Overseas expansion for small businesses

Overseas expansion for small businesses

Small companies can’t operate globally, can they? Well, yes, they can. Here, two very different firms highlight how it can be done.

The luxury lingerie entrepreneur

Leanna Williams is creative director at Harlow & Fox, the lingerie company she founded in 2011, which designs and creates garments in the UK, using luxury materials sourced from all over Europe, such as fine laces and opulent silks. Export has been a key concern for the company since its inception.

“With the entire world of customers out there, to just limit ourselves to a geographic area instead of seeking out our customers wherever they may be, made no sense to us,” says Williams. “So we worked with the Department for International Trade (DIT) to launch into Dubai and the US.”

The key marketing focus is the world’s largest lingerie trade show in Paris. By exhibiting there, Williams is able to meet wholesale buyers from across the globe. It has always been very important to have a good e-commerce site so consumers can also buy direct.

The firm received help from the DIT’s Passport to Export programme (at the time running under the DIT’s previous incarnation, UK Trade & Investment), and by working with one of their international trade advisors.

“The help we have received has been utterly invaluable,” says Williams. “Being able to access market-specific knowledge and guidance, as well as funding to allow us to exhibit at overseas trade shows, in addition to ongoing support and advice, really made the difference in being able to explore unknown markets with confidence.”  

Art world success

Mackenzie Thorpe is an artist whose unique and distinctive work became an international business. His work is now exhibited and collected in galleries across the world. He is credited with changing the face of commercial art publishing in the UK, and operates as a limited company: Mackenzie Thorpe Ltd. The firm began exporting to the US in the late 1990s and also now trades with Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

“The point we were at, it seemed like natural progression,” recalls Susan Thorpe, director. “International opportunities were presenting themselves and we took the decision to run with it.”

She continues: “One of the main issues we’ve faced is taking payments in different currencies. The charges incurred on foreign exchange can be eye watering and eat massively into your margins when you are at the mercy of fluctuating exchange rates. Some companies want to pay by credit card, and again this is both difficult and expensive, and there are delays with the amount actually hitting your account.”

To resolve this, Thorpe set up a currency dollar account so she can exchange at a time when the rate is favourable.

Thorpe is also a firm believer in face-to-face contact. “There is only so much business that can be done via email and Skype,” she says. “Sometimes you just need to sit and break bread with people in order to move things forward.”

The firm’s initial approach was to find local agents who could use their knowledge of the local market to help them get a foothold. Although they have recently had help from UK Trade & Investment (now DIT), in the early days they received no external help at all.

“It was very hard,” says Thorpe. “Looking back, I think we were incredibly naive and just dealt with the issues as they arose, but if we had thought too long and hard about it, I don't know if we would ever have got off the starting block.”

Pricing has also been a key issue. A strong pricing strategy should consider exchange rates, Thorpe advises. When there is high volatility, a price which was relatively equal in all territories suddenly can become more attractive for a customer to buy from another country. The rise of online shopping has exacerbated this problem. This, she says, then impacts negatively on that domestic market, with retailers feeling unhappy that a client can purchase an item cheaper than from them.

Alex Blyth Writer
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