Canadian small businesses can benefit by thinking globally

Recently, I had the pleasure of returning to Ottawa to attend a series of meetings with elected officials alongside an impressive delegation of Canadian entrepreneurs. The theme of our discussions involved how startups and small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can maximize their potential for long-term growth, as it’s a relatively well-known fact that of the nearly 1.1 million small businesses across Canada, only 51% will last beyond the first five years.

A highlight of these meetings was a roundtable discussion with Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion Mary Ng. Given that Ng recently announced the federal government’s goal of increasing overseas exports by 50% by 2025, we had her open ear (and open mind) to share our insights on how we can work together to achieve this. What we learned is that the tools already exist, although not enough SMBs are accessing them.

The perspective I brought to the discussions was influenced not only by my experience as a social entrepreneur, but also by my history as a global citizen with an appreciation for the sheer scale of the opportunity that lies beyond Canada’s borders. After arriving in Ottawa with my family in 1995 as a refugee from Iran, I travelled and worked abroad in Asia, which has been a primary force in shaping the global economy and, consequently, Canada’s trade ambitions.

In 2007, I returned to Canada and moved to Vancouver to launch a series of ventures, including Hey Girl Tea. Given my desire to build and scale, and given my knowledge of the potential of international markets, I chose to go the alternative route and build my company exclusively using an online marketplace as opposed to conventional retail. This decision paid off: our products are now sold in North America and Europe.

In fact, while approximately 99% of Canadian businesses fall within the SMB category, only about 12% export abroad. Furthermore, their global ambitions are falling short. Almost seven in 10 businesses that do sell outside of Canada have limited themselves to U.S. exports.

However, the potential for growth extends 360 degrees around the globe. With Canada’s many international trade agreements, there are 1.5 billion potential customers that Canadian businesses can reach. Expanding beyond Canada’s borders can help SMBs access the growth potential that could help them survive past their fifth year.

While going international may seem daunting for a humble SMB, there are already tools that can help entrepreneurs break down barriers to start conducting business overseas.

One of the SMBs we heard from during our roundtable was GoWood, a Quebec-based company founded in 2014 that sells wooden eyewear and accessories. It began selling on Amazon in 2016 and took advantage of various tools, which allowed it to sell overseas without the costly overhead. It has since expanded its business 10-fold, with customers across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., and with plans to continue expanding into Mexico and Australia.

Ng said that making the government more nimble and customer-centric is a major priority – and that it wants to hear from small-business players about what they need to thrive and truly become a part of the export economy.

Canada has a strong brand right now. People across the world want to experience a piece of Canada, so let’s try our best to deliver. •

Vancouver-based social entrepreneur Ideen Rismani is the founder of Hey Girl Tea.