Fast Track to international trade success


Since launching Fast Track 20 years ago, Hamish Stevenson has encountered hundreds of companies from a cross spectrum of sectors and industries. Here he reveals the common characteristics of successful overseas traders and shares his experience for businesses keen to follow their example.

About the author

Hamish Stevenson is the founder of Fast Track, a leading research and events company that has created a network of the UK’s top private companies and publishes annual league tables in conjunction with The Sunday Times.

The league tables include SME Export Track, Tech Track, International Track, Profit Track, Top Track 250, Top Track 100 and, of course, Fast Track.


A look at the companies appearing in our SME Export Track and our International Track league tables shows a number of key trends emerging. These reflect a real appetite for new opportunities and new routes to overseas markets. They include:

  • An increase in trade with the US
  • Targeting of non-traditional markets, either to diversify or capitalise on demand
  • Overseas growth by acquisition
  • Leveraging Britain’s cultural heritage and reputation for creativity and innovation
  • Building distribution networks involving overseas partners
  • Investment in e-commerce to reach new international customers
  • Investment in product innovation or R&D, to build a niche and win business with multinational customers
  • Exporting for growth to offset declining sales in the UK.

Raising your brand profile

When I launched the International Track league table in 2010, one of the first big success stories to feature was Fever-Tree, a premium carbonated mixer supplier. Their approach to international trade was really inspiring – it was all about building the brand. At the outset, they deliberately marketed to international Michelin-starred restaurants to stock their products. That raised the brand profile and immediately associated it with quality ahead of the launch of the product for domestic consumption. They knew their target market, and they went for it in a really focused way.

“The best way to encourage businesses to start or grow overseas trade is to showcase companies that have been there and done it.”

Today, it’s easier than ever for brands to build that kind of global profile. Overseas travel increases consumer familiarity with international brands and technology is a huge enabler. Brands can launch and expand quickly and cost-effectively, marketing themselves to the world via social media. Furthermore, I’ve seen an increasing focus on recognising success and learning from mistakes – and that’s a very positive trend.

Amplifying your chances for success

There is no magic bullet for successful international trade, but there are ways to amplify your chances. Most importantly, you need to know that there is demand for the product or service your business is selling – but that alone isn’t enough. In my experience, there are three key attributes of businesses that truly excel in overseas trade:

“Overseas travel increases consumer familiarity with international brands and technology is a huge enabler.”

  • They understand their target market and customer base
  • They are customer-centric at all times
  • They are service orientated.

Continual learning and improvement is also crucial to explore and grow new opportunities. My advice for businesses keen to pursue overseas success is simple. Research and understand your market and use that appreciation to adapt your product, your marketing and your distribution to best meet your clients’ needs.

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