Hemmed In No Longer, This Firm Sews Up a Global Brand
In 2002, frustrated after losing a major out-of-state contract for a car show, Megan Duckett wanted to expand her drapery business to clients outside California. She managed to transform her part-time business into an international operation.
Once the province of companies with extensive legal and sales departments, exporting is now growing among smaller companies. The costs of doing business abroad have fallen dramatically, making it feasible for even homegrown businesses to set up shop abroad.
Twenty years ago, about 65,000 American companies with fewer than 500 employees exported, but last year that number hit 226,000, according to the Small Business Exporters Association. Recent trade deals and dropping technology prices have made it easier for companies to export.
International trade wasn't on the horizon when Duckett got her start in 1991. She was sewing stage props at night while working at a concert production company by day. Her first job was sewing new linings into used coffins for a haunted-house set. "They want me to sew what?" Duckett recalls saying. And that gave birth to the name of her company--Sew What? Inc.
Growing pains. By 1997 she had moved out of her garage, and sales hit $25,000. The company grew quickly with jobs from musicians and clubs in Southern California. But when she tried to win customers outside the area, most balked at working with such a small operation.
The seamstress fashioned a crude website in 2002 and started studying Web design. She hired someone for $1,500 to help the Sew What? site pop up in search engine results. Those moves helped push her sales past $1.27 million in 2003 from $895,000 in 2002.
At the same time, after visits to her native Australia, Duckett saw an opening for her business to sell U.S. fabric down under. As a dual U.S. and Australian citizen, she registered a parallel textile business, which she runs from California through another website. Boosted by that success, Duckett set up a Spanish-language section of her main website this year after an employee from Mexico suggested it.
A personal connection abroad is the most common way business owners decide to move into international trade, says James Morrison, president of the exporters association. Immigrant entrepreneurs "feel like they can sell to other countries," he says. U.S. free-trade agreements and the growth of online "storefronts" have made it easier for small-business owners to become exporters.
Many small-business owners, like Duckett, can now install needed software on their own and at low cost. Last year she overhauled the Sew What? brand, sprucing up the website and logos to emphasize the company's music clients, such as Madonna and Sting.
Sew What? sales hit $2.4 million last year, and Duckett expects them to grow 65 percent this year after the rebranding. Sharp-looking brochures and packaging are a key for U.S. companies selling to other countries, which associate American goods with better quality.
While only 6 percent of her revenue comes from abroad, Duckett thinks that figure will climb. Just 18 months ago, about 80 percent of her sales were in California. Since then, she has made 55 international transactions, and 66 percent of her clients are now from outside the state.
Last year, she even got a call from Greek club owner Peter Young, who asked her to sew stage drapery for his all-night venue in Athens. She completed the whole deal without ever setting foot in Europe, finally sending a salesperson over to see the work in person and put in a bid for Young's next project.
This story appears in the July 31, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.