Billionaire Bill Gates once said that to win big, sometimes you need to take big risks. This may sound something of a cliché in a world where over 70% of CEOs are getting more concerned about economic, social and political risks. If you are a small business operator, risks are something you often want to avoid. But one of the biggest mistakes that small businesses can make is behaving like a small business.
Overcoming Challenges of Growing Globally
A typical symptom is thinking and acting local. Recent research shows that only 17% of small businesses engage in international trade. For those that do, the benefits are a bigger customer base, higher revenues and higher profitability. But going global can be an intimidating prospect for some. “Marketing products into international markets is not a simple task”, says Julio Oliveto, founder of Livre, an innovative wheelchair-tricycle company in Brazil.
Attracting Overseas Customers
A frequently cited challenge is attracting overseas customers, introducing them to the brand, convincing them to become customers and generate repeat purchases. Ways to tackle this challenge, according to Amreet Singh and Yuva Viswanathan, founders of RedWhite Apparel, a small business specializing in long-distance cycling apparel in Singapore, are to use paid social media, expand complementary product portfolio, and cultivate great customer service that generates repeat sales in the long term.
“There has been a tremendous revolution in software in the last 5+ years that has brought down the cost of setting up a full service, secure e-commerce store to roughly the cost of an bottle of wine (per month). Parallel to this, social media has grown as well, allowing businesses from anywhere in the world to market to anyone,” he says. With the tools now freely available online, you don’t necessarily need to hire a team of advertising professionals to reach audiences overseas.
Product risks are another key concern that needs to be addressed. “Having only a single product, we fully understand the lack of market competitiveness and the risk of being copied,” says Alan Lee, founder of Hong Kong based smart wheelchair maker B-Free. Small businesses often need to offer more than one product to mitigate this risk and build credibility in the eyes of the customer. To tackle this, B-Free researched and patented another product based on market demand.
“I’d never thought an investment at the start would make such a difference.”
– Jessica Krauter, co-founder of Buah
To achieve international success small business owners need to make the right investments at the right time and reinvest back into the company. Buah, a company producing and selling freeze dried fruits in Germany overhauled their e-commerce platform completely while their business was still green then rebuilt it with new designs, labels and new packaging. The results were rewarding. They recorded double turnover, re-established their brand and are now recognized internationally.
The experiences shared by small business owners around the world show that in today’s digital world the challenges in engaging in international trade are getting smaller. Some of the challenges to international growth may be purely perceived obstacles rather than challenges based in reality. For anyone wishing to sell globally for the first time, Viswanathan recommends putting strong focus on customer care to encourage repeat purchases and building trust early on through customer reviews and media. “It only takes initiative and a willingness to do business,” he says.
This article features commentary and opinion from small business owners in Asia, Europe and Latin America on the challenges to taking their businesses to international audiences. All the small business owners cited are winners of the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest 2016.
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 Bill Gates, Business @ the Speed of Thought: Succeeding in the Digital Economy, March 24, 1999
 PwC, 19th Annual Global CEO Survey, January, 2016
 Facebook, OECD, The World Bank, Future of Business Survey, September, 2016