Here’s how Valley businesses have ‘accidentally’ become global empires
When Robert Chappell was diagnosed with Repetitive Strain Injury from constantly typing, he looked for any way to communicate and continue his work as a software engineer. He purchased Dragon Naturally Speaking, a voice notation software. It helped him at first, but eventually, he lost his voice due to overuse. He looked for an eye-tracking device, but it moved slow, required two computers and used an outdated system.
Chappell invented the first eye tracking mouse that moved like a traditional hand mouse and started Mesa-based company EyeTech Digital Systems in 1996. Two years later, the company exhibited its product at a technology conference. Overseas attendees displayed an interest in the company because it could improve the lives of people with ALS — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells and the spinal cord. Many of those diagnosed with ALS lose control over their muscles, including their vocal cords.
So the company that started with one man’s invention expanded globally. Now, the company helps people with various disabilities in more than 30 countries with more than 10,000 users worldwide.
“I’ve seen the technology evolve from niche application to more consumer devices,” said Keith Jackson, director of sales and marketing for EyeTech Digital Systems.
EyeTech Digital Systems isn’t the only Arizona-based international company to start small and fall into the opportunity to take the business outside of U.S. borders. Another is Gilbert-based Wisdom Natural Brands, the parent company to Sweetleaf Stevia.
In 1981, James May was introduced to the stevia leaf in Paraguay. He and his wife, Carol, sold their worldly possessions, minus their house and one car, and James made a formula that made the leaf into a natural sweetener. He sold the product to local markets and began working out of his garage in Scottsdale. They eventually expanded globally.
“Victoria Beckham of Spice Girls fame accompanied her rock star soccer player husband when he moved to Los Angeles to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy,” said Carol May, CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands. “She was introduced to our Sweetleaf Stevia products and missed them when the family returned to London.”
Beckham was unable to find the Wisdom Natural Brands products on the shelves where she shopped in England. Feeling frustrated, she put out a query to her 20 million Facebook fans, telling them she fell in love with the product and wondered where she could buy it in London.
“Needless to say,” May said. “We soon began selling in the UK.”
Now, the company is in more than 30 countries and plans on entering the Chinese and Indian markets in 2019.
Doug Bruhnke, CEO and founder of Global Chamber, said a high percentage of initial foreign sales aren’t planned by the businesses.
“A company that accidentally goes global is typically a company that has a product that has a global interest, but they wouldn’t know it because they haven’t been to Kazakhstan or Germany to pitch it because they’ve been busy pitching here,” he said.
Bruhnke said other countries will usually take notice of a product because of online sites and international customers.
“Suddenly, someone in that foreign country knows about the product, and they want it, too,” he said.
Luis Ramirez, president of Ramirez Advisors International, helps companies with international business in the United States and Mexico.
“There are a lot of mom and pop shops or micro companies in Arizona that are already doing a lot of international business, and they simply don’t know it,” he said.
Ramirez said Arizona has a large number of Mexican visitors who travel throughout Arizona, buy goods or services and take them back home. Eventually, a customer will return to their home country and want to receive a certain good or product, so they will ask the business if they have any way of delivering it.
“And that’s where, I think, companies start delving into the international business, almost by demand of the customer, not necessarily as a plan by a small company,” Ramirez said.
Jackson said the City of Mesa opened its eyes to the export initiatives that the Greater Phoenix Economic Council provides.
“They’ve been a great resource, promoting us to different companies here locally,” he said. “They’ve actually helped us export to some countries we haven’t really done a lot of business in before.”
Rob Millar, acting economic development director for the City of Scottsdale, said the position of Scottsdale within the southwest region helps with international exposure.
“There’s a lot of value being in a market that has such international exposure with almost 9 million visitors a year that come to Scottsdale for vacation purposes, but then return to where they live — whether that be nationally or internationally — and having that exposure while they’re here is built-in advertising, built-in exposure,” Millar said.
He also said there is a beauty in convenience.
“We have an airport with direct access,” Millar said. “We don’t have harsh, inclement weather that can disrupt business operations like snow or tornadoes.”
Ramirez said Arizona’s proximity to Mexico gives businesses an advantage.
“You have this continual inflow and outflow of visitors from Mexico,” he said. “In Arizona last year, we had almost 25 and a half million people coming in, of which we estimate that about two-thirds to three-quarters of them were Mexican visitors.”
Hugh Hallman, the former mayor of Tempe and an attorney at Berry Riddell, said the location of the business is less important to the international market than the Internet.
“The barriers to entry for who can make sales anywhere on the globe have been eliminated by the Internet,” Hallman said.
He also said small businesses could have already engaged in international markets because of their communication skills.
“There are many websites that small companies build here that cater to Spanish-language speakers,” he said. “They already have a sense of reaching out to people who speak a different language.”
Once people know how to craft an Internet message for another country’s business environment, the transition to other areas of the world, such as Europe and Asia, becomes seamless, Hallman said.
Jackson said EyeTech Digital Systems’ partnership with Microsoft enables them to translate their technology to various languages faster, which is a huge help in accessing the international markets. Because of the Internet, businesses can find any information they need about doing business with foreign countries. For example, he said, how to deal with taxes.
Impact of technology
Ramirez said the digital age has influenced the overall growth in international business.
“Because of social media, they can be doing sales in Mexico and beyond without really investing in the internal infrastructure up front to manage those international sales,” he said.
Jackson said social media allows customers to share their stories about how their eye-tracking devices have changed their life. “It’s a big initiative for us, spreading word of mouth,” he said. “The exposure through social media is phenomenal.”
Online services have also affected the ease of growing a business.
“(Delivery services) have become the enablers for a lot of small companies that on their own wouldn’t be able to do it,” Ramirez said. For example, Ramirez said, business owners can go online and have FedEx come by the office, warehouse or manufacturing center, pick up the package and take it to the customer. Most of them will also ensure the product meets customs requirements for going over the border.
EyeTech Digital Systems was able to find success in the international market because they connected with international distributors and manufacturers at conferences, such as the Consumer Electronic Show, but they also displayed how well their business was doing locally.
“Every country looks at your success in your backyard,” Jackson said. “How well are you doing in the U.S.?”
Now, the only areas EyeTech Digital Systems hasn’t reached is China and India. Most of its business is with Europe, Canada, Mexico and Australia. Last year, the company started initiatives in Germany and Japan. It’s also doing a lot more in the Middle East, Israel and Qatar.
“Our technology is funded through Medicare, Medicaid, insurances or governments throughout the world because this provides a life-saving capability for those who are paralyzed and can’t talk,” Jackson said. “They can actually type with their eyes to communicate.”
Jackson advised small companies to find the right partners who will get the exposure needed to make an impact and get in front of the people who matter in different countries. “Show them how it can change someone’s life,” Jackson said.