Just three years after their Australian debut, My Family
car stickers are available in
20 countries worldwide.
Co-owner of The Sticker Family, Phil Barham, tells the story so far.
From Japan to Canada, it seems the world can’t get enough of My Family stickers, the quirky stick-figure drawings you’ve probably seen on the back window of cars, well, just about everywhere.
Today, The Sticker Family produces around 200,000 stickers per month. However, the business idea germinated with former Gold Coast chiropractor Phil Barham for more than four years before he took the first step of creating his own product.
“I saw a one-piece sticker of a family on a car window when I was on a business trip in California in 2004,” he says. “I liked it, but it was only in 2008 when I realised that I had not seen anything similar in the Australian marketplace, that I started to do lots of research into intellectual property law. I wanted to see if a similar concept would work in Australia, but with a more Australian feel.”
His graphic-designer partner – now wife – Monica Liebenow drew some stick-figure mums, dads, children and pets, which they then had produced as transparent stickers.
In 2009, Phil approached a number of retailers to find out if they
would be interested in selling My Family stickers. “Seven retailers
said they would be willing to sell them,” says Barham. “We also
sold stickers at school fetes and weekend markets for the first three
or four months. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the ideal
place to sell our product early on.”
Over the first 12 months, Barham and Liebenow tracked how successful different types of retailers were at selling the stickers. They discovered which retailers sold the best, then used testimonials from these retailers to target similar outlets.
Individual Autobarn stores picked up the stickers in mid-2009 and they were stocked nationally in Autobarns
in April 2010. In May 2010, the first international agent was appointed, in Japan. Not long after that, New
Zealand became the second international market. Today, overseas markets make up 80 per cent of My Family
“Many of our initial agents were tourists who came to the Gold Coast on holiday,” says Barham. “They loved the stickers and contacted us to ask if they could get involved, and they’ve grown with us.”
With subsequent international appointments, Barham says that while many of their agents don’t have extensive retail experience, they do need to be passionate about the product and solutions-oriented. They also need the right contacts and resources in their territory.
“Because we’re very hands-on, it’s particularly important that Monica and I are able to communicate well with them,” he says. “Often, the agent will start negotiations with a suitable retailer, then I’ll fly in and hopefully we’ll be able to finalise negotiations while I’m in the country.”
Barham also points out that the agent is building a distribution network that can be used for future products, so it’s important that the partnership is profitable and based on trust.
Barham says that Canada and South Africa are the two countries they have found most similar to the Australian market. Israel and Russia have been the most challenging, because of disparity in culture and language. “Monica helps with the advertising material for most countries, so you can imagine how challenging it is if you aren’t even working in a familiar alphabet!” he says.
On any given day, Barham might speak to agents from six different countries. The challenge, he says, is to educate the agents and to shift gears between each territory. “For example, how we deal with our Italian agent is totally different from how we need to deal with our Swiss agents,” says Barham. “Our systems are evolving and we’re constantly learning how to do things better.
“If someone had told us three years ago where we’d be now, it probably would have scared us off. And, if we had needed to have every step in place and perfect, I don’t think we could have moved forward.”
Each time a new international market is added, The Sticker Family launches a country-specific website to support it. Because of the young age of the target market, the website is not primarily focused on online shopping, but rather on promoting the retailers who stock the My Family stickers in that country.
“Online sales make up only 15 per cent of our sales; 85 per cent of sales are through retailers,” says Barham. “Our agents explain to potential retailers that the website isn’t there to compete with them, it’s there to drive customers to a local stockist. Once they understand that, they don’t have a problem with it.”
Each country gets a selection of the basic sticker characters, plus some customised characters. For example, in Norway, there are three different types of skiers per family member and age group. For Israel, there are older-boy and older-girl characters in military fatigues, in line with the country’s compulsory military service.
“We try not to make assumptions about how things will work in a particular country, relying on our person on the ground,” says Barham. “We do have to encourage our agents to keep an open mind as well, though. Our Swiss agents are three unmarried, young guys and they originally selected lots of sporty girl and guy characters. We had to remind them of our target market and that the product is very family-oriented.”
They’ve also been surprised by certain reactions. “In Italy, we don’t have any grandparents in the range. The older women in particular don’t want to be depicted as old!”
As the business took off, Barham found himself spending up to an hour posting boxes of stock at Australia Post. “Eventually, the staff approached us, saying that there was a better way to do things,” says Barham.
The Sticker Family now uses eParcel’s local and international services. “The staff were great, putting us in contact with the right person who tailored everything to give us a very streamlined system,” he says, adding, “I haven’t been into a post office in 12 months!”
Barham’s final tip for other entrepreneurs? “Don’t be afraid to look outside of Australia. The potential international market is massive. Just make sure that you get good advice beforehand and have a person on the ground who is well connected, passionate and understands the local culture.”
Useful tools and resources
- The Sticker Family produces the My Family stickers.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and the interviewees, and not of Australia Post.
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