As an entrepreneur, the idea of ‘embracing technology’ might seem too complicated or costly for a business like yours. In today’s market, every business can benefit from digitalization — with solutions that are simple, save precious resources, and have the potential to help you grow.
When Connie Lo and Laura Burget founded their natural beauty product line, Three Ships, they knew that exporting would be critical to grow the brand to a significant following. Now available through online retailers and more than 1,000 stores across the U.S. and Canada — including Whole Foods and Target — the pair credits technology with playing a key role in facilitating their expansion.
“The world is more connected now than ever before,” says Laura. “Technology has allowed us to better handle our global supply chain, expand our e-commerce offerings, and ensure that everything runs smoothly on our back-end.”
Embracing technology to fuel success isn’t unique to Three Ships — and in today’s market, it shouldn’t be. According to Caroline Abela, Director and Chief Product Owner of Export Development Canada’s Knowledge Business, digitalization is the new “table stakes” for entrepreneurs, especially those looking to export.
“The digitalization of the economy, which was estimated to happen over a 10 year period, just got compressed by the pandemic into one year,” Caroline explains. More importantly, she adds, the evolution is here to stay.
So where do you start? Caroline offers three areas where technology can have a big impact on your business, regardless of your size and industry.
Enhancing the purchase experience of your customers.
“A couple of years ago, being able to fully manage the customer experience online put you ahead of your competitors,” says Caroline. “Now, that’s the bare minimum required.”
For many businesses, that means offering e-commerce is a must (and if you’re just getting started on that, Caroline notes that EDC has in-depth articles and webinars on everything from upping your e-commerce game to managing digital risk). If your product doesn’t lend itself to e-commerce in the strictest sense of the term — click on a product, add to cart, complete transaction — there are still opportunities to digitize how you interact with them.
“It might not be an online retail experience that you’re enabling,” explains Caroline, “but you could still be using technology to streamline your customer’s experience and how they engage with your business.” Depending on your industry and unique business offering, that could mean moving parts of your sales process online, or your post-purchase support — or any other element of your customer lifecycle that’s causing friction.
“Ask yourself: if you solve this one problem, what does it do for your customer, and how does it increase the likelihood that your customer is going to transact with you?”
To understand where to invest your resources, compare your processes against customer expectations, and identify pain points. While today’s rule of thumb is “whatever can be digitized, should be digitized,” you can get started by solving problems that have the highest return on investment, says Caroline. “Ask yourself: if you solve this one problem, what does it do for your customer, and how does it increase the likelihood that your customer is going to transact with you?”
If you’re doing this exercise with exporting in mind, be sure to take into account the expectations set by the local market, as well as what your competitors are already delivering. “If you are thoughtfully growing into a new market, be aware of market dynamics around the look and feel of your website, the translation of your website, and the digital culture of the audience you’re trying to reach,” explains Caroline.
Ultimately, you’ll need to understand if your digital offering is on the level needed to be able to compete, and if not, how to meet and hopefully exceed that bar. Look at the market as a whole — for example, throughout Asia, there are very high expectations for being able to buy and return online, both in the retail and non-retail space — and familiarize yourself with the digital experience of your direct competitors. “If it’s not a big price point, try a transaction, and see how simple it is to do business with them,” suggests Caroline.
And remember, digitalization offers opportunities at all points of the customer lifecycle — including acquisition. For Shelby Taylor, the founder and CEO of Chickapea, technology has been key in finding new international customers for her line of chickpea and lentil-based healthy pastas. “We have spent considerable time evolving our digital marketing strategy in order to optimize how we reach customers in all markets,” explains Shelby. “This has included a presence on a number of platforms, impactful emails, and focusing on reviews.”
Adding efficiency and predictability to your back-end.
Along with the customer experience, the digitalization of supply chains has also been accelerated throughout the pandemic. Caroline notes that with a bit of upfront investment, there are enormous opportunities for driving costs out of your business on the supply side — from how you onboard your suppliers to how you make payments to them.
You can also find cost savings and efficiencies in other back-end processes. There is software available to support everything from CRM (customer relationship management) to accounting, and much of it comes with integrated features, like advanced security for risk management, and even predictive ability.
“You don’t need to have a data scientist on your staff to make use of predictive tools that are coming out in software, because technology companies themselves are actually starting to bake that into their off-the-shelf solutions,” Caroline says, pointing to Shopify and Square — both tech companies serving small merchants — as great examples of this. “In so many ways, today’s software can help you see around the corner.”
For example, if you have a payment gap that’s coming up 90 days from now, the right software can identify where you may have risks in your cash flows. On the sales front, much of the CRM software available will be able to tell you which customers are likely to be needing supply soon, so you can manage your inventory and focus your sales efforts.
When you’re selecting a software program, don’t get hung up on adopting artificial intelligence tools — instead think about how you are going to make data-driven decisions, Caroline advises. “Entrepreneurs that are making data-driven decisions at all points in their business are going to be more successful, because they’re actually going to be following the evidence for where they should be focusing their energy.”
Removing barriers for small businesses on a global stage through cloud-based software.
Adopting CRM, accounting, logistics and other solutions used to take a multimillion dollar investment in on-premise software. Now, cloud-based software offered for a monthly fee (also known as ‘Software as a Service’ or SaaS) are leveling the playing field — any business can have access to advanced technologies.
“It’s quite empowering for small businesses,” says Caroline, “because instead of making this really heavy investment up front, you’re making a choice and then paying monthly, so the affordability and flexibility are quite good.”
“It only takes a little bit of courage to tap into these opportunities that have become so much bigger, so much broader, and very exciting.”
In the last five years alone, Caroline says the availability and functionality of SaaS products targeting small businesses has grown considerably, and there are also online tools you can tap into on an as-needed basis. For example, if you’re already using Shopify for your e-commerce, the EDC Export Help Hub Shopify App gives you free, online access to answers to your most important questions about doing business internationally. You can search and review written responses from Expert Advisors, and communicate with them directly if you’re having trouble finding what you need.
And just last year, Google launched a free tool called Market Finder that can help you answer the first big question in exporting: Where is the best place for you to start selling to? “You punch in information about your product, and it identifies potential markets that look promising,” explains Caroline, with the results based on Google’s in-depth consumer insights and country-level data.
The push towards digitalization might seem scary or risky for some entrepreneurs, but you don’t have to be technologically savvy to use these tools, Caroline says. “It only takes a little bit of courage to tap into these opportunities that have become so much bigger, so much broader, and very exciting.”