How to grow your exports beyond the usual-suspect countries

Geopolitical uncertainty has motivated many exporters to look beyond traditional trading partners. It’s not just a savvy hedge—it’s a major growth play

PROFIT 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Hand reaching for a globe/door-knob

(Illustration by Sam Island)

It’s safe to say that the world is a little on edge right now. Thanks to the uncertainty caused by both Brexit negotiations and the Donald Trump presidency, Canada’s traditional export partners look less and less like sure bets.

“There’s definitely been a Trump effect,” says Miroslav Wicha, CEO of Montreal-based Haivision (2017 PROFIT 500: No. 458), which provides secure video streaming solutions. “Things are at a bit of a standstill in the U.S.”

Thank goodness, then, that the company has other options. Haivision has been working to diversify its export markets since 2013, when a U.S. budgetary sequestration triggered a wave of spending cuts. It has since invested heavily to develop clientele in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region, and is getting enough traction that the uncertainty south of the 49th parallel isn’t a liability.

Economists have long extolled the potential of so-called emerging markets—developing countries such as the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China)—but many Canadian companies have been slow to act, comfortable focusing their international business on the massive, and relatively easily served, U.S. and European markets. The volatility of the past 18 months has disrupted that comfort zone, prompting many of Canada’s savvier exporters to pursue emerging markets in order to diversify and establish a more global customer base—including several businesses on the 2017 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest Growing Businesses.

They have learned what works—and what doesn’t—when exporting products and services off the beaten path, and their practices are instructive for any business that doesn’t want to leave its international affairs vulnerable to the unpredictable tweets of a global leader.

Do your homework

For Manon Hogue, CEO of Diagnostics Biochem Canada (No. 247), breaking into new markets always starts with detailed, multifaceted research. The company manufactures diagnostic kits with a niche specialization in endocrinology, and while the business is based in London, Ont., its products are sold around the world.

When targeting a non-traditional market, Hogue’s team gathers information from every branch of local government, and studies key competitors, the regulatory environment and tax rules. The team has learned to start the process early; securing the right permits can be a lengthy and time-consuming process. (In China, for instance, it can take two years to get the go-ahead to sell.) Hogue’s scientists also study the illnesses specific to a new place, and tailor their offerings accordingly. For example, in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, where both men and women tend to cover up in public, Vitamin D deficiencies are common. Then there’s price sensitivity: emerging markets can rarely bear the costs charged in Canada. Diagnostics Biochem Canada has therefore learned to alter what clients get for their money depending on local needs. In Brazil, for instance, the company adapted its kits to come in at a lower price point.

That homework has allowed Diagnostics Biochem Canada to gain a first-mover advantage in growing economies; Hogue says that getting one client in a new country often leads to 10. “An established market is much more competitive,” she reports.

Leverage local partners

When moving into emerging markets, cultural differences can be significant. And as Boisbriand, Que.-based robotics firm Kinova Robotics (No. 91) has learned, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mastering the nuances. “In China, you need to work with Chinese individuals and learn Chinese ways,” says Francois Boucher, the company’s executive vice-president. The most effective way to do that, he adds, is by working with other firms based on the ground; Kinova leverages a network of distributors around the world to better convey its brand message, conducts business according to local customs and—crucially—does it all in local languages. Partnering is the most efficient way to develop credibility, Boucher says: “The depth of your business will go with the depth of your relationships and level of trust.”

To that end, Kinova has also developed research partnerships with over 300 universities in almost 40 countries. “Visibility can be key in emerging markets, where potential partners might be less familiar with your offerings,” Boucher explains. Kinova’s breakthrough in India, for instance, came after one global player saw the company’s robots at a university. “We’ve developed a giant global R&D department spread all over the world,” says Boucher. “It helps us develop license and IP agreements, build relationships, and grow our own technology and development faster.”

Court influencers

In going global, Damir Slogar, CEO of London, Ont.-based mobile gaming company Big Blue Bubble (No. 112), has used social media attention to court avid followings in multiple emerging markets around the world, including Russia and Brazil. The secret, says Slogar, is to identify and encourage superfans who can help build buzz. When the company’s most popular game, My Singing Monsters, first appeared in the Brazilian market, the gaming company partnered with an up-and-coming Brazilian YouTuber named T3ddy (whose 5.5 million subscribers are overwhelmingly in the target demo). The strategy very quickly accelerated brand awareness and built a local fan base.

Look to the feds

Many PROFIT 500 exporters have found government agencies to be useful allies in their bids to expand into new countries. Slogar, for instance, has leaned on the federal government’s Trade Commissioner Service to help find reputable partners, something that can be more challenging in places where competitors haven’t already staked out well-worn paths. “They’ve been great, from organizing meetings and helping us attend trade shows to even lining up translators,” he says.

There are myriad services, many of them free, specifically tailored to deepen Canadian companies’ presence in emerging markets—something Todd Winterhalt, vice-president and managing director of global trade for Export Development Canada (EDC), feels is important in order to change the fact that 70% of Canadian exporters sell primarily to the U.S. “Diversification of trade is a good thing,” he says. “We can offer that critical first contact, and can help explain the tax regime or offer a list of local law firms and accountants that might be helpful.”

Hedge your bets

Of course, moving into lesser-known and still-developing markets can be a riskier (and more costly) proposition; it’s wise to exercise some caution.

At Haivision, Wicha builds slowly, first hiring locals to manage the region and then securing strategic partnerships—in China, for example, with such giants as Alibaba—before gradually expanding market share.

Slogar, too, dips his toes in the water. Big Blue Bubble’s games are initially launched through Apple and Google app stores, so early KPIs can be measured before deciding on both marketing budget and approach. At Diagnostics Biochem Canada, Hogue requests prepayment or a third-party guarantee from new customers, and expects its partners to bear the costs of registering any products with relevant regulatory bodies.

It’s smart to take a clear view of the risks, says EDC’s Winterhalt. (To that end, his agency offers credit insurance for exporters, a lending program for prospective buyers of Canadian products and political risk insurance.) But, he adds, if handled smartly, the risks of emerging markets are manageable. “We want Canadian companies to feel more comfortable taking the plunge.”