10 things we learnt from growing Joseph Joseph’s export sales

Richard Joseph, co-founder of designer kitchenware brand Joseph Joseph, reveals the mishaps and experiences that shaped international success

From an early howler in Japan, twins Richard and Antony Joseph have grown their designer kitchenware brand Joseph Joseph into a business with 80% of sales abroad.

A £35.5m turnover business in 2013, Richard Joseph explains how inexperience needn’t be a barrier to global success…

There was no grand plan. No advice. No experience. Just gut instinct and naivety. Luckily, knowing very little worked well for us.

Our very first product was a glass chopping board, which hit the shelves of Allders in 2003. The department store later went bust but, before it did, we thought: “Well, if our stuff is selling here, why can’t it sell in France or Germany?”

1. Jumping straight in to exports can work

Within the first few months of launching, we were on the phone arranging meetings and then driving though Europe with kitchenware in the boot of our car.

The response from buyers was generally positive; we received roughly the same amount of interest – and knock-backs – as we were getting back home. John Lewis had already said we were too young (we were then in our late twenties) and sent us away to work on our range. It is now our biggest customer in the UK.

2. UK Trade & Investment opens doors

The next step was to head to Frankfurt for a trade show with a grant from UK Trade & Investment, which, as an organisation, can provide good contacts and support in the early stages of business.

We had interest from France, Germany and Japan and were supplying three international markets within 18 months of starting up.

3. Not every market wants what you’re selling

However, securing those contracts came with lessons for us fledgling entrepreneurs. We turned up to one meeting with Japanese buyers to pitch our cheese grater and potato masher.

“We don’t eat cheese and we don’t mash potatoes,” they said. Well, that told us. It also showed us the value of fully researching the market and we vowed not to make the same mistake again.

Japan is now our third largest market, behind Britain, which is beaten to first place by America. Overseas sales are a vital part of our operations, accounting for 80% of annual turnover. But that didn’t happen overnight.

4. Europe’s plenty big enough before tackling America

We tackled Europe (and Japan) for four years before taking our products to the States. There’s so much opportunity on our doorstep and the markets nearby have huge potential.

Many entrepreneurs head straight to America, but with cheap flights to Europe and easy, quick links, I’m not sure why.

5. The wrong price point harms export sales

When we did try to crack America in 2007, we used a distributor there to launch our products. It was a disaster.

We hadn’t visited the market ourselves to understand what our prices should be, so we ended charging too much which resulted in poor sales. So much for learning from our Japanese experience…

6. It’s better to have feet on the ground over distributors

We struggled for two years before ditching the US distributor and setting up our own operations, because now we knew if the products were priced right, they would sell.

Today we have eight full time staff working in America and 60 commissioned sales representatives, covering all states. Business there has grown rapidly as a result of learning a huge amount.

7. Developing buyer relationships leads to sales

It was obvious from the lesson in America that we had to visit every market we considered. It’s the only way to understand where your product fits and what else is being offered.

Is there someone in the local market selling similar products for a better price? If there is, the chances are they have a good relationship with the buyers in that area. You need to get out there and make these relationships work for you too – or find people who can.

8. Your products will be copied

In 2005, we moved our manufacturing to Asia. It proved a reliable, cost-effective outsourced manufacturing base. But we still manufacture our original glass chopping boards in our factory in Birmingham.

In the same year we secured our Asian manufacturer, we realised our products were being copied in China. As you expand overseas, it’s important to protect your property. So we took the case to court and won a landmark victory.

9. Investing in intellectual property protection is worth it

Counterfeiting remains a big problem for us but we tackle it head on with an in-house IP team looking after all company intellectual issues.

We invest heavily in our IP and protect all designs in all markets through patents and design registrations.

10. Product innovation doesn’t come from focus groups

We focus on making innovative products because there’s a much better chance of succeeding overseas if your product range is different from what is already out there. We don’t ever do focus groups or market research to help us figure out what the consumer wants.

In fact, we don’t believe you should ask the consumers. Just spot what is missing from the way things function – and then fix it.

Extracted from ‘Going Global: 30 Years 30 Insights’ by Piper, the leading specialist investor in consumer brands. For more information or to order a copy, please go to piper.co.uk

About Richard Joseph

After studying industrial design at Loughborough University and taking a Masters in design manufacturing management at Cambridge University, Richard Joseph became a product engineer at Dyson.

His brother Antony studied design at Central Saint Martins and worked as a freelance product designer for companies including the shoemaker Patrick Cox. They came together to found Joseph Joseph in 2003, which now sells to 83 markets around the world.

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