TOOLS OF TRADE
Alignment Simple Solutions finds traction in foreign markets
Perhaps Tess Winningham’s rush to get her company’s Quick Trick alignment tool out of the family kitchen and into every other part of the world had something to do with the product being all about moving straight ahead. Or perhaps it’s because Quick Trick was invented by her husband Gary Gann, a stock car racer who knows the race usually goes to those moving fastest.
Or maybe it’s because she can do the math.
“Seventy percent,” Winningham says when asked what percentage of total sales she’d eventually like to see Alignment Simple Solutions generate from exports. The CEO had initially answered 30 percent but immediately recalculated then reconsidered. “What was I thinking? Seventy percent! Seventy percent, I mean [the rest of the world] is where most of the consumers are, right? Outside the country. Why would I want to limit myself?”
Winningham and her company, Alignment Simple Solutions, certainly haven’t limited their reach or goals despite being in business barely half a dozen years. Even in the beginning, when the manufacturing part of the business was the kitchen stove of their Alabama home where Gann, a master mechanic, used to make the Quick Trick tool—the warehouse and loading dock inhabited the garage— Winningham was already thinking globally. In its first week of existence, Alignment Simple sold two devices overseas via eBay.
“You know, eBay really ended up being the perfect way for us to test the market,” Winningham says. “First, it proved to us that there was a market out there for us and, funny enough, I think that’s something Gary needed to know. Second, when we first started we had no money for advertising and marketing so something like that provided a way for people from all over the world to find out what we were doing, what we were about.”
And what the company has been about is growing. Growing sales, growing markets—without letting anything deter it from that. For instance, it was just two years ago that Tess made one of the biggest sales for her new business, a deal with a company to carry her product in Southeast Asia.
“We met them in person a couple of times and put a lot of time and effort into getting it done,” Winningham says. “They were pretty much ready to place the order which was going to be half a cargo container. In 2015, that was a large order for us.”
Unfortunately, just as the deal was about to be finalized, a West Coast port strike kept ships and cargo backed up at the Port of Seattle, where the company was going to make its shipment. Gann and Winningham had already started manufacturing product and soon found it had nowhere to go. Suddenly, neither did their deal.
“The sense of urgency had been lost,” Winningham says. “We had started making the product but everything just died. There was no urgency for them to pay for it as product just sits at the dock and they miss their season.
“What I learned from that as a small business person is you cannot be prepared enough; don’t believe something is going to happen until it happens and don’t put your business at risk by spending money on inventory and doing a purchase order that may not actually happen.”
Lesson learned: Winningham later consummated a deal with the same company though not for the same size as the original order. “I think what happened in 2015 made them more cautious as well.”
Alignment Simple now sells in more than 100 countries either directly online or through distributors. That was always part of the plan and the plan was put into action right from the start. Nelda Segars, the now-retired director of the Commerce Department’s U.S. Commercial Service for Birmingham, Alabama Area, remembers that unlike other new, small businesses, Alignment Simple didn’t have to be educated, convinced or cajoled into seeing the advantages of exporting. In fact, Segars says, it was quite the opposite.
“It was really unusual because typically we wait for companies to become established before we suggest exporting,” she says. “But they knew they wanted to do it right from the start; knew what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go.”
Well, Winningham did. Gann needed a little convincing. He had raced NASCAR in the 1970s and ’80s, and he has continued to hang out at tracks. It was there that he came to appreciate the need for a tool that could quickly diagnose the wear and tear on tires and suspension that could lead to a car moving out of alignment. He built the Quick Trick prototype at home strictly as something he, his buddies and a small group of enthusiasts could use.
Winningham saw something more, much more. She had worked for a number of Fortune 500 companies such as Dreamworks Studios in her career and was immediately convinced that Gann’s invention was needed and desired by a much wider audience.
“I’ve been in business development all my life. My husband is a quiet man, a mechanic and a racer; his world was kind of walled off at the track,” Winningham says.
But she did some digging and found that all over the globe people are hanging onto their cars longer and many of them did their own maintenance and repairs. A tool like Quick Trick, which cost a tenth of traditional fixed alignment equipment and weighed just 15 pounds, did not require a car be lifted for the tool to be used. What was more, or less, was the fact that just about anyone who watched a simple five-minute training video would be able to use the Quick Trick effectively and immediately.
It took a while for Winningham to convince Gann but her hunch was right: Though the Quick Trick is popular with professionals at maintenance and alignment shops, their largest markets are with do-it-yourselfers, including a lot of hotrod enthusiasts.
The company’s first forays into exporting were pretty much limited to Mexico and Australia, two markets that have remained strong for them. In fact, Winningham says Australians were so enthusiastic for the product that, in the early days, they were “paying as much for shipping as they were for the Quick Trick itself.”
As gratifying as that was it only fueled in Winningham the desire to send her product to more places, and to do so quickly. Segars suggested they take advantage of the Commercial Service’s Gold Key program that, among other things, helps identify good markets and partners for companies.
“We basically start from the beginning and teach people everything about how to export,” Segars says. “We talk about freight forwarders and market research and offer seminars and events where they can meet people and target markets they may have never considered.”
It soon became apparent to Winningham that a key market for her would be Europe and its lynchpin would be finding distribution in Germany. Research told her that a high number of German men were car enthusiasts—which came as little surprise considering it’s the land of Volkswagen, Mercedes and Porsche.
“What was interesting was that we found that there is a huge thing over there for classic American muscle cars. They love ’em,” Winningham says.
The Department of Commerce not only provided counseling, but through the Small Business Development Center it offered guidance on how Alignment Simple Solutions could globalize its company website. Through them, Winningham arranged to attend trade shows in Germany and soon found that it was a country likely to embrace the Quick Trick and would provide an excellent springboard for making sales throughout the region. As a result of the assistance, she made numerous contacts and found new resources that led, in a matter of months, to sales in more than 30 countries.
The tradeshows, meetings and research had shown Winningham that consumers in many parts of Europe had high levels of disposable income, in part because they were less inclined to carry as much debt as Americans. She found, as many others have, that in Europe, indeed even in Germany, the label “Made In The USA” carries a significant value for consumers. She also educated herself about various regulations that would affect her product. For example, since the Quick Trick had electronics applied to it, European Union regulations would require that Alignment Simple Solutions have an “end-user game plan” for disposal of the product.
Robert Stackpole, director of the U.S. Commercial Service in Alabama, sees in Alignment Simple’s due diligence and attention to detail a textbook case of following the proper steps necessary to successfully broaden business overseas.
“Businesses looking to export should first develop an export strategy,” Stackpole says. “Through export counseling, our trade specialists worked with Alignment Simple Solutions to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Having the right strategy is critical for helping small and medium-sized firms avoid costly mistakes related to documentation, payment by overseas buyers, finding overseas business partners and other matters.”
It’s important to remember that Winningham was not some novice when it came to doing business overseas. Her experience with Dreamworks and several other Fortune 500 companies gave her experience doing business all over the world. But when it came time to put her own money on the line she had no problem seeking out whatever help could be provided by anyone else.
And while she is one to say, “Without risk, there is no reward,” she believes that the way one mitigates risk is through relationships and information. For example, her customers in the U.S. tend to skew a bit older—40 to 65—and are the type who aren’t much into social media, so they are best reached when it comes to advertising and marketing through traditional methods. But she found out that her target audience in Japan would be much younger and rely heavily on social media. Two strong markets, two different customers and methods.
Winningham says everything started coming together for her company when it moved into the Innovation Depot incubator in Birmingham.
“That was another big moment for us,” Winningham says. “Because we went from doing everything out of our house, pretty much, to suddenly being immersed in a complete community of other entrepreneurs. Everything was right there including the Alabama International Trade Association. There were accountants and attorneys and just a lot of really great, smart people who we would could get information or advice from or bounce ideas off. I think [Innovation Depot] is my favorite organization ever.”
It wasn’t long until others were showing their affection for what Gann and Winningham were doing. In short order their company was honored with the Alabama Governor’s Excellence Award (2012), was named Alabama Small Business of the Year (2013) and won the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s (SEMA) New Products Global Media Award and an Alabama Launchpad Award, both in 2014.
They used every reward as an opportunity to meet new people and network with like-minded businesses, nursing an ever-growing tree of overseas knowledge to further expand their reach. These days, two markets Winningham is angling hard to get into are in India and Chile and, as usual, she’s doing plenty of research and networking to make those happen. Of course, there’s a lot in doing business overseas that one can’t prepare for. For example, while Winningham was able to quantify her product would do well in Japan and Germany, it came as a complete surprise to her the popularity Quick Trick enjoys in … wait for it … Norway!
“Yes, Norway!” Winningham says. “Why? I honestly have no idea but people love us there. I mean love us. We even had one customer who took it upon himself to translate our instructions into Norwegian. There’s a company that wants to use our logo for an online racing game. They actually just contacted us about that. It just goes to show you, in business, you can do everything possible but sometimes you’re going to be surprised. I guess you want to be in a position to take advantage of matters when you are surprised. I mean, because honestly, you know, yeah, Norway!” n