My role as director of Going Global Live means that I do little else during my working day other than talk to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are starting to trade internationally.
We all know how vital SMEs are to the UK economy. We also know that for the UK economy to grow, we need to be a nation of exporters as well as a nation of shopkeepers.
Exporting was difficult without Donald Trump as president of the United States and without the confusion that came after our vote last year to leave the European Union.
It is unarguably going to be more difficult in the coming months and years, not because of Donald Trump and not because of Brexit, but because of the uncertainty.
The same rules still apply – if you are selling to a German sell in German and so on. (Thank you Willy Brandt). I cannot stress how critical it is to get tailored advice. Every company is different and faces different challenges. Successful SMEs get expert advice from specialists in their field and equally importantly learn from their peers, other SMEs that have been there and made the mistakes. I cannot stress how critical this advice is.
When I speak to SMEs that are starting to export or looking to export into new markets, the overriding concern is uncertainty. And the naked truth is that no one actually knows what Brexit or Trump will mean for UK exporters.
The overriding impression I get is that SMEs are actually being forced to become more imaginative and more creative in their approach to growing their export sales. Of course, the EU is a market that shouldn’t be ignored and “cracking” the US market is hugely tempting, but they are not the only markets. SMEs that I speak to are now considering markets that even five years ago would have been quite a way down the list in terms of targets.
For years people have talked to me about doing business in sub-Saharan Africa. The sense I get is that they are no longer just talking about it; they are starting to make real efforts and progress.
They have a renewed interest in organisations like the Commonwealth, remembering that, actually, given the common ground the UK has with many other members, there may be opportunities previously disregarded as too difficult. They are remembering that large parts of Africa use English as the language of business – if you are selling to a Zambian, sell in English.
So not all bad news.
The second distinct impression I get from SMEs starting to trade internationally is that they want to mitigate the risks caused by Trump and Brexit.
In the same way the actor Colin Firth decided to have the same (Italian) passport as his wife and children, SMEs I speak to are starting to look at other ways to trade with, and from within, the EU. They tell me that some of the incentives on offer to relocate all or part of their business are becoming more tempting and are starting to dilute any sense of loyalty to UK plc.
In conclusion, the SMEs I speak to are doing what they have always needed to be successful. They are aware of the difficulties and they are trying to mitigate risk. But they are also, heroically, looking at different ways to grow their business.