Evan Holt for the Toronto Star

Taking your company global: Advice from Steelworks Design and Bizlaunch

The argument can finally be put to rest: size doesn’t matter.

That is, small enterprises lacking big budgets can go big in the international business arena — as long as they play it smart.

First, entrepreneurs should consider the indirect — and more affordable — ways to sell products and services on different continents, says Jean-Michel Laurin, vice-president, global business policy for Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.

“Owners should think about value chains.” says Laurin, whose association represents about 10,000 Canadian companies in manufacturing, global business and service-related industries. “For example, many of our members sell to larger equipment manufacturers in Canada, but much of what they make ends up outside of Canada. This spares you the time and cost of trying to get international clients on your own.”

Another important strategy is leveraging the services of professional associations and government agencies, he says.

CME offers members access to purchasers at big businesses, in-depth information on international markets, industry networking events, financing for export-related activities, and discounts on marketing services.

Many other organizations assist small businesses with international marketing. Export Development Canada offers financing and help with reaching new markets — hosting international trade missions in which entrepreneurs can participate to meet prospective clients. Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade (MEDT) also runs trade missions — both in-person and via videoconferencing. Plus it offers seminars, one-to-one consulting, and grants for international business expenses, including marketing tools. Locally, entrepreneurs can attend information sessions through Enterprise Toronto, a public/private small business training outfit run by the City of Toronto, and BizLaunch, a privately-run counterpart. Professional development events at both organizations are free.

Using such programs enabled Rhonda Barnet to attract international clients for  her engineering services firm, Steelworks Design. Based out of Peterborough, the 15-employee company makes custom-designed machines for multinational corporations such as Honda, Siemens and GE, and has done business in the U.S., England, Sweden and Australia. Steelworks benefits from services offered by the organizations mentioned above, as well as the federally run Community Futures Development Corporations in Ontario, which provided a grant to pay half her cost to, among other things, develop an export plan.

“We’ve had very little financial resources to market globally, so government agencies have been highly useful in helping us create relationships with international companies,” Barnet says.

Barnet also gets professional advice on international marketing from BDC, a government-owned financial institution that supports small- and medium-sized Canadian businesses focused on technology and exports.

“You get access to the best talent, but only when you need it. I don’t need to have a marketing person on staff—it’s a good cost savings to small companies,” says Barnet, adding that, since going global five years ago—largely through the help of referrals from Canadian clients partnered with international businesses—her company’s gross annual revenues have grown to around $2 million.

She’s far from alone among small-scale Canadian exporters — an October 2011 Industry Canada survey found that, among manufacturers, 49% of companies with 20 to 99 employees exported internationally between 2007 and 2009. Excluding good makers, a full 14% of Canadian small businesses did business globally in that same time period.

But, while exports may be booming, conscientious entrepreneurs are always looking to reduce costs while expanding. Barnet, for her part, tries to meet potential overseas partners when they come to Ontario, and asks target companies to book her flights and accommodations with their corporate discounts — usually about 30 per cent — when she must travel.

And, says Andrew Patricio, founder of BizLaunch, careful research can help to further reduce costs by shortening the amount of time entrepreneurs need to spend abroad.

“Find someone here who understands the market and can direct you to contacts there. Speak to the local consulate and chamber of commerce to get leads,” he says.

Other measures to cut marketing costs can include reducing registration fees at trade shows by sharing booths with other companies, or lodging at the homes of international business acquaintances willing to host you.

Plus, once initial in-person meetings are out of the way, Patricio says entrepreneurs can use free or cheap online communication tools, such as Skype, WebEx and LinkedIn, to continue networking and conducting business.

But, in the end, the perks of marketing internationally still come with big risks — especially to small businesses on a budget, Patricio says. Owners should pace themselves, he adds, and reign-in short-term expectations.

“There’s a big learning curve, so don’t try to dominate the world too quickly,” he says. “And don’t expect to make it in the first year or two. Mistakes will be made, and they will cost money. You need to account for that in your marketing plan.”