When it comes to building an international network, what’s the first step a business owner should take?

My first suggestion is to start at home but think globally. Companies sometimes forget that some of the service providers they’re working with, or have worked with, have international networks. If you’re thinking of going down that path, reach out to a locally based trade commissioner from the Trade Commissioner Service. If you’re not yet working with a trade commissioner, at least start the process. Trade commissioners are a tremendous resource because they have offices all over the world and they make it their job to build networks.

The catch is that they need to see you’re not only a Canadian commercial entity, but also committed and interested in growing internationally. If you’re pre-revenue, you’ll probably not quite ready to reach out to them. For the companies that qualify, I highly recommend connecting with them.

Are there other domestic contacts to which they should reach out?

Definitely. Your lawyer or accountant often have international networks, as does the firm you’re working with to ship your products domestically. Whether you’re working with a large shipper or a smaller one, ask them whether they can assist you or make some introductions to some people who can.

What about accessing your industry contacts?

One thing I’d think about is either the international markets of your customers, or even your industry peers. They may have a different business models or value chains, but if they’re already working internationally, they may be a good resource.

The same applies to suppliers. Customers, suppliers and competitors are often good resources.

Are there government contacts you would recommend?

On the government side, Canadian companies should be aware that 130 foreign countries have a presence in Canada, so it might be their embassies in Ottawa, or they may have trade and investment promotion offices. The diplomats who are posted in Canada are trying to unlock opportunities in Canada for their countries’ firms, but they’re also trying to build networks in Canada and they’re usually very well connected back in their countries.

So you can think about ProMexico (which promotes international investment for the government of Mexico) or UK Export Finance (the UK’s export credit agency). Those organizations have permanent presences in Canada and they have different networks than the trade commissioners do especially when it comes to finding partners and suppliers in their countries.

What tips can you offer on developing an export strategy?

My first tip is to be deliberate and make a plan, especially when you’re going into new markets. For example, trade missions and conferences are great, but weigh when and where to go, and which conferences and missions to attend. Many small and medium businesses don’t spend enough time researching these events and end up wasting time and money they could have put to better use. Picking the right mission is critical, as is getting the right information on conferences.

At a conference where your industry peers are, you’ll get a lot of service providers and you may find some distributors and agents who may be helpful, but it’s also important to attend conferences that require you to get out of your comfort zone. For example, if you make mobile medical clinics, it might serve you well to go to a disaster-relief or emergency-preparedness conference. The main thing is to think about where your potential customers are gathering. This can be a broad customer definition or targeted and narrow (especially if your value proposition in that market isn’t quite clear yet.)

How does one find out about potentially interesting conferences and trade missions?

Have a look at the web sites of provincial governments, most of which maintain pretty good lists. The Trade Commissioner Service is another good resource. Ask for lists and reviews from past attendees to the extent that they exist.

Once you’ve found the right mission or conference, you may have to attend it more than once to make the contacts you seek.

Before you go, connect with the trade commissioner’s office in advance to let them know you’re going to be there and let them know what else you’re looking for while on the ground in a potentially new market. Take advantage of the chance to set up other meetings since you’re already spending a lot of money to get there.

Finally, and most importantly, self-audit after attending the show for the following:

  • How many leads did you generate at the show?
  • How many actual sales did you generate from these leads?
  • What was the cost per lead generated? 
  • What feedback about the show can I share with my sales force and senior management?

All of these questions are important to answer to help determine the value of attending a new show in a new market.

Any suggestions on who to contact for these additional meetings?

TCS can also help set up meetings with local associations that may have Canadian affiliations. CANCHAM Mexico is the Canada-Mexico business association there, and there are similar organizations around the world. The U.S. has the Canadian American Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Think also of industry-related associations, such as national mining associations. These organizations all have trade networks.

Securing partners through your network can be tricky. How do you navigate that?

First, understand that it’s a cluttered eco-system. There are a lot of people you could potentially work with. Selecting the right partners comes down to vetting, due diligence, doing your background research and making sure potential partners are credit-worthy. EDC can help with that and so can companies such as Dun & Bradstreet. Once you’ve identified a few, ask for references and speak to their existing clients.

Finally, if you’re interested in selling through e-commerce, understand that Amazon isn’t used everywhere. Figure out which platforms are the go-tos in your new market and analyze all of their benefits and drawbacks.

Building a network takes time but trust me, it will reap rewards if you’re well-prepared,  deliberate and bold.