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5 ways to build the right network to grow your business in new markets.

Exporting expert Jennifer Cooke says going global takes strategic connections.

Women on video call

You’ve heard the saying: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. 

When expanding your business internationally, that bit of advice certainly understates the importance of market research and an informed strategy — but it’s also impossible to overstate the benefits that your network can offer.

From opening doors and building trust, to overcoming language barriers and understanding cultural norms, an international network is essential for expanding globally. The right contacts can provide invaluable local market knowledge and connections, helping you to avoid costly mistakes, gain competitive advantages, and achieve your business goals more quickly.  

How do you tap into all these benefits? According to Jennifer Cooke, the corporate lead for EDC’s Women in Trade strategy — a role focused specifically on helping more women entrepreneurs export to grow their business — the first step is to get started

“You have to be deliberate. You can’t just wait for it to come to you,” advises Jennifer. “You need to be very strategic about building networks for the various needs you have in your business. And starting early is a good thing.”

To ensure success from there, she offers five key tips for building a global exporting network. 

Tailor your networks.

While your support networks are key for your mental health (especially amidst a pandemic), when it comes to growing your business, you need specific business networks. For global growth, that’s even more important as you’ll be faced with roadblocks and opportunities that are unique to exporting, as well as to the market you’re entering. 

That means the kind of network you need can change depending on the market and your strategy for entering it. Are there language barriers to overcome, or other cultural considerations? Are you selling directly to consumers through ecommerce, or working with an agent, or distributor? Start with research to understand what contacts would be beneficial to your needs and goals, then work on fostering those connections. 

“One of the first things we did was establish partnerships with sales brokers who had experience with natural products in the markets we were targeting,” says Shelby Taylor, founder and CEO of Chickapea, a line of healthy pastas made with organic chickpeas and lentils. “This helped us to learn about the markets and the differences from our home market, while benefiting from existing relationships. By taking this approach, we were able to better understand the investment required and reduce our risk with unknown retailers.”

“You can often tap into your current customers, suppliers, and service providers (from your lawyer to your shipping partner) for advice, new connections, or even a foot in the door.”

Start with your connections at home. 

While you do need a specific network, you don’t have to start from scratch. Look at who’s in your business network, and see if you can leverage relationships with individuals that you know and trust in a new way. You can often tap into your current customers, suppliers, and service providers (from your lawyer to your shipping partner) for advice, new connections, or even a foot in the door. 

Servicing existing customers in a new market is an easier way to begin growing, so pay special attention to clients who are operating internationally. You may also be able to reduce risk and access bigger and better opportunities by joining forces with other like-minded local businesses to create a broader and more robust offering. To help make those connections (and many more), you can look to organizations with the specific mandate of helping Canadian businesses, such as industry and trade associations, chambers of commerce, and Export Development Canada

EDC is dedicated to helping Canadian companies of all sizes succeed on the world stage. They’re international risk experts and can equip you with the tools you need — the trade knowledge, financial solutions, equity, insurance, and connections — to grow your business with confidence.

Jump on organized networking opportunities.  

Even if you’re just starting to explore your international ambitions, a trade show can help establish new and valuable connections. If you’re export ready, with a market in mind and a strategy in hand, there are also several trade missions offered by federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as trade associations. Visiting your target market is the best approach, but with COVID-19 still impacting travel, virtual events and even virtual trade missions are taking over, and still offer value.  

Rather than going in with the expectation that you’ll win contracts right away, consider it an opportunity to gain market intelligence and build your strategic network. You may even find a supportive network of fellow exporters, says Dannah Davies, founder of Sweetsmith Candy Co. based in Strathmore, Alberta. The producer of handmade toffees and brittles credits exporting events with helping her on her growth journey.   

“I have found the other businesses in the export community to be incredibly helpful,” says Dannah, “and I am grateful for all of the new friends made through export events as we continue to encourage each other and share experiences with exporting.”

Do your due diligence. 

When establishing relationships with international business partners, due diligence is a critical step. You’ll avoid potentially costly surprises down the road by investing time in a careful vetting process up front — and that means doing more than a Google search and social sniff. 

Validate that they have solid credit and are reputable. Look at their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) practices to ensure you’re working with a business and leadership team that shares the same values. You can get references from their customers or from their suppliers, and depending on the type of partnership, it’s not uncommon to ask them for their financial statements to ensure they’re a solid business.

Another great place to start is EDC’s Company Insight — a free online tool that lets you search and vet companies based on data that EDC experts rely on every day. And if you’re export ready, the Trade Commissioner Service can connect you with a trade commissioner in more than 160 cities worldwide, who can help you validate potential local business partners. 

Finding new customers, intermediaries, business partners, and international opportunities hinges on successful global networking.”

Invest in the build. 

Can you get lucky and find an international buyer quickly? Yes, but more often than not, it takes time, resources, and a sustained effort to build the right network for exporting. You may need to visit the local market — possibly multiple times and over multiple years — to gain the cumulative knowledge and relationship capital that will be critical to your success. 

Shamira Jaffer is the founder and president of Signifi Solutions, which provides hardware and software for the automated retail industry, from advanced vending machines to smart storage. To get their kiosks operating in 40+ countries around the world, Shamira has invested heavily in her export network, from participating in trade missions through the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, to working with the Trade Commissioner Service to establish contacts in each of the European markets she now operates in. 

Having dedicated expertise in foreign markets through vetted agents has been a key competitive advantage. “Signifi has built its business with networking and forming relations, either with customers or other business alliances,” Shamira explains. “We have four trusted agents in Europe and two agents in the US that have come from referrals. This approach allowed for a careful selection of agents who can be trusted with business goals aligned with Signifi.”

Building a network takes strategy, time, and resources — but the efforts are worth it. Finding new customers, intermediaries, business partners, and international opportunities hinges on successful global networking. And remember, it’s never too early to start.