I’m not sure why I didn’t recognize the signs sooner. The static-laced conference calls that came at 2 a.m. The cheques that arrived in foreign currencies. The panic-filled nights where I lay awake wondering if I was doing the right thing. 

It was all there, and yet it took six years before it finally hit me.

I was an exporter.

I should have known. After all, I talked to exporters most days through my work with Export Development Canada (EDC). These small and medium business owners inspire me with their success stories, how they got the idea for their business and overcame the challenges they faced. Everyone remembered the proud moment they made their first international sale. It was like watching their child take its first steps.

But these entrepreneurs were selling housewares to India, food products to Brazil, farming equipment to Australia. I, on the other hand, sell ideas, advice, and words. Nothing tangible that can be packaged and shipped; nothing that requires a manufacturing plant. When I sell an article to Switzerland or the U.S., I simply push the send button and off it goes into cyberspace. It didn’t seem to compare to what these “real” exporters were doing.

And besides, I was comfortable and doing “well enough” in my small pond of a domestic market. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on the world.

Service exporters face the same challenges as goods exporters

I’ve since learned that many people who sell online services internationally feel the same way. But when you think about it, service exporters face the same opportunities and challenges as other exporters.

My epiphany came one night after I learned my co-author and I had gotten a contract with a U.S. publisher for a book we’d written. Up until then, my international sales barely amounted to a couple of hundred dollars a year. (More than a few times, I got royalty payments for one cent!) I was thrilled with this much bigger opportunity, but worried, too. How did the NAFTA agreement work? What forms did I need to complete for U.S. taxes? What if we didn’t get paid?

And on the plus side, wouldn’t it be great to start selling to other markets as well?

Finally, I was starting to think like an exporter.

5 things I wish I’d learned earlier

I’m much more confident thinking about myself as an exporter now, and I’m learning more every day. But here are five things I wish I’d known earlier, which will hopefully help you to get serious about becoming an exporter.

1. Start thinking of yourself as an exporter—because you are one

If you’ve made just one sale, even to the U.S., you’re an exporter. Even if you haven’t started selling outside Canada yet, start thinking today about your business as an international company. Get comfortable with the idea of exporting by learning more about it, and think about how your service or product could help people in other markets. Plan to be proactive, rather than waiting for opportunities to come to you.

2. Companies that export seriously outperform those that don’t

Research shows that if you export, you significantly increase your company’s chances for success, including being more productive, innovative, resilient and faster-growing, as well as enjoying 121% more revenue on average.

3. Size doesn’t matter

Even if you’re a micro-business or self-employed, if you sell your work outside of Canada, you’re an exporter. I love pointing this out to friends who are writers, graphic designers and translators and watching it dawn on them that they own international companies. 

4. International trade agreements are your friends

Not knowing where to find favourable new markets is one of the most common barriers exporters face. The easiest place to start looking at is Canada’s free trade agreements (FTAs). FTAs are not just for goods. For example, the Canada–European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) gives Canadian service suppliers the best market access ever granted to its trade agreement partners, giving Canadian services equal footing with EU service providers and a competitive leg-up over suppliers from non-agreement markets.

Be aware that CETA and other FTA partners also have access to the Canadian market, meaning that you will likely see increasing competition here in the domestic market—all the more reason to start broadening your customer base! 

5. Tap into the wealth of resources here to help you

One of the reasons I didn’t consider exporting sooner was that I didn’t know how. I wasn’t aware that there are organizations that help Canadian companies grow their businesses and/or sell internationally. Three major ones include:

  • Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC): BDC is Canada’s business development bank and the only financial institution devoted exclusively to entrepreneurs. In addition to financing, it offers practical solutions and advice to help Canadian businesses successfully address a range of challenges and opportunities.
  • Global Affairs Canada Trade Commissioner Service (TCS): Located across Canada and in 160 markets around the world, the TCS helps Canadian small and medium-sized businesses prepare for international markets, find qualified contacts, assess market potential and entry-preparedness, and troubleshoot if problems arise.
  • Export Development Canada (EDC): Whether you’re a seasoned exporter or have yet to start, you’ll find valuable information at edc.ca. EDC offers “About Exporting” primers for beginners, ongoing free webinars on relevant topics, success stories and case studies from other companies. EDC also provides solutions that enable you to manage the added risks of selling outside of Canada.