Claire Preston is CEO of Sound Training, the Middlesbrough education company that’s delivering its Lexonik teaching programmes in schools and prisons across the globe. Four years on from signing her first international contract, Claire shares the business advice that has helped her drive the firm’s expansion into the US and the Middle East.
At Sound Training, we’re passionate about helping people reach their full potential. As such, we have always believed that our programmes, which are designed to boost literacy levels and raise attainment in children and adults, could work as well overseas as they have in the UK.
Five years ago, we approached our local International Trade Adviser (ITA) at the Department for International Trade (DIT) to explore the idea of introducing our services overseas.
Working together, we identified the US market as an initial focus, due to similarities between the American and British education systems.
DIT subsequently connected us with a US-based education consultant who would support our route to market. DIT also made further introductions at a trade mission in Denver. Since then, we’ve grown our presence across the US and have found further success in international schools in the Middle East, including those in Dubai, Qatar and Oman.
You can’t underestimate the power of meeting people face-to-face and, without DIT, we wouldn’t have been able to access many of the people and businesses we now call customers.
However, looking back to the start of our export journey, there are a magnitude of things I wish I had known then that I know now. My advice to other business owners is as follows.
Believe in yourself
When I first joined Sound Training it was immediately obvious that the teaching programme developed by founder director Katy Parkinson could have an amazing impact in so many places.
Although the original goal was to focus on mainstream schools in the UK, I do wish that we had spoken with others who had made the move into exporting earlier, to give us the confidence that it was something we could do too. That said, it was also important for us to build a reputation in the UK.
Celebrate your achievements
Our best milestones as a company will always be learning about the number of people from across the world that we are helping to improve the literacy of. We probably don’t celebrate that enough.
However, I recently returned from a trip to Texas, where we’re working to improve literacy standards across the state – something that there’s a real demand for, in part due to the high number of residents for whom English is second language.
Although we’ve been running a pilot programme there for two years, this trip saw us spend two days speaking with local educators, legislators and even Texas’ Education Commissioner to discuss the best ways of presenting and implementing our product, as well as the potential for state-wide initiatives. Sitting in the Texas State Capitol building in Austin, it was incredible to think that this all started back home in Middlesbrough with Katy Parkinson’s big idea.
Learn from every experience
Prior to joining Sound Training seven years ago, I had a diverse range of work experiences across a number of different industries.
These include everything from selling Avon while at school, working at a hairdresser’s and as a waitress at college, to roles as cabin crew, training manager, restaurant manager and teaching English in Japan.
Together, they’ve given me a wealth of knowledge and experience, which has proved invaluable in helping Sound Training develop as a business and make a difference to so many people. For example, one thing that I’ve learned from working in the restaurant industry as part of a growing chain is the need for standardisation, quality assurance and systems. This has played a big part in enabling our expansion. It’s all very well having a great service or product, but if you can’t easily scale it then you’re limiting your opportunities for growth.
This year, we’ll have presented our educational programmes in three different continents, with amazing advocacy from existing customers and export partners in each. Over the next five years, we are planning to focus equally on continuing our commitment to raising literacy levels locally and nationally in the UK, as well as our overseas growth. We will continue to work closely with DIT, as the networks they’ve helped us to build have been invaluable.
If a start-up business from Middlesbrough can take its services across the world, anyone can.
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