I am constantly amazed at why small companies do not export more and make more of an effort to sell goods abroad for good margins – with the added benefit of gaining new experiences and potentially wider opportunities. Do not be afraid of expansion into foreign lands. The British, and some other nations, have the enormous benefit of using the English language, and it remains for me a remarkable and unique advantage that not enough companies use to its full potential.
Given my international background, it is not surprising that I developed an initial, so-called Global Expansion Plan. But it was driven out of pure vanity. I used to have to travel to Hong Kong and China in order to work with factories and suppliers from whom I was importing goods. I did have every opportunity to fly direct to Hong Kong, but early on I found that Emirates offered better deals if I changed planes in Dubai. For no additional expense I could have dates that allowed me to stay over for the few days I needed for rest and relaxation on the way home. I used to set myself targets for growth and success (including trip intentions) and in return I would aim to ‘treat’ myself. Everything was still measured on return on investment but I found that a one-day extended weekend in Dubai – and the tan I gathered there – gave me a huge boost in personal confidence (I bet customers buy more from people with a tan).
I was so focused on the development and drive of Pacific Direct that in the early days my trips abroad always involved weekends so as not to waste selling time in the UK, and I would try and use bank holidays if I could in order to extend my maximum selling opportunities. The Middle East is open for business over European weekends so I could make appointments and sell. I had the advantage of knowing a little about Dubai from my previous experiences. I was also relatively fearless; I was a long way from home and if I made a complete fool of myself, who was ever going to know? One of the most powerful things we did to establish ourselves in this new and fast-growing market was having the British Consulate sponsor an event for us, hosting all the housekeepers of the hotels in the area. I was very young, probably only 27 at the time, but the enthusiasm of youth and the desperation for success are a driver. It was with great fear that I presented the products and proposition of my company to a massive group of complete strangers. You are only going to be judged by the impression you make, so take my advice: act big and take on the world, the only thing stopping you… is you.
I have often been asked what makes an entrepreneur and, although there are many schools of thought, there are a number of strains in the behaviour of entrepreneurial leaders that sit comfortably with me. Bearing in mind that I did not even recognise myself as an entrepreneur until I took myself off to Cranfield, I can say that I was already doggedly tenacious, persistently determined and always able to find a new direction. I never looked back at mistakes as anything other than a lesson learnt, one not to be repeated, and another positive step towards success. I would like to think that, combined with an innate willingness to work with people towards established and shared goals, these qualities are a failsafe mechanism for making a business work, but they are not. “ere are people who treat their teams very badly and make bucketloads of money; there are those who value their teams and, despite some success, have never made big bucks. I think all entrepreneurs recognise that as their business grows they choose to balance on a knife-edge between success and failure from time to time. Sometimes disaster happens, wages cannot be paid and the great guys fail – it could simply be the wrong time, the wrong place, a bad relationship – but the next time they will be all the wiser and all the luckier, as long as they can work just as smart.
An example of how a mistake can impact on a business comes from the export market at Pacific Direct; it’s also useful in showing how stressful situations can be overcome. My husband Charlie was in charge of our first shipment of goods to the new export market of Croatia. He had diligently visited Croatia, quoted, sampled, followed through the sales process and had won a significant purchase order for goods to be sea-freighted to the country.
Imagine our devastation when we discovered that the freight company had shipped the goods onto a freight vessel going to Korea – completely misunderstanding the instruction to load goods onto a Croatian consolidated line. Because of the delay caused by the time taken to retrieve the products from the other side of the world we lost ongoing business, but we were able to sell the goods by discounting them heavily. The loss of profit was not nearly as painful as losing the time invested in developing the relationship – and a potentially considerable client.
You cannot say that it does not matter how such a mistake happened. It does – so that you can develop a system to double-check and avoid a repeat of such a nightmare. The real pain was that a great deal of time had to be spent on correcting the error, but there was no point in initiating a witch hunt. The paperwork had been right, and all that happened was that the freight company guy loading the goods had misread the instructions and put our products in the wrong box. For the record, despite this whole mess the buyer then reordered as he was impressed by the way we had dealt with the disastrous situation and kept him informed throughout the process of putting things right. That’s proof that great relationships can be developed by putting mistakes right – possibly even more than by having a perfect delivery process in the first place.
Go for it
Progress will not come from staying within your comfort zone. Put yourself in challenging, new, often initially uncomfortable situations and push your boundaries all the time. Set bigger goals than you might originally consider, go to places that you think are perhaps beyond your ability, contact people you may never have dreamed of meeting but who may give you time, and constantly challenge yourself to deliver beyond your greatest expectations.
International sales can be a really big challenge for any business and cannot be achieved generally as a one-man band – although, on reflection, this is what I did. My point is that when we took on larger-scale business at Pacific we bothered to train the receptionist and every other member of staff on how to handle incoming calls in the appropriate language: French for Sofitel, for instance. You have to be more responsive when convincing someone to buy from another country and these small efforts made a huge difference to our likelihood of success.