On the up · 8 November 2017

Two entrepreneurial ex-policemen share their secret to exporting success

Torro Cases
Torro Cases has amassed nearly half a million customers worldwide

With more than 25 per cent of sales now made overseas, Newcastle-based startup Torro Cases is great example of a small British firm that’s fully embraced a post-referendum outlook for exporting.

In four years, Torro Cases has grown from a two-man band to a company with an annual turnover of £2m, and a team of seven full-time staff.

Torro Cases currently exports in bulk via Amazon to six countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Japan and the US, and has a network of customers all over the world to whom it ships directly.

Business Advice spoke to the company’s co-founders, Michael Farnsworth and William Johnson, as the duo prepare to secure a new deal to ship to Australia with Amazon in 2018.

(1)  Who are you and what’s your business?

Michael Farnsworth and William Johnson, the co-founders of Torro Cases.

We met as newbie police officers aged 18 and 20, and now run a successful company selling quality leather smartphone cases.

(2)      How long have you been around for?

We founded the company four years ago. At that point, it was a hobby business that we managed in our spare time.

About two years ago, we gave up our jobs as police detectives to run it full-time. Torro Cases now has nearly half a million customers around the world.

Torros 1
Co-founders Michael Farnsworth and William Johnson

(3)      How do you make money?

We’re based in Newcastle, but sell our smartphone cases all around the world online, via our own website and marketplaces like Amazon. We now have customers in France, Spain, Italy, the US and even Japan.  

(4)      What makes you different and why should people take notice?

As smartphones grew in popularity, we noticed that there were basic plastic cases at one end of the market, overpriced bespoke cases at the other, and not much in between.

As tech enthusiasts, we wanted a case that met our personal standards – offering good looks, quality craftsmanship and solid protection whilst also remaining affordable.

We couldn’t find what we were looking for, so decided to design it ourselves. We make timeless phone cases from beautiful Italian and US leathers, and are really proud of the resulting product.

(5)      What’s been the key in terms of your exporting success? 

Selling through Amazon made it fairly easy for us to get started with international sales. In fact, we could easily have launched in tens of markets at the same time. 

For us, the key to exporting success has been to take it steady, and stagger our roll-out. We decided to limit our initial focus to Europe and the US, and took the time to do our research, get to know our overseas customers and set up a strong network of partners before broadening our exports any further.

Limiting our international growth strategy meant we could ensure steady and stable exporting success in the early days, and we are now in a strong position for further expansion.

(6)      What’s your biggest exporting achievement to date?

Today, 25 per cent of our sales are made internationally, and that number is growing rapidly. For us, that’s a huge achievement, given that the company started with a £500 investment only four years ago!

Our turnover today is more than £2m. I’m constantly amazed that we’re able to achieve this from our small office in Newcastle.

Through exporting success, it has been fantastic to engage with like-minded people from different cultural backgrounds, and to use their feedback to shape the future of our products in order to serve a global audience.

We have employed multilingual staff to assist in this phase of the company’s growth.

Launching a new business in my sixties was the best decision I’ve made

(7)      What are some major exporting challenges you’ve faced? 

After the EU referendum, the pound weakened significantly against the euro and dollar.

If we hadn’t taken any action, our profit margins could have been impacted significantly, and it would have been difficult to keep prices low for our customers.

For us, that was a real problem, as we pride ourselves on producing high-quality, affordable accessories.

Our solution was to partner with currency experts OFX. The company gives us a foreign exchange strategy that protects our business from currency challenges, and helps us to make the most of current exchange rates.

Right now, OFX is helping us to transfer our euro revenues straight into dollars, which means we can pay our international suppliers without losing out because of the weak pound.

It’s a flexible solution, so if the exchange rate shifts, it’s possible to re-route our payments so we’re still making the most of currency market movements.

(8)      How will your strategy to achieve exporting success change post-Brexit?

Torro employed multilingual staff to assist with overseas expansion
Torro employed multilingual staff to assist with overseas expansion

Amazon is about to launch there, which makes it an attractive new market for small businesses already selling internationally via the platform.

However, Europe will always be an important market for us, and we don’t expect that to change post-Brexit.

Right now, Germany is our single biggest international market – but that said, we’re excited about the possibilities further afield, and will keep a close eye on international trade developments as they unfold.

(9)   What one tip would you give to others starting out?

Don’t try to do everything yourself. Partner with experts who can support you with specialist tasks like accounting or currency, so you have time to focus on the things you do best.

Look out for partners whose values match yours, and who take the time to understand your business. For startups, a “one-size-fits-all” solution just doesn’t provide the same support as a tailored service that can flex and adapt with your business as it grows.

(10)   In five years’ time, we will be…

The ambition is to be a household name for leather accessories all round the world! We’d also love to have our own retail store.

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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