From Chelmsford to a world of opportunity

Exporting is GREAT: Amara

Andrew and Sam Hood are the brains behind Amara, the luxury homeware company that sells brands such as Ralph Lauren Home.

Andrew and Sam Hood

The married couple had never planned to start a business together before they launched Amara, but everything changed when their home renovations revealed Sam’s flair for interior design.

“Friends suggested that interior design was her calling in life”, says Andrew, who happened to be in a position to bring the seed of a business idea to life, having just finished a gap year from his career in the City.

“I said I’d write the business plan and then in a few months’ time return to the City. Three months became six months, which became a year – by which time I’d really got my teeth into running the company”, he says.

20% of sales come from the USA, but we haven’t spent a dime. It’s all through Google

Having launched Amara together in 2005, Sam managed relationships with brands and ran the company’s shop in Chelmsford – which they subsequently sold – while Andrew led the development of the company’s online presence, which has now become its sole focus.

However, he readily admits that he knew very little about online retailing at the beginning. “What I knew about ecommerce you could write on a postage stamp”, he says.

As with all growing businesses, it was clear that Amara needed the right website to support its international growth plans. Sam and Andrew hit a stumbling block though, when they realised that was already owned by a Latvian scientist. It took 7 years and €20,000 to buy the website address matching the brand name.

In the meantime, Andrew and his team worked hard to earn a strong ranking on Google. This has paid off, as he explains: “20% of our sales now come from the USA, but we haven’t spent a single dime on marketing. Every sale in the US comes out of Google”. The USA is one of more than 160 countries to which Amara sends its goods.

We try to be as local as possible in each market

The company has always committed to providing clear channels of communication for customers using its website. It employs French and German speaking advisers and last year rolled out the first of its international websites. “We try to be as local as possible for each market”, Andrew says, explaining that Amara is at pains to make the look and feel of these websites feel familiar to users around the world.

Perhaps most important of all have been the relationships that underpin Amara’s business model, particularly those with the brands it represents.  Amara now sells nearly 30,000 products from over 300 brands. It is the only website in Europe that stocks Ralph Lauren Home, while it has the biggest global account with Italian fashion house Missoni Home.  “We have built our entire business on the credibility we have with our brands”, says Andrew.

He explains: “We started with a beautiful store in Chelmsford. The brands came out and saw it and liked it. When we moved from a physical presence to online, the brands already had experience of dealing with us. We never discount, we work closely with them and respect them.”

Today, over 40% of our revenue comes from outside the UK

Andrew also attributes the company’s success to recruiting the right staff; Amara now has 50+ employees. “We have a whiteboard full of ideas and it’s a question of trying to work out what order to do them in”, he says. One bright spark was Amara’s awards event for the best interior design blogs, which is now in its second year. “The result has been all of these bloggers and people with social outreach talking about this”, says Andrew.

The company has also taken advantage of opportunities as they arise. When rival site Gift Library went into administration earlier this year, Amara acquired the domain name, diverting traffic to its own website.

Amara grew international sales by an average of 129% over two years to £2m in 2014. “Today, in excess of 40% of our revenue comes from outside the UK, something we are very proud of”, says Andrew.

Next, the company intends to launch more websites for new audiences around the globe – possibly starting with Spanish to appeal to both Spain and Latin America – as well as drawing more customers by increasing the visibility of its existing sites.

Andrew says that after ten years’ experience in online retail, his advice to ecommerce novices is to learn from the competition: “There are thousands of websites competing for the same market. The chances of creating something nobody has got is zero. There’s nothing wrong with taking the best bits from everybody else’s websites”.

He adds: “What’s important is passion – you have to work harder and smarter than everybody else”.