When Jeremy Bresnen and I started Ciele Athletics, a Montreal-based company specializing in high-performance, premium-quality running hats, in 2014, social media gave us the platform to raise awareness about our new brand and attract customers across Canada and beyond. 

Having a small, highly shippable product, we decided early on that e-commerce would be a key part of our business strategy. Not only could we engage with more people quickly, but our reach extended all over the world.

Today, about 50% of our business comes through online channels, including Instagram and Facebook. Approximately half of our online orders are from the United States and another 20% from other international markets. Here are my six tips to help other Canadian companies grow internationally.

1. Stick to your message

It seems a simple concept in this day and age, but in order to create longevity, focus is key. Distractions are common, especially as a business scales, but it’s paramount to stay focused on your brand and not venture too far from its messaging. For example, if you’re making rollerblades, don’t try and sell the bearings to a fidget spinner manufacturer (laughter). As you look for new markets, don’t let your vision be skewed. This is especially important when nurturing relationships in international markets because things can go sideways quickly when you don’t have a clear direction.

2. Be real and genuine

Bottom line: Don’t fake it till you make it. Work with people who believe in you and what you do and aren’t just focused on the paycheque at the end of the day. This is especially true in your company advertising. For instance, there’s nothing worse than a model holding a left-handed guitar the wrong way in an ad for the product. To build a trusted brand, it’s really important to involve people in your photoshoots who actively take part in the lifestyle you’re trying to portray.

3. Phase projects

E-commerce is a multi-faceted beast, and everyone you talk to will have a different opinion of how to sell your products and services online. At Ciele, we’re forever repeating the phrase “baby steps.” It’s much easier to refocus or refine a project when it’s a small change than to undertake a total overhaul. From a logistics perspective, you also have to have a strong foundation because shipping a product late or not having stock after a client has trusted you with their purchase is a relationship ender.

4. Seek “good” advice

Advice is great, but only if it’s relevant. People love to share what works for them, but remember, every business has its own unique successes and challenges. Before you invest too heavily in a business relationship, make sure potential distributors, suppliers or manufacturers are aligned with what you’re doing. Sometimes good advice is simply knowing what to avoid/not do rather than what you should do.

5. Build an online presence

The legitimacy of social media is slowly coming into question due to the rise of paid postings and influencer traffic. It’s easy to pay someone to wear/talk about your product, but if you’re truly building a long-term brand, all those connections will fade fast when the money stops flowing. That brings us back to tip #2. Find real and genuine people who are your brand champions and help “lift” them up. Instagram was probably the best and fastest way for us to witness customer reaction to our product. We continue to work hard at building that positive online community.

6. Time management

Balancing time is one of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs. There are never enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks you feel are relevant. You need to prioritize projects and be realistic about what you can and can’t accomplish in the time allotted. I recommend working with a good calendar app that allows you to see “at a glance” your weekly and monthly tasks and schedule your work in advance.