International Trade

An easy guide to developing an international business strategy

8 min read

29 October 2015

These essential tips will facilitate success when taking your business abroad.

The UK economy is gradually gathering pace and showing signs of improvement. For ambitious small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) this can mean increased access to growth capital and opportunities for international expansion. 

While guidance for an international expansion varies depending on your destination, one absolute must is having a clear strategy. From my experience developing international strategies, I recommend a three phase approach I call Pre-Pro-Post.

The “Pre” component of a strategy includes those things which must be considered before beginning to lay the groundwork for an international expansion; Pro involves implementing your expansion programme or activity; and Post is what you do as follow-up after entering the market.

The “Pre” perspective

Do be proactive

As you consider expanding your business, being proactive from the start is key. This does not mean going into overdrive and overtaxing the resources you have; it means realising the need for a thorough plan and starting to think about all possible angles including human resources, taxation, messaging, channel partners, and legal. 

Being proactive rather than responsive was made abundantly clear when I was called upon to resolve an issue for a company that had set up an office abroad before realising it would take six to eight months to obtain work permits for their staff. The delays and expenses could have been avoided by the firm being proactive and doing a bit more forward planning.

Do make sure you understand the marketplace

When considering a location it pays to do your research. Important questions to consider are whether there is an educated workforce that has the right skills for your business, and what incentives and programmes are on offer to help new businesses get off the ground.

In many jurisdictions, including Ontario, the government provides financial resources and complimentary business set-up and development assistance. Without research, it’s unlikely you’ll even be aware that these valuable benefits exist.

Don’t take unnecessary risks

Financial, legal, compliance and intellectual property matters need to be given careful and detailed thought ahead of a move. So I always recommend that my contacts seek professional advice to ensure they don’t waste time or resources. When it comes to these areas, it is just not worth penny-pinching. 

One company I worked with was concerned with their advisory costs when they were setting up in a new jurisdiction. As a result they had to delay their opening by a year, and it jeopardised the entire operation. Only once they received professional advice were they able to get around a statutory compliance issue.

The “Pro” perspective

Do be culturally aware

While international business coaches often stress understanding cultural differences when working in foreign countries, I prefer to emphasise working from “similarities”. 

A basic similarity is that everyone appreciates being in “a relationship” and treated with respect. So, get to know the person you’re doing business with, be attentive to their approach and open to learn and adapt to their culture.

Do act like a startup

Your domestic and international business will be two separate entities. Whether your company has been around for 12 months or 12 years, is worth £12,000 or £12m, a newly internationalised business or branch is a “startup”. 

Like a start-up, your international business is a new venture, in a new market, with new clients and all this needs time, attention and resources. 

Being present and visiting your new market is important – find out why, as well as how to create support networks, on page two.

Do be present and visit your new market as often as possible

Further to the above, however established, celebrated and stable you are in your domestic market, you must see your company as unknown and untested in the new country. 

My advice here is to regularly visit to build credibility and establish relationships. This will help you to become involved in local industry, and ensure you never develop an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to your new market. 

When I look at those businesses which have been most successful in new markets, they are those who have been present in a new market and continuously visible. It takes time and money, yes, but you are investing in relationships and a new venture.

Do create support networks

Your challenges will have almost certainly been faced by others. Reach out and find experienced businesspeople or trusted government representatives; they will have interesting insights to offer you as a business mentor. 

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a contact in the same industry (for competitive reasons), but it would be good to choose someone from an established company or trusted government representatives who can help you find the lay of the land.

Don’t shun “co-opetition”

Aside from your mentor(s), another way to collaborate is to join or establish a consortium of complementary companies from your region or country. So few companies do this, but “co-opetition” is the new norm for international business and it enables you to leverage each other’s networks and resources, and even split some of the costs.

The “Post” perspective

Keep up the good work

Successfully entering a market can require a huge amount of effort initially, which may not be sustainable in the longer term. Despite this, it is important not to let standards slip and to remember that you may be viewed as a newcomer for longer than you consider yourself to be one. 

As such, be sure to maintain good habits, like following up after every meeting or interaction. It may seem like Business 101, but following up is surprisingly uncommon. I try to send a thank you note or points from the meeting as quickly as possible following all meetings, along with any relevant material or information. 

It is these small things that can make all the difference. The most successful companies I have worked with send a follow-up note within two-to-three days of a meeting.

Expanding your business is exhilarating, but is fraught with risk and situations that seem daunting. However, a thorough strategy will minimise risks and maximise opportunities.

My advice is to apply a simple Pre-Pro-Post approach to your strategy development. It can be a useful and easily understood approach for all your team members as they help grow your business internationally.

Aaron Rosland is a senior economic officer and counsellor at the High Commission of Canada – find out more about using Ontario, Canada as your platform for expanding into North America.