You have a strong and unique value proposition with proven performance, so now it’s time to expand your successful business to markets abroad. To accomplish that goal, one of the first steps is to grow your global connections. Here are some ways to build an international network.

Consider how you’re going to sell

To understand what kind of network to establish or where to build on your existing network, consider how you’re going to approach sales in your next foreign market. Are you selling directly from a website or direct from your shop to large companies in English-speaking markets, such as the U.S. or the UK? If so, you might be able to rack up sales without an agent or distributor. But if you’re going into an unknown market with a product that’s also unknown, you’ll probably have to consider a partnership of some kind, either through agents, local sales people or distributors on the ground in that country.

When it comes to finding the right person to partner with, ask your entire network for help. Your newfound partner will become an integral part of your network. Consult industry associations in Canada, and those in the country to which you hope to export, and interview widely, says Mel Sauvé, founder and principal of Global Growth Results.

If you’re in mining, for example, the Mining Association of Canada has information on every mining market in the world. Its members might have suggestions on potential partners in a new market. Another place to tap is the Trade Commissioner Service, which has offices in 190 countries around the world. Trade Commissioners know about local distributors, agents and sales people—or they’ll know who to call to find them.

Leverage existing contacts

Even though you may not have formally referred to it as a network, you have one. If you’re a member of a trade or business association, for example, you have access to many contacts within that organization. Within a given trade association, look for Canadian companies that are doing business internationally and selling products that are complementary to yours. You might have a company within your network that’s selling underground drilling equipment in Kazakhstan, a market you’d like to penetrate. With a complementary product, such as a mining detection tool, you can piggy-back on your fellow association member’s success by leveraging his or her contacts there.

International trade shows and international missions—often spearheaded by government—are other places to look for partners and contacts.

Network to the next level

As you go about your business domestically and internationally, adopt a mindset that every meeting is a chance to expand your network. Chances are the people you’re meeting with will have contacts you can add to your network.

As an established Canadian business, you likely have lawyers and accountants, either on the payroll or as external counsel. At times, you’ll need to consult them for exporting matters. When you do, consider those meetings networking opportunities. 

Face-to-face meetings are essential—that’s the very reason trade missions, shows and conferences take place.

They undoubtedly have some effect. Personal connections matter. Business is done by people—it’s not a company-to-company thing.

Azim Essaji  —  Associate Professor of Economics Wilfrid Laurier University

In the book Being the Boss, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback suggest you get out of your comfort zone for conferences and conventions. Attending a convention that’s on the fringes of your existing network is a good way to do that. So, if you’re an automotive manufacturer who mostly produces car doors, but a small segment of your business is in trailer hitches, you could attend a travel and vacation show to collect contacts in that space.

Using social media—particularly professional networks and industry-specific ones, such as LinkedIn—can also yield surprising results. You may end up linking to potential customers in various parts of the world just by virtue of those people being connected to others in your own network.

Hiring from abroad for your Canadian operations offers interesting potential to expand your network, says Essaji. He adds there’s evidence that hiring foreign workers helps diversify your customer base because it gives you global perspectives you wouldn’t otherwise have, and your new employees will likely come with networks of their own from your target markets.

Miguel Cardoso, an economics lecturer at Brock University, has studied the subject and reports that he’s seen evidence that a 10-per-cent increase in immigrant employment at a Canadian manufacturing firm from a specific country is associated with 2.7 per cent higher export sales to that destination for that firm. And, he says doubling the number of immigrants employed from a specific country increases the probability of exporting there by 1.2 per cent.