COVID-19 Episode: How SOS Business Generated $2 Million in Gift Card Sales, Rescuing Local Businesses

By Ran
July 28, 2020
6 Minutes Read
When COVID-19 hit New Zealand, the government swung into action with a Level 4 shutdown. Every non-essential business was closed, including restaurants, caterers, cafes, and food-based enterprises of every sort. Even deliveries and take-out were forbidden.  Considering that while small businesses are often the backbone of any community, in New Zealand, small businesses represent 97% of all businesses nationwide, employing 30% of the population, the shutdown spelled potential economic disaster. The critical role that small businesses play in their respective communities is what inspired David Downs, a business strategist and community leader, together with Joyce Quah and Naadei Atafu, an Account Manager and Front End Developer at Shopify, to establish SOS Business, a grassroots initiative that’s brought hope, change, and survival to thousands of small businesses across New Zealand and Australia.

A local coffee shop was struggling, and one man stepped up

When David learned, three weeks into the lockdown, that his favorite local cafe was potentially facing permanent closure, he figured he’d hop online and buy some vouchers for coffee and muffins that he could spend after the isolation period ended, in an effort to produce immediate income for them. But the cafe had no website and offered no online sales channel at all.

Instead of simply putting his credit card away and saying “That’s a shame”, David donned his community-leader hat and reached out to the owners. He offered to create a simple, commerce-enabled website for them so they could sell gift cards online until they could re-open. Apparently, it had never occurred to the family that ran the coffee shop to bother with an online sales channel. They certainly knew their way around a cup of joe, but had no clue how to expand into digital sales. 

David established their new website overnight, but quickly realized that most small cafes and eateries, like his local favorite, did not understand that an online gift card sales program could potentially save their stores. 

More people heard about what he was able to do for his local coffee shop, and, en masse, other businesses turned to him for help. Desperate people needed David’s assistance to save their livelihoods, and he could not turn them away.

“I went from one or two cafes to about 100 in just a few days, and I was drowning,” admitted David.

People want to help. Individuals. Corporations. Everybody. We’ve just given them a way to do so.

Good Will at Scale

That’s when a mutual friend introduced him to Joyce and Naadei. Joyce, an Account Manager at Shopify, works with enterprise merchants, so she was already familiar with the ins and outs of eCommerce. Naadei’s strengths are in web design, complimenting Joyce’s backend expertise, and David brought leadership, PR and marketing skills to the table.

The team was fearless, dedicated, and laser-focused on providing local businesses with a tool to stay afloat. 

Together, from each of their respective lockdown locations, they collaborated via Zoom, Slack, and Trello to set up SOS Business on Shopify’s platform. It took an intense 48 hours to build and launch the site, plus extra work on the weekends after they’d all finished with their day jobs.

Word spread quickly about SOS Business. The story was covered on one news channel after another, including 7 Sharp, a highly popular nationwide TV program in New Zealand. 

It went viral!

SOS snowballed, growing from 50 businesses to a few thousand in just a few days, coping with traffic that peaked at 100,000 daily visitors. Joyce, David, and Naadei added more volunteers, growing their team to nearly twenty. None of the volunteers, including the three founders, ever earned a dime.

sos businesses

Working with empowered us to scale fast, and scale seamlessly. The technology’s ability to produce and distribute electronic gift cards in bulk was an absolute gift and couldn’t have been more perfect for our project.

The collective power of gift cards and community

When Joyce, Naadei, and David launched SOS Business, their intention was to position individuals within a community to help support their favorite local shops. They never imagined, however, that this could scale up, and scale up big. 

Thanks to her role at Shopify, Joyce was already familiar with A lot of her clients used for online gift card flows, rewards programs, and store credit. Realizing that this was quickly turning from a grassroots B2C venture to something much larger in a corporate B2B world, Joyce reached out to for collaboration to ensure that scaling would be seamless, and the partnership turned into the foundation of SOS Business’ unbridled success. 

“People want to help. Individuals. Corporations. Everybody. We’ve just given them a way to do so”, comments a humble Joyce. She continues, “Working with empowered us to scale fast, and scale seamlessly. The technology’s ability to produce and distribute electronic gift cards in bulk was an absolute gift and couldn’t have been more perfect for our project.”

Scaling up to meet corporate demand

As SOS Business mushroomed into a national endeavor, corporations started to approach the team, offering help. They wanted to bulk buy gift cards to give to their employees and VIP customers.’s ability to streamline and automate the purchase and distribution of bulk gift cards enabled SOS Business to scale fast and meet demand, handling huge B2B bulk orders of up to 10,000 gift cards at a time.

Using meant that SOS Business didn’t have to write individual scripts for each denomination or bulk order, supporting the endeavor’s expansion from B2C to B2B.

So far, SOS Business has sold over 250,000 bulk corporate gift cards. 

Saving small businesses means saving the economy

As David points out, small businesses are big employers nationwide, so supporting them actually enables the whole society to function successfully. 

Today, SOS Business helps nearly 3,000 businesses in small towns all over New Zealand and Australia, including cafes, restaurants, bars, and travel experiences. Total purchases have reached over $2 million, landing thousands of families solidly in the black during this crisis.

Nearly $1.5 million was earned in just the first six weeks of lockdown, and every penny goes straight to the local business issuing the voucher. The most successful shops and cafes on SOS Business are those with a strong surrounding community eager to support them, like David’s local coffee shop, which received $30,000 in gift card purchases. 

SOS Business effectively bridges the gap between small businesses and their local communities. People want to help, but they need a vehicle that would enable them to do so online. Small businesses desperately need support from their customers, but they didn’t have the skills, resources, or expertise to create that vehicle. 

Fewer than 30% of SOS’s client base had any online presence or digital sales channel prior to this project. COVID-19 forced a lot of businesses online, and with the help of and SOS Business, they’ve discovered that it’s a viable sales channel able to offer them protection from going under during these unprecedented times.

The pandemic required business owners to adapt and become more resilient, and uncovered the depth and power of community support. Together, and SOS Cafe created a powerful ecosystem of mutual support. 

We will all get through this… together. 

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