Frank + Oak didn’t ease into exporting like many Canadian startups do.
Instead, the Montreal-based retailer immediately started selling to both the United States and Canada when it launched in early 2012.
The company, which began as an online retailer before eventually setting up brick and mortar locations in 2014, has always viewed the U.S. as its biggest market.
“I am a big believer in the fact that, in this globalized market we live in, even the smallest companies should think about how to be competitive in different markets,” says Frank + Oak cofounder and CEO Ethan Song. “It’s a unique opportunity in our generation where you can be based in Montreal, and be huge somewhere else. In the past, I think it took a lot longer.”
Frank + Oak has grown from five employees when it launched to more than 200 with offices in Montreal and New York. The retailer now ships its products to 40 countries and will have 15 stores by the end of the summer in cities across North America such as Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Boston and Chicago. It’s also set to launch a line of clothing for women this fall. International sales now represent 70 per cent of revenue, most of that from the U.S.
Song says the company’s success is due in part to a successful strategy of targeting Millennial men interested in fashion, and the brand’s ability to recommend products to them. Frank + Oak is also very active on digital and social media channels to help drive sales.
“We felt it was better to target a demographic of customers instead of a region,” says Song. “When we put content on the Internet and are active on Facebook, for example, the customers that are seeing it are international. I think if you don’t sell your product internationally, you’re not leveraging the full potential of the channels where you’re doing business.”
Frank + Oak is a direct-to-customer business, which makes reaching out to international consumers even more important.
Most of the retailer’s sales are online, which brings some unique challenges when exporting, beyond just customs and logistics.
“One challenge is offering the same level of customer service, no matter where the customer is,” says Song. “In today’s world, customer service is extremely important.”
Frank + Oak has responded by offering around-the-clock customer service options online, through email and by phone.
Another challenge for the brand is making sure its product is adaptive to different markets. For example, customers on the west coast, in places like California, Oregon and B.C. may be more interested in lighter clothing given their milder climates.
“Luckily, nowadays, the Internet provides a lot of that information, so you can be very strategic about where you want to grow your business,” Song says.
While the world has become more global, Song says the competition in each export market can often be the same. It forces the brand to be on top of its game everywhere it does business.
“In the past, I think the thought was that there was a set of competitors in Canada and a different set of competitors in the U.S. I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Song says.
“Competition is global, even if you only sell in Canada. That’s the reason why I really encourage people to export — it’s the best way to ensure that you’re competitive globally, to build the business, and not be limited by the Canadian market.”