Despite ongoing economic uncertainty in the UK thanks to Brexit, businesses are still harbouring ambitions of global expansion: exporting can diversify revenue and reduce risk.
Research published in the wake of the EU referendum found that small businesses were optimistic about entering new international markets and less so about domestic growth. Almost half - 47.8 per cent - of more than 1,000 businesses surveyed by East & Partners on behalf of Western Union Business Solutions, believed that their international trade would grow, while less than six per cent thought it’d deteriorate. Only 39.3 per cent were expecting growth in domestic trade activity.
The immediate optimism was down to the weakening of the pound and the possibility that an exit from the EU could reduce red tape. Now that the dust has settled and the details of the UK’s future trade agreement with the member states are still to be ratified, businesses are wondering what it means for their future - and some are stepping back from taking the plunge until they know more.
Despite the optimism, the Office for National Statistics’ latest annual business survey, published at the end of 2016, shows that only 15.1 per cent of UK businesses are currently offering their products and services to markets overseas.
However, research from UK Trade & Investment suggests companies benefit from a 34 per cent increase in productivity by targeting international markets. They’re also 11 per cent more likely to survive in the future.
Let’s suspend reality for the rest of this article and assume everything will be stay the same post-Brexit. Here are the thoughts of two businesses (one currently selling to and one looking to sell to European markets) about the challenges of exporting.
Sofas by Saxon, family owned business based in Bolton
The bespoke furniture company deals in more than 50 countries worldwide. Managing director Matt Deighton says that one of the biggest challenges is the differences in relation to payment.
"Some countries prefer to stick to a certain type of payment, which might be via a particular e-commerce provider. We deal with this by being flexible and understanding, while trying to accommodate the needs of our international customers. This can require a bit of extra work on our behalf, but it’s worth it in the end."
Selling to multiple markets means there’s a need to keep on top of quoting in a range of currencies and the impact fluctuating exchange rates could have, adds Deighton. But there are steps that can be taken to reduce the impact.
From the furniture-specific side of things, Deighton says that the challenge is being aware of the varying cultural attitudes. For example, in Germany, there’s a preference for furniture that is firmer, while the US market tends to favour larger pieces as their homes are usually more spacious. It can also mean adapting furniture to suit the market
"In Germany there is a different perception of what constitutes quality leather. They see natural scarring as a sign that the hide is genuine and of a higher quality. On the other hand, here in the UK we view scarring as something that requires correction, which would detract from its image in Germany."
There are also potential issues when it comes to language. None of the company’s products have names that are in danger of offending when translated, Deighton says, but there’s a need to be aware of sensitivities. And although the majority of their global customers speak English, they have French and Spanish speakers on staff in case they do run into communication problems and to ensure as smooth a sale as possible.
JimJam, medtech start-up based in Newcastle
The company, which provides a virtual platform for people to access physiotherapists via video call, has been operating for a couple of years but is now weighing up whether to start exporting.
According to business development manager Alex Blakoe, paying attention to language is critical “and cannot be underestimated when the stakes are high and given the precise nature of healthcare and the complex terminology involved”.
Identifying the right markets is a significant challenge, he adds. Countries have varying clinical norms and processes and this means there will be varying foreign regulations to adhere to. Significant resources will also be required to get international insurance.
"We’d initially be looking to export our technology to similar western economies. An ideal market would be one with a large English-speaking population with a similar clinical model and paid-for health economy and a well-developed occupational health culture," says Blakoe.
"Another attractive feature would be low-density – if people are geographically spread, [like in Sweden for example], it would help increase the penetration of our remote consultation technology."
Blakoe recognises that while there are barriers to entry, some markets will be near-on possible to break into for logistical, cultural and legal reasons. In this instance, the business will need to adapt to survive and thrive – instead of selling their technology directly, they’d look to licence the software to businesses that are already well established in the region.
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