Breaking into an international market is time-consuming, and risks becoming a big distraction. What can you learn from how Eileen Fisher did it?
Eileen Fisher, entrepreneur and clothing designer, during a media interview before a fashion show at Saks Fifth Avenue.
I wrote recently about how hard—but also how important—it is to export right now. While there’s huge temptation to hunker down and just stick to what you know, there’s also more growth outside the U.S. than there is inside it. Breaking into an international market is tough. It's time-consuming, and always risks becoming a big distraction. So how should you even start thinking about it?
When I taught entrepreneurship at Simmons College in Boston, one of my students, Mandy Osborn, went on a temporary assignment to Eileen Fisher, the garment company. Once she’d finished, she worked there full time on the company’s European expansion, so I’ve watched it ever since. Mandy was a fabulous student; I’m not surprised that it’s proved a huge success. So what lessons can any business learn from exporting the Eileen Fisher way?
1. Start early, take time
Eileen Fisher started working on their strategy four years ago. Yes, four years! The company prides itself on being slow and thoughtful and this exercise was no different. Dedicated personnel did a great deal of research, thinking and exploration, and the focus throughout was: Don’t do it in a hurry, do it right.
2. The world isn’t American
One of the company’s starting points was: We know that Europe isn’t America. This may sound obvious but the single biggest mistake U.S. companies make is assuming that where America leads, the rest of the world dumbly follows. Disney made this mistake and it cost them billions; even McDonalds had to accommodate Britain’s very demanding attitudes to food and food sourcing. So the Eileen Fisher team thought long and hard about what the touch points were between their brand and British lifestyles. The point wasn’t just to sell all the American merchandise to new consumers but to find and leverage the commonalities.
3. Find great partners
Eileen Fisher worked closely with British public relations and real estate companies to understand what would play well in London. It’s impossible to sit in New York and imagine an international strategy. You have to have local partners who know the territory better than you ever can. Market research is always too slow and no amount of it will give you the instinct for the market that you need. The gravitational pull of American norms will assert itself unless you have local partners, on the ground. It is easier and cheaper to educate them about you than to educate yourself about an entire culture.
4. Go walk around
The other very smart thing the company did was to take a large team to London to walk around, get a feel for the place and especially for the neighborhoods where fashion trends start. Like many great cities, London is comprised of distinct villages, each with very different populations and style. Where you start—geographically—speaks volumes to the local populace. Where are the early adopters, the evangelists who will establish your brand?
5. Don’t give up the day job
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Eileen Fisher’s foreign expansion has been their ability, simultaneously, to carry out a deep strategic review of the core business, refine the brand, and carry on generating new collections of clothing that have proved more successful (and profitable) than ever. In other words, they didn’t let the exciting European adventure derail the core business. At the same time, however, everyone knew what was happening and had to understand the expansion well enough to be able to support it. This required a neat balance between autonomy for the U.K. team and fantastic communication.
I went to visit one of the two new stores in London a few weeks ago. It sits on the Marylebone High Street as though it had been there for years. That’s a good sign. An even better sign was a customer insisting that she needed a garment in more than one color; In a matter of weeks, she’d clearly not just understood the brand but become a rather vocal convert. Finding new consumers who want more is a great start.