If you’re from Canada and have traveled abroad, you’ve probably got one somewhere—a beat-up maple leaf patch that is sewn onto your backpack or jacket. In a world that can seem big and scary, that little insignia opens doors and lets the world know we want to engage, learn and maybe have some fun.
The question is, how can Canadian entrepreneurs bring that same spirit to doing business abroad? That sense of adventure, that ability to open doors for one another? In an era when most business is global, that ability to forge connections abroad can make all the difference.
Most Canadian entrepreneurs I meet with today know this, of course. They realize they have to look outside our borders to truly grow. But when you’re starting out, it can be hard to know where to begin making inroads in foreign markets.
How do you find investors and partners abroad? How do you compete against those VC-backed behemoths in Silicon Valley? How do you make connections with buyers, suppliers and partners in other countries?
Going global in the digital age doesn’t necessarily mean selling everything you own and moving to San Francisco (although spending a little time there can help). As an entrepreneur and angel investor, I’ve built a network that spans dozens of countries.
Here are a few tips from the front lines to help Canadian entrepreneurs expand beyond our borders:
1. Leave Canada for a little while (and find other Canadians)
The best way to gain international exposure for your business is to travel internationally. It might sound obvious, but there should be a strategy for your travel. I don’t mean backpacking across Europe post-university. Planning trips with business expansion in mind is a more focused endeavor—you have limited time and money, and you need to make certain to get in front of the right people in the right place.
Just like when you were hostel-jumping on a few dollars a day, your greatest resource for making connections can still be other Canucks. The flipside of Canada’s multicultural identity is that we have expat communities almost everywhere, which can be a huge leg up for expanding abroad. Whether it’s tapping into the C100 in Silicon Valley or finding an industry-related group through the Canadian Expat Association, asking for input, insight and introductions from compatriots in target markets can fast-forward your efforts.
Another oft-overlooked tool is trade commissioners—the people whose job it is to bring new business to target countries. In fact, I ended up making several new business connections on a recent trip to the UK, through a dinner organized by Canada’s trade commissioner service. It’s a great resource that is active in many countries and a good place to start your research.
2. Join an international accelerator or entrepreneur group
While there’s plenty of positive momentum in Canada’s accelerator ecosystem, the reality is that programs with truly global reach—equipped with battle-tested mentors and a robust partner network—remain few and far between. For startups looking to fast-track their international acumen, entering international pitch competitions produced by the likes of Get in the Ring, SaaStock or SXSW can put you on the radar of international investors—or at least provide a master class in what you need to do to get there.
Similarly, accelerator programs like YCombinator and 500 Startups have gold-star reputations for a reason. The Canadian startups I’ve invested in that have gone through these programs, companies like Blume and ShareShed, come out not just ready to take on the world but equipped with the skills and confidence to do it.
For more established companies looking to strengthen international networks, joining entrepreneur organizations like EO or YPO can instantly give you a seat at the global table. Case in point: As president of EO’s Vancouver chapter, I’ve built business ties with colleagues around the world, from London to Hong Kong.
3. Bake global into your business plan
One pattern I see in Canadian startups is that too many wait too long to think about global expansion. As an investor, I want to see that you’re internationally oriented right from the beginning, with specific profiles of foreign markets that make sense for your business. It’s always a warning sign when I see a digital company whose TAM (total addressable market) doesn’t extend much beyond Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Part of this might just come down to Canadian modesty: For whatever reason, it’s often not in our nature to aim for world markets right out of the gate. Home turf can be your test market, but don’t stop there. And don’t stop at the US, either.
Our neighbors to the south might dominate much of our news cycle, but there’s a whole world of untapped markets out there—and many are a lot easier (and more lucrative) for Canadian startups to access. For instance, both the UK and Australia have similar demographic profiles to Canada and can offer a less competitive international entry point.
4. Think international when hiring
We hear a lot about the shortage of tech talent in our local ecosystems. True, there may be a gap in Canadian senior tech leadership in 2019—from operations and marketing to sales and engineering. But just because you’re based in Vancouver, Ottawa or even St. John’s, doesn’t mean you can’t have senior international talent on your team. The rise of remote working allows any company equipped with a Zoom account to get access to international expertise, without necessarily breaking the bank or footing relocation costs. I’ve even found that professionals abroad often look at remote working as a perk, which can set your recruiting efforts apart from competitors’.
By the same token, Canada is one of the most multicultural nations in the world—our greatest strength is truly our diversity. Leverage that when you’re hiring. Chances are, there’s someone with firsthand knowledge of the market you’re trying to reach within your immediate community, so tap into the diversity on your doorstep.
5. Pay it forward
To be clear, thinking globally doesn’t mean turning your back on Canada. Sure, some companies end up setting up shop in Silicon Valley or London or Singapore. But there are lots of advantages to living and doing business here: a strong labor pool, educated population and great quality of life, to name a few. When we build businesses here, we’re building our future—strengthening the ecosystem of entrepreneurs, talent and investors that are needed to take Canada to the next level and shine on the world stage.
If you want to shine in your role, take a look at the training courses we offer at Bingo Traders. Designed specifically for EAs, PAs, Admins, Office Managers,… , these learning opportunities provide the skills and knowledge you’ll need to excel.
eonetwork / Photo on Unsplash