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More than half of Darrell Renaud’s sales come from outside of Canada.

ScoutTech

More than half of Darrell Renaud's sales come from outside of Canada. After the United States, his biggest international markets are Russia, Israel and Australia.

But Mr. Renaud isn't running a large multinational. ScoutTech, a camping and travel supplies retailer based in Mississauga, Ont., employs just seven people, four of whom are part-time.

ScoutTech is one of a growing number of businesses that have come to be called 'micro-multinationals' – small and medium-sized companies that are using technology to do things like export and off-shore in a way that was once limited to large corporations.

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But his company wasn't always globally oriented. In fact, just four years ago 90 per cent of ScoutTech's sales in Canada, Mr. Renaud says.

While the online business sold products through eBay and its own website, international shipping wasn't advertised. Mr. Renaud says he would only ship outside the country if he received a special request. But eventually international requests started to be more common.

At the same time, Mr. Renaud says he was looking to turn ScoutTech, which he started in 2003 as a flexible, part-time way to generate income, into a full-fledged, full-time business. In particular, he wanted to open a physical location but didn't have the capital.

So he took the risk and opened his eBay store to the world, offering and promoting international shipping, as well as setting prices in U.S. dollars.

"At first it was a little intimidating," Mr. Renaud says. But the move paid off, sales increased 500 per cent within a year, giving him the capital to open a brick and mortar location, which he says gives his business more credibility with customers and suppliers.

There was a lot of trial and error in the initial stages, he says, particularly when it came to navigating Russia's import restrictions.

Now the biggest hurles are financial – dealing with the fluctuating dollar and the high cost of international shipping.

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Mr. Renaud isn't the only Canadian small business owner using eBay to export, says Andrea Stairs, eBay's country manager for Canada. She says that 99.5 per cent of Canadian businesses selling on the e-commerce site are exporting, reaching an average of 19 markets, far more than traditional exporters.

Out of all Canadian small business, only 10 per cent were exporting in 2011, according to an Industry Canada report.

"Once you're technology enabled, you can immediately see the power of technology to unlock demand around the word," she says. "As we get more small and medium-sized businesses adopting technology, I think we're going to see more exporting."

Exports aren't the only way small businesses are using technology to act more like multinationals.

For Matthew Lussier, owner of Winnipeg-based Head Forward Business Solutions, overseas labour has been key to growing his technology consulting business.

"A big part of what we do is websites," he says.

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While a good website designer can command as much as $75 an hour in Canada, Mr. Lussier says he also has to compete with people who will do the job for free – like a business owner's friend or their child. That meant he had to compete on both price and quality while he built his company's portfolio.

"To break into this, I couldn't be paying people $40 an hour," he says.

He looked overseas, using an online platform to hire workers from the Philippines where salaries are around "25 per cent of what you'd be paying here," he says.

While managing distant employees has been a challenge at times, Mr. Lussier says "about 50 per cent have been amazing, 40 per cent have been mediocre and 10 per cent have been horrible."

He says he still works with first Filipino freelancers he hired.

"I want to hire people long-term," he says. Even though labour laws require him to structure the relationship as a contractual arrangement, rather than employment, Mr. Lussier says that if someone knows they have a source of steady work "they're a lot more invested in the company."

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"The biggest challenge, just like hiring locally, is finding the right people," he says.

While he may have created jobs overseas, he says he's not taking jobs away from Canadians.

"Within the next year, I plan to make my first local hire," something he says he wouldn't have been able to afford if he hadn't looked offshore. "Without having those overseas employees, I wouldn't have a business."

Commercial sales and finding freelancers aren't the only ways small businesses are using the internet to go international.

In September, the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, an industry association that represents the interests of manufacturing and exporting firms, launched a new online platform to help Canadian small and medium-sized businesses connect to opportunities in Europe, China, Brazil and India.

The site, which connects to a network set up by the European Commission, works like an "e-Harmony for business-to-business procurement," says Philip Turi, the general counsel and director of global business services at CME.

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For Canadian companies looking to do business overseas, the biggest issue is "finding and identifying new and reliable business partners."

That's the problem the group is trying to solve with it new platform, called Enterprise Canada Network.

Mr. Turi says the new platform, the Enterprise Canada Network, is designed to help businesses find distributors and joint ventures.

"It's actually starting to work," Mr. Turi says, 350 Canadian businesses have registered on the platform, 50 matches have been made and three partnership agreements are in negotiation.

But even though the internet is making international business easier, it "still doesn't replace the need for face-to-face meetings," says Mr. Turi.

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