We may not all be jetting around in hovercrafts or sporting driverless cars anytime soon, but the future is at our fingertips: democratic access to the ever-expanding digital world.
With just a few keystrokes, we can order business supplies from Asia, consult with graphic designers in Europe or have virtual chats with clients in Nepal. The digital revolution is ongoing, and I'm not the first to point out that companies who recognize and seize the inherent opportunities can significantly transform the way they do business.
But given the massive potential of an accessible and growing global marketplace, why do so many Canadian small businesses let the opportunity to reach millions of new customers pass them by?
In recent years, numerous studies have sounded an alarm to Canada's small business owners. The thought leaders sounding these bells continue to express concern over Canada's declining small business exports. They believe that Canada will miss out on important opportunities for financial growth if small business owners do not look abroad.
This April, former chief executive offers of Toronto-Dominion Bank Ed Clark said, "Our market share of U.S. non-commodity imports has dropped by about 30 per cent over the past ten years."
According to Clark, less than ten per cent of Canada's small-and-medium sized companies are involved in exporting goods or services, and a mere 50 companies represent half of the country's exports. This paints a picture of a small business sector that still has major reservations and/or challenges with entering international markets.
Clark and others are adamant that these declining numbers are cause for concern. Canadian small businesses appear to be sitting on their hands in the face of tremendous benefits that others are reaping from a growing new world economy. Over the next decade, it is estimated that one billion new middle-income consumers will emerge in countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China (according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) October 2013 Canadian Manufacturing report).
Tahir Ayub, leader of Canadian Private Company Services at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, notes that those new consumers will demand products and services. He believes that the bottom line for Canadian businesses is to keep evaluating the pros and cons of entering emerging markets, as ignoring those poses a definite risk. Basically, if Canadian small businesses do not rise to the occasion, other entrepreneurs in other countries will.
In an Ivey Business Journal article from Dec. 2011, author and entrepreneur Stephen Wunker agreed that new markets are an excellent way to grow, particularly in the presence of inventive strategies matched to the circumstance. As a caveat, he acknowledged what I assume many small business owners already know: international markets hold significant potential for profitable transactions, but they aren't easy to crack.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Wunker. Having spearheaded ScholarLab's expansion into the U.S. over the past four years, I can attest to the difficulties – but also to the financial benefits of taking the leap. There are many factors that can contribute to either a successful or an unsuccessful endeavour. Although I cannot cover all of these in this short piece, I'll outline three things that I believe can help small businesses break into new geographical markets.
1. Plan well. As you attempt to enter a new market, one of your biggest challenges is obvious: your company, products and/or services are not known in the country. There may very well be demand for what your company is offering, but potential clients still need to know that you exist. This can take time. Therefore, entering a new market requires careful analysis and planning. Do not attempt this haphazardly. Know your market and budget and most importantly, have a plan. But be prepared to deviate from that plan if things are not working out as you envisioned.
2. Partner. As part of your careful planning, seek out reputable individuals or companies in your new market who could be potential partners. Teaming up with others could get you faster recognition and maybe even some early financial successes. Be prepared to demonstrate how you can also be of benefit to that potential partner.
3. Use all available resources. Seek out other small business owners who have successfully entered new markets. Learn from their success as well as their mistakes. Be proactive in using all resources that are available to companies looking to enter new markets. Export Development Canada (EDC) and The Forum for International Trade Training (FITT) are great places to start.
Dr. Laurelle Jno Baptiste is the co-founder and COO of ScholarLab.com, a mobile friendly platform for online learning and collaboration. ScholarLab is accessed by almost a million learners in 50+ countries. She is considered one of the leading figures of online education.