Right online profile can transform a company's fortunes
Export Technologies develops e-commerce software to help firms maximise sales -- last year it generated £1bn for its customers
THERE are few businesses on the island of Ireland that can boast of having generated more than stg£1bn worth of turnover for their customers. But last week I travelled to Belfast to meet one company that has done just that.
Set up in 2005 and located in the Northern Ireland Science Park, in the city's now famous Titanic Quarter, Export Technologies is a world-class provider of online retail software and services. Today the company employs 15 staff and has an annual turnover, itself, of £3m.
"We are specialists in developing e-commerce software that enables companies to maximise their online sales potential," explains founder and CEO, Dan Loughlin. "We have developed e-commerce platforms that now transact millions of pounds for our customers every week," he adds.
"We provide a full multi-channel solution that includes everything needed to sell successfully online, including a website, shopping cart, social media integration, multiple languages and currency options, full integration with stock management systems, report generation and payment processing solutions, such as RealEx, Paypal and WorldPay," he explains.
The company's customers are drawn mainly from the retail, distribution and manufacturing sectors, where moving online can serve as an ideal vehicle to achieve both scale and market reach.
What is unique and exciting about the company is that it operates a revenue-share model with its customers where they receive a small percentage of all sales transacted through their customers' websites.
"It's an innovative approach in that companies are not faced with a large upfront cost and where the onus is on the internal team to drive traffic to a customer's website," he insists.
This model presents an obvious challenge for Dan and his colleagues to make sure they choose the right customers to partner with and in whom to invest time and resources. However, the company has shown that it has a good aptitude for choosing winners, among them its most successful customer so far -- Chain Reaction Cycles.
The company was set up initially as a small shop in Ballyclare, Co Antrim, which sold bicycles and bicycle parts. Working with Dan to move its business online, the company went on to achieve what can only be described as meteoric growth. Last year, its turnover exceeded a staggering £150m, making it one of the most successful online businesses in the world.
"While we provided the technology behind their e-commerce offering, it was Chain Reaction Cycles themselves who grew the business off the back of that.
"They really were a great client to have worked with," says Dan proudly.
Dan then heads to the whiteboard in his office where, armed with a marker, he guides me patiently through an explanation of the three key components of any successful e-commerce strategy.
These include driving traffic to a customer's site, increasing the conversion rate of those who actually purchase goods and maximising the average value of each purchase made.
"Online sales are growing at an average rate of 10 per cent year on year," Dan explains. "Yet with 88 per cent of all retail sales still being done off-line, there exists massive opportunities for companies to get involved in online selling," he says enthusiastically.
While it has the potential to totally transform a business, online selling is not without its challenges and involves a steep learning curve for companies embracing it for the first time.
"The types of businesses that can expect to do well online are typically those who have products for which there is already a proven demand and whose products are of a size that are easy and cost-effective to post or courier directly to customers," explains Dan.
He also explains the need to be aware of restrictions in some countries on the import of certain products.
"For us, our customers are usually businesses that are already doing a turnover of more than €500,000," explains Dan. "They typically operate in niche markets or markets where there is significant growth potential."
It is clear that Dan has accumulated a vast knowledge and unrivalled expertise in the online retail space.
Originally from Newtownards, Co Down, Dan studied environmental chemistry at Edinburgh University. He entered the jobs market at a time when the dot-com bubble was in full flight and was immediately drawn to the IT sector. The e-commerce space, in particular, appealed to him and he gained experience working in a variety of online businesses, including a spell as a contractor in the internet division of Halifax Bank.
In 2000, he became involved on a part-time basis with Chain Reaction Cycles and along with his brother set up a new website for a company.
"Central to their success was the fact that they had a very strong team who were seriously committed to growing the company aggressively," explains Dan.
As the business began to grow, so too did its requirements for a more complex e-commerce platform and by 2003, Dan decided it was time to leave his job and to begin working full-time on the website.
Around that time, too, he introduced multiple languages to the site, which resulted in sales growing rapidly in areas where neither he nor the company had anticipated.
With this experience behind him, he officially set up Export Technologies in 2005 and employed his first two employees, both of whom are still working in the business today. Together, they set about developing their own international retail platform software programme (IRP). Before long he began to attract new customers, among them, Jacksons Outdoor Sports, Golf Store Europe, Argento Jewellers and Christies Direct Dog Grooming.
"We continually tried new things," explains Dan. "We then watched the responses to each innovation and continued to develop and improve upon anything that worked," he says.
What have been the challenges in growing his own business?
"The challenges have always been about the technology and about making sure we get that right," Dan says. "Our growth has always been limited by our capacity to train and support staff in our clients companies in how to use our software.
"That's why we have now developed a shrinkwrapped version of our international retail platform programme which can now be more readily deployed and is easier for companies to use than our current version," he adds.
To date, the company has focused exclusively on the Northern Ireland and UK markets but is now excited about offering his software to firms in the rest of Ireland.
Dan Loughlin comes across as a highly competent yet unassuming man. Because of his focus on innovation and quality, he has, like many business owners, spent much of his time absorbed in working in his business rather than on his business.
He has long since mastered the art of online selling and now appears to have learned the secret of success in his own business; a new model that will allow him to do what he has been helping other companies to do for years: grow and scale.
If the essence of business is about solving problems then Dan and his colleagues at Export Technologies look set to become an even bigger success as they help companies which, up to now, were either afraid of or were ill-equipped to exploit the potential of the huge and expanding market that is called online.