I know a lot of businesses and owners in that category. They’re doing quite well in their local market and they’re like “it would so cool to expand to Singapore … and then China” …. or “we’re thinking about New Zealand and then the UK”. But how many of them actually get out there and do it?
Not that many, as it turns out. Let’s look at the English-speaking world. The statistics say that in the US, less than 5% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) operate internationally or service international clients. That number is about the same in Australia. The UK does better, with 20% of SMEs operating or exporting internationally, while in Canada around 12% of SMEs export.
So what’s stopping them … and what’s stopping you? It seems to boil down to four key reasons.
1. They don’t know where to start
Expanding a company beyond the borders of your own country has quite a few dimensions and for business owners who don’t already have international experience, this is uncharted territory. For most entrepreneurs, juggling the demands of an existing business with the uncertainties and variables that an expansion brings seems like a tall order. And for many, the whole thing seems like an overwhelming task. “I wouldn’t know where to begin” is a phrase I hear fairly often.
2. They believe that they don’t have enough time
In a similar vein, business owners seem to believe that an international expansion is so time consuming and complicated that they would never have enough time to work out what needs to be done to “go global”, let alone actually do it.
3. They think they can’t afford it
Many entrepreneurs see the process of creating an international expansion strategy as a complex one that can only carried out by an expensive consultant. In other words they believe that is sort of project is beyond their reach. Or they believe that implementing an international expansion will be more costly than they can afford.
4. It’s too risky
It’s true that international expansion throws up new situations and challenges that we’ve never encountered before. For some entrepreneurs, not being able to immediately quantify and manage all the risks that they might encounter scares the hell out of them. Staying home and focusing on a smaller market that they understand s eems much safer.
So what’s the truth?
Well, the truth is that it’s easier than you think. I know this because I only have to look around me to name a whole bunch of business owners just like you who have expanded what they do internationally. Let me give you a few examples:
Dale McCarthy from Bondi Born started her swimwear company in 2015. She went from never having designed a bikini to exporting to Europe and China in 2.5 years.
Paul Slezak from RecruitLoop started his recruiting business with his mate Michael Overell in 2011, from a co-working space in Ultimo, Sydney. Fast forward six years and the company is headquartered in San Fancisco and serves clients in 54 countries around the world.
Melinda Mackay started Sugar Free Solutions in 2005 because she wanted to make sure her son, newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes could have cake at his next birthday. Today, Sugar Free Solutions is exporting sugar-free cake and muffin mixes to the Middle East and Asia.
Margot McKinney is a fourth-generation family jeweller from Brisbane, Queensland. Ten years ago she launched her products into the US, which is now her largest market. Margot’s Australian gemstone jewellery is sold across the States and worn by Hollywood starlets.
I could go on.
So what do these entrepreneurs know that you don’t?
Here’s the thing. Entrepreneurs like Dale, Paul, Margot and Melissa have grasped a few key truths about international expansion.
1. You can eat the elephant with a spoon
Although international expansion is a big project, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming project. Like any other big project it is manageable, as long as you break it down into bite-sized chunks that you tackle one at a time. Planning your expansion before you start selling is a great way to break the elephant into little pieces.
2. We all have the same number of hours in the day
Yes, expanding a business internationally requires time and effort, but whether or not you have the time to take on the project of expanding depends on whether you make time. Dale, Paul, Margot and anyone else who has ever “gone global” have all had 24 hours in a day. If you really want to go global you’ll look at where you currently spend your time. If changes need to be made to free you up, you’ll make them. Plan, delegate, hire a VA … if you want to make the space to do the international piece, it’s within your power.
3. International expansion does not have to be a huge, expensive, irreversible project
Ideally, “going global” should be a series of small, frugal experiments, especially in the initial stages. You start with a theory, you test the theory and then you record and measure the results. If it goes well you do it again. If not, you work out why, recalibrate and try something else. And yes, with a bit of help you can definitely create your own strategy.
4. It’s risky … but not that risky
“Going global” is not a risk-free enterprise, but proper planning, research and market testing can make it a lot less risky and a lot faster. And the alternative – doing nothing, or simply concentrating on the home market – may be equally as risky, as trade barriers come down and new entrants from around the world threaten traditionally secure markets.
And there you have it. International expansion is a significant project, but not an insurmountable one, a risky one, but less risky than playing blackjack. If you have the same amount of time available as other average human beings you can do it. And it doesn’t have to break the bank.
So … what are you waiting for? Time to get out there and make your company (at least) ten times more successful!
If you’re a small business thinking of how to grow your business and whether international expansion is right for you, check out our e-book Why Go Global? Seven Reasons to Take Your Company Global.