Making teachers' lives easier is the mantra for Invercargill company.

You know you have a grip on the market when customers ring you before your next product is out.

Nicola Smith, managing director of educational publisher Essential Resources, fondly recalls the first intimation of success.

"We were publishing our No Nonsense Number learning resources for young children in stages. By the time we got to Stage Six, we had teachers who would ring for the book because they couldn't go on without our resource - that was an incredible high for us, people ... waiting for us to publish."

The No Nonsense Number resource series remain one of the company's most popular products.

Smith started the Invercargill-based company more than 10 years ago in the laundry room of her family home, with business partner Geraldine Sloan. Today it is a multi-million dollar publishing business with a strong presence in New Zealand and an expanding Australian and global toehold.

"We literally live, eat, breathe, sleep and dream about making teachers' working lives easier," Smith says. The company uses some 85 authors to help produce its string of publications, which cover topics including science, maths, English, social studies, health, information technology and resources to teach the gifted.

Smith confesses that her bossy attitude and business savvy, coupled with Sloan's illustration talent, has made them a great combination. "Geraldine is an incredibly talented illustrator. That's why our books are so attractive. She is happy to put up with me. We are also surrounded by a brilliant team of designers whom we have complete faith in."

During the company's early years, Sloan says, it was sheer faith that sustained the partners' dream of building a publishing company. "We were surprisingly naive - we thought we could create such a company and never believed we couldn't. We believed we could do better than what's in the market." She says the biggest challenge was getting customers to have faith in the product. "We knew the material we had was good. The difficulty was getting people to know who you are. It took a lot of time and money to get to where we are today. It is the same in every market ... the hardest thing is getting yourself known to the market."

About the same time that the company went to its first trade fair - in Frankfurt, 2004 - Smith also took on the Australian market. Today, Essential Resources' material is used in about half the schools there.

Exports to Britain began in 2008 and Ireland more recently. The company also sells in Singapore and Hong Kong, and exports now account for 60 per cent of its turnover.

Going to a trade fair is an exercise, Smith says. First there is the preparation, then more work after the event.

"Six weeks later, you are still doing the follow-ups. Often what you think you are going to achieve [from the trade fair] is the opposite of what you set out to do and the opportunities come from a completely different direction."

While overseas, she found New Zealand education had "such a high reputation" in in other countries.

While this opened doors, it did not mean a free ride, she says.

Over six years, the company has participated in four trade fairs. "We picked up many long-term relationships - that's been worth it."

While they are important, Smith says, don't assume that being at a trade fair means automatic export success. "You really have to be prepared. Just going to a trade fair will not be enough. You have to be committed to want to export.

"You need to clearly outline what you want to achieve. It starts with five days of giving yourself fully to the people at the fair."

The company has succeeded in selling abroad by being content-specific. Although it publishes material for New Zealand, it tries to localise content where possible to suit the market it is servicing, Smith says.

Last year Essential Resources introduced its first e-book, and over the past 18 months it has been working on a web-based planning tool for teachers, which it hopes to launch early next year.

The company had its first profit in 2004 and has been reinvesting in the business. Smith says.

She isn't one to sit and navel gaze but did have to stop in her tracks for the first time this year to look at the hard numbers as a finalist in the NZ Trade and Enterprise International Business Awards.

Smith says the company stays agile so it can respond to and grab opportunities as they come in a market characterised by constant change.

"We just get on and do it, whether it is a new market [or] new product."