For growth-minded business owners, taking operations into larger, more lucrative overseas markets is often an essential step in achieving their ambitious goals. But growing pains can be enough in your own country, let alone a foreign country
If your business is considering setting sail across the seas, your first order of business should be to learn from those who have gone before you.
In this article, we chat to the founders of three Australian businesses who have successfully navigated the waters of international retail expansion, and ask them to share their top tips based on their unique experiences.
Own your intellectual property and be ready for regulations
About Aromababy | Founded by Catherine Cervasio in 1994, Aromababy combines the use of natural and organic ingredients with research to create natural, organic skincare for mother and baby. Today, the Australian made range is exported around the world and sold across a diverse range of leading retail and online stores such as Myer.
Aromababy’s international retail expansion journey began when two things occurred almost at once. Following the establishment of partnerships with larger retail chains like Myer, the growing popularity and availability of their natural, eco-friendly baby products meant they were quickly outgrowing the limited Australian market. At the same time, they were attracting interest from exporters who saw an opportunity for Aromababy to serve markets in Dubai and Hong Kong. By launching into these smaller international markets, Aromababy was able to get – in Catherine’s words - “great entry-level export experience in quite niche, manageable markets”. These early experiences set them up for future success on the global stage. They soon expanded their footprint, importing across Asia and the Middle East.
For founder Catherine Cervasio this was not a surprise development, from the very beginning she had a global vision and strategy for Aromababy. To set the company up as a player for the long term, Catherine and her team secured the intellectual property of their formulations, brand name and trademarks, which were eventually registered in multiple countries around the world. When it came time to import into new countries, Aromababy had the right documentation on hand to show they could meet the import requirements for that country.
Key takeaway: Own your own intellectual property, know your formulations inside out and prepare import documentation to meet the various regulations of each new territory.
Achieve good product-market fit in Australia first
About Fable Food | Founded in 2019, Australia-based Fable Food is a plant-based food startup founded by Michael Fox (founder of Shoes of Prey) and organic mushroom farmer Chris McLoghlin. Their products are stocked by retailers including Woolworths, Coles and Harris Farm Markets and served in chains such as Grill’d, as well as locations around the world including Singapore and the UK. More recently, they have launched into the US.
In just a few short years Fable Food has seen phenomenal growth. The brand - offering products featuring shiitake mushrooms and natural plant-based ingredients - arrived just as there was a soaring demand for sustainable, meat-alternative products (retail sales of plant-based meat alternatives reaching $7B in 2020).
Like Aromababy, Fable Food had growth plans cemented in its mission from the outset. As Michael explains:
“Our mission is to help end industrial animal agriculture. For us to achieve that mission we knew we would have to expand beyond the relatively small Australian market into international markets.”
The most important step was to have a solid product and positioning. The Australian market had proven that their product and messaging was resonating with both consumers and chefs. Once they knew they had a good product-market fit, they were confident to move forward with their international expansion plans. Local and international investors came on board. Operations, logistics and manufacturing were set up to scale internationally. Solid inventory management structures were put in place. Already over half their team members were located outside Australia.
Apart from the operational side, launching into new markets for Fable Food involved investing in customer research to ensure a comprehensive understanding of their customers. Strategic relationships have also played a central role. For example, British chef Heston Blumenthal was a fan from the outset, serving Fable Food products in his UK restaurants from December 2019. And when entering the market in Singapore, local investors provided valuable introductions that helped make the launch a success.
Key takeaway: Before launching into overseas markets ensure that you have a good product fit in Australia and prepare for complexity by having operational systems and structures in place that are ready to scale.
Find good distributors who fit your brand
About VITAMAN | Founded in Australia in 1999, VITAMAN offers a range of natural skincare and haircare solutions for men using indigenous ingredients. Founder Clare Castles spotted the men’s grooming trend early on to become the first company to launch a men's grooming eCommerce brand in Australia. Today, VITAMAN products are sold across the globe, regularly featuring in top products lists and recommendations.
VITAMAN began as an eCommerce brand in 1999, a pioneering venture in those heady days of the internet. However, the lack of consumer trust in online shopping at the time saw them quickly pivot to retail, before finding a profitable channel selling to professional services such as salons and spas.
Like many growing Australian brands, international retail expansion was always on the cards. VITAMAN is a uniquely Australian brand, but in terms of male grooming, the Australian market was in its infancy.
When the 2000 Olympics came to Sydney, Clare seized networking opportunities that culminated in a relationship with a French distributor who helped the company navigate complex import requirements and processes. This eventually led to the distribution of VITAMAN products across Europe.
As VITAMAN prepared to enter the US market they encountered new problems, this time with many distributors asking for country-wide exclusivity, a notion that ultimately failed. A number of years and three distributors later, VITAMAN found more flexible distribution partners and their expansion into the US market took shape.
VITAMAN really began finding their feet in the mid-2000s as a result of evolving men’s grooming habits. The traditional barbershop was being usurped by hipster barbershops filled with well-groomed men styling the hair of well-dressed guys, and the associated surge of interest in men’s shaving and grooming products helped boost sales. That trend has been even more pronounced in some regions. Explains Clare: “Our biggest market today is the Middle East particularly Dubai thanks to the rise of the executive grooming lounges for men.”
Today, VITAMAN have 15 distributors covering 25 countries and strong name brand recognition. Their sales channels are more diverse too. Alongside spas and salons, VITAMAN sells to hotels, department stores, specialty retailers and, of course, eCommerce.
Key takeaway: Take a multichannel approach and partner with the right distributors for your brand.
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