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Exporting to America – Battle scars and lessons learned

Colin McCullagh – 29 May, 2018 – UK and Ireland Perspective

What do a small craft beer distributor, a £40m food company and a £250m agtech company have in common? 

The answer: Battle scars and lessons learned in how to successfully sell into the US.

I recently hosted a panel in partnership with Invest NI on ‘Doing Business in the US’, and I was joined in the session by the leaders of some of Northern Ireland’s most interesting exporters. These companies, though diverse in sector, scale and experience, were united by the lessons they had learned during the process of exporting to the US. During the panel, they discussed the fundamentals for successful exporting into the US market.

Prepare for the challenges ahead

For any companies looking at the US market, potential growing pains must be expected. The companies on the panel agreed that lessons were learned from mistakes made and courses had to be adjusted. However, each company is now experiencing incredible growth. So, what were the unifying factors behind their success?

  1. Do Your Homework: Yes, it’s that old favourite, homework. The panel could not overstate the importance of assessing the market before you try to enter the market. The adage ‘measure twice, cut once’ is extremely poignant here. One panellist spoke about how their company had set up an LLC in the US only to realise this was not the best route to go down and had to make a costly about turn. Another had been selling into the wrong market for their product. By the time they had adjusted course, they became aware that their product was too expensive when finally selling into the right market. These mistakes could have been avoided by investing in research that covered specific aspects of the market – from regulation to packaging, from consumer preferences to the competition, and from industry dynamics to import implications. It all comes back to ‘measure twice, cut once’. It will save you time, money and, more critically, opportunity cost.
  2. Have a solid USP: If you don’t have something special in your local market, you won’t have something special in the US! All the panel were agreed, you must bring something innovative to the party. This is good news for small companies. One panellist put some of their success down to the fact that some of the big players in the US are simply too big to deliver innovation at the pace that a smaller player can. The craft beer distributor has just launched the world’s first blockchain craft beer allowing the avid craft community to trace exactly what their beer is made of. Innovation creates differentiation.
  3. Partner Smart: Getting local fast through the right partner was the unanimous recommendation for approaching the market. But finding the right partner is not always simple. It took one company 5 years to realise they had the wrong partner. Another company took partnership to the extreme when they first entered the market. They entered a 50/50 joint venture with a company in Minnesota – equal partnership, equal investment in success. A common ingredient for good partner selection is brand values – do they share and demonstrate your brand values? To nurture strong brand values, a number of the companies brought their partners over to Northern Ireland to meet the team, see the culture and build personal relationships.
  4. Network: It’s no surprise that there are lots of Irish people in America. A number of these companies found advisors or partners through their network. In the era of the Born Global, networks are of vital importance. These companies got connected by attending events, trade missions and leveraging their connections.
  5. Do it right: Playing lightly in the American market does not work. The advice from the panel was that America has great opportunity, but if you are going to do it you must commit, invest resources and go for it. As one of the panellists mentioned, the underlying reason for their success in America is because they demonstrated courage and determination. If you can demonstrate these two qualities, coupled with the right support and the right information, you have a great chance of making it in America

I would like to thank our panellists and wish them continued success in the US. I trust their experience and advice will benefit companies at the start of their journey with the US market.