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Help for Canadian companies eyeing the U.S.

A map of North America with superimposed flags.

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As a native of Oshawa, Ont., now living in the United States, Chris Jacobs knows a thing or two about cross-border relations.

In addition to being the principal of Portional, a leadership consultancy focused on marketing and business development, the dual citizen is also one of four managing partners with Opportunity Northwest, a Bellingham, Wash.-based consultancy that specializes in helping Canadian businesses expand or relocate south of the border, especially to the Pacific Northwest.

In business for a year, Opportunity Northwest LLC was started up to help Canadian businesses take advantage of the opportunities available them in the U.S. market.

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As opposed to simply providing specific areas of expertise, such as accountants, immigration lawyers or customs brokers do, Opportunity Northwest specializes in overall business planning, and through its ties with banks, angel groups and venture capital firms, securing funding if necessary. Finding employees and office space, providing management support and helping deal with immigration, public relations and branding strategies are some of the other services it offers.

"There's a very streamlined way to do this and then there's the haphazard way that usually ends in stubbed toes and people abandoning coming down the States," Mr. Jacobs says.

Though the company is focused on helping companies around the greater Vancouver area, it does have plans to move eastward, both in Canada and the United States.

Given the many regional differences in the United States, building up a level of expertise in a particular geographical area is important, according to one expert.

"A regional focus is important so if Washington state or the Pacific Northwest is what you're looking for, that consultancy would probably be super helpful," says Robert Pelletier, chief representative for the United States at Export Development Canada, which says it helped 3,300 Canadian businesses expand into the United States last year.

Sharing the border with British Columbia, Washington is an important state for Canadian business, taking in 4.5 per cent of Canada's exports to the United States last year, according to EDC. It was the seventh-highest state in that regard.

Whether because of geographic, language or cultural reasons, the United States is "the first logical place to start to sell beyond Canada," Mr. Pelletier says.

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It's a logic that another company abides by when it comes to dealing with clients. BrandProject LP, a team of entrepreneurs who invest in rapidly scaling early-stage and disruptive consumer businesses, almost exclusively looks to companies that have the ability to successfully make the transition into the U.S. market.

With offices in both Toronto and New York City, it has had successful partnerships with brands such as Awake Chocolate caffeinated chocolate bars, Coveteur, a fashion-based digital media company, and Rumble, a protein drink. All three companies have successfully migrated into the U.S., with Coveteur opening an office in New York City.

"The U.S. market was critical to building the global business they want to build one day," says Andrew Black, co-founder and chief executive officer of BrandProject. "So it needed to be based in New York and we've helped them expand, recruit a great team and helped them raise money."

Much like Mr. Jacobs, Mr. Black has experience of both Canada and the U.S., having been general manager for Nike Inc. in Portland, Ore., and president, Americas, for Lego AS, before returning to Canada to start up the Canadian arm of Virgin Mobile with Richard Branson and Bell Canada.

While he admits that having experience of both markets does help in assisting young companies grow, he says young companies need to be aggressive in their efforts in a very competitive market.

"It's really having market knowledge and having the tenacity to compete and be willing to stick with it and make adjustments [in accordance with] the market because it's different than Canada," says Mr. Black (below), who co-founded BrandProject in 2013.

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Andrew Black, co-founder and chief executive officer of BrandProject, which invests in consumer-brand startups. BrandProject BrandProject

(BrandProject)

"There's a huge opportunity to take talented Canadian entrepreneurs and help them expand into the U.S.," he adds, noting that his company's strengths are in helping raise capital, helping develop products and plan a route to market in the U.S.

Above all, though, the emphasis is on hiring the right people to help businesses not only survive but thrive south of the border. It's something the company did recently in hiring a U.S.-based chief executive officer for Coveteur.

"The big thing for us has been recruiting the right team to help build the U.S. business and people with experience and complimentary skills to the founders, who may be Canadian," Mr. Black says.

It remains to be seen whether Canadian companies will continue to seek help entering the United States but Mr. Jacobs says his company is gambling that it will prove to be a real area of growth in the coming years.

"Every market indication is showing us that there's a latent and unmet need but we are still in that discovering and 'prove it to us' phase," he says.

Other resources

Aside from EDC, the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, associations such as Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, and specific professional services such as U.S. legal and regulatory experts, Canadian businesses looking to locate in the United States have an ally right at the top.

Looking to attract foreign and domestic investment in the United States, in 2011 President Barack Obama launched SelectUSA, a government-wide initiative aimed at encouraging companies from all over the world to select the United States as a destination for investment.

At annual investment summits, all the state- and city-level economic development organizations are brought together under one roof to showcase the business opportunities available in the United States. This year's event was held recently in Washington and allowed prospective investors to see exactly what moving their businesses to the United States would involve.

"Then Canadian companies and companies from all over the world that were considering expansion into the United States could have those discussions as they pick and choose and understand what makes the most sense for them," says Robert Pelletier, chief representative for the United States at EDC.

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