Excellent news for local firm in this Department of International Trade Case Study.
It was a chance covering of heavy snow that formed the initial idea for Worcester-based business Axiski back in 2010. Nine years on, the company exports to over 17 countries and has recently had major success in the U.S. We caught up with founder Darren Mather to hear more about his journey to export…
Darren was set to enjoy a rare snow day with his two daughters when he realised they didn’t own a sledge and all the local stores had sold out. Faced with disappointing his children, he decided to have a go at making something he could use to pull them to the slope and planned to borrow sledges once there.
Using two spare pieces of laminate flooring and some discarded wood, Darren pieced together a makeshift sledge equipped with two-foot grips and a front rope. It was an immediate hit and not just among his own children. Before long there were queues of people waiting for their turn on Darren’s invention.
What was it about his creation that was so widely appealing?
The answer was immediately obvious to him as he watched the people use it; it offered a uniquely interchangeable experience. The flat and wide surface of his ‘design’ enabled adults and children to use the board either standing up or sitting down.
As the weeks passed and the snow began melting, Darren’s sledge gained another advantage. Where other sledges and taboggans struggled on frost, grinding into the ground with their runners, Darren’s glided smoothly. The flat surface of his laminate flooring creation performed perfectly in this new in-between terrain.
That got Darren thinking – had he inadvertently made something that wasn’t actually on the market?
It was a question that led to two years of intensive research. He sought advice from various people in confidence, even relying on Non-Disclosure Agreements to safeguard his idea. Eventually, he concluded there wasn’t anything out there with the shape or design of his sledge.
Darren candidly admits his inexperience at the beginning of his journey. The research years were difficult, building 20 prototypes before the final design went to market in 2013.
After officially launching into the domestic market it became clear that the rarity of snow in the UK was going to be a major barrier to further growth. If Axiski was going to flourish as a business, then it needed to export to snowier climates.
The opportunity to start exporting found its way to Axiski incidentally. Darren was contacted by retailers in France, Germany and Austria interested in trialling orders of his product. It was an opening that couldn’t be passed up, but there were many stumbling blocks around costing, transport and practical considerations.
The reactive approach to exporting only took Axiski so far. The pricing was wrong, timescales and freight movement were a challenge and unexpected costs kept cropping up. All these factors meant that some orders made a small loss.
Realising this led Darren to seek out the guidance and support of the DIT. He started his journey with International Trade Advisor (ITA) Nick Corley and together they began to consider a targeted strategy. Through Nick, Darren was able to access free information from a raft of entities and Chambers of Commerce throughout Europe. Finally, he was able to gain some traction and find a calculated route to market.
What was particularly helpful for Darren was a DIT Export Insight Visit to Prague.
“It was a fantastic networking opportunity for me, a chance to meet people in a similar situation and hear their journeys. That was hugely rewarding – I came home with a newfound confidence in my product and business style.”
Since then, Darren’s business has taken off all over Europe. Countries he now exports to include Russia, Iceland, Austria, Germany, France, Finland, Norway amongst others. 95% of his sales come from exports to some 17 countries.
Excitingly, he’s recently added America to his sprawling list of markets. Although working part-time alongside Axiski prevented him from physically attending trade shows, he was able to use Nick’s pool of contacts to arrange for his sledges to be displayed at the NY Now trade fair in the US. The display caught the eye of the CEO of The Grommet and led to an export deal currently bringing in £400,000.
The US is now, unexpectedly, his biggest export market.
“The US wasn’t really within my radar for the first couple of years when I was getting my head around exporting. But it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I loved how engaged The Grommet were with my product and the business. It’s just been amazing.”
It’s not been an easy journey and there has been plenty of stumbles along the way. Documentation has been a big hurdle to overcome – it was a challenge at times to find the information required. But Darren was able to use the DIT to support him through the difficulties.
Now, he says, his focus is on continuing to grow through a structured approach, building rapport and strong relationships with distributors. Volume and exposure are key. He was recently advised on e-commerce strategy by one of our expert digital advisers and is keen to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the global online marketplace.
Above all, he tells us, working with Nick and the DIT has given him confidence, knowing that he can pick up the phone anytime and ask for advice. Armed with their support and his own thorough research, his business has gone from strength to strength and is only set for more growth in the future.
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