My Stories

How I’ve almost become an importer

In November a former co-worker from one of the startups I was involved in reached out to me that he wants to start importing & establish Czech and Slovak food and beverage brands in the US and Canada.

There was a lot to work with – he got quite a few companies that were interested in expanding overseas.

After I left the Kaktus App couple of weeks ago I was free to start something new and I liked the idea, so I was in.

The first stage was about trying to get something done remotely (I’m from Slovakia, he’s from the Czech Rep).

It doesn’t sound very fancy – it was all about searching, emailing, and calling hundreds of US & Can distributors and retailers.

Initially, I wasn’t very big on calling but it turned out that it’s more effective to call instead of just sending an email. It also turned out that getting to the decision makers in Canada over the phone is much easier than in the US. I felt like the US secretaries were very clearly instructed about what to do with calls like mine.

Even though there was a little success, it definitely wasn’t the right way to go about it. We’ve sent out a few samples & were in touch with a couple of distributors that were kind of interested, but it still looked like a long shot.

A decision was made to go to the US & Canada and get the stuff done in person. The plan was that my business partner would be in Toronto for 3 weeks, I’d join him there during the 1st week and then I was meant to go to Los Angeles for the remaining 2 weeks.

To be honest, I didn’t think it was really necessary to go there in person, we have emails and phones and after all, we live in the 21st century. I thought that whatever there is to be done, it can be done over the phone/email.

The first week in Toronto went pretty well, but the other 2 in Los Angeles had to be cut short right at the beginning – the whole world started to freak out about the coronavirus, the flights were being canceled and airports (in Europe) and borders closed or restricted. I got nothing done in LA & went home ASAP.

Unfortunately, the EU-US-CAN borders are still closed and it’s very hard to say how long it will take until things get back to normal. And even when they do, who knows how the new normal will look like. The importing is probably done.

It’s pretty unfortunate because it looked like it could actually work. There was a lot of money to be made even if we only got to the few containers per year stage.

The huge advantage of this business is that once you get it going and establish the distribution there’s not that much you have to do & it’s just about how many other products you want to bring there.

It also doesn’t take very long to understand how the distributors think and what they are looking for or which products are and aren’t suited for import (we’ve learned that one by trial and error).

Few lessons from the trip:

1. From what I’ve experienced nobody in the US & Canada really cares about the sales numbers of the product in Europe.

2. Obviously, it’s much better to come to present the product in person as opposed to just sending a sample. To be able to come in person, you have to be in the city. Being in the city also proved pretty useful when trying to get appointments. “We’re in Toronto right now, what’s the best time for us to stop by?” sounds much better than “We’ll be in Toronto in 5 weeks, can we schedule a quick visit?”.

It has to be noted though that one of the reasons of the bad conversion rates of my calls from home was probably the way I was doing them. The live feedback from the business partner I was there with (he was managing a call center at the beginning of his career) certainly contributed to the success rate in Toronto.

3. I’ve incredibly underestimated the importance of personal meetings. As I mentioned above, I was skeptical about the face to face meetings. Sure, it’s the 21st century, but it looks like the in-person contact and relationships are crucial in this business.

Couple things about the personal meetings vs phone/email:

The first thing you can’t get over the phone or email is the local market intelligence – you know, those little details of how stuff works there. This often small information that gets mentioned as you talk to people can make a huge impact if acted upon properly. It’s the stuff you wouldn’t think of/had no way to know about unless you’re a local.

Next, there are recommendations from the people we’ve visited. At half the places where we went, we got recommendations to see someone else who may be interested in what we have. This is invaluable, but it doesn’t always come without asking, so don’t be afraid to do so.

Sometimes a person not only recommended a contact but called them right there or told us to say that they’ve sent us.

It almost looked like all you need to do wherever you’re going is to get a few appointments and then you can just ride on the wave of recommendations. Before we went to Toronto I was freaking out that we have only 3 or 4 meetings scheduled.

When meeting someone, you can actually see how the person reacts to your product and what you say. If you’re at least a little receptive there’s a great deal that can be learned about how the person feels about what you have. We could always tell whether there’s some potential business to be done or not.

Small talk – this is just another thing that’s pretty difficult to do over the phone or email. One distributor we’ve met with was literally more interested in the history of Czechoslovakia (Czech Rep and Slovakia were united until 1993) than our products. Of course, we didn’t mind – it’s a great way to build a relationship and establish some trust between us. People like this will sometimes do business with you just because they like you.

4. It also pays off to be a little creative and go for the long shot – I got us a meeting with a managing partner of the Toronto takeout franchise with 9 branches over Instagram. One of the branches just replied to my DM with a time & date when to come. I thought we’ll be meeting with the branch manager but to our surprise, the boss showed up.

5. The last point is about how fast it became clear which products have the potential to succeed and which are total busts. There’s just no better way to learn about a product potential in a particular market than going there and talking to people.