Chomping on export

A lesson in selling in different countries, by exporting success story Cheeky Chompers.

13th November 2018

Language barriers, currency conversion, cultural etiquette, packaging expectations, customs duty, shipping terms – exporting can seem a daunting prospect. But there’s another side to the coin: “If you do it at the right pace and chose the right partners, export really is one of the best ways to grow a business,” says entrepreneur Julie Wilson.

In 2013, Julie and her business partner Amy Livingstone co-founded Cheeky Chompers, an Edinburgh-based designer and manufacturer of baby products. The initial plan was to begin trading overseas in year two, but within just six months the company had entered new markets. Three years on, Cheeky Chompers exports to more than thirty countries around the world. Export sales make up 70% of total turnover for the business.

The fact remains, though, that with export come some very real challenges and considerations for all businesses. Exporting isn’t simply an add-on to an existing business’s strategy, nor is it a move into the unknown. The basis of any export plan is a thorough understanding of key markets. To stand the best chance of success in export, you have to know where these markets are, who’s active in them and how they work.

“Early on we did an international strategy workshop with Scottish Enterprise,” says Julie. “That was crucial because it gave us the opportunity to locate our key markets and retailers in which we wanted to position our products. It also allowed us to develop an understanding of our customers and the kind of language they’re used to, as well as the main influencers in the markets.”

It’s not always a case of working from the desk, though. Trade shows can prove invaluable in getting a feel for a given market. Moreover, they enable networking with potential clients, distributors and intermediaries – the people who effectively become your ‘business partners’, says Julie.

“They’re the ones who, if they start stocking or distributing your brand, are representing you in markets abroad. Their customers or retailers are listening to them, so they need to be absolutely the right fit. There’s a considerable amount of trust and partnership needed when developing these relationships from the start.”

If you do it at the right pace, manage your brand and choose the right partners, exporting really is one of the best ways to grow a business.

It’s good practice to set up brand guidelines before embarking upon export, as the more markets a brand enters the more complex it becomes to manage. Having a coherent marketing strategy –albeit one that can be adapted to different markets – can pay dividends.

And there are other resources to consider. For Julie and Amy, hiring two export managers and a marketing manager when the scale of Cheeky Chomper’s overseas venture became apparent was crucial. Fulfillment, too, needs due thought, as does packaging, translation and logistics.

Like a business plan, an export plan is an opportunity to organise priorities before making commitments. Without it there can be no export.

“When you’re a start-up you don’t always think that you’re eventually going to be growing into overseas markets,” says Amy. “Our plan took into account those factors that might change with export. For example, our pricing strategy took into account distributor margins because we knew we might have to start dealing with distributors.”

But also like a business plan, export plans must be adaptable. “You need to be fleet of foot because you get opportunities presented to you all the time,” says Julie. “As much as you’ve got to plan, it’s really important to be on the watch for these opportunities. If someone really wants to work with you, you wouldn’t turn them down because they’re not on the plan.”

Exporting isn’t for every business. Changes may need to be made to products, products may not be suitable for overseas markets at all, or a business simply may not be ready to make the move.

A little research at the very least can pay handsomely, though. If a business owner is apprehensive, there’s nothing to stop them trying one market to see how they get on. If it’s successful, they can consider their options to expand – and if it’s not, they can scale back for the time being.

What’s more, here in Scotland there is a wealth of support for businesses thinking about exporting – from subsidised overseas trade missions to guidance when undertaking market research, and everything in between.

“The main thing is not to be scared,” says Amy. “If you’ve got a unique idea, you’ve got a limited time to be first to market – and if you have to do that in thirty countries rather than simply perfect your presence in one to stop someone beating you, so be it. Do your homework, do your research and jump in. That’s exactly what we did at the start when we contacted Business Gateway for support and advice. Even today, we receive invaluable support from our Account Manager at Scottish Enterprise, with whom Business Gateway set us up.”

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