Cuski: a comforting story of export success

Suzy Cannizzo, winner of the DHL-sponsored Best International Trader at this year’s Mumpreneur Awards, talks to us about entrepreneurship, international trade, and her plans for world domination…

Cuski - Judy and Suzy

Above: Suzy, right, with her mum Judy

What does Cuski do?

We established Cuski back in 1999 as a part-time baby products business. We typically manufacture abroad and export from the UK, or else we export directly from manufacturing countries like China and Sri Lanka.

In 2006 my mother and I sold out of our previous businesses, went full-time, and decided to go for it. It was either that or shut it down!

Tell us about your background

I was bought up in the South of France and went on to run two restaurants there. I came to England and started working for the family printing and embroidery business – basically branding garments for shops like Jack Wills, Adidas, and Reebok before they started importing from the Far East.

So you’ve done a bit of everything then?

Yes, I’ve got lots of hats!

What made you want to concentrate on Cuski?

My children. Most kids have a blanket or some sort of comfort thing and my little ones were no different. They had very large cot blankets that they adopted. But they were so big! They’d drag them along the floor a bit like Linus in Snoopy, and the blanket would get filthy.

I decided to design something that was more manageable, that you could wash, that was smaller, and that looked nice. I was in the rag trade at the time so it was relatively easy to get samples made and find the fabric I wanted.

So you design all the products yourself?

I do. We have lots of new products that we’ve developed – from the orthopaedic Cuski pillow, for children aged between 2-10 years old, to the Cuskiboo, which has an NHS protocol for use in hospitals. It’s a comfort blanket made from Bamboo. It’s anti-bacterial and remains anti-bacterial even after washing.

And I designed the original Cuski, which is made from terry towelling and comes in six colours.

Your product range has expanded quite rapidly…

It has indeed! And we’re launching two more products at the Baby Show For Trade 2011 in a couple of weeks’ time.

How long have you been trading internationally?

We started trading internationally in 2007 and from there we’ve just grown and grown.  We’re now in nearly 30 countries, trading with the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Spain, Poland and others.

It takes time for people to become aware of your brand in a particular country, so we start off relatively small in each one. It’s the same in the UK: it takes time to develop brand awareness people to like and trust your product.

In each country I have one distributor who helps make people aware of Cuski, and gets our products out to retailers.

Are there any countries you’ve been particularly successful in?

We’ve done really well in Spain. New Zealand and Australia have really grown too. We started out with the distributor only taking 12 pieces a month and I was thinking ‘oh gosh this is never going to go anywhere’. But now for each order she takes over 2000 pieces.So it really helps that we’ve kept with her and helped her with the marketing. If we’ve won awards we send them over, plus point of sale stuff – it all helps develop awareness.

We’ve just got Toys R Us and Nordstrom on board in the US so that’s going to be fantastic.

It’s quite funny – we seem to sell more abroad now than we actually do in the UK!

Which have been the most difficult markets to crack?

I would say Germany and Italy – it’s been really difficult to get into any shops over there.

Why is that?

They just seem to have lots and lots of requirements. In Germany it’s to do with packaging. I think they like their own products, and perhaps with our products being made in China and Turkey that’s a problem.

What made you decide to move into international trade in the first place?

It was always a goal. We started doing Google ads and that brought us a lot of interest – we took a really big order from Canada after one of them. The customer had just been surfing for some products for her business distribution in Canada and she came across us by accident.

We just thought: ‘this is fantastic! We’ve got to make this work in other countries.’

Where did you turn to for help and advice?

We had meetings with UKTI who supported us when we looked at Germany a few years ago. We used the Chambers of Commerce for help with things like duties and harmonised tariff codes.

We also learnt from the Internet and other export seminars, so a lot of it was organic.

When we were in Wales, we had grants available to us. It’s terribly expensive to get your trademark and your copyright in different countries such as the US Australia and New Zealand, so our grant from the Welsh Development Agency made a massive difference.

UKTI provide grants for exhibitions too. We never took that up, but I do know people who have used it and it’s been really good.

Has it been difficult to juggle family life and business?

If I didn’t have the help of family and friends I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I get to work from home, which really helps. It’s been a challenge, but we’re always excited about the next day and what country we’re going to break into next!

Has social media helped your business?

Well, Google search rankings are really important and the social networking has helped.

We’ve been using Facebook for eight or nine months. We’ve got nearly 3600 fans already and we haven’t been working on it that hard. We’re going to bring somebody in to concentrate on social media because it’s so important for a business like ours.

Lot of Cuski fans are from New Zealand, Australia and Spain, so we’ve even started Facebook pages in specific countries. Basically, we want to conquer the world! We want everybody to know about Cuski and the online testimonials are paramount.

Where does the word Cuski comes from?

It’s actually from the Welsh word meaning ‘to sleep’. We’ve spelt it slightly differently, but it’s still a nice word that people remember.

You recently won Best International Trader at the Mumpreneur Awards 2011…

I’m a single mum and I’ve brought my boys up on my own. I’ve done it with the help of my mum – she’s been the main person in my life helping me – and we ‘ve built this business together. We think of ourselves as Mumpreneurs so we were delighted to win the award. It means a lot to us.

What’s next for Cuski?

We want to expand the product range even more. We’d like to be in all of the department stores in the UK, as well as an international brand that everybody recognises. And eventually, in a couple of years, we want be running Cuski from our private yacht! Greece or the Bahamas would do nicely…

Find out more about Cuski – The Original Baby Comforter by clicking here

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