How I turned my start-up into a global business with sales in 30 countries

Flexyfoot has attracted customers in Japan, Korea and Europe. Having just secured a £1m deal with China, founder David Goodwin shares his story

Name: David Goodwin
Company: Flexyfoot
Started in: Founded in 2009, launched in 2010
Company description: Innovative walking aids to keep people mobile for health that provide safety, security, comfort and style.

Describe your start-up barrier:

I wanted to grow my start-up internationally to create a worldwide brand; the challenge was always going to be scaling the business.

What steps did you take to make your start-up a global business?

From the start, our business plan was to create a worldwide brand. The percentage of people who need a walking aid per population is essentially similar in most developed markets and our unique and patented technology provides the opportunity to sell globally.

Patents

We have granted patents in most of addressable markets and have also covered countries which produce most of the walking aids to prevent copies. However the patent process has been long and unpredictable as each country carries out their own searches and comes up with their own reasons for not granting a patent and you then have to enter into an discussion to convince them that their reasons are incorrect.

We were able to do this but it is time consuming and expensive and you have no visibility of fees you have to spend on patent lawyers.

International exhibitions

Right from the start we exhibited at Rehacare in Germany, which attracts trade visitors from all over the world.

At our first exhibition, we were next to Germany’s largest crutch manufacturer and they were so impressed by visitors feedback that they became our German distributor. We were approached by around 10 to 20 companies but focused on Scandinavia and Germany as we were too small to handle any more!

With each visit [to Rehacare] we have picked up more companies around the world and last December had a visit from a Chinese company who expressed an interest in being distributors. Following the show they sent a presentation and it turned out that they were one of the major companies in medicines manufacture, distribution and well-being stores and clinics and include up-market western  brands in their stores.

Meetings with international clients 

I always believe that face-to-face meetings are best and always try to visit the potential customer to gain an insight into their business and the local market. It also helps overcome any language barriers or misunderstandings and it also shows that you are serious and have some standing.

I met with the Chinese company in Shanghai and was blown away by their set up, retail outlets and vertically integrated clinics which are beautifully designed and offer products such as Chinese and Western medicines, well-being products and even breast implants!

Overcoming language barriers

The Chinese firm don’t speak great English and my Chinese is non-existent but we managed to negotiate the basis of the contract. There was some complexity on the law that we should use – so to facilitate discussions, I had the 30 page contract translated into Chinese which they then had their in-house lawyers review. There was a fair amount of negotiation due mainly to misunderstanding around language and terminology.

We signed the contract in March and have fulfilled the first order for their launch exhibition already. The key for me was to build face-to-face relationships with them and sort out any issues around the table.

What was the outcome?

We now have active distributors in over 30 countries including China, Japan, Korea and most of mainland Europe. To date we have not identified the right partner in North America. The deal with China is worth over £1m and is most exciting as we are exporting to Newcastle!

What three questions should other business owners consider if they want to grow overseas?

  1. Do you really understand your market, do you know how you are going to enter [x] market and have you identified the challenges accurately?
  2. Do you have enough money to cope with a longer timescale and changes of direction that you will inevitably have to make?
  3. Have you protected your brand in the countries you are entering?

What one piece of advice do you think entrepreneurs should take on board?

Don’t rely solely on the distributor to build the brand for you, get out and speak to your customers directly. Your distributor has other products to sell and you have to be pro-active with them.

Is there anything you would do differently?

In the early days we thought distributors would focus their energy on promoting Flexyfoot within their market and so we spread our resources across too many countries.

Now, we focus our energies on a smaller number of selected countries, get these moving and then turn to other countries. Our plan now is to co-invest in local sales and marketing people.

Website: www.flexyfoot.com

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