A mother and creator, Amy Vohs built Lil’ Sidekick to eliminate the drop game her infant son liked to play.
At 6 months old, Vohs’s son began chucking everything in sight off of his high chair. She found that other tethering products on the market were either a hassle to clean or would fling the spoon back violently at her son. Vohs’ solution was to create a product that addressed both issues.
“I want to create products that make parents’ lives easier and kids happy,” she explained.
Foreign markets are already an important part of Lil’ Sidekicks business and Vohs explained that international sales could make up a greater share of overall business than domestic sales in the coming year.
“We see a huge opportunity in the international market for our product,” said Vohs, explaining that it is easy to communicate the appeal to parents worldwide.
Based in Polk City, Iowa, Lil’ Sidekick is 100 percent Made in the USA. Vohs is a sole proprietor who employs a network of American suppliers and consultants to make it all happen. Her business helps support Midwest manufacturers, including a plastic injection mold facility located a few hours from Polk City along the Mississippi River and a packaging plant in Minneapolis. Vohs also contracts with four consultants who are based in the Midwest to help run her business, including one to specifically handle international distri- bution and another committed to managing the company’s pres- ence on e-commerce platforms.
Vohs said that businesses like Lil’ Sidekick may be small but their international business helps them contribute to the local economy by bringing in revenue and working with suppliers, partners and the community.
While trade shows and a network of distributor relationships play important roles in Lil’ Sidekicks’ access to overseas markets, the internet is an increasingly important tool for Vohs’ small business. Powered by WordPress and PayPal checkout, her website acts as a marketplace for customers to purchase Lil’ Sidekick products. Her consultants and distributors also leverage e-commerce platforms including Amazon to reach new audiences. For example, Vohs noted that her distributor in Canada managed her sales over Amazon.ca.
Social media platforms provide an important medium for Vohs and her team to connect with customers and markets worldwide.
Lil’ Sidekick has a presence on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. The company also has its own YouTube channel, where it shares product information with a global audience.
Cloud-based tools enable the team to communicate and share information from different locations in the Midwest and around the globe.
“We rely a lot on Dropbox, QuickBooks, Square to communicate with international markets,” noted Vohs, adding that “simple” Gmail is the company’s primary tool for communication worldwide. Vohs said she is constantly looking for new avenues and tools to help keep things simple and efficient as she expands.
Logistic carriers simplify shipping procedures for small businesses with a global footprint. When it comes to the paperwork, “FedEx and DHL just file it electronically for me and I don’t have to worry about it,” explained Vohs.
That said, “shipping is a huge obstacle for us,” highlighted Vohs, explaining that,”we are growing substantially, but it’s difficult with the shipping costs and finding affordable ways to export.”
Government programs have been essential to Lil’ Sidekick’s global growth, said Vohs. “The Iowa Economic Development Authority has played a huge role in our success,” noted Vohs. The center provides a variety of services including consulting, references, and grant assistance to small businesses in Iowa. The IEDA, she noted, provided a grant to participate in a trade show that covered almost three-quarters of her expenses, “so it almost takes the risk out of it for us,” observed Vohs. She also emphasized the role of the local Small Business Development Center in supporting her global journey.
Vohs characterizes herself as apolitical, but she is a strong advocate for open markets. “This issue is pretty close to me,” said Vohs. “My concern is that if we start adding new tariffs or taxes [on imports from other countries into the United States], then these other countries are going to do the same thing in response.” She notes that her products often enter foreign markets duty-free thanks to existing trade arrangements, “but if that were to change, it could ruin our international distribution altogether.”
Vohs tells entrepreneurs looking to expand their business internationally to be optimistic. “The world needs good products,” Vohs said, “And you should look into it for the growth of your business.” She tells entrepreneurs to not be afraid and suggests there are great resources and advisors available to help.