When she was invited on a trade mission to the Middle East for potential exporters, Angela Morrison focused her energies on Dubai. She was exhausted after not taking a day off in two years and saw two days in Kuwait at the end of the trip as an opportunity to relax and recharge her batteries.
Things didn’t quite go to plan – in a good way. Morrison saw enormous potential in Kuwait for her executive property letting and relocation company amiExecutive; so much so that she has now moved her business there.
“It was so different to how I imagined,” says Morrison. “I expected it to be difficult because I was a woman; it wasn’t. I thought there might be a language barrier; everyone spoke great English.”
A Scottish Enterprise (SE) event in Edinburgh – on exporting to the Middle East had whetted Morrison’s appetite and Colin Crabbe of SE told her about the trade mission: “I couldn’t see beyond Dubai; it’s the jewel in the crown. In Kuwait, everyone was very helpful, but said they didn’t see a need for what I offered.
“I asked for clarification and found businesses were working with local guys, not professional companies.
“That changed my train of thought. I went back to the Henry Ford adage about cars: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’.
“I saw the opportunity to be an innovator in Kuwait rather than trying to compete against established companies in Dubai, and people have been so receptive.”
Morrison is now based in Kuwait, working with a relocation consultant, logistics team and new Kuwaiti partners: “Moving here had its challenges – you need to adapt your business model slightly to reflect local culture and business norms – but one benefit of being small is that you can change and adapt very quickly and easily.”
Not short of ambition, Morrison has also dipped a toe into the New York market: “I went for a recce in early 2016 and there were definitely opportunities for an executive relocation service.
“But it’s very regulated and hard to buy a single apartment, so we were looking to work with partners.
“However, our investors are interested in buying a block of New York apartments so we are looking at that.”
Morrison jokes that the name of her business is short for Angela Morrison International, when the truth is more prosaic.
“I was working in a hairdressing salon at 16 and there was another stylist called Angela, so I needed a new name and I’d always liked Ami, so when I started my business, I used it.”
Morrison founded her business after searching for a letting agent for a flat she bought as an investment: “I found the customer service in the sector in Glasgow very poor. I felt people didn’t care.
“I was 31, working in an admin job and felt I could do better. I applied for a few jobs with letting agencies and got turned down so started off my own business, based on offering great customer service to landlord and tenant; it’s the tenant’s home but the landlord’s investment.”
The standard lettings agency model developed further when Morrison spotted a niche market following the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
“A lot of large companies wanted a property on an ongoing basis but there wasn’t much on offer in terms of quality and style. That moved me more towards a corporate relocation brand.
“Hotels are fine for a couple of weeks but if you are somewhere for three to six months, you want to cook a meal and have a spare room so family can stay over – and you can get a lovely apartment for the same price or less as a decent hotel.
“The relocation service also includes telling them about places to eat, visit and shop and how to get around, plus a welcome pack to get started.
“I wanted to offer a home away from home. That’s now about making international feel like home.”
Last year, amiExecutive turned over £500,000, with a target of £2.5 million by the end of 2017. “My message to small businesses is that if I can do it, you can do it. I started out with £200 and no backers or rich relatives [the first investment came into the business in 2015].”
Although her focus is now global, Glasgow inspired Morrison: “What I do is all about the customer experience and making it brilliant.
“I love Glasgow and I wanted to replicate its warmth and personal service wherever you are in the world. The friendly, personal approach is unusual in business and I have used it to stand out.”
It hasn’t been a bump-free journey for Morrison. What has she learned along the way? “It’s hard to run things remotely in several locations and get things done the way you want.”
Any tips for others? “Take your opportunities when they come along. When you are running a business, it’s like a long corridor. There’s a door at the end, which is where you want to be, but other doors open to either side all along the way.
“Some are shiny and attractive and lead nowhere; others take you off in a completely different direction.”
Another tip is listening to those who have been there: “I had a great meeting with Jim McColl who has always inspired me. He said don’t let your business be defined by the geography of where you set up.
“My business was not about apartments, but about the service provided to people moving into other countries. It’s not about the quality of the apartment in Kuwait (most are super high-level) but the quality of service.
“When I looked at opening abroad, I thought ‘How can I offer credible relocation packages for businesses coming from abroad if I don’t understand what it’s like myself?’ That gave me the strength to do it.”
Morrison is now passionate about getting other businesses from Scotland into overseas markets: “I have taken three companies to Kuwait, introduced them to local partners and given them information about the area. And I worked with Glasgow Chamber of Commerce to take ten businesses from Glasgow to New York in late 2016.
“Setting up my own business changed my life – and I want to do all I can to help other businesses have that experience.”
Inspired to book a place in the high life
AS a university student, hearing the story of Sir Tom Farmer’s success inspired the young Michael Corrigan to set up this own business.
Just six years after graduating, his travel pillow trtl (pronounced turtle) has shifted 200,000 units across the world.
“Sir Tom described selling his KwikFit business to Ford for $1.6 billion and told a brilliant story about being able to look back and say ‘I went for it’,” recalls Corrigan, who was a mechanical engineering student at Strathclyde University.
“He was very authentic and how he described building a positive culture in his business really resonated. I was hanging on his every word; it was a transformational moment.”
Corrigan and fellow student David Kellock were certain they wanted to start their own business and hit on the idea of a high-quality travel pillow based on sound engineering principles during a coffee shop meeting ahead of a pitch for an entrepreneurial competition.
“We got second place but a lot of people subsequently told us the idea wasn’t good enough and that we wouldn’t make it,” says Corrigan. “But we were determined and always sure we could do better than what was out there.”
Almost 4bn passengers board aircraft every year and the need for comfort and sleep on a flight is the same the world over, so the export market was always crucial to the business.
The 200,000 (mainly online) sales of trtl, which retails at £19.95, has proved Corrigan’s instinct was right.
The trtl pillow is manufactured in Glasgow and China. Many businesses have challenges working in China but Corrigan says it’s been a good experience: “The Chinese partner shares our customer service values and if you have that, it can transcend any cultural or business differences.”
In addition, the largely online sales model made overcoming the cultural, business and regulatory barriers which can dog exporters much easier to overcome.
“We needed something comfortable, personal and fashionable; the combination of the aesthetic and the functional has been crucial.
“Beyond that, we have tried to keep it simple – one product in four colours,” says Corrigan.
“We haven’t had to adapt our product for different markets and have had success anywhere with a big hub airport –Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, Germany and, of course, the United States – and now have patents and trademarks in 25 different territories.”
What would Corrigan tell others looking to export, based on his own experience: “Really focus on your customer and be very aware that the customer and their experience is very different to what it was 20 years ago and what it will be in another 20 years. Your product and customer service has to work right now.
“Our product enhances people’s quality of life because you are in a much better place if you sleep well on a flight and are not jet-lagged.”
Corrigan says Scottish Enterprise was extremely helpful in opening doors – but he stresses that you must be ready to take advantage when those doors open and listen to those with an interest in and knowledge of the market.
The hardest challenge, he says, was building the team: “It’s good to generate sales, but how do you maintain and sustain that in terms of the quality of the product and customer service?
“How do you build a team around that – and scale it up?”
The company is now “transitioning from start-up to scale-up”. Corrigan says: “It’s an interesting time as we develop other travel products, which adds a new level of complexity.”
Free export advice is available for all Scottish SMEs.
To help Scottish companies grow internationally and overcome potential challenges, Scottish Enterprise’s enhanced export advisory service offers an unrivalled breadth of expertise across key sectors and global markets.
It also offers an international market research service to help scope out potential partners, distributors and agents in your chosen market, while connecting you with up-to-date market intelligence.
The export advisory service helps identify the best opportunities and understand what is involved in exporting.
It helps companies develop the resources and skills needed to trade abroad. It will help prepare an export plan.
Dedicated advisers will provide tailored guidance on what a business needs to do next to export successfully. They have the answers on a range of issues from e-commerce solutions and market entry to cultural intelligence, export finance and logistics.
Get in touch at scottish-enterprise.com/exportadvice or call 0800 019 1953.