An exports strategy for SMEs
Exporting for small business
doesn’t need to be a headache
I realise that exporting, for small business owners, is puzzling. Many SMEs don’t think of it, because they associate exporting with a lot of hassle (Won’t you have to translate everything into several different languages?) and with the idea that it’s only for bigger companies. ‘Exporting’ sounds like this big milestone that you can only reach once you’ve proved yourself on the home market.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t need to export to a whole bunch of different countries to start with: start with just one foreign English-speaking country (how about the UK for example?). It’s not compulsory to prioritise the home market over exporting: if people need and appreciate your product at home, it’s very likely that people in foreign lands will have similar needs. As human beings we have a lot more in common than we think.
When the media talk about the world being a village, and the world being flat again, in many respects they are right. It has never been easier to reach customers further away: many barriers have been removed. And if you’re an Irish SME, help is there for the asking.
Why export? Isn’t it a
whole lot of hassle?
Is it not only for bigger businesses? When do you know your business is ready to export? As soon as it is ready to have more clients! Exporting for small business enterprises is a wonderful way to grow.
When I started thinking about exporting, I was a one-woman band and my business wasn’t even six months old. I first attended a Dublin Chamber event to meet a Maltese delegation on a visit to Dublin. Then I took a leap of faith and bought a low-cost plane ticket to Malta.
I had not the slightest idea whether this was going to work, but I thought I’d give it a try. And it worked.
You can export many things, not just the food products that have made Irish exports famous! Whether you sell a product or a service, you can export that – actually, it might even be easier to export a service, thanks to the Internet. You might even do it without leaving Ireland: tourism is part of exports, since it represents foreign money being spent on Irish goods and services.
The most important reason to consider exporting for small businesses is that it allows you to diversify your client base. As a financial analyst and trainer, and stock market investor, I know for a fact that diversification is the ONLY winning strategy for the long term and in order to grow.
Take on additional clients and expand – the more countries you export to, the better protected you are if one of your markets contracts. This is exactly what has helped Irish construction businesses survive when the boom ended: they used their existing ties to the UK to expand there when the Irish market slumped.
How can you be in several places at the same time?
Exporting, for small business operations, means specific challenges. Somebody will have to go overseas and do business, after all. If you can manage your exports from Ireland once everything is running smoothly, in the first phase you will have to go meet foreign prospects.
Are you worried that, if one of the employees, or the founder of the SME, goes away on a business trip, the whole structure of your business will collapse? If that is any comfort, I’d say one week away from Ireland is very, very unlikely to spell disaster. Nothing catastrophic to fear with a little bit of organization and forward-planning.
Making the time to attend trade missions, international trade fairs and conferences, and other networking events are what your business needs to grow. And if you find it difficult, in the middle of all your other commitments, to find space for that, now would be a great time to think seriously about delegating some of your tasks. Can you hire somebody or outsource a task, even for a few hours a week, to help you with some aspect of your business? This development will be essential to your growth at some point anyway, why not do it now to allow you to look into exports?
And then, once the trade link is up and running, use conference calls on Skype or Webex to follow up and build the trading relationship. There are so many great, free resources (and software) on the Internet that will allow you to cut down on travel.
Ask for help
The success of my first foray into exports is also due in no small part to the help of government agencies, at an Irish, Maltese and European level.
Enterprise Ireland offers so many resources to help you export, from training, funding and mentoring. Their First Flight programme is specifically geared towards first-time exporters. They will coach you and help you up your game until you are ready.
Enterprise Europe Network is another great agency. Among other services, they can pair you up with another European business for partnerships and opportunities.
The Irish spreading their wings!
In times of economic hardship, Irish people have often resorted to emigration to try and improve their lot. In other cases, people look to other countries, which offered more specialised opportunities in their field. The Irish diaspora is a wonderful business network. Engaging in this community by giving to it and asking for help from it allows Irish businesses at home to thrive in markets abroad.
Networking with Irish-created businesses abroad will allow you to benefit from their wisdom and tips – and connections. I am a board member of the Dublin chapter of IIBN, the International Irish Business Network. They are all about helping Irish businesses succeed abroad. I spoke at their Annual Global Conference in London and it was an exhilarating, high-energy event. And it came just at the right time, since I am opening up trade links with the UK. IIBN has a Dublin chapter that you can contact to get you started, as well as a London, Belfast and a New York chapter.
It’s never too early to export, and the rewards are many!
Are you on the list?