Detangling the Asia market

Shaun Pulfrey, inventor of Tangle Teezer, shares his secrets for doing business in Asia and tells how home-shopping channels have generated an explosion of sales in Taiwan and China

After working in the hair industry for many years and observing how hairdressers struggled to detangle fragile hair, I came up with the idea for an innovative product which is now taking Asia by storm. Tangle Teezer is currently sold in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. Our sales in Asia will account for £20 million at retail sales value in 2012 and will help to increase our export sales by over 35%.

I launched Tangle Teezer in 2007 and at that time went on Dragons’ Den to secure investment for my invention. Having the opportunity to demonstrate the product on prime-time TV was a great way to get the product noticed and soon we had consumers flocking to buy the product online with over 2000 selling every day. This more than made up for the fact that I came away empty-handed from the den!

Within a year Tangle Teezer was stocked in Boots across the UK and we were getting international interest from Belgium and Holland thanks to repeats of Dragons’ Den there. It was clear that our products had potential far beyond the UK.

Our Asian story first unfolded in 2010 when we unexpectedly started getting over 200 orders a day from customers in China and Chinese ex-pats around the world. We were intrigued how this could be as we hadn’t done any targeting of these markets. We soon discovered that a Chinese model had bought a Tangle Teezer in Boots in Oxford Street and delighted with her new product had raved about it on her hugely popular beauty blog read by Chinese all around the world.

Tangle Teezer Ltd facts and figures

1. Tangle Teezer Ltd is based in Clapham, London and employs 10 people

2. It worked with UKTI on its ‘Passport to Export’ programme for new exporters when first looking at export markets

3. Tangle Teezer is now stocked in high end department stores in Japan thanks to a Japanese business man spotting the product in the Virgin Atlantic shopping magazine and seeing its potential for the Japanese market

4. Tangle Teezer has been awarded The Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation and won a host of beauty industry awards and has recently been given CoolBrands status as selected by Independent Expert Council and thousands of members of the public.

This was partly our catalyst for exploring our potential across Asia, spurred on also by the fact that the demographics for our young, fashionable branded product were exactly right, and growing within Asia.

However, we needed to tread carefully and slowly to ensure that we found the right partners to work with – this is one of the most challenging things about doing business in Asia. Initially we had a plethora of approaches and shifting through these to identify the serious contenders took time and commitment.

I was lucky to have a global VP Gemma who having studied at one of China’s most prestigious universities was passionate about the culture and potential of this market. She really helped drive our business into Asia, securing a partnership with Fubon Multimedia, a ‘Home Shopping’ channel network, retail chain and catalogue retailer with a reach to over 400m viewers across Taiwan and China.

With the help of our new partner we decided that before launching in China we would first test our capability to supply the market, build our confidence managing and working with Asian businesses and gauge the reaction of consumers through a test-market in Taiwan.

Because Tangle Teezer was a very new concept for the haircare market, we also felt there maybe benefits in finding a sales medium which enabled demonstration. This had after all triggered our initial burst of UK sales and we’d also been successful on QVC Home Shopping Channel in the UK, so chose to explore the potential of Home Shopping in Taiwan and China to launch our brand. Also here our target market had grown up shopping online and on-screen so by focusing on these channels it also supported the cost of trade at such a distance.

In the last 12 months we’ve sold over 400,000 brushes through the home shopping platform. Every time a Tangle Teezer is shown on the home shopping channel in Taiwan we sell 20000 brushes an hour! Much of this due to local presenters who can highlight the benefits of our product to the audience – in Asia its used to promote shine and keep hair straight rather detangle.

What we’ve also learnt from our business in Asia is that British fashion and beauty are highly regarded over there and that the kudos of a well designed, quality British product is huge. Consumers there are very fashion and brand focused and even the youngest of consumers are happy to pay a premium for products such as ours. Having glossy magazine and celebrity endorsement from the likes of Rhianna and Kate Middleton’s hairdresser only adds to the desirability factor.

Another surprising thing is the power of word of mouth recommendations – our product now has fashion statement status mainly through Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) and YouTube. We couldn’t believe it when we started seeing hundreds of Asian girls uploading their home-shot Tangle Teezer videos on YouTube!

With so much buzz around our product it wasn’t surprising that our test in Taiwan was a huge success. This gave us the confidence to scale-up for our launch in the Chinese market and take the home-shopping route here through Fubon. Although we have only just started, to fulfil the potential we’ve invested in new machinery in our factory in Oxfordshire and increased production there. We predict that next year we’ll sell an additional 4 million brushes in this market alone! With home-shopping sales going well we then hope to expand onto web beauty portals and then beauty retail at a later date.

Growing our business in Asia has been full of challenges and surprises. For example, we couldn’t believe how strict our Chinese partners have been with us in terms of our IP. We had to jump over hoops to prove we owned the Trademark, the patent, the logo, the design because they wanted to be 100% sure they were dealing with a genuine company and not a fake! It just shows you have to be flexible and adaptable to succeed in Asia.

Shaun’s top tips for doing business in Taiwan and China:

1. It’s better to grow slowly with the right partner and strategy than to jump at potential volumes on offer and live to regret

2. Focus less on what you know and more on what you don’t know – you’re there to learn not tell them how it’s done

3. Realise that your normal business model, and your normal preconceptions of how to launch your product or service may simply be out-dated within Asia

Find out how Tangle Teezer used UKTI services to move into the European market.

Sectors: Business Services and Wholesale & Retail
Countries: China and Taiwan
Topics: Getting Started
Export Action Plan