As a somewhat precocious child one Easter I decided that I was through with boring old chocolate eggs – and demanded a real life duckling instead. I clearly had my parents wrapped around my little finger as rather surprisingly this wish was granted, and Fred and Wilma duly arrived. This was the start of a childhood fascination with duck breeding, and I spent an inordinate amount of my younger years hovering over an incubator! I thought this was quite an unusual pastime – but having spoken to Wes Humpage from Victoria, Australia, I now realise that I was a mere amateur in childhood poultry rearing.
In 1990 Wes was an industrious nine year old in search of a way to bump up his pocket money. Wes’s Pop, Jack, suggested that he get some chickens and start to sell the eggs. It was not long before the young Wes had some beautiful ladies adorning his parents’ garden and Wes’ passion for all things eggs began. Up until the age of eighteen, Wes was often found in the chicken coop with his Mum’s hairdryer, washing and preening his fifty ladies.
In 2007 Wes discovered a new love, Mandy, a girl from one of the cattle and sheep farms on the Bellarine Peninsula. Together they decided to rebuild WesEggs with the vision of a family owned producer and purveyor of pasture raised free-range eggs.
Now WesEggs delivers other country wares produced by neighbouring farms as well as their wonderful eggs. This collaboration and growth was made possible by Wes moving his business online and making great use of automation in order to save time. I was lucky enough to catch the very busy Wes for a call about how this childhood business has developed into an amazing livelihood as an adult.
Carolyn: I believe that you first started selling eggs at a very young age. Is that correct?
Wes: I started when I was nine years old. It was an idea that spawned from my Grandpa because I was trying to earn a bit of extra pocket money. I wasn’t old enough to work and we lived in a bit of a fringe rural community. My Grandpa gave me the idea of selling eggs – I bred my own hens and sold the eggs. I really learned how chickens behave and the different stages of their lives and all the sort of things you’d expect. I did that for about nine to ten years.
Carolyn: When did it first become a commercial venture?
Wes: Five or six years ago. My wife, Mandy, and I put together a plan to bring WesEggs to a commercial scale and we’ve grown from there. In our immediate area it’s really taken off. It’s sort of caught us by surprise in a lot of respects. We’re only a small farm still. We’ve got about four and a half thousand hens now and we started out with five hundred birds and then went to a thousand birds. We got our farming systems working correctly and went from there.
Sometimes you just think What are we doing? Now we have seventy employees and it’s no longer just Mandy and I collecting a few eggs and selling them, it’s changed into something much bigger. It’s interesting, all the different challenges that you have as you grow.
Carolyn: You’ve got animals as well as employees to help you? Alpacas and sheepdogs?
Wes: We’ve got alpacas and Maremma sheepdogs. We use them as flock protectors from foxes. They’re an integral part of what we do and help minimise the losses that we might experience.
Carolyn: What are the different stages of your egg production?
There are three parts to it. There’s the farming aspect. Then there’s the processing where we wash and pack all the eggs. Then there’s the delivery aspect. The order management system sort of ties these things together. We do a lot of adjusting where everything we produce today gets delivered tomorrow. That’s the way we try to run things so we’re not sitting on product. The product’s fresh, which is really important to us.
Carolyn: So you do your own packaging?
Wes: We average about three hundred dozen eggs a day now and we do all the packaging as well. That’s something Mandy designed up. Even getting that all done, getting the dyes and the boxes made, that was a bit of an arduous journey in itself. We got there, the boxes look really good and it’s a point of difference when we see our eggs in the stores. We have the boxes manufactured by a small guy locally and we pick them up.
Carolyn: I saw that you are also a trained industrial automation electrician?
Wes: I’m a sparky by trade, yeah.
Carolyn: Or a sparky!
Wes: We run a lot of automation out with the hens to make things smooth and try to reduce labour hours. I’m very much self-taught with software development, I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. I can read a little bit of code through my experience as a sparky and writing a lot of programs for machinery and so on. I guess it’s not that much different, but it’s something I’d like to learn much more about.
Carolyn: I’m impressed with what you’ve done already! Your hen houses can be adjusted, you collect the rainwater and filter it, you monitor the chickens’ health – all electronically. It sounds like you’ve got a really impressive setup.
Wes: We wanted to get everything working right before we scaled up. It is pretty cool, it does work really well. As we’ve grown, we’ve just put our focuses in different places that have needed it. I guess we’ve just come out of a phase where we’ve spent a few dollars on the website, probably the most we’ve spent on it, just to get that functionality that we needed.
Carolyn: Did you start out just selling to shops, then move the business online?
Wes: We sell to shops and we sell directly to peoples’ homes. We deliver eggs, milk, bacon, cheese, all that sort of stuff. We’ve got delivery vans that run around five days a week delivering all these products. We’ve always had expansion in mind. It’s a work in progress. At one stage in year two we were sold out up to three or four weeks ahead, which was great, but we would quite often get customers who were a bit upset that they couldn’t get extra eggs this week because it got a bit out of control. We sort of upped the growth to suit. We’re in a pretty good place now.
Carolyn: Has developing your website helped with some of the challenges?
Wes: Yeah. We wanted to do a lot of direct marketing and we shopped around. I knew we needed our website to adapt as we went along. We had a lot of meetings with different businesses that provide hardware and software for what we wanted, but no one could provide the customisations that we would need going forward. That’s why we headed down the WordPress path. That was also around the time that I got AutomateWoo on board to handle a lot of the automated functions that we do with our orders. We customise emails to customers with things like sending invoices through to our accounting package. Everything’s all connected. Now we use AutomateWoo to catch mistakes in our system. We have processed about 48,000 orders since we’ve started four years ago and it’s growing at an exponential rate.
Some orders can be five dollars, some orders can be a thousand dollars. We have even got our vehicles linked in – we’ve got it set up now so you can select a delivery day and we can assign each order to a vehicle, which is possible with the three vehicles we have now.
Carolyn: You do it by postcode?
Wes: Yeah, essentially – we have this bookings and appointments plugin that sits in over WooCommerce and we can add a delivery date to each line item. For each delivery day order we can actually assign a vehicle number. We’ve set it up so that you can bring vehicle run sheets up on your iPhone or print it out. So we might select vehicle one for the 29th January of 2019 and it’ll bring up every customer who has an order on that day. We’ve got a delivery routing app on our phone which picks out all the addresses and plots out an efficient route for that delivery day for that vehicle.
Carolyn: Oh, wow!
Wes: It’s phenomenal. When we’re doing ten or twenty deliveries for the day, you can work it out in your head – but on a really busy day, each vehicle might be doing seventy delivery drops. You have to do that efficiently – and you really need the application to get those products out. The website fully supports all that – over time we just worked out this is the gap we have and this is the best plugin to fill it, or we’ve customised something for it. The website’s forever growing and changing. We have had some problems, I guess when you’re developing software you’re always bound to get some bugs, but it’s been running really smoothly lately.
Carolyn: What were some of those initial problems you had with it?
Wes: Some of the initial problems were with the booking and appointment plugin, because that’s the core component of our website. We had a few dramas where orders would not show up on routes properly, but we worked with the software developer on that. They were really good at finding all the bugs.
Carolyn: You mentioned that you use AutomateWoo, and I know you have worked a lot with Dan, the founder of AutomateWoo. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Wes: I have to say what we do with AutomateWoo saves us so much time. I really want to highlight that. If you’ve got an online business and you’re not using that software, you’re crazy. I’ve said that to Dan all along. Dan sent me an email years ago and he’s like What sort of stuff would you use? And I just sent him a page load of things! I even use some of his workflows. He’s like, I didn’t even think about using it like that! I guess because I come from an industrial programming sort of background, I think about stuff a bit differently. I know all kinds of funny workflow setups! So some of the workflows we use Dan didn’t really anticipate being used in that manner, but for us it works really well.
It’s hard to reel it all off, but a lot of automated stuff that we do uses AutomateWoo. One thing in particular that has saved so much time is automated invoice printing. If I have an order from my wholesale customers, it’ll print in our printer in the office at 9:30PM the night before it’s delivered. Then you’ve got every invoice and packing slip that you need for all the wholesale customers. All of that uses AutomateWoo. I’ve integrated that with Google Cloud Print, so you can print it to a printer anywhere in the world. It’s all linked in with the bookings and appointment plugin. It’s killer. It works so well. AutomateWoo is an awesome program and I’m sure it’s going to grow into some really cool things.
Carolyn: Sounds like Dan has really helped you!
Wes: Dan is really creative! The visual side of it works really well. You can get guys who can do programming and they might get the code right, but they don’t get the visual GUI right. Dan has got all that. There’s so many more integrations he could do that could really make it just so powerful. I had so many workflows running in our website, I said to him My bloody queue keeps getting jammed up because I can’t get through the bloody workflows, you know? So, he rolled out a different way to handle the queue and it works really well now.
AutomateWoo has been minimal with bugs, as well. It’s been really good. We couldn’t do what we do without it. I’ll give an example. If somebody sets an order status in an incorrect manner, the system’s got a workflow to catch that, so you become aware of it. It’s not necessarily helping the customer, but it’s helping find mistakes. It’s a big one.
Carolyn: And you also use WooCommerce Subscriptions?
Wes: Yes – one of the easier things we did was add WooCommerce Subscriptions – it worked fine! We added WooCommerce Subscriptions within itself and then migrated it so that it can work with our booking plugin – so the two can work together now.
We’ve got a lot of customers who have repeat orders every week, every fortnight, every three weeks, monthly. Having the Subscriptions plugin saved us so much time! I was originally putting all the orders in through a point of sale plugin manually. When you’ve got twenty orders to put in each week, that’s quite easy, but there’s hundreds of orders going in each week now! It would take hours and hours to do that manually. Having Subscriptions works really well and saves me about three or four hours each week.
Carolyn: You guys have expanded from delivering just your own eggs and you’ve teamed up with other local farms?
Wes: Yes – because we got the ordering system up, we could then potentially deliver any product! We started teaming up with other farms who didn’t have those systems or the actual delivery part of it down pat. Now we’re reselling their products and helping them get to markets that were inaccessible to them. The ordering system helps us manage all that really, really well now. It’s not perfect, but it’s helping us do the job we need to do. Because we are growing so fast, there are certainly times where we’re running into shortfalls with the server capacity. If we’re doing a lot of reporting stuff for delivery runs the next day it can be a little bit hungry for processing power, but that’s something we’ll work on over the next few months.
Carolyn: Do you have any advice for anyone starting to sell produce online? What have you found useful?
Wes: Starting an online shop can be quite challenging if you don’t have much experience with WordPress. I didn’t have much experience and I had to do the research to find out how I wanted things to work. What we’ve done with most of the plugins has worked really well. I think it’s when you start using third party apps that are smaller producers that you can run into dramas.
Hacking has been a concern as well because people always try to get in and do damage to your website. We have different layers of protection on our website to deal with hacking threats. Staying on top of that stuff is really important. If we don’t have our system running everything stops. Although I’ve got a backup in place where I pull the data out of the website every three hours so I’ve got all that information. We have had to use that a few times if the server’s gone down. You still need to operate whatever the technical difficulties!
Carolyn: Absolutely, since you’re still such a word of mouth business, you want to make sure that it’s always a positive word.
Wes: That’s right, because negative words spread really quickly. We’re just really lucky that we’re well received by our customers.
Carolyn: Have you used much social media for marketing?
Wes: Yeah, social media is great for us because it helps us connect. No other farms around here use social media to connect to customers. That was a really big gap in the market that we’ve tried to fill. I think that’s worked really well. My wife manages all our social media stuff.
Carolyn: Your online presence is really impressive.
Wes: I generally stay out of that otherwise I’ll get into trouble! My wife is really good at it and she is completely self-taught. It’s been really important for our success. I don’t think we would’ve been able to connect with our customers in the way we have without it. We’re twice as big as what we were twelve months ago. We’re just trying to catch our breath a bit. We’ve also got four young kids as well!
Carolyn: Four children and over four thousand chickens?!
Wes: We have about four and a half thousand now. They’re all pasture raised. It’s a nice farming system, very stress-free for the hens. They are very happy chickens!
As well as eggs from all those happy hens, Wes can deliver milk and yogurt from Inglenook Dairy, butter from Lard Ass, bacon from Barongarook Pork; Dads Oats, sourced from a family business of five generations, goats cheese from Meredith Dairy as well as honey, jams, relishes, marmalades, pasta and olive oil! Wes has certainly come a really long way from those fifty ladies that he cherished as a child.
This growth would not have been possible without the right systems being put in place. The undoubtedly tech savvy Wes has brought his business online with great success, and has adapted his website until it really worked for him – and saved him huge amounts of time. It was fantastic to hear what great use he is making of WooCommerce Subscriptions; and how much Dan from AutomateWoo, which is now part of the Prospress family, has contributed to turning Wes’ childhood venture into a viable and successful business for life.