Export tips from some of Canada’s fastest-growing companies

Many Canadian companies never sell a thing outside their own borders. Exporting presents challenges, but those who’ve done it say it’s worth it

PROFIT 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Shipping containers stacked on a dock

(Frank McKenna/Unsplash)

If there’s one criticism about Canadian businesses that crops up time and again, it’s that they aren’t eager enough to pursue opportunities in foreign markets. As a Senate report noted in 2015, “An aversion to risk may…prevent Canadian businesses, particularly SMEs, from pursuing international trade opportunities.” Of course, risk aversion isn’t the whole story. The same report from the Senate standing committee also observed that other factors seem to deter Canadian companies from being more export-oriented. Whether it’s language barriers, a lack of information on specific opportunities abroad or uncertainty about details on tariffs, there are a wide variety of reasons many Canadian businesses remain too close to home.

Chart showing proportion of revenue among PROFIT 500 companies derived from exports

Among the PROFIT 500 companies, 40% have no export revenues at all.

The survey results in this year’s PROFIT 500 guide illustrate just how few businesses rely on exports as a key source of their revenue. Indeed, approximately 40% of the companies on the list had zero export revenue for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. This isn’t to say that many aren’t trying or having success, just that the overall figures point to a continued reluctance to export goods and services. (It obviously should be said that some of the ventures are local by nature, so exporting isn’t really feasible in all cases). Nonetheless, as a group and a country, the results are striking.

In what follows, we present insights from some of the entrepreneurs surveyed in which they reveal tips and challenges for pursuing export markets as Canadian businesses.

Export Tips

“We hire local sales representatives that have an understanding of the foreign market and work with local dealers to gain an understanding of the ideal market channels to use”
—Creative At Home, Rod Gray, CEO

“We set up sales offices in strategic locations across the world and introduced our products to end users and distributors”
—Fred Atiq, Chairman, MOST Oil

“We travel a lot overseas to meet face to face with customers.  You get a lot more information and most importantly build a relationship and TRUST.  This day and age, many people just send instant messages with customers and that personal touch and relationship is starting to lack.”
—DG Global, Dwight Gerling, CEO

“We spend a lot of time visiting both customers and representatives in our export markets.  This has led to direct feedback and very short development cycles that allow us to respond to market demands quickly.”
—RBR, Greg Johnson, CEO

Export Challenges:

“Identifying reputable and reliable partners to work with in new foreign markets can be challenging”
—Waterplay Solutions, Jill White, CEO

“Sorting through the import customs and duty requirements, particularly into the US, has been a huge challenge.  We have addressed this by educating ourselves on the requirements and setting up the optimal business structure.”
—Creative at Home, Rod Gray, CEO

“Credit risk is a huge exporting challenge. We mitigate this by using a variety of risk tools such as Dunn and Bradstreet and In addition, we work closely with export development Canada to insure as much of our accounts receivable as possible.
—Airstart, Robert Wills, CEO

“Our biggest challenge is that external markets are not aware of our company or services”
—LifeLearn, Randy Valpy, CEO

These tips are just a small flavour of what’s in the full PROFIT 500 guide. For the complete list of companies that made the cut, check out this link. The whole PROFIT 500 package can be accessed here, and includes rankings, profiles and comments from keynote speaker Amber MacArthur and panelists such as Kirstine Stewart and Harley Finkelstein from Shopify.