Tangle Teezer hairbrush’s Shaun Pulfrey: My breakthrough moment in China

My breakthrough moment in China

Shaun Pulfrey always had grand ambitions for his Tangle Teezer hairbrush. Six years on he is now exporting across Europe and into Asia. He shares his experience

Shaun Pulfrey

Guardian Professional, Friday 14 March 2014 15.25 GMT

Great Britain has always been an exporting nation. However, the economic challenges of recent years have meant that many small businesses have concentrated on day-to-day survival, rather than ambitious plans for global growth. But, there has never been a better time for these firms to shift their focus from the risks of export to the potential rewards it can bring.

Exporting was a key pillar of my business, Tangle Teezer, from the word go. I had to overcome concerns about trading overseas as I knew the UK was never going to be a big enough market for us. However, the road to export can be a daunting one if you have never done it before. There are numerous hurdles to overcome, from practical considerations such as language barriers and marketing capabilities, to logistical worries about late payment and legalities. It’s easy for firms to stick to their comfort zone and put export in the “too difficult” box. But, I’m a firm believer in seeing the opportunity instead of the challenge and think others should approach business with the same positivity.

Shaun PulfreyTangle Teezer founder Shaun Pulfrey. Photograph: Trevor Leighton

I’d encourage all small business leaders who aren’t meeting their export potential to make the most of all of the help and expertise that’s available to them. We accessed the expertise of UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) through the Passport to Export scheme. Passport to Export gave us the training, planning and ongoing support we needed to succeed in several territories. It helped us to identify and plan our expansion – particularly when it came to selecting partner organisations in foreign markets.

One of the key factors in our success was embracing the potential of our product. Tangle Teezer suits all hair types, which is a challenge in some respects but it meant that the product knew no boundaries. That said we recognised that this one size fits all ethos couldn’t be applied to our export strategy – every country is different. We needed to mine insights into different markets and tailor our approach accordingly.

I’m not saying that export has always been plain sailing for us, like anything in business there are sometimes ups and downs. Take Germany, which proved to be surprisingly slow going in Tangle Teezer’s early days. Few orders were coming from there and we were coming up against brick walls. This is where the support we received through Passport to Export was invaluable. We were able to turn the situation around and Germany is now one of our biggest markets. The first step was when the British Embassy in Berlin did some research for us and identified potential business partners. We then sent some Tangle Teezers to some celebrity hairdressers, bloggers, and top magazines in Germany. This worked like a dream. One magical day, Bild newspaper ran a big feature upon the British “Wunderbrush!” And then those customers identified by the British Embassy started calling us. In 2012 I was asked to speak at the British Ambassador’s residence in Berlin about our success in Germany. I would not have believed that three years earlier, it just goes to show how quickly things can turn around.

With the right knowledge, insight and support, small business can be confident in pursuing the potential that export has to offer. The benefits can be huge. According to official research conducted by the UKTI, exporting has a positive impact on business productivity, with 34% of companies who start exporting stating they were more productive in the first year alone. In addition, 85% of businesses said that exporting had led to a level of growth not otherwise possible.

I can vouch for these benefits, I’ve seen business growth first hand. I started Tangle Teezer six years ago and we’re now exporting to countries from The Netherlands (this was our first market) to China. In fact we were bigger in The Netherlands than we were in the UK in the early days. I remember the distributor calling me up from Rotterdam just after the Dragon’s Den had aired in the UK, and he said “I’ve seen you on the BBC, we’d like to distribute your brush.” I had never imagined someone sitting at home in The Netherlands might be watching The Dragon’s Den. Breaking into the China market was equally surprising. I started getting web orders from China in 2011. Just like that, up to 300 a day. It transpired that a famous Chinese model had bought a Tangle Teezer in Oxford Street and posted it on her blog in China. Boom! China is now our second biggest global market, nearly all sold online. There are 260 million Chinese consumers who shop online, and you can manage the whole of this huge market from a desk in the UK. Amazing. They love the “Made in the UK” stamp. The hub that the UK has provided for our global expansion has been fantastic.

One piece of advice that I would give from my experience is that there isn’t a barrier to export that can’t be overcome with the right help and advice. It’s not just UKTI that offers support; for example the British Chambers of Commerce provides lots of advice and training. Small businesses can also learn a lot from their peers, either through networking events or online communities like Open to Export. Yes, there are challenges – some of which can be very difficult to conquer – but small firms shouldn’t let this stop them from achieving global growth.

Shaun Pulfrey is founder and chief executive of Tangle Teezer Ltd


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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