Even though almost 1 in 6 small- to medium-sized Canadian businesses is owned by a woman, only 7% of women-owned businesses are reaping the benefits of exporting. For the 93% who aren’t, there’s never been a better time to think about expanding sales overseas – and e-commerce is a great way to get started.

Research shows that women see five main challenges to exporting:

  • Availability of policies and assistance programs
  • Reluctance to ask for financing
  •  Being more averse to risk
  • A misconception that only larger companies grow internationally
  • Taking on too much, too fast, rather than steady growth

Nevertheless, more and more Canadian women are overcoming the challenges and enjoying unprecedented success. An increasingly popular way to expand internationally is to join the e-commerce revolution and sell products and services online.

Take Tara Bosch, the founder of Smart Sweets, a Canadian candy company that doesn’t use any sugar, sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners in its products. After a successful retail launch in stores across North America, the company began selling its products online to enthusiastic buyers in the U.S. and Canada. Online sales now account for 30% of the company’s revenues.

Another young Canadian entrepreneur, Heather Abbey, launched a highly successful e-commerce venture called Indig Inc back in 2010. What began as a way to help her peers in the community sell their goods online soon grew into a multi-million dollar global marketplace for Indigenous art and jewelry.

It’s clear that for Canadian women (and men), a strategic move into the realm of e-commerce offers many advantages, including ready access to new international markets, increased sales, and the prospect of rapid growth.

The benefits of international e-commerce

For hundreds of millions of consumers globally, e-commerce is now an everyday experience. Online retail sales worldwide are estimated to be over $US 2 trillion and are expected to more than double by 2021.

But it’s not just consumers who are enthusiastic online shoppers. Businesses in every sector are moving away from traditional purchasing methods and increasingly embracing an online model. Not surprisingly, online business-to-business sales are booming. The worldwide B2B e-commerce market is currently twice the size of the consumer e-commerce market and is expected to reach $6.7 trillion by 2020.

What’s behind this impressive growth? One key driver is the sheer number of internet users coming online each year. Another is the availability of a wide range of sophisticated and affordable e-commerce technology platforms. With minimal investment and limited technical expertise, businesses can quickly get their products and services online and ready to sell to customers anywhere in the world.

These solutions include well-known online marketplace sites like Alibaba, Amazon, eBay and Etsy, storefront e-commerce platforms like Shopify, and custom solutions designed to meet the unique needs of individual businesses. Regardless of the implementation, the rise of e-commerce has leveled the playing field for online businesses. Now, even the smallest companies can go head to head with industry titans and sell their products and services anywhere in the world with relative ease.

E-commerce challenges

For all the potential benefits of international e-commerce for Canadian businesses making a successful transition online from a traditional bricks-and-mortar business model is not without its challenges.

Take shipping, for example. It’s not uncommon for new e-commerce ventures to experience growing pains in this area as they look to get their products to customers as quickly and cost effectively as possible.

Customer experience is another test point for new online retailers. E-commerce market leaders like Amazon have set a high bar. Shipping costs are low—sometimes free—and packages can often be delivered to their destination in a matter of hours. Through real-time notifications, consumers are kept informed of the location of their shipment throughout the entire shipping process, from the moment it leaves the fulfillment centre until it arrives on their doorstep. 

Beyond the need to meet sky-high consumer expectations, there are some additional hurdles Canadian e-commerce businesses are likely to encounter as they fulfill orders destined for customers outside of Canada. Every package leaving or coming into Canada needs to clear customs, so developing a clear understanding of this sometimes complex process is critical. Country-specific regulations limiting or prohibiting certain types of goods is another area where thorough due diligence is rewarded.

As countless Canadian women entrepreneurs have demonstrated, none of these challenges is insurmountable and there is a wealth of resources available to help women make the leap to exporting. One of the best resources is other women who have successfully overcome these challenges in launching their own online ventures. Business Women in International Trade (BWIT), a program of the Canadian government, helps women facilitate connections with various business networks in Canada and abroad and provides advice to minimize the challenges that come with exporting into new markets.

E-commerce opportunities in Femtech

International e-commerce opens up many opportunities for Canadian companies, enabling them to enter exciting and profitable new sectors. 

For Canadian women entrepreneurs, Femtech is one such sector. Focused on women’s health and wellbeing, Femtech companies are designing innovative new solutions covering all aspects of women’s health, including fertility, nutrition and fitness, pregnancy and nursing, and sexual wellness. With a market comprising more than half the world’s population, and funding to date of more than $1 billion, the Femtech sector is poised for growth.

Expanding outside Canada

A key question for Canadian women entrepreneurs who are considering expanding their e-commerce business internationally is where to start.

For many, exporting to the United States is the logical first choice. The U.S. is culturally very similar to Canada, shares one of our two official languages and, along with Mexico, is a signatory to the new United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA). More importantly, it’s one of the world’s largest markets, home to more than 327 million people..

Looking further afield, the 28 member countries of the European Union, with a combined population of 500 million people, are also attractive targets for female business owners. In September 2017, the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) came into provisional effect.  Key opportunities span from aerospace, clean tech, and forestry products to information and communication technologies and medical devices.

Finally, Asia is another large and lucrative market that offers enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs operating in both the consumer and B2B sectors. This market has recently become even more attractive for Canadian exporters with the ratification in March 2018 of the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Want to learn more?

Check out the Canadian government’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy, the Trade Commissioner’s Business Women in International Trade program, and GroYourBiz. EDC has also dedicated $250 million to the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy.