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With 90% of sales being exported, Michael Corrigan, co-founder of innovative travel pillow company TRTL, shares his ambition and insights on how to grow a successful global business.

TRTL founders Michael Corrigan and David Kellock
TRTL founders Michael Corrigan and David Kellock

Our global ambition 

"We believe in adventure and making the most of our travels. And our first product is the TRTL Pillow – the travel pillow reinvented. 

"For TRTL there was never a divide between exporting and selling in Scotland. We always wanted to be a company that would sell globally. And we’re recognised as a brand for doing what we do. And that was the goal. 

"So there weren’t any boundaries in that. Exporting was always something that we wanted to do. We were always going to find a way of doing it. And thankfully over the last 18 months I think we’ve really started to understand what we need to do. And we’ve done that really well. We’ve executed on our plan. And it’s just been an awesome experience.

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Tips on routes to market with Michael Corrigan, TRTL co-founder
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"Initially, we started selling internationally almost by accident. It was from people finding out about what we do online.  We started out targeting niche industry influencers like travel bloggers of specific travel niches. 

"They were based throughout Europe, from places such as Germany, Spain, Italy, France and the UK, and have audiences in their countries. People liked what we did and made the effort to find us."

The logical next step

"For TRTL the biggest export market by far is the United States. They’re a country who loves travelling. Even internally it can be up to six hours on a long haul flight. So that’s our biggest market at the moment. 

"In terms of advice or things we have learned from selling into the USA – we were lucky – we found a couple of companies that had been there and done it before, so they were able to give us a lot of advice. And even small things like customs – how do you navigate that the right way and things like taxes. And definitely seeking advice on those little details can make things much easier as time goes on – especially in the long term.

"The USA is a very logical next step for businesses, especially based in the UK. American culture is different but the language is predominantly English. Obviously Spanish is a widely spoken language in the USA which makes it a big market there.

"As a country, although it seems very far away, is the logical next step for Scottish businesses – particularly Scottish businesses that have the Scottish tradition as part of their business and brand identity. Americans have a lot of history with Scotland and that’s something they really enjoy hearing about.

Why partnerships are so important 

"One of the big things to consider as well, though it sounds simple, is partnerships. Finding the right people to help you distribute your products in the USA is key and people who understand the market. Because there are little nuances throughout each state and that’s something you really need to adjust to.

"We had some logistical challenges in the early days because that was the first time that we had exported stock from China to the USA. And we were lucky enough to find the right logistical partners to help us do various things like air-freight or sea-freight stock from China to the USA.  And help us to clearly understand and manage lead times for manufacturing and shipping stock.

Be flexible

"Especially when selling a consumer product in retail it’s important to align yourself with that retailer. So it’s little things, like with Amazon, making sure you have the right labeling for the product to make the process as smoothly as possible for Amazon.  And little adaptations for that specific retailer – they might want a specific skew number or a specific type of bag for the product, for example.

"It’s also about clearly communicating with who you work with and your key partners in the territory – and then doing your best to align yourself with that retailer.

Sell online

"Our major route to market at the moment is online. The landscape of how companies market, sell, communicate, is changing constantly. And that’s a lovely opportunity for small companies because the conventional sales channels are changing. And the best routes to market are changing…because of the various changes in social media, for example. 

"We’re distributing online. So we're doing as much direct sales as possible. Online has been a huge opportunity for us. That’s key for a brand like us because we can keep the brand communication with the customer as clean and as clear as possible. 

"We also use a mixture of distribution as well and that will become more prevalent for us in the future. We have one key distributor in the USA at the moment and they now sell into a retailer which puts into every major airport in the USA.

Get advice from the experts

"Scottish Enterprise has given us a lot of support over the years. They’ve provided some funding for us to be able to travel to trade shows in the USA and Europe, which has been fantastic as we’ve been able to meet key contacts in those markets. Today, that’s very important because, yes, you can pick up the phone and do a Skype or video call, but nothing beats meeting someone face-to-face in person to help build those real relationships. 

"In a global market, those key partnerships – those real partnerships – are critical to the growth of any business.

"I’ve also learned a lot by attending Scottish Enterprise’s export events which has been fantastic. I’ve met other companies thinking about doing exporting and I’ve been able to access real expertise from people who have exported in the past. They’ve been able to pass that insight onto me – that’s been invaluable.

To really grow a business you need to export. It’s just a bigger market opportunity.

Michael Corrigan, trtl

Exporting is 'really cool'

"From a business perspective, the biggest benefits of exporting are the size of the markets. Again, it’s just about testing which markets work for you. So by that I mean, online you can test and sell into a market, get an understanding if that market will work for your company and for your brand – with real data. 

"So you can do as much secondary market research as possible but you never really know until you get the sale – until that transaction is made. So online provides an opportunity to cheaply and quickly test markets, which is fantastic.

"The world is becoming smaller in that sense and there are just so many opportunities. 

"One of the other benefits, from TRTL’s perspective, is we’ve been able to access a global market. And that’s something we’ve always wanted to do – that’s the goal of the company – to build a brand that’s recognised globally and being synonymous with travel, comfort and innovation.

"There are so many different ways of doing it. And that’s lovely, for small companies like us. Where a competitor or product might have a different approach to entering that market, because everything is so fluid – it’s not static anymore, but dynamic – that gives you the opportunity to sell in a different way. Reach that customer in a different way, and in a unique way that they might not have been reached before. 

"That’s where first impressions are always really important and can leave a lasting positive impact on that customer.

"Personally, it’s been a lot of fun. I love what I do. I would not be doing anything else. And I’ve been able to travel to six or seven states in the USA this year and I’ve been to four or five different countries beyond the USA and I’ll probably go to four or five more before the year end. So it’s an awesome opportunity to see different cultures and see different types of people interact with what you’ve created. 

"That’s really cool – to see people thousands and thousands of miles away use your product.

Take small risks

"It’s really important to do your research and understand your market as much as possible. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to take small risks. So, the key thing is to test things out. 

"By taking small risks in a manageable way you’ll get real data and a truer understanding of that market and whether it will work or not.  And if something goes wrong (and things do go wrong from time to time), it’s not going to have a massive impact on your business. 

"But you’ll take small risks that do work and you can begin to build on that.

It's easier than you might think

"We’ve sold into 57 countries through our website. From day one we started exporting because it’s a very special time in the world. Because the internet has given it this nervous system, that brings it all together. And it means that exporting is just a bit easier if you understand how to do it properly.

"So from day one we began exporting predominantly in Europe. And then about 12 months ago we started exporting in earnest to places like the United States.

"Today, about 90% of our sales are exports."

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