Going global: everything SMEs need to know

Date: November 26, 2019


Going global isn’t an easy task. Our mission at Getting to Global is to aggregate and consolidate all the data, resources, and expertise small and medium enterprises need to achieve faster growth abroad, in a simplified way. In this article, we explain all the steps necessary to successfully expand into new international markets. Ready?

Governments from all around the world recognized the important role of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are an essential part of a dynamic and healthy economy and contribute to the overall prosperity and social well-being. In many OECD countries, they represent almost the totality of the business population and their increase in number drives competition and reinforces the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem. They also tend to have a positive impact on innovation and generate close to 60% of value added (Source, OECD, p. 3).

In the United States, the 30 something million SMEs account for 99.9% of U.S. total businesses, 8 million of which are owned by a member of a minority group. In 2015, they employed 58.9 million people and created 1.9 million net jobs (source: Investopedia). In Canada, there are more than 1.1 million SMEs, of which less than 2% are medium-sized. They employ more than 10.7 million people across the country, which represents 89.6% of the workforce (Source: Statistics Canada). In Europe, 99% of all enterprises are SMEs and together, they employed 91 million people. In typical Latin American or Caribbean countries, the employment contribution of SMEs is closed to 70%, and they create a substantial portion of new jobs (source: IDB Invest).

All in all, SMEs are a driving force of innovation and knowledge diffusion, and they help aggregate production. Furthermore, they respond to new or very specific social needs, contributing for example to the inclusion of certain marginalised groups (source: OECD, p. 3). But this isn’t to say that all SMEs are alike, trying to reach the same goals using the same methods. There’s a great heterogeneity in the structure and participation of SMEs within and across countries, regions, and continents. More so, countries can’t agree on what an SME is. Generally speaking, small and medium enterprises are defined according to a range of criteria including ownership structure, number of employees, revenues, assets, etc. Even though we decided to stick to “small and medium (-sized) enterprises” (or SME) in this article, their appellation varies from one place to another: small-to-mid-size businesses (SMBs), micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSME), etc.

What’s an SME? Defining Small and Medium in the Business World

In the United States, enterprises are classified according to their ownership structure, earnings, number of employees, and industry (source: Investopedia). In Canada, good-producing businesses employing fewer than 100 employees, or service-based businesses employing fewer than 50 employees, are considered as small enterprises. Between that and 500 employees, they are classified as medium-sized (source: The Balance). In Europe, both the number of employees and the turnover balance sheet are used to classify enterprises. Medium-sized companies have fewer than 250 employees, with a turnover of less than 50 million. Small-sized companies hire fewer than 50 employees and have less than 10 million in turnover, and micro-sized ones have fewer than 10 employees and less than 2 million in turnover (source: The Balance).

In this article, the term “small and medium enterprise” refers to them all. We don’t discriminate. All in all, if you consider yourself, or if your state of origin considers you as an SME and if you’re looking for information about how to go global, then you’ll probably find this article to be relevant.

SMEs and Going Global

SMEs, it’s now evident, have a strong presence in many countries. However, they account for only 20 to 40% of total exports in OECD countries. And that’s despite the fact that, as shown by a recent study by Statistica, ecommerce sales have been growing at high speed since 2014, almost doubling in volume (and tripling in value). And the global competition for customers is also growing. In the United States only, almost half of shoppers (47%) purchase from sellers across international borders. And the numbers are even higher in other countries: 83% in Canada and 78% in Mexico-the only two direct neighbours of the United States (source: Entrepreneur).

And best of all: SMEs that export are generally more productive than non-exporters (source: OECD, p. 39).

That makes sense, though: firms who engage in export activities are the ones more likely to afford the costs associated with it. But another mechanism comes into play, called “learning by exporting.” This assumption isn’t wrong, quite the contrary,  but it also seems that firms who engage in trade benefit from knowledge and technical exchange, with the result of improving their efficiency levels. The evidence does seem to suggest that firms increase their productivity and drive employment growth after going global, most of the time as a result of the changes made when adjusting to exporting operations (source: OECD, p. 39).

Then, what’s stopping SMEs from going global?

The thing is, all around the world, SMEs face similar challenges when it comes to exporting. According to a Business Survey (source: OECD, p. 5) led by Facebook, the OECD, and the World Banks, the main obstacles reported were:

  • Finding a business partner
  • Overcoming market access limitations
  • Complying with different regulations, including custom regulations
  • Dealing with the language and cultural gap
  • Securing funding
  • Finding the right online payment system
  • Transporting their goods over large distances
  • Having access to faster Internet connections to sell online

There’s no avoiding it: firms aspiring to go global and sell internationally must do their research and find the right partners and experts to help them comply with the many requirements and standards. They have to define, in their own terms, what it means to do global business. They need a plan.

Going Global, One Step at a Time

Firms that want to go global will find a plethora of information on the Web. But as is often the case in the current Google-answers-all era, the difficulty is finding the right information. And that’s why we’ve gathered everything you need to know to embark on your global journey and help you tackle these obstacles.

It’s a long read, and there is no surprising plot or fun ending. Our goal is only to give you, all in one place, the basic knowledge needed to start exporting: and that’s when the real fun begins.


Don’t Go Global at the Drop of a Hat



Help SME define a global strategy

PART 1: How to Develop an Export Strategy

SMEs tend to believe that between a great team, a great market, or a great product or service, the latter is the most important factor to their success. Even though a great offering is a necessary factor, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of choosing the right market. Why? Because even with the best product or service in the world, or even the best team, an SME operating in a bad market will fail. In fact, the number one killer for companies is lack of a market, something that can’t be redeemed by the high quality of a product or a team (source: The PMARCA Guide to Startups). You must therefore ensure that you have the right plan or strategy in place to support your ideas.

Finding the Right Market

Finding the right market is not an easy task. That probably explains why most of exporting SMEs only do so in one market. And even though the trend of the last decade has been to find the perfect “product/market fit,” or “service/market fit”, there is no real consensus about the best way to do it.

Marc Andreessen created the term “product/market fit” in 2007 and defines it as, “being in a good market with a product that can satisfy the market” (source: Forbes). In other words, it’s the moment when an SME designs a product, better than the competition, that creates significant customer value by meeting real needs. And the same goes for service/market fit! After 2015, it was mostly understood that markets, and not engineering or personnel, made or broke start-ups. With the growing popularity (and profit) of companies like Uber and the like, it was easy to believe Andreessen when he said that a product “doesn’t need to be great; it just has to basically work” (Heffernan, ‘When Marketing Loses its Cool’, Wire: Have a Nice Future, 27: 11, October 2019, p.12).

However, Uber, WeWork, and a lot of other big tech companies are now facing an important backlash. In the marketing world, more and more people are questioning the relevance of giving priority to the market, and only the market. What about the product or service itself? Or what about having the best team in the world? With time, it became evident that finding the right staff did matter. Mismanaged teams tend to underperform, and teams working in volatile and arrogant management were not that easy to replace (Heffernan, ‘When Marketing Loses its Cool’, Wire: Have a Nice Future, 27: 11, October 2019, p.14). Some other firms have started to gain a lot of traction in different markets mostly based on the quality of the product they sell.

So, should you prioritize the market or your product? The answer is probably somewhere in between. Finding the product/market fit means you’ll find potential consumers who need your product or service. By meeting a real need, you increase your chance of success and satisfaction with customers in general. But in order to better answer their needs, it’s necessary to have a product or service that’s going to satisfy them in the best ways possible. And in order to do so, you need a team that will help you build the best product or deliver the best service. And don’t forget that, overall, a good reputation is based not only on the type of relationship you have with your customers, but also with your employees.

There’s no secret sauce, just necessary ingredients: you need to build your reputation in the right market, with the right product, and the right team.

What product or service you want to sell, and what kind of team you want to work with is more your responsibility. But when it comes to finding the right market, we can help you decide where, in the world, your product is probably the most needed. In order to do so, you need to follow a few steps:


NEEDS: Identify with precision what needs your product or service fulfills.

TARGET CONSUMERS: Identify who are the target consumers.

  • There are several different ways to do this. Don’t hesitate to use tools like FACEBOOK IQ, designed for companies who want to expand.

COMPETITION: Then look around at your competition: Who are they selling to? How? Is the market already saturated?

VALUE PROPOSITION: Now define your value proposition, or the measurable and demonstrable benefits your product or service offers to the consumers.

MARKET EXPLORATION: Now that you know what the competition is doing and who you want to sell to, you can market finder tools that will help you pinpoint where in the world you should start exporting. Many of them are accessible for free on the world wide web. Here are some examples:

  • Market Accelerator by Getting to Global: our own unique Market Accelerator, created in partnership with big players like Google, FACEBOOK, ebay, and many others. It’s free and easy to use: just answer a few questions and our algorithm gives you a list of markets to explore, with an introduction on each of them. Give it a try!
  • Market Finder by Google: a free tool to help you identify new markets and find information you need to start selling abroad.

SOFT LAUNCH: You found new markets you’d like to try? You’re ready for a soft launch! Make a special offer, spread the word, and most importantly, gather feedback.


And with that, you can now develop the best export plan or strategy. This is a crucial step for SMEs that want to succeed in their global journey. Your plan or strategy will guide your team and your operations so that everything is aligned to help you reach your goals.

[You’re still not sure about how to find the right market? We have a great blog article on this exact topic. See here!]

Defining the Best Export Plan or Strategy

Companies that want to export need to make it a priority, and not just wish for it to happen. Each market has its own cultural, economic, social, and political background and your strategy needs to be localized to every one of them. In other terms, the best strategy to go global is to start by … going local. Your strategy and your business plan need to illustrate the chances of success, and failures, of entering a local market and how it integrates with your overall corporate objectives.

Once you’ve done all the research, you can sit down with your team and define the best strategy or business plan for the markets you want to explore. But don’t try to export to a new market at the drop of a hat. Without a proper plan, you run the risk of overlooking the best export opportunities.

There are many ways to create a business plan or a strategy. Ask around, see what your competitor did, and make sure it contains all the necessary benchmarks and elements:

  • A short-, medium, and long-term strategy, with specific goals and deadlines
  • A list of your overall goals and the metrics to evaluate them
  • A hierarchical annual budget
  • The business model that will be put in place to penetrate the new market (you might want to create a branch, a new separate company, a joint venture, etc.)
  • A clear schedule
  • An economic and a political assessment

The last one is particularly important, and often overlooked. Politics is a crucial factor of the global economic landscape. Your capacity to enter a foreign market and to make a profit will largely depends on factors such as political stability, the attitude towards foreigners and foreign trade, the state intervention level, etc. (source: Trade Ready and FITT). Goods have been crossing borders for centuries, but they’re doing so today with an unprecedented velocity and in unprecedented volume. They’re not the only ones: ideas, knowledge, people, services, and information are all moving from place to place at higher speed. And that’s why SMEs that want to expand in countries that are socially, culturally, and politically alien will have to use both economic and political risk assessments to make the right decisions. (source: Harvard Business Review).

[You want to know more about the role of politics in your decision to go global? Consult our blog article on the subject here.]


With a solid plan or strategy in hand, you’ve accomplished the first and most important step to starting your global journey! Let’s see now how to achieve another crucial part: finding potential buyers.


Help SMEs go global

PART 2: Find potential buyers

A lot of SMEs don’t have the internal resources to find reputable partners overseas or to undergo a massive marketing campaign to find new clients. But exporters all need one thing if they want to succeed abroad: a steady stream of buyers (source: Acrecent). And there are many ways to attract a new customer base. They do require some time, efforts, and money, but the benefits of building a solid reputation abroad are well worth it. So, here are a few steps to follow to help you find potential buyers:

Step 1. Cultivate existing relations and create new ones.

If you have any relevant experience in a field, use it. You’ve probably built connections throughout the years and these contacts could help you navigate the landscape, or even become new clients themselves. And by choosing a field you’re already comfortable in, you don’t need to learn all the do’s and don’ts and you probably already know the jargon and procedures (source: Entrepreneur).

In fact, it’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs and SMEs to get their first sales from personal connections. So, you should not hesitate to leverage any networks you are part of, either using social media or directly by email. Ask them to share the news, and even to buy your products or services. Selling to people, you know might not be as meaningful as earning the trust of a complete stranger, but it will help you get early and reliable feedback (source: Shopify).

Step 2. Leverage any governmental tool.

Once you know what your target markets are, contact the relevant embassies and foreign agencies. They can help you navigate the landscape, send you to the right people, and even help you find partners on the ground. They could also direct you to local agencies that help foreign companies who are trying to penetrate their market.

Most of all, make sure you use all the tools designed by your local government to help you export. In the United States, SMEs and entrepreneurs will find a goldmine of information on Export.gov (www.export.gov), a website managed by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration and 19 other agencies. It’s been designed to help companies succeed in today’s global marketplace, connect with foreign buyers and expand in new markets. In Canada, Export Development Canada (EDC) helps companies go global with market intelligence, news and insight, funding, etc. The European Union also has a lot of resources and tools to encourage global trade.

Most of these resources are free and they are designed to help you, so use them!

The other way you can use the government is by hiring an export commissioner (also know as trade commissioners). As their title suggests, they receive a commission calculated as a percentage of the sales they helped you achieved. Their role is to represent an exporter on specific international markets. They can be a great asset, as they often know very well the market and how to navigate it. They can also help you build a strong reputation. They take care of commercial procedures, finding customers, and follow-ups. You, on the other hand, are still in charge of invoicing and shipping the products to foreign customers.

Step 3. Find an expert.

Experts are not free. But they can make all the difference for an SME trying to penetrate a new market. There are many different kinds of experts, and you should choose the one that best answers your needs.

Export management company:

These private organizations act a bit like a governmental export department by linking potential buyers and sellers. They can also act as an import-export agent, with representation and sales offices in foreign countries (Prime and Usunier, Marketing international, Pearson: Montreuil, 2nd edition, 2018, p. 261). Although they might not be your best choice for long-term relationships, they can help you on ad hoc cases, giving you the opportunity to build a customer base and a reputation in a new market.

Buying agencies or purchasing agencies:

Most department stores or mail-order retailers systematically look for suppliers abroad, either because they cannot find such suppliers in their country of origin or much more frequently because they look for very competitive prices. The advantage for you is that you can export from your factory without any apparent costs, the product being purchased directly from there and sent through the purchasing office. Firms that decide to go this way, however, have no control over the final price, the branding, and international marketing (Prime and Usunier, Marketing international, Pearson: Montreuil, 2nd edition, 2018, p. 262).

That being said, having your brand sold by a reputable chain or wholesale can help you build a solid reputation, and it also reduces the risks. Additionally, private firms or wholesale distributors tend to be faster than government agencies at finding buyers and exporting your goods. So, if you think this option meets your needs, don’t hesitate to ask around and consult trade groups to help you find the right buyer (source: Acrecent).

Step 4. Prioritize marketing

Marketing has to be at the center of your efforts to find new buyers. We have a part of this article dedicated to it, so let’s just review briefly how marketing can, more specifically, help you gain new buyers. No matter if your business is a new one or a veteran, when exporting, you need to spend a lot of time and efforts driving your new target audiences to your store (source: Shopify).

Social Media

We told you already: don’t hesitate to use your existing networks. And one of the best ways to reach them is through social media. They allow you to share testimonials, news, promotions, etc. But most of all, you can use them to tell a story and create content that will drag new customers to your brand. Do your research: each platform has its specifics and its target audience.

Paid Advertising

Most social media platforms and Google have paid advertising opportunities. They’re often the best way to get traffic quickly, and most of them allow you to pay-per-click. And you don’t always need to put thousands of dollars to get things rolling. Choose the channel wisely, depending on your target market, and find the right keywords. And make sure to check by country too, since some channels are a lot more popular than others in certain parts of the world-when they are not forbidden as is the case for Facebook in China (source: Shopify).

Trade shows

Trade shows are often left aside as a marketing tactic to sell products. And we recommend that you don’t make that mistake. In fact, with online inquiries and customer referrals, trade shows are one of the top three resources SMEs can use to find new buyers. They provide a perfect venue to test a market entry strategy by bringing potential international buyers directly to you (source: EXIM).

[Trade show are new to you? We have a whole blog article on the subject. Click here!]

Now, you have a strategy in place and new buyers to impress. It’s time to evaluate your capacity and make sure that you have what it takes to move forward on your global journey.


Make sure you have the resources to go global

PART 3: Make Sure you Have All the Required Resources

To start selling abroad, companies first need to make sure they have the proper base at home. Often, SMEs feel like going global is something only multinationals and big companies do. The fact is, expanding to international markets can be expensive. Without the economy of scale as a larger company, SMEs are often disproportionately affected by tariff barriers and other restrictions (source: OECD, p.7). Almost one third of small firms spend more than 5% of their annual revenue on exporting. They also seem to prepare themselves over a period of a few months to a full year (source: NSBA, p.7).


Most big banks have a department dedicated to helping businesses expand globally. It’s a popular source of financing for SMEs, especially if you have a good credit record and an already well-established banking relationship. Don’t limit yourself with banks in your country of origin. Ask your network and your local resources what bank, in their native country, could help you with financing.


Consult your local government. Most of them have programs to help SMEs find the required financing and resources to go global. Some programs can provide grants, advances, tax credits or loans with low interest rates. They can also partner with financial institutions to give you better products and services, for a lower fee. Government agencies or government-supported agencies can also provide guarantees on loans to your bank, either to help you buy equipment, or finance work in progress and work capital needs (source: Government of Canada, p.11).

Internal capacities

Wanting to go global and having the right resources are two different things. That’s why, besides financing, your firm needs to make sure you have the right skills and knowledge. Once you’ve secured the necessary financing, you will need to make sure you allocate the right resources to your global expansion efforts. Would your company be able to meet the increase demand? Will you need more space and equipment? The operation of going global should be part of every internal meeting and discussion. The plan should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that the allocated resources are enough to guarantee its success. And potential failures also need to be addressed. That way, you can evaluate positive results and invest in them, and reinvest profit in more complex initiatives as you go. Focus on your strengths and places for improvements, for example in your distribution methods (source: BDC). By taking it step by step, you can avoid running out of resources and cash flow.

With advances in technologies, communications, trade agreements and others, we have opened up to the world for business of all sizes. This is positive. And going global is interesting. That being said, SMEs still have hurdles and risks to overcome, and securing the necessary funding is one of them. You must take this part of your global journey seriously, as it will determine your capacity to deal with demand internationally.