The Wise Why

Episode #76

Episode #076

Ep 76 | Stef van Boekel Mastering European E-Commerce Sales

by | 9 Feb,2024

About This Episode

Stef van Boerkel joins Kirsty van den Bulk to discuss how to succeed in European e-commerce sales markets. Together, they delve into the complexities and challenges of launching products on Amazon and expanding across European markets, offering valuable guidance for small businesses and large corporations.

During their conversation, Stef and Kirsty touch on a range of crucial topics. They discuss the challenges of cross-border selling, the merits and drawbacks of distributor models versus direct sales, and offer advice tailored to small players. They also examine the shift towards localised distribution models, the impact of Brexit on UK-EU trade, and the role of cultural differences in business approaches.

Throughout the episode, Stef shares not just his professional insights but also personal anecdotes that underscore the practicality of his advice. Drawing on his experience assisting manufacturers with warehouse management systems and customer support, he emphasizes the importance of providing seamless localised shopping experiences for European customers. He also reflects on his Dutch upbringing, its influence on his work ethic, and the value of intuition in decision-making.

The episode concludes with a discussion of the lessons learned from past experiences, both good and bad, and how these lessons shape future choices, particularly regarding career paths or business growth strategies.

Episode #76 : Full Transcription
Kirsty van den Bulk
Hello and welcome to The Wise Why Now in theory being that I’m married to a Dutchman, I should be really good at pronouncing Stephe surname, but I’m not because Dutch sign is not easy. So actually you’re the worst way is about my guests. So I’m gonna introduce you to Steph van vocal. I hope.

Stef van Boekel
Yes. Good enough for me.

Kirsty van den Bulk
Who has got a? Fascinating, incredible journey and some brilliant advice to share with you today. So enough about me. If you’re looking to launch an Amazon, this is a podcast you don’t want to miss. Over to you, Stef.

Stef van Boekel
Ohh thanks. Uh, thanks for having me, Kirsty. And thank you also for the nice words. Indeed. I’m hoping we’re able to bring some some interesting insights towards your audience. And yeah, I’m happy to to be here.

Kirsty van den Bulk
Awesome. So can you explain a little bit because you tackle a part of the mark? It that people find overwhelming and I know this because when I worked at D link I can remember Adrian Edwards and Katie Leon sitting for days and days and days trying to upload all of the information for the the My D Link cloud launch, which was the one of the first home. CCTV cameras. Can you explain how complicated it really is to get your products out into Europe?

Stef van Boekel
Well, if you want to start reaching a consumer in a country, they’re expecting a local experience. And I think that is the complexity of it all. If you want to start selling across border, you need to understand the local market, which obviously you don’t. If you don’t live in that country. And that that has a on a different levels. So from compliance perspective, taxes, culture, language, currency taxes and I think that whole scope overall that makes it a quite a complex activity. Also one of the main reasons why. Majority of the cones only sell one or two countries. Or for example, they work with a local distributor that understands the market.

Kirsty van den Bulk
So I’ve done the distribution. You know when I worked dealing, I worked at Samsung, we worked and we all sold through distributors because it made life easier. But if you’re a sole trader, a small market owner going. To a large distributor. Doesn’t always work. You’ve got any advice you can? Share with people.

Stef van Boekel
Uh, well, actually, the distributor model in general is an old model because more and more companies are setting up solutions to start selling cross-border. And for example, very typical example. So if you wanna work in Europe nowadays, you can go to DHL. Say I want to have a logistical contract for euro. That was 10 years ago. That was not possible, so you needed to have a local player that worked with the local logistical companies. Why? Why what’s what’s the impact then? Is that a manufacturer is able to then sell directly to the local players and the margin in between is basically the competitive advantage. Of the distributors that versus the distribution model. So the distribution model in general is not, let’s say, a very long term solution I believe. And so I I don’t think a company is doing well to be the top focus solely on the distribution only strategy to go back to your main question, what what if you are a small player actually if you are a small player, a distributor can be. The shortest way to start gathering, let’s say, to get some foothold in. A new country? But you definitely need to have something to offer towards the distributor, because if you’re one out of 100 brands that they distribute, you want to make sure that their sales team is going to focus on your products. So you need to be well prepared with a good catalogue with good promotion, material marketing budget etcetera. Otherwise you’re good but the distributor. Will not darken your. But.

Kirsty van den Bulk
And that was my role. That’s that’s what we I very rarely talk about because it’s it doesn’t seem necessarily relevant to what I do now, but of course that’s what I did. I ran the distribution channel for these companies. I was out there and to you know, to to I was there running these sales incentive days and. Wasn’t. I can’t say that I was exhausted because I wasn’t young. I was in my 40s and I was having to come up and jeer these sales teams and keep them going and focus them and find ways to drop my price and create margin. And that’s the beautiful nugget here. I was talking to somebody yesterday about the cost of goods. I can’t don’t know if you want to expand a little bit. About margin and the cost of goods.

Stef van Boekel
So if you look at the whole chain, let’s say if you look at what, what in my experience, how it normally looks like is that a retailer has approximately depending on product category. Obviously that’s really important to say the product category really varies. But let’s say on average it’s 30 to 35%. For that activity, the retailer though has to call complete consumer operation setup so they sell single items to provide high customer support. People can return. There’s a showcase at the web shop or that is for example store where they can go to. Then you have the distributor, the distributor of the works against 20% for that, they keep storage in the warehouse, they buy in pallet level from the manufacturer and they sell off the master packs towards the retailer. They build the relationship with the different local retailers and for that they earn approximately 20%. Then you go back to the manufacturer and on average we can say the manufacturer after selling it to the distributor still has an over 50% on margin for the production. The marketing activities, the brand development, research and development in general. So they have the biggest cake sort of. But also by far the biggest responsibility.

Kirsty van den Bulk
So how do you help someone? Because you know, it’s quite complex and there’s not when you start taking away 20% for a distributor, 40 up to about 40% for a retailer, that’s 60% of your business. And that’s before you look at your costs, right, that’s that’s your your cost of manufacturing. So what? Do you do? That helps somebody that I’m I don’t sell product, but somebody who’s selling product or cause I saw on your website. We’ve got some really cool products that are out there on Amazon, so. What do you do?

Stef van Boekel
So to give a little bit background about myself, So what I did for almost 50 years and uh, I was helping companies to set up an infrastructure so they can supply to the consumer on a, on a European level, but giving the local experience so that the the client from Denmark or from Spain or from the UK was thinking is buying something locally. But it was actually man. That’s so I was looking at the warehouse, the warehouse management system, the logistical network, the customer support. Which language do they speak? Are they able to reply in 24 hours etcetera. And then you realise that everybody is understanding the direct to consumer strategy is the strategy for the long term. But if you come from a traditional company that that is a quite a big culture change to, to to recognise that you. Need to have a. High customer experience because online, let’s say the consumer, the end consumer is expecting a. Very high experience. They wanna have the product delivered next day. They wanna pick it up at the local post office, return it at the local post office, have customer support and the the same language that applies within 24 hours, etcetera. And if you need to change a company saying, OK, you’ve been shipping pallets as a for example. Manufacture. You’ve been shipping palace worth of €5000 and then explain them that the order of €50 is just as important as the order of €5000. That’s a big, big culture change mostly also procedures and systems etc. Well, So what I did was work inside companies. But everybody says yes, ecommerce is the future. We want to change. But at the end you see that it was not really optimised. Let’s say the the sales, the sales had a lot more potential but because of the already existing setup is quite complex. Specifically if you want to. Do it on a. Interventional. So yeah, Long story short, what I do is start go for Project project project. I designed the whole infrastructure from zero and and now offer it as a service. So we say to companies for the price of 1/2. After you get 30 FTE that they’re busy with making sure that the consumer. And those countries gather local experience. Yes, for those that basic.

Kirsty van den Bulk
It’s pardon.

Stef van Boekel
Me. The the the manufacturer ships the stock to us and we make sure that the products are visible on Amazon, but also all other major marketplaces in Europe. We make sure that the consumer in those countries has, like I said, the local experience. So basically you’re able to immediately distribute your products on a plane European level as well on a professional level.

Kirsty van den Bulk
Brilliant. So let’s address the elephant in the room, because unfortunately, there was a thing that happened and it changed the way the UK can trade. So we have to address the Brexit conversation and we have to address the impact of that cause. There was a there has been a way. There’s been a a challenge for people to get to, you know, for me to send something to my in laws, for instance. I send it to them in Rotterdam and they have to pay £25 to get it released from customs and it’s not even worth that, so we can’t ship as family presents to each other. We now have to work out as we send a lot of gift vouchers, but I wonder if we could address a little bit about the elephant in the room of Brexit.

Stef van Boekel
Yeah, I mean, Brexit, former international trade perspective was not a very smart move. So yeah, we, we we work with a lot of UK companies that were used to sell a lot in Europe and then basically went from 100 to 0 or from 100 to 20 we. We as a Company Act as import of racket, so that basically just ship to 1 to one warehouse. They invoice to one warehouse and we take care of all the customs and all the local setup. So on this way we solved it. So for us it gave an opportunity but for yeah, UK companies, well actually UK, because I’ve been, you know, in the international trade on the European level for many years now. I always found UK the most competitive market. I find that in the UK the the there are very strong traders, much stronger than in the majority of the basically if you look at UK and Europe, I think UK has the best trade. Of the of that region, for sure, by far, I think, because it was an it is an island. So I think from years ago you already had, let’s say the the experience with with trading. So from that perspective it’s always difficult to do business there from a margin perspective because there’s a lot more negotiation going on. So that there’s now still still active, basically because I was expecting that it will be doing business like with Norway and Switzerland, but it’s still messy at the border. And yeah, I’m hoping that the problems will be solved soon and that procedures are going to be a lot more. Smoother to help basically both parties on, let’s say each side of the each side help both parties.

Kirsty van den Bulk

Thank you for sharing that because I don’t think we we talked about Brexit and there’s obviously there’s a whatever the split was, I’m not I know it’s like a couple of percentage. I’m not gonna try and pull that up on air when I’m live, but the I know that there was a real big divide in the country but I don’t think any of us really thought about the long term impact and we are still suffering with it so. Who can’t not have somebody who solves the problem and how to ship your kids to? Europe on the podcast. So they’re actually addressing it. So thank you. So I want to hear a bit about the man behind the brand, the man who you are, because you live in Tuscany, you’re a father. So I wonder if you could just tell me more about you.

Stef van Boekel
OK, so born or raised in the Netherlands grew up at the farm. So basically I started working when I was maybe 10 years old. So I’ve always been working always let’s say from from the age of 12, I was always having jobs. So I think that really had an impact growing up. On a farm all. My let’s say my work ethics. UM, uh. Study at international trade that also quite a common thing in the Netherlands. Like in like people from the UK, we have a little long history when it comes to international trade. Being now indeed already for 70 years together with my with my wife. I’m 40. So yeah, for very long periods of if you look at my total total life. Indeed, father of three. And I lived and worked in, I worked basically in almost any country in Europe, but also outside Europe. I lived in five and now I live in Italy. Why do I live in Italy is because I like to drink wine during lunch. That’s one of the reasons. And the second reason is I lived in Italy before, like 10 years ago when I really liked it, and when the company was developing. And I need to attract people from all over Europe. Do that when you’re in islands. In a city like Amsterdam. But I didn’t want to live in Amsterdam on all the big city. So then I was thinking then I was actually reading a a startup story of a company that had the same issue to attract international staff and a quite quick pace. And then they moved to Barcelona and they said come live and work in Barcelona. And then immediately there was no issue because everybody specifically nowadays to young professionals like to have, let’s say, some flexibility about travelling, etc. So I thought, hey, why not, why don’t I also, you know, develop the business in, in Barcelona? So I actually travel to Barcelona, look for houses and offices. And then yeah, I was then thinking if it’s Barcelona, it can also be something else. And after my pleasant experience in Italy. But. Three years ago, I thought, yeah, why not this skinny? So my wife always wanted to live in in Italy. So the decision was made, and that was five years ago, and now we’ve been living with. We went there with with a pregnant wife and one son. And now we have three sons and already living, you know, for for five years. Yeah.

Kirsty van den Bulk
I love it and I just want to touch on the work ethic a little bit because I find that that’s quite culturally. Obviously, I’m married to a Dutchman and I find that’s quite a cultural thing in Holland is the work ethic, you know, he started working. He’d kill me if I told this story. But hey, he never watches the podcast anyway, so I’m going to he started working at 14. In a bumblebee factory, I might say the other bit of the story that will still kick in my head make me giggle, but he started doing that because he wanted a TV and his parents said so. He’s a little bit older than you, but not much. And as parent said, if you want TV, you’ve got to go out and work and earn it. So I think he was about 11 or 12, not much older than you’re saying you were. And he was working in a bumblebee factory, folding cardboard. And then he actually started putting bumblebees out for the shipping to the farm. So you probably would see some of the bumble bees to pollinate your vegetables on your farm. If you were to selling vegetables that were sent from the Bombee factory, that my. Husband worked at.

Stef van Boekel
That’s a funny story indeed.
Kirsty van den Bulk
I I shouldn’t laugh, but I do see, you know, look at my in laws. I look at Netty and I look at Pete and Pete was out working from a bit like my parents generation thing working and working, working from a really young age and started working on the tools the same as my husband. He started working on the boats offshore. So it’s I just find the cultural work ethic in Holland really fascinating. I have it because I’m a third generation where you could start working at 13, but it was just something I really want to touch on because it really resonates with me that you seem to have a very strong work ethic as a, as a country.

Stef van Boekel
Yeah, I think now because I’ve been working and living in multiple countries, I can definitely confirm what you’re saying. If I go to family, it’s probably the the second question, how is work, right. So you talk a lot with friends and family. How things are going at work? Are you happy? What are you learning? What are you doing? What? How does those market look like? Right. You really want to understand how their business operates, where people.

Stef van Boekel
Well, for example, in Italy it’s I know people for for a year and I would like to talk about work, but they don’t, they don’t. They don’t talk about work. I have no idea what kind of job they do and they don’t like to discuss it because work is not of an importance. Food is, which obviously is also a nice subject. So yeah, it’s true. It’s a very cultural thing. Work is a very important thing in in the Netherlands when it comes to happiness, right? So also if you’re not happy at work, then everybody says change job. If you’re not happy, change job, make a change, and all of us will work. Read it.

Kirsty van den Bulk
And and the reason I run the business is because I wasn’t happy and letting it went change it. And I remember the conversation. And when I was launching, I was like, oh, I’m never gonna make it. It’s it’s really difficult. They were like, no, you just keep working at it. There was something else I was gonna ask about the Netherlands, but it’s it’s. Gone. So I’ll come back to that. But inspiration, you’ve talked about your wife. You’re living in tasking. You’ve got three to I know what I was going to talk about because I’ve just put it back. Parenting Dutch parents are apparently that Dutch children are apparently the happiest children in the the in the world, apparently to deal with Dutch parenting. I don’t know. I will go. What I I don’t know. We can discuss that. But apparently there is a statistic that says that Dutch parenting is the best.

Stef van Boekel
OK. Well, obviously for me, difficult to to judge, but I what I really think is a big difference. But I think the UK is similar, but here in Italy for example, it’s. We bring kids to bed at 7:00. That’s, you know, that’s the that’s the time everybody goes to bed. So let’s say until you’re eight or something like that, you go to bed at 7:00. Well, here in Italy, it could be 10 or 11. And they always say to me, how is that possible? And I said, but how is it possible to put them in that at 10? You you. First of all, you want to have your own. Private evening. And secondly, if I if my kids don’t sleep 10 hours the next day, they’re not. You know, it’s not that thin.

Kirsty van den Bulk
I’m with you. I’ve got a 7 year old and trust me, she’s just asked for her bedtime to go to 7:30 and we are. We’re we’re crying. I’m gonna. Be honest. We’re we’re.

Kirsty van den Bulk
We’re we’re crying cause that means actually dead. Yeah, she’s asleep by 8:15, if we’re lucky. And it’s like, no, we have to go to bed by 9 because we’re exhausted anyway. So inspiration, we’ve talked about your your children. I’m wondering. Who’s inspired you?

Stef van Boekel
I think. I think my if if I look at the prove myself, I would think it’s still to with my parents. You know, even though I’m, you know, 40 as somehow I think that’s a big big driver still to to show you know that you are able to get some some. Something’s done. And that’s basically the the fundament and I think over the over the years you have different people that you work with, but of course also be friends that sort of you wanna love look with or you wanna prove yourself to. So that’s basically how I. I get inspired. What I really like to do is I don’t like social media that much, but if I follow people social media, those are often some entrepreneurs that I look at. And I think that also helps me when I’m doing that, I think they call it zoom, zoom zombie scrolling or something like that. That at least there are people that are doing some stuff or being in a position that I also wanna be. So that’s a bit how I look at my if I look at towards. Persons. That’s how I look at my inspiration.

Kirsty van den Bulk
Awesome. And have there any been been moments in your life where you’ve you’ve felt like you’ve had to? I mean, you’ve you’ve changed jobs. You’ve moved, you’ve. You’ve you’ve done pivots, but I’m just wondering if there’s any moments where you’ve had really, really great decisions or those decisions where you think I wish I hadn’t done that. So those those are hard moments.

Stef van Boekel
I think it’s not personal decisions, it’s more about getting out of the situation. That was horrible than recognising it was the best experience in my life so. At that, for me always surprises me how it changes your behaviour and your view on life and in business, and basically specifically the wrong things happen.

Kirsty van den Bulk
Yeah, I was talking to someone yesterday about that. Sometimes you could be in a job and you. Just can’t see. What is going on around you and when you’re in a company, sometimes the the power plays, you’re being you and it’s not. It’s not all business, but sometimes you feel like you’re something’s going on, but you can’t see what it is but you’re unhappy. And sometimes you have to take that leap of faith and jump on that surfboard and just see where you land. So I’m gonna ask a question which I don’t normally ask, but.

Stef van Boekel
I I think I want to add something to it because if I don’t.

Kirsty van den Bulk
If you could.

Stef van Boekel
Look, look back. I I think your stomach feeling is very important. Your intuition is is really important. So because it’s quite easy sometimes to just keep on going, hope that things change. But if you’re unhappy you, I do think you need to make big cuts and then you will realise that. You will quite quickly get back on your feet, so I can always define. The. Confirm and also stimulate people you know, make decisions. Big decisions keep making on big decisions. It’s not gonna harm you. And and looking back on the long term, it’s both those decisions that really brought you further in life.

Kirsty van den Bulk
That’s really good advice, I was told, and I was learning to, you know, doing my singing when I was I with Livan. Livan Miller. He was my singing teacher at the time. And he taught me that if your heart. And your head. Agree. Then it’s a right decision. If your heart is saying one thing and your head is saying the other, really listen to both. But probably go to your gut. It was beauty.

Stef van Boekel
Yeah, I. All my bad decisions were basically by not listening to my good feeling.

Kirsty van den Bulk
And and there is that moment. It’s everything I do everything that I’ve done since I launched this, you know, KVDB has been gut 100%. Someone said to me you’re so brave and it’s like no. I I kind of just go, let’s give it a give it a whirl. You know, you inspired me this morning to to write a. Blog there were. Things that happen in my life where I go. Oh, yeah, that’s a really good thing. But it’s that gut all guttural feeling where I go. That’s the right thing. Same as launching the podcast. It was a gut thing, but I also have to act on my gut super quickly because I don’t act on it. It’s gone. I don’t know if you have the same thing.

Stef van Boekel
I I I tend to stimulate myself to always immediately take action, because otherwise I know it’s it’s gonna fade away or come back two weeks later and then I’m just annoyed with myself that it didn’t start that three weeks ago. So. Yeah, I I definitely can. I have the same way for sure.

Kirsty van den Bulk
And I love that. So I’m gonna ask you a question. I said earlier that I don’t normally ask which is, what would you say to your 20 year old self now?

Stef van Boekel
Good question. Yeah, you know by real estate. No. Uh, what I would say is, yeah, won’t listen more to good feeling. Surround yourself with people that are further in life. And. And and that’s basically the main. The main things I would think gonna positively impact.

Kirsty van den Bulk
If I’d listened to my gut, I would have saved myself 12 years of pain. So I’m with you on that one. Really, really good advice there. This is where the tables turn and I get to worry a little bit because I don’t know what the question is. You get to throw a question at me, which I have no idea. So for your boots, and I will try to be in the hot. Seat for two minutes.

Stef van Boekel
Yeah, looking at your, looking at your experience, I would like to know if you will be in, in, in my, in our position and let’s say working on the international level, finding your your relations and building building also of that relationship relations, what are? How are you able to, let’s say, get people motivated to keep working with you on the long term and really see you as a partner?

Kirsty van den Bulk
Really, really good question and it is, it is an interesting one because you know when I look at how I go to market, a lot of the time I’m going to market it and I end up talking about public speaking on camera confidence because that seems to be the emotive. Pain that most of my customers have, but actually what I really do is I look at everything that you say and I put it all the way through and I’m looking at even potentially creating reports that will go to Europe like to seven nation exploitation communication strategies. So it’s a lot more than I actually put out there. And so once people start to unveil. But like an onion, it’s like that. If you think for an onion layer. You start with the outside, so the shiny nice red onion that you know it’s healthy and it’s good and and you want to be like that and you wanna use that onion cause it’s not got any rot on it and it’s you can you’re gonna make it a really nice bit of food but as you start to peel it away you might find another shoot of an onion and another shoot. And you might find. More, and as you’re uncovering it, you find out what I really do. And you start to discover the strategy and then you find out that I run distribution channels and you realise that I can do multiple. Yeah, I can run a big project with multiple partners and you go. I didn’t know that.

Kirsty van den Bulk
This and it’s like yes, I can do that. And so once you uncover what I actually do, you are ending up working with me for a very long time. So usually a three-year investment because I will do every single bit of communication from the the, the report that you’re gonna submit. To Europe, the. Strategy and the running of the project. Right. The way down to how you were going to stand in the room and present that information to someone at the same time, I will also get nervous if I’ve gotta go and present data and I will struggle and I might talk too fast and I might make the same mistakes that you’re. Gonna make because I’m human. And the big thing about it is I’m really human, so I’m not just a on camera, public speaking coach. I’m not just a marketing strategist. I’m actually a communication and brand strategist. And you want me in your company because I’m gonna make sure that you rock on every single screen and it’s. As simple as that. How? Was that I’m not sure I I might steal that as my as my pitch now that. Was actually I might.

Stef van Boekel
Yeah, that was a good one.

Kirsty van den Bulk
I might cut that out and put. That on my. YouTube Channel thank you for asking. Thank you so much for asking me that question. As I said, I had no idea and I didn’t know that one was going to come in. Thank you for your time this morning.

Stef van Boekel
Issue it and date. I’m convinced.

Kirsty van den Bulk
I’ve really appreciated you sharing your wisdom this morning.

Stef van Boekel
Good. Thank you very much for for having me, Kirsty, and I’m hope to do it some time again in in the future. And yeah, also really nice to be here. Thank you.

Kirsty van den Bulk
No problem.

00.00 Selling on Amazon
02:32 Tackling the European Market
05:33 The Evolution of Distribution Models
09:34 The Role of Distributors
10:45 Addressing Brexit
13:01 The Man Behind the Brand
15:51 Cultural Work Ethics
20:54 Inspiration and Driving Forces
23:29 Decision-Making
25:49 Advice for the Younger Generation
27:20 KVDB

Connect with Stef:

Operator One
LinkedIn

Mentioned in this Episode:

Hanwha Vision
Ingram Micro.nl

More Episodes

Skip to content