Trade Mission to the US: Bag It Don't Bin It

Julia Gash, founder MD of eco-bag business, Bag It Don’t Bin It, had a ‘lightbulb moment’ on her Breakthrough trade mission to the US. The experience rekindled her business and she now plans to export to and manufacture in the US.

Julia Gash’s eco-friendly bag business, Bag It Don’t Bin It (BIDBI), has had considerable success in its four years’ existence. The 16-person business turns over £1 million a year, and her premium client list includes Liberty London, Lush, the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy and the British Museum. 

While Julia’s business is thriving, the state of the UK market and the UK’s business climate had been getting her down. So when she was told she had won the chance to go to the US on a Breakthrough trade mission, it came out of the blue. “It wasn’t something we had planned for months ahead and we were very much in Santander’s hands. They were setting up meetings for us using an external consultancy, and we had conference calls with the consultancy in the US to work out what we felt were the best meetings.”

Julia was fairly new to the US export market. She’d traded in the US before, but mainly through a UK affiliate. So she knew a market existed for her products there, but she was also a little cynical. “I thought the market would already be covered. However, I knew Santander had done some research, so I assumed this indicated there was a market, and I approached the trip with an open mind.” 

The trade mission was in two parts: a visit to Boston, where Julia and the 10 other delegates got to know each other, and met some UK-US success stories, followed by a visit to New York to meet industry experts.

The Boston visit started with a briefing on the US economy and market, followed by meetings and networking opportunities with Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon and Nicki Doggart, CEO of Hotel Chocolat, both UK companies that had successfully taken their business to the US.

The initial briefing was quite an eye-opener for Julia: “It became apparent on paper that there were big opportunities in the US. It also revealed how diverse the country was in terms of different industries and sectors. It taught us that you can’t just tackle America as a whole. Instead, you had to start thinking: Where? What sector? What demographic? It gave us a framework to think about.”

The general introductory meetings were followed by a series of private meetings with local agents set up by UK Trade & Investment. This helped Julia see, in more detail, BIDBI’s competition in the US, and the potential of the US market.

The expert meetings covered everything from the legalities of exporting to the US, to a meeting with a well-connected art expert who helped Julia make contact with US museums and art galleries. “That meeting was key to finding out if US museums and galleries had similar bags to the ones we supply in the UK. She linked me to a couple of art galleries, and as a result we are looking to do bags with one gallery next year.”

After a few meetings, Julia realised there was potentially a huge market for BIDBI in the US. “It became clear to me that the only competition was from the promotional merchandising industry, and that there weren’t any eco-bag and fashion and art specialists like us.”

She then had a ‘lightbulb moment’: “Technically, although there were companies out there who could do the bags, there wasn’t anyone who had our expertise in fashion and art. Suddenly, I could see quite clearly our strength in the UK and that we could draw on this in the US too. And it is huge and affluent and a much, much bigger market than in the UK,” she said.

Before Julia went on the trade mission, she had been approached by US business, Love, Adorned, who were interested in her bags. While in New York she met with the company and got an object lesson in the US ‘can do’ approach. “I phoned my team to tell them about the order while I was there. They said, ‘It’s not going to happen, Julia’. However, the US business sent the designs overnight, the payment the next day, and got the bags within a week. It’s such a contrast with UK clients: we spend time chasing the order, chasing the designs, then they push the deadline, and finally we chase payment.”

In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Oscar Wilde said: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Julia found a few examples of both a UK-US language and a cultural divide. “We got some great feedback from the US experts that helped us see our site from a US perspective. I realised our website was far too wordy for the US, and it didn’t show what our abilities were. We had to be clearer on the site about what we did – regardless of the US. I also realised that they didn’t know what a ‘bespoke bag’ was, so we now say ‘custom-made’ instead.”

Julia was also impressed by the level of resources available to businesses wanting to come to the US. She explains, “It’s astounding the level of support that the US is willing to put into businesses. While I was there I was introduced to Empire State Development, New York State’s commercial development agency. The support is very pro-active, particularly in manufacturing; it’s clear, genuine and agreed.”

Julia has now devised a long-term plan for BIDBI. Not only will she export to the US, she also plans to start up manufacturing there, too. “We realised that we had to physically expand our business and open up an eco-print factory in America. I didn’t go with that intention, but I came back with the realisation that, yes, we do need to expand.”

The one thing Julia never expected was that the trip would rekindle her desire for business. “Going to the US made me realise there is another world out there, and it has really enthused me and my business colleagues. The trade mission has turned us around from a company that was set on caution. It’s brought back my confidence as an entrepreneur.”

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