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A torn U.S. flag flutters in the wind as Hurricane Irma passes through Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in September, 2017.

Paul Chiasson

It's no secret that the digital revolution and emergence of predominantly web-based businesses created unprecedented opportunities for entrepreneurs, including in exporting.

Thanks to technological advances, the internet and, in many places, an embrace of free trade, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can sell their products and services around the world with relative ease.

Take Collingwood, Ont.'s WordJack Media, which provides digital marketing and advertising services to SMBs.

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Aiming to tap the vast market and penchant for online advertising south of the border, company president and co-founder Matt Jackson originally planned to locate his firm in the United States. He soon shifted strategies.

"When we started looking where we wanted to build our organization, and the advantages of working in Canada … we realized that doing business in Ontario was a real value to the organization, not only from a hiring and skill set point of view, but from an overall business point of view."

From its founding in 2012, WordJack's goal was to bring affordable online marketing to small and mid-sized businesses worldwide – most of the company's online marketing packages cost less than $500 a month; inexpensive by agency standards.

The strategy paid off. The company now has a footprint in Canada, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Britain and South Africa.

Indeed, exports accounted for 79 per cent of WordJack's $2.5-million in sales in 2017, while the company logged year-over-year growth of 18.5 per cent. They employ 22 people around the world, most of whom are in Ontario, with sales and account service teams sprinkled in key markets.

WordJack tapped a recipe for success that many export-focused companies in Canada have leveraged to their advantage: identify a global need for your products or services, highlight key markets where they might be in demand and then take the necessary steps to generate local sales.

But as Douglas Hart, president of Toronto's Hart and Associates Management Consultants Ltd., explains, many companies get fooled into thinking that because they have a desirable product or service in Canada, it will automatically sell in other markets.

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"It's a big world and they need to strategically think about what kind of customers and countries their product best fits," he says. "Are you picking a country because you thought of it, or is there any rational thinking about what your product is, how it fits into that country's market or supply chains?"

Another key pitfall, he notes, is expecting overseas sales to come quickly. Mr. Hart says that CEOs need to develop a realistic budget and timelines to establish operations and market their wares abroad, and count on it taking two to five years before they will generate any significant revenue.

"It does require some fortitude and commitment because in some cases it takes years to succeed. But just because you don't have early success doesn't mean you won't later."

That process can often be accelerated by leveraging assistance from both the federal and provincial governments, with organizations such as the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service to provide advice and contacts to organizations as they look to gain traction in new export markets.

But thinking strategically and finding an innovative way to compete in new markets are still essential. Mr. Jackson says that one of the factors behind WordJack's global export success was a focus on thinking locally.

While many businesses in the highly-competitive digital sector tend to deliver services with little client interaction, WordJack has worked to stay in close contact with customers, many of which are service providers such as lawyers, dentists and construction contractors.

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That meant having regional staff on the ground, as well as paying attention to local news.

When Hurricane Irma struck the United States last summer, for example, several of WordJack's clients were heavily affected by the monster storm. Mr. Jackson was in touch with his team and monitoring the devastation in real time.

Within 24 hours he offered affected clients in central Florida a rebate on their monthly retainers as a show of support.

"We wanted to show that even though we're far away from them geographically, we're with them," Mr. Jackson recalls. "The response we got from that small gesture was amazing."

It's worth noting that about 40 per cent of WordJack's business comes from word-of-mouth referrals.

Mr. Jackson is quick to remind prospective exporters that while it may seem daunting at first, the benefits of selling abroad far outweigh the potential risks.

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"There's not a chance we would have grown as quickly if we'd focused on the Canadian market alone," he stresses.

Nor does he think WordJack would have been as successful if the company had tried to grow from the United States.

"The opportunity to find talent in Canada, and specifically in Ontario, rivals anywhere in the world," he says.

"We built [in-house sales and operations software] here in Ontario with Ontario developer talent and I think it's been a critical component that's allowed us to be competitive in a marketplace where there's a lot of big players with automated solutions. If we were in Silicon Valley, our ability to compete for that talent would have been significantly less. We wouldn't have been able to afford it."

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