Sunday 21 January 2018

Friends used China experience to hit sweet spot in product sourcing

Sweetspot was set up to assist Irish companies in the sourcing and manufacture of bespoke products

Fiona Craul (left) and Susan Dempsey of product-sourcing company Sweetspot, which has worked with major brands. Photo: Michael Donnelly
Fiona Craul (left) and Susan Dempsey of product-sourcing company Sweetspot, which has worked with major brands. Photo: Michael Donnelly
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

In 2012, Fiona Craul and Susan Dempsey joined forces to create Sweetspot, a company that provides product-sourcing solutions for Irish brands; guiding clients from the design to completion stage, while charting the waters of manufacturing, quality control and export and import logistics en route.

Both Craul and Dempsey had prior experience working in China. Craul worked with an Irish company that imported cookware products from Asia and Dempsey travelled frequently in her role with an Irish lighting company with a manufacturing base in China.

"We knew that brands needed products and we had the knowledge and connections to make that happen," Craul says. "And we didn't just offer the promotional products like pens, which loads of companies were doing, we were very specific in that we were providing bespoke products from start to finish, working directly with factories on the ground. Marketing agencies in particular want to be able to produce something that is unique and different, and really in tune with their brand - and we help them do that."

Craul and Dempsey were introduced by a mutual friend five years before going into business together.

"We always knew that we would work well together if there was ever the opportunity," Craul says. "We both had that experience and understanding of China and we knew there had to be something we could do; we had the knowledge and it wasn't going to cost us that much to set up initially; we could self-fund, get an order and build it up like that, so that is what we did."

The fact that they were starting a business in the middle of a recession did not faze them, both Craul and Dempsey had reached a point in their careers where they were looking for a new challenge.

"It was a tipping point for the both of us," Dempsey says. "Something had to change."

"Everything was doom and gloom; even some of our friends were saying: 'So you are leaving two good jobs to set up on your own?'" Craul says with a laugh.

"They just thought we were off our rockers and maybe we wouldn't have made that decision now, but at the time we were very confident and we didn't feel like we had much to lose. There was no doubt in our minds about it and there was no fear, we were just at that right stage."

The fact that Sweetspot could begin work with a relatively low cost base enabled Dempsey and Craul to hit the ground running. However, they did seek a safety-net in the form of a small bank loan.

"We asked for a loan from the bank, but we actually didn't need it in the end," says Craul. "Having it there gave us a sense of security, but the business model just paid for itself and we could grow then as it grew."

"We also got funding from the Local Enterprise Board, which obviously helped us out as well," Dempsey says. "So not only did we have faith in ourselves, but we had a lot of support too."

Due to the bespoke nature of Sweetspot's services, every day presents new challenges, but four years in, the surprises are few.

"Every day is a school day," Dempsey says. "But, generally, you can apply the same principles to a lot of what we do, whether the client is looking for a lunch box or a bag or a luffa (a type of cucumber)."

"It has taken time. We had some contacts there, but really we started from scratch because a lot of the stuff we were looking for was very different to before," Craul says. "So we spent the first two years travelling an awful lot and building up our portfolio and that was our edge over competitors. When we got a big project in, for example, it didn't faze us. If we needed to go to China on the Monday and this was a Thursday, that wasn't a big deal for us; we were so familiar with it by then."

Sweetspot has worked with a number of major brands, including Vodafone, Eir, Flahavan's, Keelings, Lidl, Virgin Media, Jack Daniel's, Jameson, Fyffes, Odlums and McDonalds. Crual and Dempsey believe that the care they take in sourcing products, not just in terms of delivering the orders, but in following up on how these products perform for these brands, has resulted in huge loyalty and strong repeat business.

"We want it to be a success for companies because that reflects positively on us. Building up that trust has taken time, but for example, we did some lunch boxes for Keelings recently, which was a big order and they are not going to do that kind of thing with a company they don't trust," Fiona explains. "The idea behind our name Sweetspot is finding your 'sweet spot' customer; finding that right product for the customer at the right time and that is what we do."

Sweetspot now employs a total of five people, including Craul, Dempsey, a part-time bookkeeper, one staff member at their China office in Fujian and a recent addition to the team, an operations manager at their offices in Naas, Co Kildare.

"We never wanted a situation where something wasn't up to standard and we have our office in China too, so quality control is carried out directly there," Craul says.

"They also go to the factory and it is great to have somebody on the ground there managing things. We work directly with factories, there are no middle layers, so we have visibility of who we are working with and we audit the factories.

"We have a list of areas we are most interested in, like work conditions and all of the bits that would be relevant from both an ethical side of things and also from a quality point of view."

"As an importer we take it upon ourselves to be responsible and take that cost on," Dempsey adds.

So what is next on the agenda for Sweetspot?

"The UK and Northern Ireland are two new markets we are looking at," Dempsey says.

"Whereas I think survival was our first goal and almost anything was good as long as we were breaking even and getting through, now it's serious. Now it is about longevity."

Sunday Indo Business

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