Peer-to-Peer: How can I get an export program rolling without spending too much?

Written by ProfitGuide Staff


“I run a small manufacturing company in London, Ont. There’s not much of a market for my product here in Canada, but there’s a huge global market for it. A lot of companies in other countries produce a similar product and, from what I can tell, they are doing quite well. I want to start selling my product in other countries, but I don’t feel I have the money or the staff to find customers in these markets. How can I get an export program rolling and find customers without spending too much money?”

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Reader responses

Mojgan Legault, Telesto Inc., Kanata, Ont.

The good news is you can get all the help you need for free!!!

All you need to do is research and select your target markets, then contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade ( DFAIT has many programs in place to assist new and experienced exporters.

You can also directly contact one of the trade officers posted to the Canadian Embassy in the country you are targeting. Trade officers specialize in export and promoting Canadian businesses abroad. They can help you identify, contact and research potential buyers at absolutely no cost.

Marty Avery, Pylon Design Inc., Toronto

The Canadian Embassy has staff in practically every country whose job it is to help Canadians export. Before a trip to Washington, D.C. I contacted our embassy and within 24 hours had a 10 page list of industry contacts, then set-up a number of meetings. Top of my list was to meet with the embassy specialist in my sector. We are now trading research and leads. I have two new American customers, and that’s just the beginning.

Marcus Pidek, KI-CASS Freight Forwarding Inc.

I can think of 3 things you can do right now which are free or cheap and can bring results.

  • Get on more search engines, especially in other languages that are much used such as Spanish, German, Japanese (lots of buying power still left in Japan), Portuguese (Brazil is growing fast), and Chinese (I think it’s Mandarin for the mainland, English would probably do for Hong Kong and Taiwan).
  • Contact Canadian Consuls and Embassies in your target countries. The Canadian diplomatic posts will connect you with locals looking for an opportunity — especially in niche markets that haven’t been exploited yet. You may even get financial assistance or tax credits from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). They’re there for you — use them.
  • Talk with immigrants you know and ask them if they have friends or family back home who are interested.

After you find some prospects a few emails should fill in a lot of the blanks. Ask a lot of questions, don’t give credit and good luck.

David Leangen, Konova Solutions Inc., Japan

I am a Canadian entrepreneur currently living in Japan. My advice stems from my experience here.

One excellent way of being able to export on a shoestring budget is to pair up with like-minded entrepreneurs currently living abroad. Ex-pats such as myself are always looking for ways of importing interesting Canadian technologies, products, or services into the country where they’re living. In many cases, if your new “partner” likes your product enough, he or she may even decide to shoulder the costs and risks involved in such a venture.

Such a person will usually take one of two courses of action. The first is to introduce you to a company that could potentially show a marked interest in your product. The second is to try to do it his or herself. Which way you decide to go depends on how quickly you hope to penetrate the market and how much you’re willing to give up. In both cases, I suspect that you don’t have the budget to travel to the foreign country to actually meet the person, so your risks run high as well.

Of course, the less you pay, the less you can expect. If your “partner” does shoulder the risk, then he or she will require a significant portion of the profits. Also, people who are willing to take on such projects, I have found, are trying to get started up and therefore don’t have a lot of funds to pump into such as project and will often tend to place their priority on projects that bring in a short-term cash flow.

From my experience, when you don’t have the money to actually pay for a decent service, you can’t expect too much. However, with a bit of luck, you could stumble across an eager ex-pat entrepreneur who just may be able to get things going for you. They may be hard to find, but they really do exist!

In any case, for your project to work, you must have an excellent product that is appropriate for the target market. Potentially lucrative markets such as Japan, still the world’s 2nd economy despite its current difficulties, sees a plethora of importers attempting to bring in new products to this vast market. Here, it’s the importer’s game. Since they have such a wide range of products to choose from, they can be picky and demand a lot from you.

If you’re interested in the Japanese market, drop me a line.

Stuart Greenfield, IDYIA Inc., Winnipeg

One of the best resources available to Canadian companies who are interested in exporting is the network of Canadian consulates and embassies around the world. Consular staff are there to help Canadian businesses who are serious about exporting. They can give you information on manufacturers representatives, etc. in their consular area and other vital information.

You can do some initial research to determine where you would like to export and then contact the consulate in that area for market information, etc.

Anna Tulchinsky, PulseHR, Ottawa

I see two general avenues that you can explore in order to find customers abroad while spending little money:

First, you can partner with someone who already has a good customer base in the countries of your interest, but whose product(s) are not in direct or immediate competition with yours. This method has one big disadvantage: you will lose a good share of control and money.

Second, use the Internet, the most cost-effective selling medium. Here’s a step-by-step approach:

  • Find a good name for your website — — they have a lot of free tools, including ones to help you choose a good domain name.
  • Purchase / register a domain name — — here you can purchase all level domain names for about $50 dollars per year (this was one of their recent promotions). They will host your website for you for $50 per month as well. You won’t need anything more than that.
  • Buy a ready-to-go website template — — from $15 to $30 dollars.
  • Purchase relevant software — this may cost you a few hundred dollars.
  • Fill it up with a very good content directly related to your products, hire a search engine optimization (SEO) agent who will help you get your website ranked high by the search engines. You can do that yourself at no cost, but prepare to spend a couple of months on learning.Some good search engine optimization sources are the following:

  • Host and register your website with Google and other search engines (do it by hand, you only need to register with 10 or 12 of them). It may take 2 to 3 months before your site gets listed. Most of the listings are still free, but some engines charge.
  • Later, you will need credit card processing capabilities. In order to save money, you can outsource this to a reputable company. This will cost you about $40 per month, plus a few hundred dollars of setup fees. Some of the good sources are the following:

  • Register your website in all possible Internet directories related to your countries of interest and your product. Most of them are still free. This is very time consuming, but gives great results.
  • Post ads on popular websites abroad and in the local newspapers — may cost you a few hundred dollars.
  • Reply to all email inquiries that will be coming to your website from abroad.
  • Participate in all networking events (industry breakfasts, etc). Attend cultural events at the embassies / cultural centers of your countries of interest. This will help you find good contacts.

The Internet campaign should not cost you more than $3,000 – $5,000 in total, if you take on most of the legwork yourself. Overall, you are looking at about $10,000 investment and 6 to 8 months of work (this includes certain programming costs you may have to incur).

The Internet method is very cost-effective, but rewards are not immediate. However, once you get the ball rolling, you won’t regret it! If you need programmers, just give me a call, I can refer tons of them to you!

I surely hope this information will at least get to Frank!

Jean-Paul Lemieux, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa

How to get an Export program rolling? Indeed a good question and some of the respondents have already alluded to how the Trade Commissioner Service of Canada can help in this regard. Let me try and answer this question as one of your representatives here in Canada who has recently returned from abroad. The government of Canada has established a “Team Canada Inc.” network of organisations and services, to help you begin your journey to export success. Depending on your level of expertise in exporting, Team Canada Inc. partners can help you get your exporting interests up and running as well as identifying training programs to help you meet these goals such as the Forum for International Trade Training. So how can you access Team Canada Inc and what do we offer? To help target the most appropriate office, we use the concept of an “Export Continuum” to identify where Team Canada can best help you out in getting your export program rolling. Let me explain how …

At the first stage of our “Export Continuum”, we have the Canada Business Service Centres who can help with basic export advice, listing of Federal programs, setting up your business and in some cases, basic lists of potential foreign partners. They are your first stop in this continuum and are for some of the more “basic” questions. They are located in every province and can be reached at the following website:

The second step is to contact your local International Trade Centre, also located in every Province. These offices are staffed by Industry Canada and DFAIT officials and can help you with more advanced questions such as developing export plans and international business strategies. They can also help you focus on the right markets for your products, a key factor in ensuring that you can find success in overseas markets. Finally, they will be your first stop for applying for assistance under the Program for Export Market Development and can give advice on other financial programs offered through partners such as the Export Development Corporation etc. These offices, commonly known as ITCs, are one of the key domestic partners that Embassies and Consulates work with on a regular basis, so check them out at the following link:

Finally, the last step in the Export Continuum is to contact Trade Commissioner Service of Canada, located in over 140 offices abroad. Once you have done your export market research and have selected and targeted your key foreign markets (normally this is limited to a maximum of 5 markets at a time), the Trade Commissioner Service can help you with 6 core services that we offer Canadian Business. These include the following:

  • Market Prospect Service
  • Key Contact Searches
  • Visit Information
  • Local Company Information
  • Face-to-Face Briefings
  • Troubleshooting

To read more on the specific details of each “Core Service” and to download our market reports, we invite you to sign up to our “Virtual Trade Commissioner” at the following site: Finally, one last stop for potential exporters to check out … that is the exportsource website that is a one-stop portal to all Government of Canada sites on export development. You can visit this site at the following link:

Good luck!

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