Theo's Adventure Capitalists: Can you sell Marmite to India?


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The concept of Theo's Adventure Capitalists is: Can we do business abroad? Our great British nation who used to be fantastic international traders has really contracted back to our shores in the last century or so.

When we look at the state of the British economy, we're coming slowly out of recession, the pound's been bashed, we've got some difficult times ahead - it's easy to start becoming negative. But actually there's a massive positive.

And that is, if the pound is weak and we've got slow growth here, there's countries out there who still have got growth and our weak pound makes our products and services very attractive.

So that's one big tick in the box.

Another is that 50% of UK plc's turnover (or Gross Domestic Product [GDP] in layman's terms) comes from small and medium sized businesses.

And 50% of all small and medium sized businesses fail in the first three years.

Now if we can give them a leg up with some guidance and finance, then we could gallop out of this recession. We just want small and medium sized businesses not to fail so dramatically. And we only need to do a tincy wincy bit.

With a little bit of growth from businesses abroad, we can replace all that consumer buying that is now lacking in the UK.

Doing business abroad sounds very attractive looking at it that way.

But of course, doing business in someone else's back yard can seriously get your butt kicked if you don't learn their culture. And it takes more than an airline ticket and a hotel room to do business abroad.

The show was made in partnership with the Open University, so it is a learning-based programme that had to be entertaining too. There's only a little bit of lecturing there, hopefully.

Something I preach when you start a new business is: homework, homework, homework.

Stack the cards in your favour. In a casino if you stack the cards in your favour, you get thrown out. In commerce it's called knowing your business and with it, you'll have a better chance of surviving.

You can't say "I'm going to set up in India or Vietnam or Brazil" from the comfort of your office. You need to get out there, smell it and see it.

I'll share a story with you about a lingerie business I was once involved in. We had a successful formula which worked all around the world so we set up a franchise in Saudi Arabia.

So, you have lovely lingerie on the shelves and on the peg and fantastic pictures of ladies wearing it, which you put around the store and in the window.


Because in Saudi Arabia, you can't have those pictures up on display - number one.

Number two: all the shop assistants are male because women aren't allowed to work.

And then, just when you think you've got enough problems, every time there's a call to prayer, all your staff walk out the store, leaving the tills and doors open to go and pray.

Even with all our homework, those were three challenges we only learned about by being in the country.

Now luckily, they have a pretty good honesty system in Saudi Arabia, which I won't go into, but nobody nicks the money. So there's a relief. We could never bring that business model back to the UK where you say, don't worry, leave the tills alone and go to prayers. But it it really does work in Saudi. They don't steal the money.

Now if you've only got male assistants, the ladies won't try the lingerie on, so you don't need changing rooms. The customers take it home to try on and you have to have a good returns policy.

And how do you deal with not being able to put pictures up? You do artistic line drawings which simulate the female form and put that in the window.

You have to have an open mind. Look at your product and think, how do you modify it to fit the market? Because you know what, it's really tough to change the market to fit your product.

That leads us onto episode two, where you'll see us trying to launch three products in India - luxury watches, biofuel and Marmite. I started off thinking I was a hater though since the show I've come round a bit. If I had been a lover of Marmite, I probably wouldn't have liked to see this next scene in the programme.

It was where we were on the streets of Mumbai, giving away free Marmite sandwiches. The people just hated them. This starving stray dog came up to me, and I thought, well I've got a whole tray of these things...

So I end up on my hands and knees and as I'm going forward to the dog to entice it to eat this sandwich, the dog instantly taught itself to walk backwards. It became a circus dog and as I went backwards, the dog came forward. In the end I left it on the ground for him. He sniffed it, backed off, cocked his leg and walked away.

It's comical but that was a worry to me, I've got to be honest. Because if dogs won't eat it - who's going to? You'll see in the episode how we got through all the challenges.

The Marmite marketing team were fabulous by the way, and so they should be, being owned by Unilever and having the resources. Their venture partner in India thought Marmite wasn't a big enough product to try launching. Unilever deals with hundreds of millions of pounds of turnover with their washing powders and so on, and they didn't want to dilute their resources for a smaller product.

The marketing team decided to go ahead anyway. Marmite has a history of being commercial in varied ways.

In Sri Lanka, it sells very well as a drink you mix with a few local herbs - and it comes in powder form!

And during the First World War, Marmite was given to newborn British babies. It was sold as a food supplement for vitamin B. There's an old black and white ad I've seen around which says something like, "Have you got a disappointing baby? Feed it Marmite!"

Their marketing manager, Cheryl Calverley is exactly the person you'd like with you in the trenches. She has the right outlook in that she doesn't expect success or failure. For her, it's a scientific approach. If the samples weren't right, she wouldn't power on.

She's passionate, which is often something lacking in big companies. But she makes sure she still sees dangers and is prepared to rein back if the signs are there - some passionate people can't do that.

Entrepreneurs like me generally look at it differently. We look at the risk/reward ratio. My approach is gut reaction and experience. Sometimes I do things which have a chance of failure. I'm not afraid of failing.

Anyway, let us know what you thought of the programme - and if you've ever had a go at setting up abroad, let's hear your tips.

Theo Paphitis is the presenter of Theo's Adventure Capitalists.

The second episode, set in India, is broadcast on BBC Two at 8pm on Tuesday, 11 May. Episode one is available on iPlayer until Tuesday, 25 May.

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