Opinion

It's good to talk

6 min read

14 November 2011

Global Entrepreneurship Week kicks off today with the assertion that “every business starts with a conversation”...

I think there is a lot to be said for the power of communication in business, and one area that we could use this skill more effectively is in realising international opportunities.

On Friday, the Prime Minister, David Cameron said: “We need to be a country where more people say ‘I can start my own business & sell to the world’.” 

On the same day, Buddi, the GPS personal tracker business, was awarded a contract with a Swedish government agency. The lead originated from a presentation in Portugal at the European Conference on Electronic Monitoring, which the Swedes were attending. 

If the Buddi team hadn’t made the effort to attend and present, there would have been no opportunity. If it had seen international trade as something for multinationals and not small business, there would have been no pitch. If it hadn’t communicated its offer brilliantly, there would have been no contract.

Britain is both a major home to international business and the home to the language of business, English. So if you are looking to break out abroad, you have an enviable head start by just being based here. But you’ve got to get out there and find the opportunities.

The realities of recession mean that more of us are going to have to look further afield if we want to go for growth. Europe and the US might be struggling, but many parts of the world, like south east Asia, are delivering double-digit growth and showing extraordinary entrepreneurial élan. Make no mistake, new rules, new winners and new losers are being forged right now. So, if you’re not thinking global, you and your business are missing out.

A report from NESTA on knowledge sourcing asserts that small businesses are increasingly drawing knowledge from international sources to generate ideas for new products and processes. 

I judged the international category of tonight’s Growing Business Awards and there is a common chord among the finalists. Firstly, they all made the leap from domestic to international businesses incredibly quickly. Secondly, they were businesses that might have typically and understandably stuck with domestic ambitions.

Their choice to go for international growth is a big part of what makes them exceptional. The realisation that international trade is a realisable and actionable ambition; that focus and networking can deliver; and that the restrictions of national borders have become increasingly less prohibitive to smaller businesses. 

It’s a view that is shared by one of our clients, School for Startups founder, Doug Richard. Doug’s point is that the realities of the internet mean that you are either global or local and that there is no meaningful distinction in between. That is to say that there are some businesses who are certainly defined by physical geography, a local hairdresser say, but for the rest of us the opportunities are as wide as the limitations of our own imagination.

Sara Murray, the founder of Buddi says, “I think the internet is perfect for the sales globally of ‘middleman’ type services, where there is no movement of goods. International trade is also good for companies selling brainpower like consultants. It just requires a plane ride between jobs. It’s where goods are involved, like manufacturing, where companies often have their fingers burned.”

Issues like exchange rate risk on prices, local technology infrastructure, as well as regulatory and legal unknowns, are just some of the traps awaiting those arriving into new markets.

Emily Coltman is working on a new e-book called Micro-multinationals. Her advice is to watch out for obscure rules relating to taxes, especially VAT, both at home and abroad. Several EU countries have VAT rates of 25 per cent and you need to “know your UK and international VAT obligations”. 

So, while opportunities are mounting, businesses need to be realistic about the markets they seek to enter and they need experience. If there is one message it is to do your homework.

If you’re looking for sources to inspire ideas, the recent work of UKTI and BIS is worth looking into. BIS is today repackaging Business Link into a resource of smart apps, and UKTI has a new section of its site packed with information to assist smaller businesses get export ready.

I am working on Global Entrepreneurship Week so have seen the rich seam of events for business scheduled over the next five days. Many, such as the Go Global workshop on Thursday, offer great opportunities for those with international ambitions.

In the old BT ad, Bob Hoskins used to tell the nation, “It’s good to talk.” It’s good advice for business thinking of going global today. From researching markets to developing leads, from pitching to winning business, there is a world of conversation to be had.

Michael Hayman is co-founder of the public relations consultancy Seven Hills. You can also follow Michael on Twitter.