Despite the economic downturn, the UK pet market is booming and was valued at £4.7 billion in 2008. Since then, SureFlap has entered the market and now exports its products, containing patented technology, across the globe.
In the beginning
In 2005 Cambridge physicist Dr Nick Hill became irritated by a neighbour’s cat coming in through the cat flap. The neighbourhood cat would frighten his cat and steal his food. Dr Hill soon realised there was a need for a product that would stop this from happening and there wasn’t a good solution on the market.
Dr Hill was determined to develop something that was well designed and reliable, as well as affordable and straightforward to manufacture. He decided to investigate the possibility of using his cat’s identification microchip as a personalised door key to operate the cat flap. After three years of extensive research and development the finished product, the SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap, was launched in 2008. The SureFlap range of pet doors has since grown to include three models, all of which are microchip-operated and will only unlock if a resident cat with its unique identifying chip comes within scanning range.
Starting to export
By the end of 2008, sales had reached several thousand units and the response from the UK market was encouraging. This gave the company confidence that the market for its pet doors, although niche, was global.
SureFlap had already been in contact with UKTI and knew about their Overseas Market Introduction Service (OMIS). They decided to try out the service by commissioning country reports for key European markets, to identify which looked the most promising place to begin their overseas expansion.
OMIS uses UKTI’s global trade teams to utilise their local presence, language skills, market research and business introduction skills. The benefit to a UK company is that the information is gained from people actually on the ground so it provides an accurate assessment of the situation.
The OMIS reports identified Germany and France as being the two best European markets to target first.
The date for Interzoo, the largest global pet industry trade show, was fast approaching, so the UKTI team sprang into action. They contacted key retail buyers in Germany and France, informing them about the SureFlap product and inviting them to visit the company at the show. As a result several important new customers signed up, as Dr Hill explains:
“The embassy teams did a great job of warming up leads for us and as a result we maximised our time at the show, meeting with key buyers from both France and Germany. Being contacted directly by the British embassy clearly makes an impression, as one buyer came to our stand joking that he had received an official invitation from the Queen!”
Entering the USA
There are an estimated 86 million cats in the USA, so following early success in Europe SureFlap knew this was potentially a valuable market for them to move into.
Dr Hill comments “We knew this was an important market, but we also knew there were some important cultural differences between cat owners in the EU and cat owners in America. Particularly there was a greater risk to pets from wild animals and this would create additional challenges for a secure cat flap.
“It made sense to investigate the cultural differences with some thorough market research and we again decided to commission an OMIS report to explore the potential of the US market.
The market research from OMIS identified that a greater number of cats are kept indoors in the USA than in the EU and that there was a strong geographic element to this. After analysis of the OMIS results, and a further discussion with UKTI, SureFlap decided although there were going to be some cultural issues, the market was valuable enough to off-set the obstacles.
SureFlap established its US operation as a separate legal entity. To assist with this the UKTI introduced Dr Hill to Export Action LLC which helps UK companies to set up in the USA.
Dr Hill says “Sales in America continue to be good and the customer service and fulfilment infrastructure that we have in place, together with the brand awareness we have generated in the market will serve us well when we launch new products in the future.”
The best was yet to come
SureFlap carefully monitors its sales data and its emphasis on customer care means that it is responsive to market demand. It became aware that there was considerable interest from New Zealand so the company decided to use the UKTI’s OMIS service again to see if this would be a good market to enter and the best way to approach it.
The market research found NZ had the largest cat population in the world (per capita), suggesting this was a valuable market for SureFlap to enter. OMIS also investigated fulfilment houses and other competitors in the pet industry, allowing SureFlap to quickly and seamlessly position itself in this market.
Dr Hill comments “It has been very easy for us to do business in NZ. The pre-existing demand helped, but in addition there are limited centres of population in NZ so it was easy to focus our marketing on specific cities.
“The hardest part of working in NZ is the time difference and this initially involved a lot of late night telephone calls. However because the uptake was so strong, we decided to open a company in New Zealand with its own staff. This has worked well and provides a presence for SureFlap to approach the NZ and Australian markets.”
This strategy has been successful. As a result of working with a pet retail chain in NZ, SureFlap was introduced to the chain’s Australian branch and is able to leverage its NZ company, to support Australia, making this a much easier market to move into.
The future for SureFlap
Customer service is at the heart of the company. By engaging with its customers and gaining feedback on the types of products they want to see developed, SureFlap continues to innovate and brings new products to market at regular intervals. A recent example was the SureFlap Microchip Pet Door, which was developed after people requested a secure pet door for small dogs. The Pet Door’s integrated Curfew Mode addresses the common request from pet owners to be able to set automatic locking and unlocking times to keep their pets indoors overnight.
Creating a strong international brand is integral to the company’s success and this has assisted the company in entering new territories and introducing new products. Development of the brand is something Dr Hill feels has been strengthened with the knowledge and resources offered by UKTI.
“UKTI is an oasis of good advice! Not only do they have access to relevant contacts and expertise, they also gave us access to local knowledge that was invaluable in helping SureFlap to quickly and successfully becoming a global brand,” says Dr Hill.
If you are based in the East of England region and are interested in developing your business overseas please contact:
UKTI East of England International trade Team
Tel: +44 (0)845 641 9955
Find your nearest International Trade Advisor via our postcode search facility in “Contacts in your region”