands is too often seen as no more than a business opportunity. It’s bought up and renovated by people who don’t stay here, and then put on short term lets. And then we are told that we should be campaigning for affordable housing. And now we have to, because in many places, buying properties which currently exist is a pipe dream.
Because of a lack of understanding, a lack of regulation, and a systemic failure at all levels of government to understand island economies, we’re faced with a problem not of our making. And it is literally destroying our communities.
In my village 50% of the properties stand empty in the off season. 50%.
Everyone who owns them is lovely. Individuals all mean well and have good reasons for owning property but collectively, communities are sinking under weight of empty houses, second homes and holiday lets.
And so, having joked about doing a version of isle20.com, but for holiday lets… It became less of a joke. Friends were willing to advise and help, the Isle Develop board were willing to take a risk on it, Firstport gave us some funding, and a year’s worth of work later…
We launched isleholiday.com. It’s like Airbnb, but the commission goes to the islands, not to San Franciso. Because, if you can’t beat them — join them.
I know I’m not alone in having ideas about how we can grow our island economies – and so I don’t just want to develop my own ideas, I want to figure out how I can help other people to grow and test their ideas too.
Where we are now
And that’s where we are now. As a fully fledged digital agency Isle Develop builds simple, easy to use websites for small businesses, charities and community groups based anywhere.
If you need an innovative approach to solving a digital problem, we’d love to hear from you!
If you want to find out more about me generally, I’m here – rhodameek.co.uk