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Winning new markets | May 21

 If you have a product or service that solves someone’s problem, you are ready to export

Winning new markets | May 21

…is what Ruth Chapman, the Managing Director of renewable energy company Dulas Ltd, stated during our interview with her at the busy Help to Grow: Management regional event in Bristol last month

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Born out of the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales in the 1980’s, Dulas now produces and globally exports the world’s first solar-powered vaccine refrigerator.  

For Ruth, leading a business while handling the day-to-day challenges that come with leadership and pioneering hydrogen, wind, solar and battery storage technology, alongside delivering solar powered, life-saving vaccine fridges, is no easy task. This requires getting strong buy-in from the team, building long-lasting international relationships, and knowing when to ask for help.  

In this interview, Ruth delves into what’s needed to embark on a challenging yet rewarding export journey. But first, let’s get to know how Dulas’ innovative structure and purpose produced a team that successfully tackled international markets.  

An ethically driven cooperative  

It is not every day that you find a business where absolutely all employees have an equal say in its strategy and direction. But Dulas was set up as a cooperative from the very beginning. The strong investment and dedication from the team is driven by their ability to have their say in all decision-making processes.  

Dulas is equally owned and controlled by all its employees. Because of this, a meticulous and careful recruitment process is required. ‘We are distributing life-saving fridges worldwide and it is very important that we do that properly.’ Ruth emphasises it is crucial to recruit people who are passionate about the humanitarian purpose behind their product so that the business is aligned internally and moves in the right direction as a unit. 

Although not all businesses can restructure into a cooperative, the takeaway here is ensuring that your employees want your product or service to succeed. Being part of something that employees see value in drives buy-in.  

Exporting: where should you start? 

So what are the first steps of exporting?  

Here is a rundown from Ruth: 

  1. Self-reflect: do you have a product that solves a problem for people or businesses outside of the UK? If yes, then it is time to approach your International Trade Adviser at the Export Academy.  
  1. Contact your International Trade Adviser via the Department for Business and Trade (DBT): there are sector specialists who are ready to guide you in understanding what country requires your product or service, where you should target your efforts, and how you can access a particular market. Ruth says that her DBT trade advisor was the first and last stop for all her export-related challenges. 
  1. Benefit from business leaders with relevant experiences: they can be similar or dissimilar to you but are successfully exporting out of the UK; or located in your target country and are within your industry. It does not matter, as long as you are asking questions and learning from their journey.  
  1. Build relationships with in-country partners: your ITA will facilitate introductions for you with local actors that will ensure that your product and service is delivered.  
  1. Find out what business support is available to you: ask your ITA, freight forwarders, and fellow exporting businesses questions. Whatever problem you are facing, chances are there is someone out there who has experienced something similar. 
  1. Optional: further down the line, hire a logistics and export manager. They will have experience and knowledge of exporting, spot things you may have missed, and know how to scale your operation. 

Think outside of the container: market access, cashflow, and people 

’I am not sure if we fully thought through being prepared for exporting. I think like a lot of companies, you learn as you go. It’s one of the most important parts of the process.’  

Despite its incredible achievements, Dulas is an SME that operates in a complex market with plenty of red tape. Unforeseen circumstances such as changes in Government trade policy, or the Suez Canal being blocked must be dealt with on top of the usual day-to-day challenges of running a small business. But going through these challenges forced Ruther and her team to find innovative solutions which the team has grown from. Below are three recent hurdles Ruth and her team have had to overcome: 

Navigating market access barriers 

Solar powered vaccine refrigerators are needed in all low and middle-income countries, but Dulas cannot be everywhere. Decisions about export locations are often dependent on the ministries of health, which are notoriously hard to access.  

DBT helped Ruth get in front of the relevant officials and key decision makers. In-country advisers set up meetings and increased awareness of the brand through their networks, in turn facilitating crucial partnerships that ensured the fridges were installed and maintained appropriately. The advisers not only provided Dulas with knowledge but also access to stakeholders that would have otherwise been next to impossible to reach.  

Overcoming limited cashflow 

It is tempting to re-invest available cash back into new staff or products, however, Dulas made some hard decisions and decided to invest it in their built and component stock. 

This has helped Dulas be more reactive as their fridges are comprised of 300 different components, and the company must hold a high amount of stock to produce the fridges quickly and meet humanitarian crisis demands. But these demands have peaks and troughs.  

To assist Dulas in increasing export volumes, Ruth applied for the General Export Facility. This government initiative provides guarantees to your bank, helping you access a range of trade finance facilities to help your business grow. 

Plugging skills gaps 

When faced with a skills gap for a thermal engineer to test and improve fridge performance in high humidity, the traditional recruitment routes for Dulas bore no results. Once again, the team turned to their DBT trade adviser. 

This is where the suggestion for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) came from. KTPs are administered by Innovate UK, who are known for their Research and Development growth programmes. It was during the KTP that Dulas was pointed towards a university to seek their next colleague. Here they found exactly what they were looking for; an academic with a PhD in thermal engineering looking to test their theoretical knowledge in a business context. Fast forward to now, their in-house thermal engineer is six months into a two-year programme.

Moral of the story – approach support organisations with hard-to-solve problems as they can usually help you access specialist knowledge in a non-traditional way, cashflow solutions, and in-country partnerships.  

In conclusion…  

Export or not, challenges will come, and you will grow from them. What will get you through those challenges is building the right team, asking the right questions, and seeking out the appropriate support.  

We will leave you with some words of wisdom from Ruth: 

‘Going back in time I’d tell myself “What do I need to know? What do I need to prepare for as a business leader?” But this is almost like telling someone how to prepare to have a child. You really want to tell someone who is pregnant “make sure you get your sleep in now, be prepared for your life to change in a way that you can’t comprehend”. I think it’s probably the same advice for a business leader. It’s a real journey that you can’t really prepare for. It’s exciting but it’s going to give you lots of sleepless nights. It’s challenging, you might have to address things that maybe you are not comfortable addressing, because ultimately you are the leader of the company, but it can be extremely rewarding.’

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