Alison Larson has managed such big-name clothing brands as OshKosh B’Gosh and Carter’s. As the vice president of global business development for Carter’s, she was instrumental in taking the brand from a label with little international recognition to a brand exceeding 20% international growth per year. During her 15 years at OshKosh B’Gosh, she was managing director, international, where she helped build the brand from its international infancy to a premier children’s brand with retail locations around the world.
Now, Alison Larson is founder of her own global business consulting agency, WorldBlazer Consulting LLC.
In the following interview, Alison shares her professional and personal insights — from what triggered her interest in global business to the trick to getting and keeping global clients to the things she can’t live without.
Q&A with WorldBlazer Consulting LLC founder, Alison Larson
This interview has been gently edited for length and clarity.
How and why did you start your business?
Alison Larson: After working for 23 years in corporate, I felt that it was time to go out on my own and help other fashion brands launch and develop their businesses in international markets.
I moved to Italy for two years and worked on developing my website, writing blogs and looking for fashion brands that needed my expertise. I owe my vast experience in all aspects of international business to my days in corporate — so I have no regrets.
What inspires your work — where do your best ideas come from?
AL: I am inspired by brands that are innovative and always evolving with the changing times.
I am a personal and professional development junkie.
I like to read international and fashion blogs, watch webinars, listen to podcasts, and attend conferences. But I have to say that my best ideas and inspiration come from visiting the different international markets and monitoring the competitive environment.
Walking the streets or malls of a foreign market or even the big cities in the USA provide the kind of inspiration that you can’t get by sitting in your office.
What was that experience with Carter’s and OshKosh B’Gosh like, and what did you learn from it?
AL: It was a life-changing experience for me. My life for over 20 years was traveling around the world, finding new international partners, and then supporting them in managing their business.
I learned that the only thing constant about international business is change.
Every market is different. Every brand is different. So, every strategy is different. You must be open-minded and willing to adapt your product, marketing and business style to each different market and culture.
To date, what are some of your business successes?
AL: My business successes involved developing long-term partnerships for my customers and clients.
Most importantly, I created partnerships based on mutual understanding, strong ethics and strategic goals.
To this day, many of my customers and clients are friends — some spanning over 20 years.
A success that I’m proud of was helping to develop and execute the combined brand concept for Carter’s and OshKosh in Canada.
This retail experience changed the face of the Canadian company, and because of its success, was adopted by the USA several years later. It is considered to be Carter’s most profitable store model and is the long-term retail strategy for most of the stores at Carter’s today.
Any failures you want to share that gives us a big clue on what not to do?
AL: Of course, even with successes, there are always some failures.
One in particular occurred with a Turkey partnership. We were completely conned by a fast talking apparel entrepreneur who developed a very aggressive sales plan for Turkey and the UK.
When the economy tanked with the worldwide recession in 2008, the owner disappeared, leaving many European customers who had paid for product with nothing. We ended up selling directly to the retail accounts he opened to make them whole.
Once we found another distributor, the retail accounts bought through them.
The lesson here is always do your due diligence and trust your instincts because they are probably right.
Based on your global business experience, what are some critical errors companies make when they go global?
AL: Many companies go global by accident, meaning that they do not develop an international strategy but rather, go with the first company that approaches them.
In many cases, these companies end up launching in the wrong market, using the wrong business model, and partnering with the wrong company.
Cleaning up your business after a market failure is much more difficult than starting from scratch because any future distributors, licensees and retailers will be hesitant to invest in a brand that has already failed in that market.
Another critical error is when a company goes global when their business is not doing well at home.
If your brand is struggling and you’re not sure why or you do know why, this is not the time to go international.
In fact, this is the worst reason to go global because all of your problems will be magnified overseas.
The business gets harder, not easier, due to logistical complexities, country-specific regulations and a different competitive and cultural environment.
What are two common pitfalls to going global that you or your clients have dealt with?
AL: Pitfalls include:
- Dealing with economic and political instability and natural disasters, especially those that are unexpected. This can result in order cancellations and if you’re not protected, not getting paid.
- Realizing that it takes time to find a good partner and develop your business in international markets. It’s important to be patient and realize that great things require hard work — and that timing is everything.
If there is one thing you could have to enable you to thrive globally at your company, what would it be?
AL: More exposure to fashion brands who need my expertise to go global.
Do you think you can achieve it in 2020?
AL: It’s looking good so far!
Any particular moment in your life that triggered your becoming the businesswoman you are today?
AL: When I was 20, I backpacked through Europe after doing a year abroad in London.
I remember sitting at the edge of a cliff at the Parthenon in Athens and thinking “This is it! International business will be my life.”
I have never looked back after that.
Many companies talk about the importance of forming partnerships to grow their business internationally (and even domestically for that matter). Why is that and what else is essential to know?
AL: Entering a foreign market on your own is extremely risky, especially when you’re just starting out.
Most brands do not have the experience, market knowledge or in-country network to be successful without a good partner helping them navigate the cultural and regulatory complexities.
The partner you choose is probably the most important determinant of whether you will succeed in an international market.
Choosing the wrong partner can damage your company’s or brand’s reputation, cost you significant amounts of money, and set you back years in a market.
Finding the right partner is not an easy task. You must do a lot of market research, networking, trade show exhibitions and always a market visit.
If you do not fully trust the company or seem to have a lot of disagreements when negotiating a contract, chances are this company is a bad cultural fit.
You also must beware of high “pie in the sky” sales projections that many companies will give in order to get the deal.
Aggressive business plans with big numbers look great on paper but often do not get executed. Better to have a realistic, well-thought-out business plan that builds the business slowly and steadily over the years.
You created a really useful PDF file on “10 Critical Errors That Apparel Companies Make When Going Global.” Where can readers find it and has it helped you attract more clients?
AL: You can download the report here.
Yes, the report has helped me attract clients because even more important than achieving success in a foreign market, companies want to avoid failure.
If you look at the history of famous brands like Nike or Levi’s that have large international businesses, you will find that they made many mistakes and experienced failures before becoming global successes.
It’s critical that you look at your competitors that have gone global and monitor their successes and failures.
My favorite quote is “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
Is there a secret that you can pass along to getting and keeping customers?
AL: Yes, there are three:
- Listening more than talking, especially when you first meet.
- Guiding partners rather than controlling them through frequent communication and market visits.
- Making a strong effort to understand cultural differences and allowing those differences to adapt your international product, marketing and sales strategies.
Does your website help you obtain new clients? What else works for capturing new opportunities at your business?
AL: My website does help me obtain new clients but usually after they read something that I wrote on social media.
I also get new clients when I research and reach out to fashion brands that have little or no international business but a compelling brand that I believe would do well overseas.
Where were you born and raised? Where are you currently living, and why?
AL: I was born and raised in New York but have lived in London, Rome, Florence, Paris and Brussels. I am now living in Connecticut because it is closer to my clients who often are based in the New York City area.
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
AL: I have always been a big skier and growing up, we used to have ski houses in Vermont. One of my favorite childhood memories is singing Beatles songs with my brothers and sisters on the long drive to Vermont.
Favorite ice cream?
AL: Haagen-Dazs peanut butter and chocolate.
AL: Your [Laurel Delaney] Global Small Business Blog – I love your articles that teach small businesses how to go global.
AL: The Marie Forleo Podcast. She gives helpful business and personal tips to female entrepreneurs on how to excel in business and life.
What can’t you live without?
AL: My family, my close friends, my beads (for making jewelry), the ocean and trips to my favorite places like Italy, Thailand and Africa.
AL: “A Room With A View.” I moved to Florence because of that movie!
Favorite inspirational speech or talk?
AL: Steve Jobs’s Stanford commencement speech. I decided to leave my corporate job and start my own business after I watched it, truth be told!
AL: Definitely Tony Robbins’ “Date With Destiny” and “Business Mastery!”
Tony’s events changed my life. He is amazing at getting my mind where it needs to be in order to be successful in business and life.
What do you eat for breakfast that fuels your day?
AL: Plain organic yogurt with bananas and blueberries.
Are you a cat or dog lover?
AL: I grew up with dogs so was always a dog lover.
However, a month ago, my brother’s cat Tara died and he got a kitten, Lily, from the Humane Society. She is a true “love bug” so I now have to say that I have been converted to a cat lover, as well.
What fashion brands are you into these days and why?
AL: I have three favorite brands for different reasons:
Lululemon: I love the way they connect with their consumers and make their stores experiential, with people doing yoga in the windows, yoga classes for the public and an ambassador program so their customers and employees can spread their vision around the world.
Bombas: Here’s another company that took a pair of socks and turned them into the most comfortable and best engineered socks you can buy. And more important, for every Bombas sock or clothing item someone purchases, a specially-designed donation sock or clothing item is donated to the homeless or someone in need.
Anne Fontaine: I love the style of this premium French brand that sells mostly white fitted cotton blouses for work and special occasions.
What have you found works when taking a fashion item or any product global?
AL: There are a few things:
- Make sure your brand and company have a strong foundation and following at home before you go global.
- Research! Research! Research! This includes analyzing a country’s demographics, risk factors, barriers to entry, culture and the competitive landscape.
- Look at each country with “fresh eyes” and adapt your strategies, as necessary, to the needs and requirements of each new market.
- Take a long-term view when expanding internationally, and make sure you register and protect your trademarks in every new country.
- Choose your overseas partner with the same care and attention as you would when selecting a life partner, because it can make or break your global success.
If you started over in life, would you change your profession?
AL: I would definitely still be in international, either in international business or international relations. One of my dreams was to work as a diplomat and help in the growth of developing countries in Africa.
What do you wish you had more of?
AL: Personally, I wish I had more time to do all the things I love: skiing, sailing, scuba diving, making jewelry, seeing new places and volunteering.
Professionally, I wish I had more time to spend writing blogs and posting on social media so I could add more value to my target customers and provide them with the help they need to develop their international business.
What do you wish you had less of?
What lessons did your mom or dad teach you?
Always have faith in yourself. You are stronger than you know.
How do customers find you?
Anything else we are missing that you wish to share?
AL: I hope that those brands thinking about going global decide to take the plunge, assuming they’re ready.
There is nothing more enriching and exciting than traveling the world and experiencing new cultures. And, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your fashion brand worn by customers all over the world.
Thank you to Alison Larson for sharing your story with us. To learn more about Alison’s work, visit her website or listen free of charge to her Wegginar® recording: “8 Critical Lessons to Ensure a Successful International Product Launch.”