Have you ever walked around the markets in South-East Asia thinking, boy this stuff is so cheap I could sell this for 5 or more times back home?
This is exactly what I thought when I was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2004.
I was about to move back to the UK and move in with my new Malaysian Chinese girlfriend. I thought why not export some Thai goods and sell them in the markets in London. It could even be a part-time job for the girlfriend (what a surprise that would be for her!).
So, after a few trips to factories in Hang Dong, much excitement, and managing to convince my girlfriend it could be a nice little earner (cue the Only Fools and Horses soundtrack), I begin my journey into the world of import and export.
Did I make easy money selling Thai goods in the UK? Would I do it again? Let me tell you the story of my time as an import/exporter of Thai goods.
First Introduced to the idea of Import/Export
At the time I was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2004/05) the idea of exporting goods to Europe or the USA wasn’t a new concept.
To me, it was though.
I had never been to China and so not experienced first-hand the drop-shipping scene that was gaining momentum amongst digital entrepreneurs.
I had seen lots of Asian products for sale in the popular London markets (Camden and Greenwich) though and so I knew (or at least thought) there would be a target market for these types of goods.
In my mind, it couldn’t go wrong and I was getting the items so cheap – I was easily going to turn a profit!
So, to quote one of my heroes of comedy, Del Boy in the hit sitcom of the ’80s and ’90s, “he who dares wins” and I went out to the factories on the outskirts of Chiang Mai looking to place my first order.
What products did I export from Thailand?
I decided to export mango wood products made in Thailand back to the UK.
A big factor in choosing mango wood to export as my first product to export is a chance meeting of a South American couple who lived in my Chiang Mai condo. Their business involved sourcing products, mostly mango wood, for clients in Europe who sold in big volumes in the markets there.
The couple was very nice, cool, and really fun to hang out with. We enjoyed many nights out for food and drinks in Chiang Mai. You can see the couple (Edwardo and his girlfriend) in the picture below on the left-hand side sat opposite a very young-looking me.
They knew which factories were reliable and how to deal with me. They did all the important quality checks and arranged all the necessary export and import paperwork.
Basically held my hand through the whole process making it super easy to source the products at a good price.
They charged a small percentage on the order to arrange. Working on the basis that I would continue to use them for future orders.
You can see some of the products in the picture below – some nice stuff eh?
It sounded good so I purchased around 400 items, which ranged from candles sets and vases of varying sizes.
What the heck is Mango Wood?
It’s a wood derived from the mango tree, of course. But the good thing about mango wood is that it’s a beautiful sustainable wood, even more than bamboo, that can be easily used to make a number of decorative ornaments and even furniture.
The nice thing with mango wood is the texture of the wood and although its densely grained hardwood it’s also relatively soft and so can make some impressive items. The color is naturally light brown, but it also has ribbons of gold and pink and fine lines of black.
All in all, Mango wood is in abundance in Thailand and can be turned into pretty much anything in the skilled hands of the Thais.
Visiting suppliers in Hang Dong
I did a number of follow up trips to the factories in Hang Dong, even with another couple that I met in Chiang Mai at the time. We ended up sourcing some more exotic looking mango wood vases that we sent separately to the main order I placed.
I still remember the excitement of jumping on a motorbike and heading 15km south out of Chiang Mai to Hang Dong, where the majority of the factories are based.
I have never had to urge to own a motorbike in the UK but when in SE Asia riding around town exploring new places on a bike is amazing fun. Although it can be some what scary at times with the insane traffic!
You can’t help but admire the craftsmanship that goes into these products.
We spent quite some time there watching them work and checking out the hundreds of different products they produced.
I picked around 35-40 decorative candle sets and vases of different styles and sizes. All in all, I had around 400 items, thinking that buying in bulk ultimately saved on shipping costs on a per-unit basis.
I thought I was being clever, but this back-fired as you will discover later.
Shortly after placing my order, I meet a really nice couple (Richard from the UK and Jing from Thailand) who were also living in my condo for a month. We ended taking a few trips to Hang Dong after hearing my excitement about entering the import/export business.
In the end, we purchased some more mango wood vases that were simply stunning. More expensive than the other goods I ordered, these wouldn’t look out of place in high-end hotels and restaurants.
We thought, why not give these a try too. If these sell we could focus on the high-end market and not the market stalls.
Stock ordered. Packing my bags, back to the UK
After 9 months of living in Chiang Mai, I boarded the flight back to the UK feeling both excited and sad at the same time.
Thailand really felt like home throughout the time I spent there.
This was mostly thanks to the wonderful people at Viangbua Mansion where I lived (you can see pictures of where I lived here), but also the experience of living as an expat in a warm country with amazing food.
On the flipside though, I was flying back to move into a flat in London with my new girlfriend who I missed so much. Being so far apart early in our relationship was strained and only by me going back to the UK would give it a proper chance of success.
Actually, a funny part to this story that writing this has reminded me of. When the subject of me moving back and into a flat with my girlfriend come up, I remember rather unromantically saying;
give me 24 hours and I will make the decision whether to move back or not
My girlfriend had really hit the jackpot eh? 😉
I knew that Thailand was not going anywhere, and I really wanted to give the relationship a try to see if she was the one, I wanted to spend my life with.
Turns out I made the right decision as we are married 16 years later and married with lovely two-kids – you can check out why my marriage works article.
So, bags packed and my mango wood ordered getting produced in the Thai factories in Hang Dong, I boarded the plane in Bangkok for the flight back to London.
Shock of moving back
I was in for a real shock though.
Living in my one-bedroom 86sqm condo Chiang Mai was a sheer indulgence and at the time one of the high-end places to stay in the city.
When I got back to the UK the flat, I was moving into with my girlfriend was certainly not of the same caliber. We had decided on a two-bedroom flat in the Isle of Dogs, a short walk to the more expensive areas of Canary Wharf and Greenwich.
But we were certainly NOT staying in the lush and expensive area. In fact, we were in an ex-council house, which to be fair on the inside was quite nice and a decent size. But on the outside, it ways run down and looked, well a bit shit!
So you can visualize this a bit, here is the view of the lovely mountains of Chiang Mai from my condo to the surroundings in the Isle of Dogs, London.
So, not to disrespect the tenants that lived in this building, but there were a lot of guys that were claiming unemployment benefits, but despite not working managed to have fancy new phones and let’s leave it at that eh?
It seems that some of the tenant’s dogs (well I hope dogs) used the lift for urinating and defecating in, which really added a nice pungent aroma as you got in.
We got used to holding our breath when using the lift.
Stock Arrived. Oh sh1t!
I eagerly awaited the arrival of my mango wood stock. They all looked great, and I believed I couldn’t lose out and would soon be making a killing selling them in the London markets for a lovely jubbly profit.
When the lorry arrived with my stock, I was taken aback by the sheer size of the 11-tonne lorry parked on the roadside. The guys started unloading the boxes – all 40 of them – onto the curb side where they would be staying.
It was my job to lug each box up to my flat, all with the bemused look of the fellow tenants of Nelson Mandela’s house.
There were so many boxes that I genuinely had concerns that the weight would be too much for the flat. So, I had to spread the boxes out in the 2nd bedroom, lounge, and even some on the balcony!
Checking over the invoice showed the weight of the boxes totally 500kg (1/2 tonne)!
Now that’s a lot of wood!!!
To picture this, look at a small part of my order in the picture just above – imagine 3-4 times this amount in your flat.
Our First Market Stand (Greenwich, London)
Greenwich was the natural choice for our first attempt at a London market stall as it was fairly close to our flat. The only issue was transportation in that we didn’t own a car and taking a taxi was going to be too expensive.
So, the option was a sack barrow to cart the goods to the market.
This was not ideal and was tiring walking the 1 mile down the road and under the Thames to Greenwich market.
I was beginning to have doubts about this part-time business.
Selling at the Markets
It’s surprisingly not that easy to sell stuff at the market. Certainly, it depends on the type of products and the price point of course.
There was a lot of interest in our mango wood vases and candle sets, but sales were sluggish.
I managed to stir up interest when I had my girlfriend behind the stand whilst I was checking the front of the market stand though. I engaged with potential customers talking up the products and they thought I was just another customer.
So, rather cheekily I ended up buying some of my own stock. My girlfriend was not happy though, and with a bemused look on her face sold me my own mango wood vases.
To say she was not impressed was an understatement 😉
I did this a few times and then had to disappear before my girlfriend stopped working.
So, the question is did we make any money?
Well, yes we did, but really not a lot.
When you factor in the cost of the market stand for the weekend at £95 for both days, the time and effort of both of us taking the stock there and setting up – it really wasn’t worth it. From memory, we made around £75 in profit that first weekend.
We tried a few more weekends and experienced how inconsistent market selling can be. One weekend we lost money and another weekend we made £100.
After 3 or 4 attempts we gave up on the market stand approach to selling my Thai products.
At this time, I had never set up an e-commerce store but was keen to use my mango wood as my first online e-commerce business. Hopefully one of what could be many, by exporting goods in Thailand to the UK and even the USA.
I like to make jokes and a huge fan of Only Fools and Horses (one of the best UK comedy series that started in the 1980s), so I had fun when choosing a domain name for my business.
In the end, I went with “gotwood”.
Great name eh?
I felt this was in keeping with the product and of course some cheeky British innuendo mixed in.
So back then you didn’t have WooCommerce or Shopify, or any of the other e-commerce platforms now available. Instead, I had to hack away at an asp.net shopping cart piece of software.
Like every IT project, this took forever to get right, even though I was a programmer!
The website went live too little to no fanfare as I had no idea how to market the site, I was a mere web developer and not a marketer.
Naturally I got ZERO sales during the 4 months the website was live.
The old motto of “build and they will come” actually turned out to be “build and it will sit there doing jack sh1t”!
Getting rid of stock!
I was getting a little desperate to sell the remaining stock.
Seeing and smelling the mango wood in my flat was frustrating too. It was a constant reminder of what a failure exporting goods from Thailand to the UK had been.
I had to find a solution to get rid of and reduce the chances of me losing a significant amount of money to me back then.
Then I had an idea, why not try and wholesale the remaining stock to one of the market sellers?
I went to a few stalls and eventually found a market seller in Camden who had a reasonably sized shop too, this would be perfect. He had space and would probably want some stock that was a little different from what he had already.
I can’t remember his name now, but he really liked my mango wood stock and so we struck up a deal for all my stock. It worked out around the price I paid for them, so I was happy – in fact, I was elated!
My embarrassment trying to sell the website!
I got rid of the remaining stock, which was great, but I thought why not try and sell the website too.
After painstakingly building the site from scratch it may sense to try and recoup some of the many hours, I had invested in it.
But this went horribly wrong. Mostly thanks to me being a complete idiot!
Let me explain.
When I was testing the backend of the site, I needed a fair number of product images and because I was being lazy, I just pointed the admin website at an image folder on my laptop. This software then went through this uploaded each image and associating it with the products in my e-commerce catalog.
So, this was all random and I didn’t pay much attention to the images uploaded.
When the website eventually went live, I selected just a few products out of the many in the catalog and uploaded proper product images that I took myself.
So, fast-forward several weeks or months later and I am demonstrating the backend to the guy who had just bought all my stock. Within a few minutes of going through the back-end of the website up pops scantily clad women – most embarrassing!
I couldn’t believe it.
Needless to say, he didn’t buy the website 🙁
What I learnt from import/exporting goods
It sounded such a simple idea. The margins were there. It couldn’t fail, but it did horrible.
The 9-months I spent on and off with this venture was tiring. Worse still, every single day my girlfriend and I were reminded of it. Imagine having hundreds of kilos of mango wood in your home!
It sounds simple now, but the margins are irrelevant if you don’t have a sales pipeline or even a semi-decent way to market and sell the goods.
When scouting goods in Thailand (or any country with cheap manufacturing) you see the potential mark-up and available margins but
I would like to say that I never jump in with both feet when developing a product, but that’s not technically true. I had a leap of faith when starting my supplement, Green TONIK – but I was fairly confident it would sell from the get-go as I was becoming very familiar with the industry.
So, that’s my first and only go at exporting products from Asia to Europe. I hope you found it amusing as I do now in hindsight my horrible failure of exporting goods from Thailand to the UK.