"If there's a mistake to be made, we've made it," Helen Armstrong, co-owner of Apsley and Company, says. It's not a statement one would expect from the co-owner of a successful Australian business now exporting fragrance products to 30 countries but when Armstrong and business partner David Dash bought the business it was tiny and they were naïve. "It’s only through those mistakes that you learn", Armstrong says pragmatically, and the pair learned quickly. "It was pretty clear when we bought the business that we weren’t going to eat unless we got more customers," she says. They tried private label work for some of Australia’s biggest retailers but found it unprofitable so they began to travel overseas to look at product. After seeing fragrant reed diffusers in the United States, Armstrong pitched the idea to Myer. She was told the market wasn’t ready. Two years later, a Myer representative rang and asked, "How fast can you get it on the floor for us?" Armstrong can’t believe they got it done. "It was a product that no one here had ever made before. We had to develop a formula that actually worked, try to find a bottle, try to get packaging done, over Chinese new year." But the madness paid off and the diffusers have propelled the company to another level. Apsley now owns two brands: Scented Space, which is designed for self-sell department store environments, and Abode Aroma, which is pitched at small boutiques. As the Australian market became too small, Armstrong and Dash looked overseas. With the assistance of Austrade and Gift and Homewares Australia they began to exhibit in 2002 at gift and trade fairs overseas. Their first international exhibition took place in Hong Kong just six weeks after the SARS scare. "There was no one around so it was probably a good place to learn," Armstrong says. "We made a lot of mistakes, we didn’t understand what customers really wanted to buy, what sort of questions they needed answers for."
After three years, having gained knowledge from other exhibitors and acquired two major customers, Apsley and Company started exhibiting in the United States and in Europe. "Going to the gift fairs made us realise our product was at international standard. We realised we could compete," Armstrong says. Apsley now has an office in Hong Kong and has just shipped their first order to China, an achievement Armstrong says took months. It is one of two triumphs she is most proud of: the other is their success in the United Kingdom. "We’re the number one department store brand in the UK with our Scented Space brand, and we’d be the leading contemporary diffuser brand for the gift industry with Abode Aroma," Armstrong says. In her experience the UK market is much easier for an Australian exporter to crack than the US market, of which she says: "We might speak English but we don’t speak the same language". In America products require a hard sell. Armstrong prefers to let the product speak for itself, an approach that works well in the United Kingdom. Despite or perhaps because of their mistakes, Apsley and Company is now enjoying immense success. "We’re really good at what we do," Armstrong says, and is quick to credit her staff and distributors. "We have a really strong back of house. We’re considered to be a very reliable supplier and people will always back someone that they know is consistent. When you’re dealing internationally you can’t stuff up. You don’t get a second chance. It has to be good all the time."
Top tips from someone who has done it
Armstrong offers this advice to would-be exporters: * Persistence does work-you can’t crack a market with one visit * It is critical to register your trademarks and your designs in each country * Know what channel you’re going to put your product into, and what sales techniques work for that channel * Be aware that once you operate in multiple time zones, you’re working 24 hours a day.