FSB’s ‘Destination Export – Small Businesses as Strategic Exporters’ will take place on Tuesday, 12 June at the International Business Festival 2018 in Liverpool. There is no cost to attend the event and delegates who register can access the rest of IBF2018 on June 12th for free. Register here.
Aiming to outline exporting opportunities and how small businesses can negotiate challenges to international trade, the event will feature advice and support from expert speakers and panellists, including FSB member Helen Baker, co-founder and director of Hydraulics Online Ltd in Cheshire which recently won the North West Business Exporter Award at FSB’s Celebrating Small Business Awards 2018.
Helen (pictured above with Mark Tonks) will tell her story and explain how the company has grown, and negotiated international markets, to work with over 3500 customers from nearly 130 countries around the world delivering excellence in hydraulic consultancy, design and supply.
How did Hydraulics Online Ltd start out?
Mark Tonks and I founded Hydraulics Online in 2004 with the ambition of creating a truly customer-centric and independent hydraulics company that could compete with bigger, more established and product-led industry players.
Mark already had more than 13 years within the industry under his belt and was therefore the ‘hydraulics’; with my background in financial services, including eight years managing strategic change projects for Barclays and then Britannic Assurance plc, I was the ‘everything else’.
I can still remember deciding what we were going to call ourselves, registering the company name, buying the domain name and then writing a big list of everything that we needed to do to enable us to compete in a very established global marketplace.
I’m not sure if we were brave or crazy starting out on our own, but we had a clear idea about building a business that put customers, not products, at the heart of everything it did.
Tell us about your first foray into international markets.
Our first international customers came on board not long after we founded the company: only a handful – and some of whom Mark already knew either directly or indirectly through his previous roles – but enough for us to start building our overseas credentials and send out the message that our world, appetite and capabilities went beyond the UK.
We went ‘.com’ in 2013 and that’s when we really saw international interest increase.
Back in 2004 we hadn’t been able to buy www.hydraulicsonline.com – the name had already been taken, but never developed, and so we established ourselves on www.hydraulicsonline.co.uk instead.
Eight years later in 2012, Mark discovered that the ‘.com’ URL was up for sale, albeit with a hefty price tag. And so, the negotiations and sleepless nights began… we knew the value of that name to us!
What difficulties did you face initially, and what are the ongoing challenges?
Building our credentials with overseas customers was crucial to gain their trust and level the playing field so that we could compete with their more local suppliers - suppliers speaking their language, in the same time zone, maybe even just down the road.
We often found ourselves, and still do, being asked to complete new vendor questionnaires and initially we couldn’t put a ‘tick’ in the ISO 9001 accreditation box.
After launching www.hydraulicsonline.com in 2013 I decided that we needed to secure ISO 9001 Quality Management accreditation. I chose the British Standards Association - as a world authority on management systems, accredited themselves through the United Kingdom Accreditation Service. We didn’t want to cut corners to get accredited quickly; we genuinely wanted to identify any opportunities to improve as a business. I also loved the very ‘Britishness’ of their brand and could see how they would work for us overseas too.
Having the accreditation now is so much more than a ‘tick in a box’. It reinforces our brand and our whole business culture of continuous improvement. I would urge any business to invest in accreditations that are relevant to them.
Ongoing challenges? I don’t think they are that different to the challenges here in the UK. For us it’s all about being responsive, demonstrating and delivering excellence in what we do, while being competitive and offering the customer good value: making them glad that they’ve found us.
What are the potential opportunities of exporting for small businesses?
They’re huge! Exporting is a growing part of our business; overall one in six of our customers comes from overseas, but in the last twelve months it’s risen to one in three.
We’re so fortunate in the UK: English is so widely spoken (consider that our website visitors use 189 preferred language settings between them), the British ‘brand’ is highly regarded and counts for quality, and Sterling is accepted as an international currency.
Add to that the fact that technology and communications make the world a small place as do the wealth of carrier networks and services that are available. We’ve yet to find anywhere that we can’t deliver to; it’s not always been straight-forward but we’ve exported to 130 countries to date and haven’t been beaten yet – onshore or offshore!
Any top tips for operating successfully overseas? What should businesses prioritise when considering exporting and/or increasing exports?
Our growth has been demand-led and organic - because we’ve got our proposition right, because we’ve put customers at the heart of our business. Genuinely. We’re offering what our customers want and they come to us. We then capture their feedback at every opportunity to make sure we stay in tune with their needs.
Despite being an ‘online’ business we aren’t automated. Our customers cannot ‘click and add to cart’ – we don’t believe in it. Hydraulic engineering is complicated, technical, and a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing or lead to a less than ideal solution. We’re not in the business of price points and ‘shifting boxes’.
Every enquiry we receive is personally handled by a member of our technical team - and from there we start to build a relationship and trust. Even in a business-to-business market, it’s human-to-human relationships at play.
We also work hard on maintaining our online presence - so that we can be found when people are searching for hydraulics - and on creating a strong first impression when visitors click through to our pages. We’re always aware our customers have suppliers much closer to home and we never lose sight of that. Our credentials - including customer testimonials, case studies, award wins, endorsements and ISO 9001 accreditation - all help build trust and reinforce our brand promise.
We then offer our customers real choice in how they can communicate with us – recognising that our customers do not all have English as their first language and live in very different time zones: it’s easy for our customers to deal with us.
What are your future plans?
We have a new website in build at the moment. It’s going to look and feel very different to our current site and enable us to showcase our offering and track record much more effectively than now.
But, crucially, it will be ‘internationalised’ in its architecture, design, content and messaging to enable us to appeal even more strongly to overseas visitors. We’re also going to be focussing on improving our communications with customers in key markets. I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re ready for a change – we’ve grown so much in the last 5 years and outgrown our current site.
Beyond that we will continue to invest in our own learning and development, and we’ll be recruiting as we continue to grow.
Find out more about Hydraulics Online Ltd here: www.hydraulicsonline.com