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When Sharon Thurin started Slim Secrets in 2005, she never dreamed her niche healthy snack business would become hot property in global markets.

The health and wellness coach initially launched Slim Secrets as a hobby to help clients who were battling with weight loss, but soon realised there was a gap in the market for nutritionally balanced snacks that could be eaten on the go. The existing products were made with artificial ingredients and weren’t targeted to people looking to permanently change their lifestyle for the better; instead intended for serious body builders or the ‘let’s start a diet on Monday’ club. Friends and family threw their support behind the idea, and soon Slim Secrets had shifted from a hobby into a viable business.

Within a year, the entrepreneur was exporting her products to five countries. Despite this rapid growth she continued to run the business on her own for three more years, outsourcing what she could, before hiring one staff member to help. Thurin still has just one employee, which is incredible when you consider that she’s sold over 10 million snack bars – a figure that doesn’t even take into account sales of the cookies, chips and protein balls that also make up her range.

With new products, more export countries and a big U.S. deal in the pipeline, Thurin talks about how she’s had to balance her desire to do it all with reality and reveals the four secrets to building a successful international brand.

Diet food has a bit of a bad reputation in some circles, how have you ensured the Slim Secrets brand doesn’t get lumped in with all the bad apples in the industry?

The most exciting thing about our brand and one of the reasons for its success is that our products sit in the health food section, sports section or diet section of any style of outlet, whereas many diet brands can only be slotted in as a diet products.

Within a few months of launch, our products were sold on Boost Juice front counters nationally and they can also be found in health practitioners’ surgeries, Fernwood Fitness clubs, Belgravia Leisure centres, health food stores and supermarkets. Therefore, our branding always has been about being a smart snacking secret weapon that gives consumers a healthy on-the-go snack option that will fill them up between meals.

We also don’t use artificial sweeteners in our bars, which helps differentiate us from many other brands nor do we sell any meal replacements. So, rather than advocating dieting, we promote healthy lifestyle changes that are sustainable for a lifetime.

What have you found most challenging about building the business? How have you overcome this?

Aside from having no food or business development knowledge when starting (Google and Austrade were my best friends in those days!) what has been challenging is also one of the most attractive parts of the business – and this is the fact that we outsource in many areas.

For example, by not having our own manufacturing facility we’re at the mercy of our contract manufacturers who can increase costs at any time. This also means that new product development is slower than I would like and if we need orders urgently for larger customers, we have to wait in a long line. There is no real way to overcome this, except to build great relationships with our contactors and this definitely helps when we need things done urgently.

I believe I’m very lucky though, as the business has grown and developed very quickly and we’re not plagued by the challenges so many businesses are in today’s climate.

You now export the Slim Secrets products. What’s the secret to managing the export process effectively?

We started exporting very soon after launch, as our products quickly attracted the attention from countries like New Zealand and Singapore. So, once again it was all a learning curve for me. When I think back to when I first started and how naive I was, I can’t believe Slim Secrets survived the export process. I didn’t even know what FOB [Freight On Board] and similar exporting terms meant, so I spent a considerable amount of time with the fantastic team at Austrade.

The main thing I have learned along the way is to trade in Australian dollars, as I’m not in the currency business and can’t spend time worrying about fluctuations. Also, to only offer payment terms that ensure I’m not out of pocket before the order leaves – that is, to either ask for payment upfront or 50 percent of the payment on order and the balance on delivery.

Based on your experience, do you have any tips for how small businesses can build a successful international brand?

  1. Having a strong presence on the web is probably the most important thing to begin with, so you can attract overseas companies to your brand. Your website and branding is usually their first port of call and if they like what they see they will take the next step. Consistent and globally appealing branding is a big part of this!
  2. Use PR to make your business look bigger than it is. Every single opportunity to announce something via the web will attract attention from overseas companies. We were asked to be involved with the Oscar Gift Bags a couple of times over the last 4 years and this has attracted the attention of so many overseas retailers and distributors – who also love to use this PR spin when selling our products.
  3. Building relationships with overseas connections is one of the most important things we have done to help build our brand internationally. Whether it’s meeting face-to-face, via Skype or email, we try to be very available and accessible. For example, my Japanese distributor can’t believe how quickly we come back to her with answers to questions – we pride ourselves on being responsive as soon as possible.
  4. Another thing I’ve learned is not to be afraid to ask for what I want, as well as not being quick to give away exclusive distribution within a country.

What do you most enjoy about being an entrepreneur?

I love waking up and not knowing what the day will bring. Every single day I’ve been in business with Slim Secrets I’ve learned something new and this certainly makes for an interesting life.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur is mentoring others in business, particularly the younger generation. I’ve spoken to marketing students at universities, and the Slim Secrets case study is used in Year 12 marketing textbooks. It makes me very proud to have built the brand from scratch.

If you could offer one piece of advice to others who are looking to start their own business, what would it be?

It can seem extremely daunting at the beginning and you may feel apprehensive about starting thanks to inexperience, gender, competition or family reasons. When I started Slim Secrets, I nearly gave up within the first three months as everything was so hard and new to me. Thankfully my husband Peter, who’s also a motivational/business speaker, was an amazing support and kept me in the game. Without his and the support of my whole family, I may not have survived the first few months.

My advice would be to find someone in your life that you can talk to and bounce ideas and thoughts off. Get sound advice and don’t be afraid to ask questions from other experienced business owners. Ensure you have a plan but don’t be too rigid with it as sometimes opportunities present themselves that are too good to not to pursue.

And of course – do it, don’t just dream about it. Anyone can have great idea, it’s about turning those ideas into reality. There’s never a right time – you’re never too young or old. If you’re dreaming about it, grab the opportunity now. Sure, it takes courage but sometimes you’ve got to take that leap of faith. Ask yourself what the worst thing is that can happen and whether you can live with the consequences. I’m not advocating you should put everything you own on the line, but don’t be afraid of failure.

We risk more than failure if we don’t try to turn our business dreams into reality; we risk not achieving our potential in life.

Give us a hint – what’s next for Slim Secrets?

It’s going to be an exciting time for Slim Secrets over the next 12 months. We’ve been approached by a leading U.S. businessman who wants to license the Slim Secrets brand. He’s put together a team to do this, including someone who has been involved with Costco as well ass one of the best lifestyle marketers in the US. So, if it all goes to plan and the license arrangement works we may look at duplicating this in other countries.

We’ve also had some interest from an extremely large organisation in China about distribution, which will be very exciting if it comes off.

We’re also working on some innovative new products. We’re very proud to bring innovation to the health food aisle and were one of the first companies in Australia and the U.S. to use chia seeds in our snack products. We’re also going to continue our co-branding arrangement with Michael Klim, to bring his Milk Active snack products, powered by Slim Secrets, to the market.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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