Julie Robbins of EarthQuaker Devices, a US manufacturer of handmade effects pedals for musicians, tells GTR how her family business went from a seller on eBay to an award-winning exporter looking to leverage export finance facilities in new markets.
Name: Julie Robbins
Company: EarthQuaker Devices
GTR: How did you start exporting and what markets are you active in?
Robbins: In 2004, while repairing his own guitar pedal, my husband became very interested in seeing how it worked and so he began tinkering. We started by selling our own pedals on eBay and through forums to individuals, but in 2007 we started receiving orders from a few dealers. We had some international customers very early on, mainly in Japan and Europe, but we found that although we grew in the US very organically by poking and prodding to get into stores, international markets didn’t function the same way and our growth stalled quite quickly. Over the past five years, my husband and I have been travelling to all the key markets to understand them and the partners we are working with to see how EarthQuaker can best work within those markets.
Now we only sell to dealers and distributors. In the US we go direct to the dealer and in most other markets we’re working with a distributor. Our strongest export markets today are the EU, Canada, Australia and Japan.
GTR: Congratulations on winning the US Small Business Association’s small business exporter of the year award, what is your winning strategy?
Robbins: We’ve been doing a lot of interesting things which SBA liked. For example, we started translating our manuals, social media and website into seven different languages. We also do a lot of market exploration to create partnerships, because the further apart you are from your business partner the more you need to learn about how they’re going to consider things. I never go into any situation thinking that I can make any demands on my customers or potential customers. Any project needs to have buy in from all parties or it just won’t be successful. The better I can understand the challenges that they face in their market, how their consumers behave and what the music industry is like, the better we can adapt.
GTR: You’ve used several SBA and government initiatives that assist small businesses in exporting. Did they help?
Robbins: Working with SBA was like having a whole additional team of experts we could question and rely on. The first thing we did was a market prioritisation report where we really evaluated the market potential of different regions. The second move was to apply for a federal grant, which is offered every year. We used that to fund our translations and for international travel. We also took advantage of the government’s ‘gold key service’ in three different markets: China, South Korea and Australia. This is when a local US representative will do research on potential partners for you and arrange meetings. This service was also very helpful in getting us to understand cultural nuances and how we could better localise our business practices.
GTR: Do you interact with the US Export-Import Bank (US Exim)? Are you aware of its services?
Robbins: In 2018 we went to an Asia Pacific conference in Los Angeles and it was interesting to interact with overseas US trade representatives and US Exim staff, as well as several other ancillary organisations. This was a great introduction to the services that the government can offer through Exim. It gave us a lot of information for things we may consider further down the line as we continue developing, including setting up companies in certain key markets to have a distribution centre or even a localised sales force.
GTR: Have you considered utilising a financing facility to assist your export programme?
Robbins: We’ve considered gaining financing through letters of credit but so far we’ve been very fortunate to partner with distributors who don’t require that. We have a good payment history and our partners seem to be well financed on their own. Having said that, our next target market is Latin America, where the import rates are very high, and we will need all the help we can get to keep our product prices low. I believe this will be the first region where we will start using letters of credit to minimise risks.
We will probably get a letter of credit and credit insurance through our bank or US Exim as well as making sure that we’re thoroughly vetting all our partners and understanding their other business relationships.
GTR: Do you have a timeline in place for a move into Latin America?
Robbins: At the moment we are listening and learning as much as we can. In 2020 we plan to visit some LatAm markets either via the gold key service or on our own. The big markets down there are Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru.