8th February 2017

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at a briefing of diplomats, journalists and industry lobbyists that had convened to discuss the impact of BREXIT upon SME’s and our future export prospects. (It was not quite as ‘dry’ as it sounds).

Normally I do some hasty research upon Google, add a few anecdotes and away we go…..but not this time. This time I was more than a little nervous because despite exporting to over 80 countries in the past 9 years, we had never once discussed trade agreements in the office. Not once, not after the BREXIT vote, not even after The US election, never. They simply never crossed our radar.

And besides, we can’t wait 5 years to understand what trade agreements might look like - technology has speeded everything up whilst at the same time, product life-cycles and attention spans have got shorter. Today’s hot product or service might be a candidate for landfill or made redundant by technology within 5 years.

In addition to the need to take action now, I would also argue that the textbook approach to exporting for SME’s needs review. It takes too long, it costs too much money, and simply doesn’t allow SME’s to maximise their export potential.

As many of you know, we are generally advised to take it one market at a time, do our desk research, visit some trade shows, do a cultural visit, have some meetings, have some more meetings and eventually we might export something a year or two later. It sounds exhausting rather than exciting.

And the other problem is, how do we know we have chosen the best market?

What if we spent all of that time working on ‘Sweden’ when in fact we had exactly what the Australia market was looking for?

Or what’s more, what if our business was born to be global and depends upon a global-scale to persist?

In this era of global communications, with nearly every piece of market research at our fingertips, with e-commerce shipping to our door, and social media telling us what is trending in real-time, we decided we would not go hunting for local partners to become our distributors. Instead, we took a very different approach.

We thought, what if they found us? If they did, it would suggest they are motivated, it would suggest they are in tune with what is happening in their industry, and they might have already thought of ways in which they might launch our product or service. And what’s more, if they came to us, it might change the dynamics of our negotiations. We had become the buyer rather than the seller.

We now generate over 85% of our revenues from global markets, we export to 80+ markets, and we have a highly engaged network of distributors who feel like true partners. We’ve had a bit of luck along the way, and the success we had in the UK has certainly provided a template, but pretty much it’s been done from a desk and a laptop in South London.

Here’s what we did:

  • Listed our product range upon global e-commerce sites: This enabled us to test pricing levels, colours, specific products and market readiness. From time to time we would see a sudden and dramatic spike in orders from one particular country and that would suggest we’d suddenly broken through in local social media or with the local press.

  • Seeded our product with UK media editors and bloggers. We got picked up virally and also shared between media teams globally. Everyone likes to feel they are the one discovering something new and telling friends and colleagues.

  • Seeded our product with UK-based foreign bloggers and influencers. (It helps to have someone young in your team who can help with this – or maybe offer it to a business student group as a project). This worked beautifully – we rapidly found ourselves on You Tube from Taipei to Tennessee.

  • From this simple strategy, our distributors emerged. They ranged from $multi-million corporations to a couple of graduates who’d just left university. (In actual fact they now manage our biggest global market). Without exception they shared the one quality we valued above all other. Passion. They had spotted us, they had read about us, they really wanted to work with us. It became infectious.

  • And when they launched our products in their country, they found that there was already a small level of awareness, and their resellers could already see some proof of concept. After that, they simply scaled up our approach to building awareness through social media in their own country after launch.

I’m sure many of our members will think this sounds terribly simplistic, and surely it wouldn’t work for their product or service, and after all, there’s not really a category on Amazon for X. Maybe that’s true. But I remain convinced that new technology has provided us all with a wonderful opportunity to begin to export on a budget, and that the secret lies in building awareness before you launch, not after.

Gemma Clarke is Chief Marketing Officer at Tangle Teezer Ltd