This article was originally published on Fairfax Media.

It wasn’t easy for Pana Barbounis to find a sweet treat that fit in with his vegan lifestyle. So six years ago, he decided to create his own.

The Melburnian set out to make a raw, vegan chocolate product, travelling to Belgium to work with chocolatiers who understood how to treat raw ingredients to get the best flavour.

On his return, like so many business owners, he started small, testing the market and perfecting his premium product countless times until he was satisfied he could put his name to it.

Barbounis eventually made, delivered and invoiced the first Pana Organic orders (then Pana Chocolate) back in 2012 by himself, carting $600 of chocolate on the back of his Vespa to his first few local customers.

In 2018, Pana Organic was born as he decided to expand his customer offering into dairy free ice cream, creating an ice cream that would reflect the same quality ingredients and brand integrity as his chocolate products.

Today he employs over 50 staff and is stocked in more than 5000 Australian retailers, including major supermarkets. The Richmond-based business also exports to 25 countries around the world, with Pana Organic stores in Sydney and Japan.

“I’ve always been a passionate foodie and loved the artisan trade and handmade produce, conscious about what we eat and where it comes from. Our chocolate is better for you, and it’s better for the Earth.”

Barbounis grew up in a Greek household, and his father nurtured a love affair with raw food and real ingredients from a young age. “Mealtimes at home were never just food,” he says today. “It was always a feast in our home.”

When he started Pana Organic, he had already spent two decades in hospitality and always paid himself last, putting equipment upgrades ahead of a wage. This approach put an emphasis on building sales from the very beginning, Barbounis admits.

This time round, he paid himself a weekly wage from the proceeds of a previous business in a bid to remove the financial pressures. This gave him the freedom to perfect the product, he says.

“I didn’t want this brand to be purely about making money, it needed to reflect my passion for the best ingredients and processes. This is my passion, and the best journey I’ve been on. I jump out of bed to go to work each day.”

Tips for building a brand with digital smarts

After establishing the business in the Australian market, Barbounis began exploring offshore opportunities to grow. He could see that a digital distribution and marketing strategy and the right online tools would help him secure those global distribution deals.

Building a spectacular user-friendly e-commerce site has also enabled him to secure online sales from Pana Organic fans that don’t live near a stockist. This additional sales channel has been invaluable, he says.

“Digital tools can be incredibly useful when trying to reach a global audience. It’s taken a bit of work and effort to perfect our approach, but it’s been worth the investment,” Barbounis says.

“When building a website, I recommend selecting a platform that allows room for growth and enables you to evolve the site, such as adding an e-commerce channel to your business.”

Social media has also played a big part in his success, with nearly 300,000 devoted Instagram followers (@pana_organic). The brand also boasts its own heavily-used hashtag, #panaorganic.

Pana Organic chocolate

Do business 24/7

Using digital tools like website building platform Weebly is another great way to create an online store and expand the customer base beyond bricks and mortar.

Weebly business development lead Nick Dellis says instead of having to rely on passing trade, customers today can include anyone browsing on their phone anytime around the world.

“Any small business owner can easily create a beautiful, branded presence online coupled with a powerful e-commerce store that simplifies taxes, order management and even shipping,” Dellis says.

“By effortlessly accepting sales on your online store, your business will be open 24/7 and will grow with happy, repeat customers from across the globe.”

Vodafone’s general manager of business Neelum Prakash says the telco has a varied range of products and services to support businesses no matter what their level of format is.

“We have customers like Pana who have extensive knowledge in running a business, while others may need a little extra support,” Prakash says. “Our small and medium business customers are as varied as they come.”

She says Vodafone also offers account management for businesses with 10 connections or more to offer tailored guidance and expertise.

Tom Uhlhorn, founder of Melbourne customer experience consultancy Tiny CX offers the following five top tips for harnessing digital for your business:

Start backwards: Think about the customer experience when they land on your website rather than pushing your product.

Do your homework: Harness technology to create personalised experiences.

Know your strengths: Research customer preferences and know your point of difference.

Read the data: Analyse customer data and apply this information to be customer-centric and scalable.

Make the investment: Budget for a digital upgrade, plan carefully and implement sooner rather than later.

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Fairfax Media

Fairfax Media

Red Wire partner Fairfax Media is a leading multi-platform media company that attracts engaged audiences right across Australia and New Zealand. It's a go-to source for news and current events.