Making What You Love Your Job – Derek Morrison, Dunedin Light

Dunedin Light has since rebranded to Box of Light to cover a wider area. Read more here. 

He’s a family man, an entrepreneur, a surfer, and a businessman. He’s a traveler, a photographer, and a very intelligent marketer. Derek Morrison is Dunedin Light.

Dunedin Light was started when Derek and his family made their way back across the ditch after spending eight years in Australia. Derek wanted to have a project that he could work on from his own back yard, so as to not compromise the precious balance between work and quality family time. He wanted something cool, something lively and captivating. He wanted to work doing something he was passionate about. So he went ahead and made it all those things. He had seen a similar idea in action at Bondi, called Aquabumps, which is a service that sends out a daily photo surf report and publishes a digital surf culture magazine. Derek took that concept and made it his own, adapting it to the Kiwi market.

Say “Dunedin” to most young people, and they think of students milling around, keg parties, and the night life. Maybe an older generation that is less focused on fueling their fun with alcohol may remember that ‘Dunners’ was once the capital of New Zealand. Either way, not many know about Dunedin’s beaches and the great weather that Dunedin residents are blessed with every day, and Derek has seen it as his responsibility to showcase that.

“Yes the water is cold,” Derek reports, “and sometimes there is snow on the sand, but you can surf pretty much every day. And the beaches are amazing too. We have this pure white sand. Its really quite beautiful. The student life adds a lot to it as well. You’ve got a very vibrant energy and great bars and pubs.”

The nostalgic scene Derek paints as he talked to us, reminded me so much of this Corona ad:

For a city as full of young students as Dunedin is, their media is still surprisingly quite traditional, and this ended up being one of the main obstacles that Derek had to navigate around while starting up Dunedin Light.

“I think New Zealand is a little bit behind in a sense,” Derek says, when describing people’s response to a completely digital magazine. Dunedin Light caught a break when Derek met Josh Jenkins, Digital Marketer at Tourism Dunedin. Being a surfer himself, Josh could see the vision that was Derek’s dream, and, being a digitally apt person, was able to get in behind it and support it.

“You have to be quite resilient. You’ll come up against some people who just don’t get your idea. If you keep working through the list of people who are likely to help you out and find the ones who actually have the ability to, and can see your vision; that’s when you’ll actually be able to launch something.”

Advertisers were also reluctant to give away their advertising dollars to something they didn’t fully understand. They couldn’t see beyond “that they were paying for sending out just an email.” They didn’t understand how online ads worked, or google rankings and how back links affect that. A huge part of his success came from teaching them how that  could help their businesses. Derek admits he is lucky to have the support of advertisers who took a gamble and put their money behind it even though they didn’t fully understand it. Some of his clients have now taken marketing courses and are starting to see how it all fits together.

Many start-ups will buy ads for likes, or even buy twitter followers, but Derek’s strategy was the direct opposite. Instead of buying ads, Derek has been determined to keep the growth organic and resist the temptation to inflate numbers and likes. Having said that, Derek does “push Facebook pretty hard” posting thrilling pictures of surfers dominating waves and the occasional serene sunset or sunrise. None of the pictures have clickable links directly to Dunedin Light, but all have the url on the picture, and users have on numerous occasions commented on the photos asking how to get a copy. Derek tries to keep the interaction good and positive on social media, and has found that the best way to do that was not to promote posts or likes.

The Dunedin surf community is relatively small, so word of mouth is an important factor in getting interaction. A tactic that Derek has found a lot of success with is not only taking pictures of great surfers, but laboring to capture the whole scene. It may be a beautiful morning and someone is out jogging on the beach. “If I can take a great picture of them and they get featured in the newsletter, they’ll email that around the city and we’re really able to drive subscriptions that way.” Every action that Dunedin Light does is transparent and thought out. Even on the newsletter acceptance email, it says, “Our goal is to become your favorite Tuesday email – timed perfectly for your 10:30am coffee break. Sit back and scroll through the images of the places you’d probably rather be.”

Making money from what you love doing is everyone’s dream. For photographers its the ultimate achievement, bringing only feelings of pure euphoria. With Dunedin Light, Derek has been able to “demonstrate that you can make money by having the ad revenue alongside what you’re distributing, however you’re distributing it. Derek has also learned to use partnerships strategically. Doing so benefits both the brand and Dunedin Light.

Anyone who has had to look for a high quality image that wont pixelate when blown up, knows that they’re harder to find than Waldo on Christmas. Derek takes advantage of this by offering several options for people to buy spectacular photos at affordable prices. “We make money from selling limited edition prints.” Another source of revenue for Dunedin Light is providing a gallery of pictures that are available for commercial use. All the different revenue streams make up roughly the same proportions, which is ideal in a business that supports itself on user engagement. If one of them falls off or starts declining, the others can be worked to make up that deficit.


Do you think 2013 is a good year to be an entrepreneur in New Zealand?

Yeah I think any year is a good year to be an entrepreneur! Its a much nicer way to live your life. Theres no right time to start a business. The right time is right now. Start it tomorrow and make it happen. Its about throwing your hat over the fence. Once you’ve thrown your hat over the fence, you have to go get it. I think thats a really good way to look at it. People always say the times are tough, but you’ll always see entrepreneurs. It doesn’t matter what the economic environment is like, there will always be opportunities. You have to take them and be committed.


  1. Lana Nisbett says:

    Very inspiring article. Awesome photos as well!

  2. Derek says:

    Thanks Lana, really excited to have the team at NZ Entrepreneur shedding some light on our work … and all the other amazing crew featured.

    1. Lana Nisbett says:

      You’re absolutely welcome. We very much enjoyed interviewing you, and getting to know about Dunedin Light. Great work Derek!

  3. Rebekah Martin says:

    @josemathiasnz Did you write this?

    1. Jose Mathias says:

      Indeed. Our second article I believe.

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