Exporting can transform the profits of small firms. In a Q&A, Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, the campaigning body for entrepreneurs and small firms, explains how a website can be the key to cracking those lucrative overseas markets
Can all small firms be exporters?
Definitely. Technology has made it simple for even very small firms to get their products to the world. They can start by selling on platforms such as Etsy, which specialises in craft and handmade goods, or Amazon and Alibaba. We often call these small firms “accidental exporters”. They find their first orders are from overseas and then they think, ah OK, we’ll service that customer and carry on from there.
You run trade missions. What goes on?
My organisation, Enterprise Nation, has run its own trade missions since 2014. We’ve been to New York, Shanghai, Berlin, Amsterdam and Dublin. This year we have five trips. We take around 25 companies per mission. Some are doing early-stage research. Others are trading, sometimes through the platforms I just mentioned, and want to meet potential clients. This year we are sector focused. We’ve done food to Dublin, fashion to Berlin, homewares to Amsterdam; we’ve just been to New York with general retailers and met more than 100 people in three days. Soon we are going back to China with people looking to make inroads into that huge market. Sometimes people look to overseas markets to find business partners and suppliers. It’s not always about selling directly.
What’s the first step to exporting?
Before you do anything else, build a website. Do you know that more than 45 per cent of British firms don’t have a website? It’s vital to create one. If you have a website you may find that you are already attracting international customers. Google Analytics is a really good tool to show the origin of sales. A software company I know used Google Analytics for their site, noticed an American visitor, put prices in dollars and sales went up 25 per cent.
How can it be tailored for international markets?
You want customers to feel as confident as possible about your brand. Do some research into what is culturally appropriate for overseas markets. If you are selling to Japan, your imagery should not show the soles of people’s feet or chopsticks sat up in a rice bowl. Those images are considered rude in that culture. You’ll also want a domain name that suits a global audience.
What’s the best domain?
Absolutely a .com. Enterprise Nation has been a .com since the beginning. It means you can trade in any territory. Second is trust. Consumers may not know your brand, but the .com conveys that trust factor. And third is search engine optimisation or SEO. In my opinion, using a domain name on a global extension such as .com, rather than multiple country extensions, stops you diluting SEO between your multiple sites and helps concentrate SEO. All links and traffic are coming into one site. You can create tailored versions of your website for different language markets within your .com.
Are payments hard to add?
They used to be. Ten years ago it was hard to sell to Germany, as they only used cheques, and other markets had their own unique payment type. Today we have PayPal, Stripe and Worldpay, which are used by consumers worldwide. Plug these into your website and you can immediately take payments from 120 major economies. You don’t need a global bank account. One issue is foreign exchange. You might want to consider currency factoring. An FX account will help temper currency fluctuations. Caxton FX and World First can do this for you.
Customer service for international markets sounds hard. What tips have you?
Languages are an issue. At first I recommend Google Translate. It’s free and quite useful when sending e-mails and you want to say things like: “Is the sun shining in Berlin?” When communications become more detailed, you’ll want to pay people. If you have the budget, a localisation specialist like Lingo24.com can help with technical translations. It’s all about making consumers feel comfortable and that they can trust you. Skype and Vonage can help. They let you buy international numbers. So you can have a Manhattan number for US customers to ring. It’s reassuring and as cheap as chips.
Do multiple languages really pay?
Remember you aren’t just targeting one country this way. If you have a Spanish version of your website, you can attract customers from across South America, Mexico and the southern United States. French gives you the chance to sell to Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec and the rest of the francophone world. It’s why a .com is so great – you open the door to a world of opportunistic sales from consumers in countries you hadn’t even thought about.
Are time zones tricky?
You need to be 24/7 to reach consumers in Asia and the US. Social media scheduling is great for this. If a UK business only tweets during office hours, they’ll miss half the day. Tools like Buffer and Hootsuite allow you to schedule tweets at times which suit your customers.
Brexit has exporters worried. Are you really sure this is a good time for small firms to start?
In light of Brexit, it’s more important than ever to sell overseas. The falling pound means the cost of your goods in export markets is suddenly much better. We need a big export push by the government. We should be looking far afield, to the US, China, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Those are big markets and there could be attractive trade agreements in the future. Above all, we need the confidence to go to those markets and start selling. Technology makes it incredibly cheap to begin.
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