From Idea to Reality: The Story of Expatboxes Start-Up

Last summer I was in the Nuffield hospital about to have an operation, having just been given a dose of tranquilizer, when the idea for Expatboxes suddenly came to me – the name, the concept, the whole picture (could it have been the Valium?). Before being wheeled into the operating theatre I made a call to my brother to buy the name on the Internet. On coming round I telephoned him and he confirmed that he had purchased the name Expatboxes.com for me.

The idea of Expatboxes.com was to sell British expats living abroad the things they miss from home, ie. Marmite, Colman’s mustard, Branston pickle, PG Tips tea, Mc.Vities Digestives etc. Having been an expat myself for nearly twenty years I well know how Brits abroad crave the things no longer available to them.

My Father kindly agreed to help financially and the rest I put up myself. My friend and Expatboxes Manager Karen Knight joined us and between us we started on the road of discovery.

To work: Firstly I turned the dining room into an office and bought a new, fast computer and got onto the Internet. Sorting out a website was the first priority. As an Internet newcomer it was all a new world to me full of jargon I did not understand, but not for long.

I started looking through the options available. It became clear that setting up an ordinary website was relatively easy and something one could do at home with all the various tools available. The problem I came up against was that I had to offer an on-line purchasing facility, so that customers could actually purchase the products directly from the website, ie. an electronic store.

Eventually I decided on VirginBiz – an excellent all round package, not particularly sophisticated, but offering good simple website design and setting up the WorldPay account as part of that package.
Having sorted this option out, work began on photographing the products decided to offer 15 ready made up hampers of British goods. The weather was fine so I did all the photography outside using a Sony digital camera with 2.1million pixels. The images were e-mailed to Virgin in jpeg format, and they incorporated them into the website.

I have found that I have started out with offering a basic set of products which have been either phased out or developed according to feedback from customers. I then had to provide shipping weights and costs. Each hamper was weighed at Parcel Force with packaging, and the shipping price to all the various country zones deduced.

That brings us to yet another new area: Packaging. I would have liked to have had cardboard hampers made up with the Union Jack pattern all over them.

After contacting many packaging companies I realized that this was going to prove very expensive (2 colors), so had to re-think this as customers would probably not want expensive packaging, but I wanted to offer quality packaging which was unique to us. Eventually the Sales Manager at SCA packaging in Exeter came up with the current design of a white box with our logo printed on the lid in a stable cardboard grade and an outer transit box.

Expatboxes went on-line in November 2000. Our work is now getting our name known in the UK and abroad. We have links on many expat-related sites and have been featured in the Weekly Telegraph, but a lot is word of mouth from our satisfied customers. Our job is a joy, knowing we are bringing pleasure to so many British expats out there!

Excerpted and adapted from “From Idea to Reality: The Story of Expatboxes Start-Up” in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 23