Seeking Global Markets AbleNet, Inc.
AbleNet is a Minneapolis company committed to developing, manufacturing and selling products, applying simple technologies, to people with disabilities. Among its products are the SpeakEasy communication aid, which allows many individuals to communicate for the first time by voice output. Another well- known product is the Big Red® switch which, used with a control unit, allows people with disabilities to operate numerous appliances. The company also provides educational training and support to its customers.
AbleNet's mission is to help create a world without barriers.
AbleNet began its program of "internationalization" in 1993. Today, it markets through 33 resellers (distributors) in 16 different countries. With direct sales, AbleNet products are now sold in 24 countries. International sales exceeded 10 percent of revenues for 1994, and are projected to be around 15 percent for 1995. Since AbleNet products do not require major adaptation for non-U.S. markets, the increased revenues from international sales are largely incremental.
Cheryl Volkman, President, and Jackie Levin, V.P., Marketing, first approached Larry Koslow to assist them in developing an international strategy. He helped them determine that it was best to approach the market through resellers or distributors. Since most resellers were small companies that would each carry only limited amounts of inventory, it was decided that they would be put under contract with a simple four-page Reseller Letter Agreement instead of a more formal distributor agreement.
The agreement covered the major issues associated with appointing distributors. This approach has met AbleNet's legal needs as it develops its global market. Its resellers do not rush to their lawyers, they sign the agreement without protest, and no significant legal issues have arisen. AbleNet also has not encountered collection problems abroad. As the business grew, however, relationships became more complex, and the company moved to more complex legal relationships.
Volkman and Levin took their first international trip in March 1993, to initially qualify and appoint resellers in Scandinavia. Today they do not actively seek resellers; potential resellers find AbleNet. They did encounter two unexpected benefits from the globalization process:
The development of global friendships; and
The opportunity to search for products abroad that might fit into their domestic product lines.
Rather than addressing their full effort into expanding into other countries, in the near term Volkman and Levin prefer to work with current resellers to develop the existing international markets. What advice would they give to companies wishing to expand outside the United States?
Know your international options before you begin.
Keep it simple and easy.
Listen more than you talk, but ask questions.
Take trips to know your resellers, but most important, know your end users.