Getting ideas across the border
Wednesday, November 23, 2011/
A trip overseas might not sound like an obvious springboard for business ideas, but the rise of holiday-inspired start-ups certainly suggests a link between jet-setting and entrepreneurialism.
Monica Liebenow and her husband Phil Barham are one of the many examples of Australian entrepreneurs who started a business based on an idea sourced overseas.
Their business centres around the “My Family” stickers, displayed in the rear windows of cars, which became an overnight sensation in Australia.
The idea came to Barham while on a work trip in California, where he noticed a cartoon family displayed on a car. On returning to Australia, he met Liebenow, a graphic artist.
After explaining his idea to Liebenow, she started doodling her own figures, giving them a distinct Australian flavour. “Barbecue dad” is a favourite among customers.
More than two million My Family stickers have been sold in two years. But this isn’t the only success story that came about after an overseas stint.
Dwayne Martens is the founder of NSW-based business Amazonia, which recently became one of the first fair trade sources of the Açaí berry; a superfood found in the Amazon Rainforest.
Martens started his business after travelling around the world and returning to Australia “refreshed and determined” to put his energies into a project he was passionate about.
“I was definitely on the lookout for getting into business. I knew I wanted to do something – I just didn’t know what,” he says.
Martens is responsible for introducing the Açaí berry to the Australian market, despite his initial uncertainty.
Other holiday heroes include Australian noodle chain Noodle Box, created by Melbournites Josh James and David Milne after a trip to South East Asia.
The two entrepreneurs were on a world trip when they discovered ice cream being served in a convenient and classy box. They were also impressed with the exotic cuisine of South East Asia.
On their return to Melbourne, they decided the time was right to combine the two. The first Noodle Box flavours were served in the flagship store on Melbourne’s much-loved Chapel Street.
Similarly, sass & bide founders Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke, both from Brisbane, decided to go into business together after selling customised jeans at a market in London.
After a brief taste of success, Clarke and Middleton returned to Australia, where they developed an underground following that has since culminated into an international fan base.
Another well-known Australian entrepreneur, who became inspired to start a business after spending time abroad, is Boost Juice Bars founder Janine Allis.
While holidaying in the United States with her husband, Allis noticed the popularity of juice bars. She decided to bring the idea back to Australia, opening her first Boost Juice Bar in 2000.
And while Allis insists her success is the result of sheer hard work, she attributes her can-do attitude to her earlier years spent travelling around the world.
Her foreign adventures range from sunning herself in the Canary Islands and nannying in France to managing a cinema in Singapore and working as a stewardess on David Bowie’s private yacht.
“Travelling and working abroad taught me that you have to be a problem-solver,” Allis has said.
“Whether it’s the problem-solving skills I learnt from travelling or the patience I developed from living in France and not knowing the language, to the leadership skills I honed while managing a cinema, they’ve all taught me something.”
Does this suggest that being on holiday is a good time to come up with ideas? If so, how do you then apply your idea back in Australia?
StartupSmart spoke to four small business owners, who sourced their ideas from different parts of the world, about how to turn your holiday idea into a successful operation.
Exploring the Amazon
Martens says it took him awhile to realise which direction he wanted to take, but he got there in the end.
“It was always going to be something related to the health industry because this is what I’m passionate about, so my business needed to align with my values.”
“I did a stint distributing frozen fruits to cafés and local stores in Brazil and then I bought a portable juice bar, which worked, but I had to be there all the time.”
During this time, Martens noticed how popular Açaí was among consumers – it’s “as common as drinking milk” – yet it wasn’t well known or widely used in Australia.
It was this realisation that prompted Martens to introduce Açaí to the Australian market. However, he knew he would have to tailor the product to appeal to Australian consumers.
“In Brazil, it’s all about frozen Açaí – they don’t have the same health food stores [as Australia]. Acai is eaten frozen as a healthy drink on a day-to-day basis,” Martens says.
“Australia is very focused on health, so we wanted to target this market, and we did this by creating a more concentrated form of Açaí in a freeze-dried form so that people could consume it as a health product.”
Martens says it’s important to know your market, understand what works in different cultures and why, and then channel that into your own market.
“Everything is respective of what your market wants… If we had begun importing frozen Açaí before we launched the brand as a health product, it is likely we would have failed.”
Having a euro vision
Dean Ramler is the co-founder of online furniture retailer Milan Direct, which he formed with tech entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan in 2007.
While travelling through Italy, Ramler noticed a strong consumer desire for replica designer furniture, which set in motion the idea for his business.
“I graduated from uni and took a gap year to travel around Europe. I was travelling through Italy, where I was impressed by all this fantastic furniture… I saw an opportunity,” he says.
“Being on holiday opens up your eyes to new ideas. In your home town, you see the same thing day in, day out. Overseas, everything is completely different. That’s the advantage of travelling.”
“Milan Direct’s market – the online furniture market – was relatively new when Milan Direct was created. The key challenge to exploiting any new market is to actually create that market.”