Lessons from a failure in an international business stint

A failed attempt but a successful journey

Bambike = bamboo + bike

If you were expecting that I was working for some really huge multinational business, or that I flopped in an international business of my own, I’m afraid you’re reading the wrong blogpost. Grand scale company or not, however, I think with any failure, there are valuable lessons to draw from. So I hope you keep reading on. This story talks about how I was hoping to expand a Philippine-based social enterprise internationally, but didn’t even get the “sample” of the product beyond local borders.

Before leaving for Denmark, my dad proposed maybe doing something with Bambike to hone some business skills. I thought it over and realized, “Hey, I’m going to one of the most bike-friendly, sustainably-geared and well-designed countries! Of course I could sell a Bambike over there. Easy.” I reached out to the founder, my uncle, Bryan, and asked what I could do. He offered me to be the “Bambassador” to Denmark.

It turned out being more difficult to sell what I thought would be a great fit for the Danish market. It was extremely stressful, especially because I had invested a significant amount of money for my own bike. I was going to sell it towards the end of the semester, but didn’t even get to ship it over to show potential customers. Nonetheless, no regrets (despite lots of hair-pulling.) Reflecting back, here were the lessons I learned:

Consider all costs.

I’ll admit I jumped on board this project without digging deep into financials. I wasn’t able to ship my bike because 1) I thought I was going to be able to carry it on with me on the airplane, but it was too heavy for that and; 2) the shipping costs wouldn’t have been worth it if I couldn’t sell the bike while in Denmark. In figuring out what the overall price would be for a Danish customer, I was told by some Danes that there was an extra cost in shipping, particularly for EU countries. So that, on top of shipping costs, on top of the price of the bikes would have been a big toll on the customer. I usually don’t like having to deal with money matters (even though I obviously know it’s important), but next time, I know to research better.

Consider the local culture and environment.

A normal city bike in Denmark is around 3000–5000 DKK (425–700USD). Premium bikes were around 6000–8000 DKK (850–1135 USD). Extremely premium were 9000+ DKK (1200 USD) and Bambikes were at that range. The local prices were not a good fit with our price and that was a huge barrier to sales and to possible distributors. Local perceptions of “bamboo bikes” were also a bit mixed so branding it as a premium bike was difficult as well.

It was obviously not enough that I had a “wow this country loves bikes and sustainability” perception to penetrate a market. There was more to understand when I stepped onto Danish shores.

Make your expectations clear with the people you work with, especially with your boss.

After several weeks, I realized Bambike wasn’t ready to expand internationally through retail. They’re growing internationally via partnerships (see: Bryan working it in Japan), but in retail, more hands needed to be on deck. The whole ordeal also came at a time when Bambike was busy with other things. I had a difficult time trying to reach them (long distance relationships are hard, I’ll tell you that), and that resulted in a lot of missed opportunities (ex. I lost my chance with a very interested sustainability guru I met in Sweden because I couldn’t answer her question until Bambike got back to me, but by then it was too late.)

It’s important to be clear what’s expected from you AND what you expect from the company. If the fault happens again and again even after you’ve expressed your frustration, know when it’s time to quit.

Don’t be afraid to get creative.

I needed to sell at least ONE bike (the bike that I had bought to use as a sample) so I could at least break even. But it was difficult looking for people to sell to because I didn’t have time (or the connections). I noticed one day that there were UNICEF people asking for donations in Nørreport station. A little plan was forming in my head. The UNICEF people were great sales people who were exposed with several passersby everyday, but needed money to give back to their organization. What if I could match the amount of money they got and asked them to include Bambike in their pitch? Not bad. Unfortunately, they made more money in a day than I thought they would and I couldn’t match that! Still, it was fun thinking of out of the box ways to solve my dilemma.

The product must be flexible to the needs of the customers.

When I was going around bike shops, pitching to possible distribution partners a lot of them rejected me (ouch.) I first asked if they were interested in selling the bikes as a whole. No. Then I asked if they were interested in selling just the frames. Still no. They didn’t need it. One shop, however, did need new, stylish baskets to prop on the front of their bikes. Bambikes said the baskets were actually make-able, but they were busy that month and so I had to reject the bike shop’s offer. Nonetheless, another important reminder to be able to cater to the real needs of customers.

I eventually ended up telling Bryan it was too difficult to do and he was nice enough to give a refund. (Phew). Instead, I’m working on another project for Bambike (more soon!) and I’m hoping to contribute to its growth in that way. I also found a Danish consulting group that helps social ventures, and they worked on researching about international expansion. They’ve just sent their final presentation and I’m excited to look at it.

I wasn’t able to sell a bike or anything, but I’m glad I got to draw lessons out of the experience (& work on my some sales skills, which was the goal all along). ’Til the next international business attempt!

Bambike is a social enterprise that creates bamboo bikes and provides sustainable livelihoods for its workers. They also host ecotours around Intramuros, Manila. Learn more here.