How do I… transition to international trade

How do I… transition to international trade

Torro Cases produces leather smartphone cases and men's accessories. A British company based in Newcastle, co-founders William Johnson and Michael Farnsworth share their exporting tips.

As smartphones grew in popularity, we noticed that people were paying a huge amount for the latest devices, but couldn't find cases to do them justice. There were basic cases at one end of the market, overpriced cases at the other, and little in between.

We wanted a product that met our personal standards as consumers, offering good looks, quality craftsmanship and solid protection, whilst also remaining affordable.

Our solution was to design classic, elegant cases from genuine Italian and US leathers. They're our best sellers, and we now ship them around the world from our online store and via online marketplaces like Amazon.

How did you meet?

We used to work as police detectives - in fact, we met on our first day in the force, aged 18 and 20. Over time, we worked our way up to the Fraud Squad and Internal Affairs.

We founded Torro Cases as a hobby business in our spare time, and it was only later that we left the police force to focus entirely on our startup.

Within four years, Torro Cases has grown from being a hobby business to one with nearly half a million customers around the world.

Tips for trading internationally

We believe that to grow and be competitive, you need to sell internationally. It's not just about tapping into greater consumer demand, but also about starting revenue streams in different currencies - this can help diversify your revenue streams, and protect you from localised challenges.

1) Build a strong currency strategy

Today, 25% of our sales are made internationally, and this number is growing fast.

Selling overseas means taking payments in foreign currencies, and without specialist support, it's easy to lose out to bad exchange rates and slow transfers when moving international revenues back to sterling.

We work with a specialist currency partner, OFX. They help us to get the best exchange rates, and have helped us to develop a personalised currency strategy. We regularly speak to our dealer there, who works with us to design a currency strategy that can flex with our company's needs as they evolve. For us, this flexibility is really important.

Right now, our priority is to get around the challenge of a weak pound. OFX helps us to transfer our euro-denominated revenues directly into dollars, so we can pay our suppliers without losing out to the pound's current weakness.

This means we can keep our costs down, and maintain the quality of our products while keeping them affordable for our customers. For us, this is hugely important - and it just wouldn't be possible without a good currency strategy.

2) Research your customer

When you start selling overseas, you can't assume that international customers will want the same things as your customers in the UK.

Shopping behaviours vary in each market, sometimes dramatically. In Germany, for example, we learnt that customers get put off by more "fluffy" marketing campaigns and product descriptions, and instead prefer a succinct and technical message.

The best way to gain this information is to speak directly to your target customers, which is exactly what we did before launching our products to the German market.

3) Plan your logistics

Dont get caught out when shipping overseas for the first time.

It's important to research your options in advance, as there are so many now available - from high-speed rail transportation to more traditional air freighting. The important thing is to match your customers' expectations on delivery times with costs that work for your margins. Prices differ by provider, so it's worth shopping around.

If shipping by air, be careful to research laws and regulations so you don't get caught out. Lithium batteries are now banned by most carriers, for example, so if your product contains them, you'll need to find an alternative shipping method.

4) Know what to look for, when choosing specialist partners

When you start selling overseas for the first time, it makes sense to partner with experts who can take care of specialist tasks and let you get on with the things you do best.

As a small business, it's crucial to find a partner that matches your values and understands your business, whether choosing an accountant, currency specialist, logistics provider, or any other expert.

Another key thing is to look for is a supplier that takes the time to get to know you, understands your business, and can provide a bespoke service rather than a "one size fits all" solution.

5) Plan for sustainable growth

If you're expanding abroad, it's important to plan your growth sustainably, rather than launching everywhere at once.

Selling online means that if you wanted to, you could launch in tens of markets at the same time. But our experience is that it's better to stagger your roll-out, so you have time to get to know your international customers and set up a strong network of partners, to ensure steady and stable growth.

Choose your first market carefully and consider what changes you'll need to make to your operations and products before launching there. Product descriptions, website translation and product safety certifications are a good place to start. 

We focused our international growth strategy initially on Europe and the US, to minimise the impact to our day-to-day business. There is also huge demand for our product in Japan - however, this market requires significantly more start-up investment, so we have decided to delay launching there until we have the appropriate resources to do it sustainably.