Thinking of selling only in Canada? You might want to think again, said four seasoned panelists at Innovation Guelph’s most recent Lessons from Leaders.

“If you’re a Canadian company, you will not survive if you do not export,” said Derek Webb, President and CEO of Biorem. “Period.”

Lessons from Leaders is a quarterly event that connects business owners with founders and CEOs across different stages and sectors on topics that affect business success.

The topic for this session: Why exporting is critical to my business, featured:

  • Martha van Berkel, Co-founder and CEO, Hunch Manifest: developers of SchemaApp, a marketing tool that helps search engines better understand your website to improve organic search results.
  • Derek Webb, President and CEO, Biorem, an environmental biotechnology company that designs, manufactures and distributes high-efficiency air emissions control systems.
  • J. Paul Haynes, President and COO, eSentire: a global cybersecurity firm offering tools and services to help defend against cyber attacks.
  • Keith Harris, Founder and CEO, Troll Bridge Creek: makers of KiKi Maple Sweet Water made with 100% pure Canadian maple sap, loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Here’s what we learned.

Why Canadian businesses should export

  • If they didn’t sell Schema App in the U.S., van Berkel wouldn’t have a company.
  • Haynes found the standard 10:1 ratio of US-to-Canada sales was more like 15:1 in his company.
  • It took Webb 15 years to get a footprint in Canada, even while selling to other countries from the start.
  • And Harris chose to target a global audience from the get-go.

Their reasons? In some cases, Canada just isn’t the right market. Consumers outside the country are less risk-averse and more willing to adopt new ideas early. In other cases, the market size was simply more attractive elsewhere.

Then there are the benefits of working halfway across the world, like taking advantage of staggered time zones that allow you to finish up a proposal and have it ready for a customer when they wake up.

That said, Canada can be a great test bed. So, go ahead and run betas and pilots here, Haynes encouraged, “We are a good proxy if you can find those willing-to-take-a-risk customers… but think in terms of who your market is.”

6 tips from the export experts

What do you need to know when exporting your product or service? Here’s what the panel had to say.

1. Go where you are pulled.

“There’s only one formula: You go where your products are wanted, period. It doesn’t matter whether it’s next door or whether it’s Antarctica,” said Webb. If there’s no demand, don’t force it.

2. It’s about the people. 

Customers connect with people, particularly from their own country or region, said Webb. That’s why his team includes people from all backgrounds, covering 12 languages. “They get the cultural nuances…you need the best info.”

3. Know your market.

Harris knew that tree sap – from birch to maple – was popular in Europe and Asia, so those are the markets he targeted. In his words, “It’s already in the psyche of my target customers there.”

4. Start with exporting in mind.

Haynes started eSentire dealing in Canadian dollars, but that became an obstacle when most of his customers came from the United States. He encouraged all entrepreneurs to learn from his experience, stating: “It’s painful when you have to convert. We were at 150 people

[when we had to change to US dollars], and it would be impossible now.

5. Be careful.

If you’re not prepared, you can get burned dealing with foreign laws, regulations and values, so make sure you protect yourself – even if it means saying no to some customers. For example, Webb explained, “a lot of cultures don’t value IP in the same way that we do.” Do your research and plan accordingly.

6. Ask for help.

No one knows how to export before they do it for the first time. Harris was no exception, but that didn’t stop him because he knew if someone in Canada has already sold something to a country, then the path exists. Besides, he said, “There are so many people here who are wanting to help you export product, even if you know nothing.” So, reach out and ask for help.

For the video clips from our previous Lessons From Leaders sessions, click here!