Monday, February 7, 2011

A Ticket To Global Expansion

Though global business has never been easier to manage, thanks to e-commerce, nothing cements relationships as easily as face to face interaction -- a pricey option for struggling start-ups. To the rescue comes British Airways with its Face of Opportunity program which offered 250 entrepreneurs, selected out of 1500 entries, on the basis of video or written essays, one round-trip ticket to a destination of their choice anywhere in the world to forge new business relationships.
Last week in New York, during an all day program that included networking events and panels on various aspects of doing business abroad, three finalists among the 250 competed for the chance to win 10 round-trip tickets.      The next day all 250 entrepreneurs boarded a British Air jumbo jet for a stopover gathering in London for more meetings and networking before flying to their various selected destinations to drum up international business. British Airways Executive VP of the Americas Simon Talling-Smith told the assembled 250 finalists that the program is designed to be a "powerful catalyst in ensuring lasting and fruitful businesses for [small business]."
     The runner up among the top three was Danae Ringelmann, COO-Founder of IndieGoGo, a San Francisco-based company which helps creative artists, community activists or entrepreneurs raise money; Danae received 5 roundtrip tickets for placing second, the only woman among the top three. "The goal of IndieGoGo," says Danae, "is to democratize fund raising so that people across the world can raise more money from more people faster, with our technology platform that integrates social media tools." Since its launch 2008, IndieGoGo customers have initiated over 17,000 campaigns in 150 countries, lasting from days to a few months. IndieGoGo takes a commission of 4% for campaigns that reach their fundraising goals but 9% if they don't, a strategy to encourage fund seekers to generate buzz for their campaigns by engaging their social and professional networks, related organizations, and local media. With the first of her British Airways tickets, Danae Ringelmann will head to Germany, because it is her fourth largest source of customers (after US, Canada, UK) to promote IndieGoGo with potential customers.
    Another of the British Airways top entrepreneurs who made it to the round of ten, is former shiatsu practitioner, Amy Galper, currently CEO of Buddha Nose Ltd, an organic body care products, including body massage balms, moisturizers, body mist sprays, and lip balms. Starting out mixing aromatic plants with beeswax in her lower East Side Manhattan apartment five years ago, Amy currently sells to over 200 yoga studios, spas and ecofriendly lifestyle stores in the US, and has distributorships in Tokyo, Perth, Moscow and Berlin. Her rationale for entering the British Air event was to meet her international distributors to train salespeople and arrange for press or other onsite events to introduce her products firsthand.
     Proof that these face to face meetings work comes from last year's British Airways winner, Judi Henderson-Townsend, CEO of Mannequin Madness, an Oakland-based company that recycles, sells, rents, and repairs mannequins for use in the retail industry, trade shows and the arts. Judi entered the British Air program in the middle of what she describes as "the worst year we ever had" when the retail industry was battered by the recession. Rather than wallow in her slump, Judi said the program "forced me to move forward by thinking about expansion."
     A self-described accidental entrepreneur, Judi stumbled on her unique business one day in 2000 when she decided to buy a used mannequin for a garden art project. Instead, the seller, who was closing his mannequin rental business, persuaded Judi to buy the 50 mannequins he had left. Soon afterward, when a few local Sears's stores began to remodel, Judi persuaded them to sell her their unwanted mannequins, so overnight she was running a recycling business. In 2003, she won an EPA award for recycling 100,000 pounds of mannequins in a single year! Next retailers, joining the socially responsible bandwagon, became customers, either to buy new mannequins, repair what they had, or get rid of what they no longer wanted. Among her clients are Gucci, Nordstrom, Juicy Couture, Pixar, and even The Art Institute of Chicago which needed mannequins for an exhibition.
     But what had eluded Judi Henderson-Townsend was an international partnership to reach retailers overseas who wanted mannequins for US events. Online she started an email exchange with an English company, Mannakin Ltd, but soon realized "you can only go so far with electronic communication." The 2010 British Airways Face of Opportunity competition gave her the chance to meet her English counterpart. With her free ticket she flew to England to spend time at the company warehouse, outside of London, and found opportunities for partnering. "For one thing, my English partner was much more advanced in social networking than I was, but she needed my mannequin recycling expertise." Plus once they realized they could offer customers a seamless transition for their mannequin rental needs on both sides of the Atlantic, they forged a referral agreement. When Levi-Strauss in France contacted Judi for mannequins, she referred them to her new English partner.
     Before leaving on her international venture last week, 2011 winner Danae Ringelmann of IndieGoGo, remembered some advice her entrepreneurial father gave her as she struggled with starting her company: "When things are really tough, remember the world has a way of saying no. It's your job as an entrepreneur to say yes because the world needs you to say yes." Now with her five free tickets, Danae Ringelmann hopes to hear "yes" more often.

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