Growing From The Ground Up
The Overseas Success of Miss Jenny’s Pickles
Jenny Fulton and Ashlee Furr are two financial industry castaways who decided to grow their own business, Miss Jenny’s Pickles, the most natural way: from the ground up. Today the duo are opening export markets around the world with only six full-time and eight part-time employees operating in the company’s Kernersville, North Carolina, home base. On shelves in China, the U.K., Mongolia and Canada, Miss Jenny’s plans to expand on its overseas success every year.
Owning a worldwide market share was always on Fulton’s mind. “I was a stockbroker before I was the pickle lady,” she says, “so I knew that 95 percent of the world lived outside the United States.” She also recognized that not many pickle companies were exporting, and in 2011 told her partner that the company would send its first jars abroad. Then things fell into place.
“The North Carolina Export Department, along with SUSTA—that’s ‘Southern United States Trade Association’—had organized an inbound trade mission to bring Chinese buyers into North Carolina to buy North Carolina products, and I got to participate in that,” she says. “That’s where I met my first buyer and distributor of Miss Jenny’s Pickles in China.” For maximum impact, North Carolinian officials had qualified buyers beforehand.
After meeting in April, Miss Jenny’s had its first shipments on Chinese shelves by October. Challenges, says Fulton, were minimal. The 32 pages of paperwork were made easier by having the importer handle what it could, then relying on North Carolina’s Agriculture Department for additional assistance. It still took a couple tries. “We did not do our documentation right the first time,” she says. “We had to redo it to get it right.”
Fulton also learned that Chinese regulation differs from her home market. After loading up 10-12 pallets for shipment—the regular order for the company’s Chinese distributor—she learned that wooden pallets were unwelcome in the mainland, only plastic is accepted. As setbacks go, it was minor. Miss Jenny’s reloaded the jars onto plastic pallets provided by its freight forwarder, California-based Interlogic, then recycled the wooden pallets for domestic use.
“When I went to China and actually saw Miss Jenny’s Pickles on the shelf, I was so honored, and humbled and grateful,” she says. “It was fantastic. It showed all this hard work paid off.”
With a taste of breaking foreign markets, Miss Jenny’s was ready to expand overseas immediately. In addition to picking up its U.K. distributor through another inbound trade mission organized by North Carolina’s government that year, Fulton attended a state conference featuring Senator Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina) and Export-Import Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg.
“I was so impressed with [Hochberg’s] remarks that when he was done talking I went running out to his car and handed a jar of Miss Jenny’s Pickles to his driver.” The company decided to work with the Ex-Im Bank when expanding exports, eventually becoming a big success story. Fulton even had the recent honor of introducing Vice President Joe Biden for a luncheon celebrating America’s exporting success.
With overseas markets currently accounting for 5-10 percent of Miss Jenny’s sales, Fulton says she plans to bump international sales to 20-30 percent by adding two to four new markets per year. It’s a process, Fulton says, she couldn’t do without the help of her longtime business partner.
“We like to say, I’m the gas, she’s the brakes; and we’ve never seen anyone drive a car without either one. Well Miss Jenny’s doesn’t work without either one of us.”
Jason Hou Sounds Off On His Karaoke Business
When Jason S.C. Hou wanted to launch a business 20 years ago, he returned to his native Taiwan for inspiration. You could say it came calling. He arrived at his mother’s house to complaints of the neighbors’ constant karaoke singing, but Hou had little sympathy. “We can sing karaoke at home?” he asked. VocoPro was born with the goal of marketing karaoke cassette tapes to the world’s homebodies, and after being turned down by the largest supplier in Taiwan, its nearest competitor agreed to give Hou a crack at the West Coast of the United States. Sales were initially slow, so Hou consigned his tapes to specialty shops and ultimately churned out a profit by selling them himself on the weekends at little booths inside stores. But times change. Consumers racked their cassettes at the exact instant laser disks—remember those?—entered the market. For about $80 per disk, Hou had no intention of fighting the new trend.
Then time kept on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future, and those disks soon plunged to $16 as the karaoke market was commoditized. His margins squeezed, Hou couldn’t ignore that free-falling prices meant the swan song of the laser disk glory days. Time to make the switch to CD, right? Not a chance. He understood the larger issue wasn’t with laser disks, but the challenges of trying to eek out a profit selling a commodity.
Public address system prices were steady, however, and Hou could see that manufacturers like Pioneer didn’t miss a beat. So he called up the Taiwanese factory that helped him launch just five years earlier and inked a deal to sell their P.A. systems. “At the time I was just buying whatever they had and putting my label on it,” he says.
Business crescendoed when Hou began to self-brand the same units. Today VocoPro accounts for 70 percent of the manufacturer’s output and sells at retail outlets such as Guitar Center and Best Buy Music Centers.
Hou’s international sales are buoyed by connections made at Hong Kong’s Electronics Fair, operated by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). In his seventh year as an exhibitor, Hou doesn’t hesitate to identify the allure of the show: “Hong Kong is more of a world market,” he says, “you don’t run into the spies.” Those spies he refers to lurk at the Chinese electronics fairs, where Hou says people come to find the next idea to copy rather than the next partnership. “If you’re in Hong Kong, that means you’re dealing with people in the world.” The country is a natural filter, he says, against attendees with any motivation other than establishing new business partnerships.
One such partnership began in 2006 with a Romanian distributor. The company buys anywhere from 50-70 pieces at a time for a value of roughly $10,000 per sale. These aren’t for home use, though. Hou says the distributor sells his systems to Romanian McDonald’s restaurants, and not for ordering. Call it dining entertainment.
Hou’s next step is to launch a high-end effects pedal for experienced musicians. Hoping to strike a chord with Asian consumers, he wants a “Made in America” stamp on the box. The only challenge? Actually producing a product in the United States. To produce a new P.A. system through his Asian factories, he simply draws up a new design from his office in La Verne, California, sends it along and sits back while the engineers get to work on producing a prototype right away, accessing a network of up to 50 local Chinese suppliers. For Hou’s pedal, however, his American engineer has drawn the six-month target into a 15-month nightmare—and charges $3,000 per month for the pleasure.
“We’re not paying without getting something,” Hou says. “We’re seeing the demo, we can test that it’s working, but we haven’t gotten it to a product or production level.” Still, he’s confident it will get done in the near future, even if the processes has made him pause future American production.