Success in international trade? Mum’s the word

With excitement building in the run-up to the Mumpreneur Awards 2011, we spoke to three of this year’s finalists about making a success of going global…

Mumpreneur UK Awards 2011

“I was shocked but absolutely thrilled! I’d met people from the Mumpreneur Awards earlier in the year and been really impressed by what they were doing. The awards are coming up on September 25th. Whatever the result, I’ll be celebrating. And thinking of my own mum too – it’s the day of my 45th birthday.”

Recalling the moment she heard that her personalised gift business, From You to Me, had been nominated for the Best International Trader award at this year’s Mumpreneur Awards, Helen Stephen’s excitement is palpable.

Like every one of this year’s nominees, Helen has put in the hard graft to make a success of her business’ move into international trade. Working all hours with her husband, Neil, to juggle the day-to-day pressures of running a busy business and looking after a family from their Bradford-On-Avon base, nomination for the DHL-sponsored award is a welcome reward.

The awards – judged by a fantastic panel of experts and entrepreneurs including Duncan Bannatyne, and Jillian Maclean from Drake and Morgan – bring much-deserved recognition and exposure to the businesswomen who enter. “I was impressed by what they were doing and loved the idea of the conference recognizing mums for the work they do, so I decided to apply,” says Helen.

From You to Me offers personalized gifts including a range of ‘Journals of a Lifetime’ (books written by a recipients family or friends) – all of which are made in the UK and sold through English-speaking bookshops around the world. So what triggered the couple’s decision to ‘go global’?

“Following the success of our journals in the UK, it seemed like a natural progression to start selling them in other English-speaking countries too. I didn’t have any experience of exporting so we joined UKTI’s Passport to Export programme and attended training courses and seminars. That helped us have our first discussions with a distribution partner.”

Getting the right support and advice

Talking to UKTI made all the difference to the rooky exporters. Through Passport to Export, they were able to effectively research suitable business partners in the Australian market, quickly developing great relationships that are still strong today.

Helen and Neil shipped their first consignment in 2008. They haven’t looked back since – in fact, they’re now exporting to five other English-speaking countries and looking into further opportunities for expansion.

Capitalizing on the expert international trade support available from UK Trade and Investment is a common theme amongst the Mumpreneur Award nominees. From helping businesses overcome knowledge gaps and researching markets to identifying potential distributors, UKTI, along with the British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Export (IOE), provides the advice and support to prepare UK businesses for international success.

“UKTI and their Passport to Export scheme has been particularly useful, as well as websites like BusinessLink. My Trade Officer has been brilliant. But there’s also a great network of parent-owned businesses out there…we all use each other for advice and it’s really nice to know that someone will help me when I need it,” says fellow nominee, Keira O’Mara, founder of Mama Designs Ltd – maker of the award-winning breastfeeding scarf, Mamascarf.

Having established a successful business here in the UK, global retailers began approaching Keira about the prospect of stocking Mamascarf in their regions. Attending international trade shows helped the 32-year old entrepreneur find distributors in key regions.

Developing a solid relationship with a distributor in Norway has taken Mamascarf into all the biggest retailers in the country, and Keira is currently looking at expanding distribution in Germany.

Planning, research and good fortune

Research and careful planning evidently play a big part in making the successful transition to global trade, but sometimes it’s sheer serendipity that convinces businesswomen to set sail for international markets. Just ask fellow nominees, Anna Gibson and Phillipa Gogarty, owners of Micro Scooters Ltd.

Walking across Clapham Common one day, Anna spotted another a child playing on a flashy looking scooter. Having never come across Mini Micro Scooters before, she did a bit of research and tracked one down for her son.

From then on, every time they ventured out, Clapham mothers would flock to them for more info on where they’d got hold of this funky new lightweight toy.

Spotting an opportunity, Anna Googled the company, tracing the distributor, Micro Mobility, to Switzerland. Word got around and it wasn’t long before Anna was selling the scooters to other mums in the area.

Teaming up with good friend, Phillipa Gogarty, the pair headed off to Switzerland. “We flew out there to meet the CEO, Hans Peter Bolliger. He told us that everything he’d learned in his MBA told him not to appoint us as distributors.

To be fair, we had no experience of importing or distribution at that stage. But we were passionate about the scooter, and about making it available to other mothers in the UK,” remembers Phillipa.

Bolliger really shouldn’t have worried.  With the help of the determined entrepreneurs, Micro Scooters are now a familiar sight pretty much everywhere in the world. It’s an important lesson: passion, bottle and self-belief are crucial traits for any would-be entrepreneur – especially when you’re trying to conquer unfamiliar international markets.

Tackling cross-cultural challenges

Success on an international stage hasn’t been without its struggles for any of the Awards finalists. As well as facing the age-old conundrum of how to achieve some kind of work-life balance whilst running a successful business, they’ve all had to deal with growing pains peculiar to the process of going global.

Logistics, cross-cultural communication, price, quality product sourcing, and stock management – these are all challenges mentioned by the Mumpreneur Awards finalists. But perhaps the main issue is adapting to all the differences encountered in overseas trade.

“Time differences are the obvious one – where we’re finishing work Canada is just getting going, and when I wake up my inbox is full of messages from Austrailia,” say Helen from From You to Me.

Marketing, too, requires a lot of careful thought. Certain concepts have different connotations in different countries, and failing to be sensitive to the nuances of culture can be catastrophic.

It’s not only communication, but also the very design of the product that needs to be considered – just ask the Micro Scooter mumpreneurs. “Selling the scooters in Holland was a real challenge. They’re really wedded to bicycles and have cobbled streets everywhere. But we kept coming back to the children’s enthusiasm and delight when they mastered ‘surfing’ the pavements; we worked really hard to figure out ways to work around this challenge” says Phillipa.

Despite the array of challenges thrown at them by global trade, this year’s nominees have all done themselves proud.

Whoever wins when the awards are announced at The Mumpreneur Conference on Sunday 25th September, they can all hold their heads up high as their work continues to inspire other businesswomen and entrepreneurs around the UK.

Best International Business (sponsored by DHL Express) nominees in full

Keira O’Mara Mamascarf

Sharon & Rachel Veritas

Rachel Jones Totseat

Suzy Cannizzo Cuski

Anna & Phillipa Micro Scooters Ltd

Hazel Cushion Xcite Books

Neil & Helen From You To Me

Winners of the Mumpreneur UK Awards 2011 will be announced on Sunday 25th September 2011. The Awards ceremony is part of the DHL-sponsored Mumpreneur UK Conference taking place at the Heart of England Conference Centre. For details of the day’s programme of events, and to book tickets, visit the Mumpreneur UK website.

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