The passive aggressive exporter

Written by Susanne Baillie

When it comes to developing a savvy export strategy, less can definitely be more. That’s the philosophy behind award-winning exporter Bravado Designs Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of lingerie for pregnant and nursing women. By dividing foreign markets into “active” and “passive”, this growing firm has found a way to allocate resources and save precious time, money and effort.

Founded in 1992, Bravado has grown from sales of $84,000 in its first year to almost $5.5 million this year. Exports now represent more than 85% of sales and 90% of profits. Last year, Kathryn From, CEO, and founding partner Shery Leeder, president, won the Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award for export. “We couldn’t survive if we didn’t export. The Canadian market just isn’t big enough — there aren’t enough women having babies,” says From.

Instead of blitzing foreign markets and gathering sales from far and wide, Bravado has taken a more tailored approach to selling outside Canada. “It’s better to focus on a couple of markets, and do them properly than to spread yourself too thin trying to get into several markets at the same time,” says From. “If you try to do too many things, you end up with scattered sales of maybe $50,000 in each market, and you’re probably going to lose money on most of them.”

Bravado has two “active” markets where they spend time, money and energy investing in such things as targeted marketing and advertising, packaging and trade shows: the U.S., representing 75% of sales and the U.K. (10%). The sales volumes generated in these markets make focusing on them worth the cost and effort, From says. Bravado’s Toronto office seamlessly serves the U.S., and an office in the U.K. addresses that market and acts as a beachhead for more potential expansion overseas.

But the company sells to at least a dozen more markets, including the Middle East, Asia and Europe. These “passive” markets are regions where customers approach Bravado, not the other way around. “These markets are great to have, but we’re really not going to focus our resources on them,” From explains. “We ship to our distributors, and they’re responsible for developing those markets. We do monitor it, but we’re not investing in it.”

In passive markets, foreign distributors, who learn about Bravado from its website or word-of-mouth, become “partners” that help read the market and build relationships with the people new moms trust most, such as health care professionals, childbirth educators and hospitals. “We tend to go more for specialized boutiques or the professional credibility side,” From says. “The idea is that by finding great partners in passive markets, they’ll do a lot of that work for us and with us.”

While selecting a good foreign partner in passive markets often comes down to gut feeling, From admits, asking appropriate questions can help weed out the weak. “When we get approached, we ask to see what their plan would be for development, whether they’re a distributor, what other lines are they carrying, what’s the marketplace like, what are the price points in the marketplace, and do they have professional connections,” she says. “For every five people who will approach you, four of them fade quickly by the wayside when you ask them for further details about what they’re planning on doing,” she says. “It’s a quick and easy way to sort people out.”

© 2003 Susanne Baillie

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