7 Secrets of an Export Ace

Written by Susanne Baillie

Ah yes, another solid lesson from kindergarten: those who best follow the leader often become leaders themselves.

One Canadian exporter worth emulating is Richard Sterne, president of Datasym Inc., a Brantford, Ont.-based developer and manufacturer of point-of-sale (cash register) electronics and communications software. As this year’s winner of the Ontario Global Traders Award for leadership, Sterne says, “The Canadian market is a decent enough, but when you have a U.S. market that’s 10 times larger on your doorstep, it becomes an opportunity that’s too good to miss.”

Sterne founded Datasym in 1984. It currently exports 95% of its product to the U.S., and Sterne expects sales to rise 5-10% over last year’s revenues of $11 million. Here are his seven secrets to enhancing your export readiness:

  1. See for yourself: Take time up front, perhaps six months or more, to research the market, says Sterne. Learn who the competitors are, where they’re based, and what their culture is (start with the Internet and industry trade associations). Next, come up with your key competitive advantage, he says. “You don’t want to go down there and be a ‘me too’, so work out what’s going to make a customer say, ‘Wow, I need to buy some of this!’ It could be a better price, more value, more features, or a better marketing program.” Then explore the market in person.
  2. Take it easy: Once you’ve decided to go for it, try experimenting with test sites or sales to see how your product or service is received. Thus far, Datasym has focused on the opportunity-rich U.S. market, but is slowly entering Mexico. “We have a dealer in Texas that has a sister dealership in Mexico, so we’ve had some sales in northern Mexico. That seems to be working, so now we’ll take the next step. We’re a small company, so we can’t waste a lot of money.”
  3. Persevere: Make sure you’ve got reserves. As a new player in a market, expect to hang in there for a minimum of three years before you take hold, says Sterne. “If potential clients see you at the same trade show for two or three years in a row, they become a lot more comfortable with the idea of doing business with you.”
  4. Walk like a duck: “When I’m in the U.S., I market as though I’m a American company. I don’t hide being Canadian, but I don’t promote it,” says Sterne. International customers may shun Canadian suppliers for the perceived hassle of cross-border paperwork, so make it easy for them to do business with you. Datasym invoices in U.S. dollars and has a distribution centre in Niagara Falls, NY so American customers don’t have to bother with customs brokerage and taxes for orders or returns.
  5. Talk like a duck: “Make sure that your literature, advertising, packaging and everything you’re trying to sell into a foreign market is in the local language,” says Sterne. Don’t forget to “Americanize” your spellings for U.S. markets. For Mexico, Datasym will hire a Spanish translator and have everything proofread by someone in the industry capable of picking up the slang and buzzwords unique to the business.
  6. Feed the duck: Tailor your product to suit foreign market needs. Datasym’s technology is certified by the US government’s GSA supplier program, and incorporates functions specific to the US market, such as electronic benefit transfer (EBT). To keep up with the tech rat race, the firm spends approximately 10% of sales on R&D, including software development and documentation, planning and market research.
  7. If you’ve got it, flaunt it: Make sure potential clients know about any industry or business awards that you’ve won, hints Sterne. Awards are marketing gold that can help demonstrate your product quality, innovation, customer support, or some other value. In addition to Ontario Export’s award, Datasym has been honored by the Independent Cash Register Dealers association of America, and the City of Brantford’s chamber of commerce. “It’s always nice to have recognition from your peers or your customers,” says Sterne, “and a lot of clients measure you on these sort of indicators.”

© 2003 Susanne Baillie

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