By Harry Mowat, Managing Director at Greentree Software UK
The UK has long had an international reputation for producing some of the highest quality hand-made goods. Our talents with fashion, ceramics and crafting are increasingly sought after by countries unable to match their unique style locally. And with the weak pound and global growth increasing this appetite for British goods even further, there’s everything to play for.
But for cottage industry businesses to successfully scale up and expand internationally, they need to first change their mindset. There is a huge difference in the strategy and investment behind a global, rather than a local, operation.
After almost a decade supporting burgeoning British businesses in their scaling up to go global, I’ve learned there are a handful of key moves which must be made…
Digitise customer records – As any cottage industry business knows, its unique selling point is all about quality – both in terms of product and the customer experience. In the UK, success is no longer built on the back of a ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ mindset. Products will often be made specifically to meet customer requirements. And so, the relationships between these customers and the organisation are at the very core of its success. When these are poorly managed the brand is damaged, sales are lost, and new business opportunities missed. Moving to a digital platform to ensure this relationship is well managed alongside any business growth is vital. Using manual processes to manage a handful of customers a day is okay, but beyond that, it’s impossible.
Use AI to support not usurp workers on the factory floor – The hand-made element is clearly the corner stone of a cottage industry’s offering and can never be compromised; but new technology is now available to give your human workers a helping hand. Machine learning capabilities can be built into back-end systems to help improve processes on the factory floor. This kind of software can be used to make calculations about how much raw materials are needed, to manage pattern planning and optimise workstation lay-outs to significantly improve output. This approach allows businesses to optimise their human efforts to compete with those who automate the entire process, without compromising on what makes them special.
Form strategic international manufacturing partnerships – Of course scaling up to meet international demand is a big challenge, particularly when trying to maintain the high-quality which drove demand in the first place. One way to overcome it is to form strategic international manufacturing partnerships in the regions seeing growth. By taking the time to carefully select partners who will deliver on the brands key differentiators, ensure they’re using the right raw materials, following the right processes and have the right data and information – there’s no reason why it can’t be a positive thing. JR Tusting, maker of luxury leather luggage and accessories, did this successfully in China when it started seeing huge amounts of grown in the Asian market. Of course, building bespoke factories of your own region is also a possibility if you can afford it.
Automate inventory control & reporting – Of course as business grows, so too does the complexity of order tracking. Using an excel spreadsheet to log order details works when an operation first starts off at home with limited volume, but a growing business needs to automate and digitise these details to keep up with demand. Jo Bird, producer of specialist cabinets for lifesaving equipment, realised this when it started exporting its highly unique products to over 30 different markets. Customers often wanted instant progress updates, but the company’s old systems couldn’t help them get this information without walking around the factory to physically check on progress. It’s now implemented an ERP system which integrates CRM, financial management and manufacturing to allow staff to check order statuses at a glance, amongst other things.
Support an international salesforce by going mobile – International sales mean international salespeople for those looking to sell via retailers; rather than just rely on direct or online sales. To be truly effective, an international salesforce needs to be able to access all the information relevant to fulfilling their role wherever they are, and quickly. Giving them the ability to access this kind of data out on the move via their mobile device can improve efficiency, eliminate administrative functions, reduce data errors and increase customer satisfaction dramatically. All of which have a significant impact on ROI.
With Brexit looming on the horizon, it can feel like a daunting time to be running a cottage industry business. But there are also clear opportunities to be won by those ready to take advantage of them. As JR Tusting and Jo Bird have shown, moves like investing in the right technology, infrastructure and strategic partnerships are all part of a successful scale-up strategy.