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The Globe and Mail

From overseas, expats put focus on Canadian clients

Tourists walk past a police station near Khao San Road in Bangkok July 13, 2012.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

Although their company was offering an upscale, two-week tour of Thailand, Scott Coates and Daniel Fraser recruited their first clients at a Calgary bar, enticing them there with free food and drinks.

They showed slides of the Southeast Asian nation and tried to convince the friends and acquaintances who had showed up to try out their startup's service-oriented tour-guide services.

Four in the crowd bit.

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That was back in 2000, a year after the two long-time friends had started travel company Smiling Albino, basing it in Bangkok but aiming to serve mainly Canadian clients.

After the pair ran that first tour, word of mouth fuelled demand for subsequent outings. Every year, the business partners would return to Canada to drum up more interest in their tours.

"I remember visiting a lot of living rooms and doing travel slide presentations," says Mr. Coates, a seasoned traveller who was convinced by Mr. Fraser, already living in Thailand, to uproot from Calgary and join him there.

The approach worked: Although their company, and its services, were an ocean away, Smiling Albino grew.

The company, specializing in custom-built adventure travel in Asia, now has 10 full-time employees in its Bangkok office, uses up to 70 contract staff during the busy travel season, takes up to 500 people on trips each year in Thailand and other places in Asia, and is now generating annual revenue of more than $1-million.

Smiling Albino is among some companies founded overseas by expat Canadians that have fuelled their growth by focusing on a key niche: customers back home.

The benefit of looking to their homelands  to create a successful overseas business? Expat Canadians understand what their customers from back home want and need from the nation where they've set up their business – they've lived on both shores.

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It's in that unique intersection of understanding two places that these companies find a niche that other companies would have difficulty duplicating. "I see this over and over again. Canadians living abroad provide valuable resources to other Canadians," says Allan Nichols, president of The Canadian Expat Association, from Vancouver.

"When we started out, all we had going for us was we were Canadians," Mr. Coates says.

He and Mr. Fraser knew that clients they wanted to target would desire comfort even while checking out unusual places. So they custom-designed each trip for each group of travellers, making sure clients could show up with almost nothing in hand – they even supplied the sunscreen and hand sanitizer – and took them to the unique sights they'd already discovered in Thailand on their own travels. They've since expanded to offering trips in other parts of Asia, too, including Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Nepal.

That mix of truly understanding both their customers and their product, along with grassroots marketing back home, is behind the company's growth.As word spread more widely about its custom services, it was able to expand its market. Still, about 40 per cent of Smiling Albino's customers remain Canadian, Mr. Coates says.

James Yellowlees has similarly leveraged his understanding of two countries to run Tokyo-based education company Global Daigaku, of which fully half of clients are Canadians.

Mr. Yellowlees – who was  born in Winnipeg, grew up partly in Vancouver and partly in Toronto, and  has lived in Japan for more than 30 years –  has long worked in education and has extensive contacts in both Canada and Japan.

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His company, which he launched in 2000, runs several education-related programs that bridge the two countries. It helps Canadian schools market their programs in Japan, sets up internships in Japan for visiting Canadian students, and runs exchanges. He says his is one of the leading education web sites in Japan.

Global Daigaku now has six full-time employees. Mr. Yellowlees, its president and CEO,  hopes to be hiring more soon as his company just launched a pre-MBA program in Japan that would prep students for a Western, English-speaking MBA program. As well, Global Daigaku just landed a deal to introduce the British Columbia. high-school curriculum into Japanese schools.

He has he knows of no competitors with the exact same business model, creating an unusual niche by working on the ground in education in both countries.

Before starting his company, he had helped in 1996 to launch the non-profit Canadian Education Alliance, which promotes Canadian schools in Japan. He still works with the organization out of its Tokyo office.

During his years with the group, he realized Japanese businesses didn't have internship programs and saw an opportunity for both local and overseas students to gain experience.

"I saw the niche – I felt there was a need for professional development." As well as seeing a need, Mr Yellowlees was confident he could fill it, as he already had contacts in Japan. "If you had a purely Canadian entity coming in here, it would be difficult to get any traction," he says.

While Smiling Albino's Mr. Coates has reduced the time he spends in Canada networking to drum up business, Mr. Yellowlees still goes "home" three times a year to speak with his education contacts and reconnect with clients in this country.

His understanding of two cultures and constant nurturing of his business in both countries has helped his business endure even with tough times in Japan brought on by natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tsunami.

Working overseas and keeping a business focus on Canadians does bring its challenges.

For one, Canada's relatively small population does create a limited client pool, particularly for niche businesses. "Canada's not a big country population-wise, it's not a lot to draw on," Mr. Coates says.

And circumstances can also arise. Mr. Yellowlees saw his business affected not only by natural disaster but by a relatively small Canadian government move.

Last spring, the federal government closed the visa department in the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, routing all visa applications to the Philippines to save money. There's now a lag in getting visa approvals that's causing headaches for some of Mr. Yellowlee's clients, mainly students trying to get over to Canada to study, he says.

As well, from distant shores, "getting the word out is difficult, getting noticed can be a challenge," Mr. Nichols says.

Smiling Albino relies heavily on word-of-mouth and referrals for marketing. It also attends travel shows, brings travel writers on trips to generate publicity and offers a lot of one-day excursions to give travellers a taste of its services before they sign on for a longer trip.

As well, the company has moved its marketing focus online with its website, a weekly blog and regular podcasts. Mr. Coates also does travel writing to further the brand.

While Canada's population may be small, "the flipside to that is we are Canadian. We speak the language, we understand what Canadians like and what they find interesting. That sets us apart," Mr. Coates says.

And while the company's founders no longer spend months back home doing private slideshows to lure in new clients, they still try to visit Canada once a year to both see family and remind their core client base that they're still around, still relevant, and still keeping their needs in mind.

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