How to expand your business internationally by the global entrepreneurs who have

Taking your business global is a big step that can feel daunting and exciting. In a recent webinar in conjunction with NatWest, Expanding your business internationally: advice from global entrepreneurs, we heard from everywoman award winners Charlotte Ferguson (founder of Disciples), Emma Parkinson (founder of International Energy Product) and Christine Kelly ( founder of Little Kickers). They discussed how to successfully step forward into new markets and the lessons they’ve learned on the way…


What was the starting point on your journey to becoming an international entrepreneur?

Christine: I was working as a psychotherapist when I developed chronic adult acne. I realised the connection between stress and skin and started making products in my kitchen, which is how many skincare brands began. In 2018, I emailed Cult Beauty and told them what we were doing around stress and anxiety and adaptogens and prebiotics, and they emailed back with our first big order.

Emma: I had reached my limit working for a large corporation in a male-dominated industry and wanted to crack the board level. I created a business plan and secured investment from a local businessman who gave us warehouse space. I started small: just me and a machine. I put the high vis on and worked out how to do it, as I had done for others over the years. The right opportunity and funding are key to international expansion; I achieved a buyout in October 2020, and we now supply steel metal-based products to all four corners of the globe.

Christine: I was working at JP Morgan and had just had my son. I was determined to show that nothing had changed in my work ethic. As a result, I barely saw my son and felt like I was failing on both fronts. I took three months off and, during that time, discovered that my son loved football. I met a football coach, and we ran a pilot to see whether football coaching for kids might be popular, and we were oversubscribed by 400%. At the time, there were low barriers to entry; anyone could have set up in competition with what I was doing. So, I expanded it quickly to around 35 classes a week in the first year. When I started to struggle again, I stumbled across franchising, which seemed like a good option.

How do you know when you’re ready to start expanding geographically?

Christine: With a franchising business, expanding internationally too soon is always tempting. So, it was important to hold off until we were ready, which was when we felt that the domestic market was starting to reach saturation. It was also vital that the business was running successfully and that we had ironed out any kinks in what we were doing because it is much harder to sort out major issues once you’re in other markets.

Emma: We always intended to be an international business, and through exposure to international markets from past employment, I knew exactly where we needed to be operating. We needed global agents based in specific territories to sell our product to market in that region. In some cases, for cultural reasons, they’d want fixed premises and products on the ground, and we’d have to take a business decision over that. Sometimes, it’s more affordable to continue with the agent option and leave that particular market alone.

How did you prepare your teams for international expansion?

Christine: We had a choice of expanding into more products, providing classes in rugby or dance, or into other countries. We did both for a couple of years, which was not a great strategy. In 2016, though, we learned about the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS). This framework enables you to identify your business’s core competencies and hone in on those to expand the business. A facilitator went through the process with our entire management team for over a year, and by the end, everyone had bought into the strategy and knew the direction that we were going in.

How can you fund international expansion?

Emma: We were looking for significant investment and initially went to the British Business Bank and took out a Midlands Engine Investment Fund loan. I was very responsive to funders, and I’ve since had feedback from them to say how easy I was to work with, and that was what made us an appealing option to fund. Knowing your numbers is important, too, and having that data to hand upfront will help speed up the process of securing funding. Other options are UK export finance and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), which can guide which territories and types of deals they can fund. Most of this funding is backed by the UK Government, so if you are looking to put some level of funding into the business yourself, your level of risk is much smaller.

Christine: We decided to fund the business organically and used the revenue generated through the UK business to fund our international expansion. We also received grants in the UK through UKTI and the Canadian Government because we wanted to export our product internationally.

Charlotte: Because we’re bootstrapping, there haven’t been that many grants available to us, although a seed round of investment raised 150K, which helped with expansion. We had to be a bit cheeky when trying to do it, though, because an Australian retailer came to us and said, ‘We want to stock you, but shipping liquid in glass has so many issues’. So, we told them, ‘If we sign an exclusive deal with you, would you collect the goods and deal with all the customs?’. They said yes, which was amazing. It made me cringe having to send emails saying, ‘We can’t do it. Would you consider this?’ Some people will say ‘no’, but many say ‘yes’, so it’s worth trying to get into new markets without massive risk. My ego was my only risk, and I was willing to take that.

Is it important to have a presence in a country you’re expanding into?

Emma Parkinson: Cultural considerations matter, and it makes sense to have a localised person on the ground; they know the area, they often have connections in that field that they can use, and certainly that’s been really good for us. If funding is a limitation for you, the Department for Business & Trade is also usually fantastic in finding and connecting you with key individuals in the designated countries. Working with the embassies there can be a quick, cost-effective route to access a particular market.

Christine: Our goal wasn’t to be viewed as a British brand expanding overseas; we wanted to be seen as an international brand. I moved to Canada in 2009 and established a hub for the business there, and we had half the head office team in the UK, which gave the business an international feel. When we found a master franchisee in another country who we thought had a similar ethos to us, we would typically run a pilot for the first six months. That meant we could see culturally whether it worked and what tweaks were needed.

Charlotte: We’re a physical product, and Made in Britain is one of our USPs, but when we looked at expanding to Europe, we discovered that it was a lot easier to get the products made in the country and that customers didn’t really care about that USP. I moved to Spain to facilitate the manufacture and distribution of products across Europe, and we’ve been here for the past year. Having boots on the ground to develop relationships is important. So, when you do have an issue, people know that it actually does affect you, and you are a person, not a huge business.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs setting off on their international journey?

Charlotte: Sharing information and the responsibility of the expansion by getting your team on board with all elements as soon as possible, then it’s not just all on you. If you’re dealing with it all alone, you inevitably get run down, and you can make bad decisions when you’re exhausted, and money is tight.

Christine: Make sure your infrastructure will support international growth from the start rather than having to reinvest in a couple of years. We knew we needed to get world-class systems in place to ensure we could operate in multiple time zones and currencies without downtime, so we went for large-scale solutions to our problems rather than trying to cobble something together.

Emma: You can over-plan, and in running your own business, you have to be versatile. Initially, you can lean on key people for advice and guidance, but actually doing it is what will take you forward. Making mistakes is important. So take that first step… and then just problem-solve it.

To find out more about how NatWest can support the onwards growth of your business click here