Modern technology and low cost air fares have made international trade more accessible than ever before. Despite being a small business, we have now done business in around twelve countries worldwide and a fair proportion of last year's turnover came from export business.
However, you can't just pick a country and expect to do business there whilst basing yourself at home. Just as when doing business locally, success in an overseas market depends on meeting people and developing strong relationships. How do you achieve that when based hundreds, or even thousands of miles away?
One of the most important pieces of advice I received about doing business internationally was that you need to go to a market at least three times before expecting business. People may be happy to see you the first time but want to see evidence of your commitment before they commit to you.
International speaker Graeme Codrington told me, "Remember that if you're just visiting once, and have no plans to return, very few people would be interested in networking (think of what you would feel if someone was coming your way, but with no stated intention of returning).
"If you genuinely want to open up a new region for business, you have to be prepared to invest time and energy to schedule some return trips."
With this in mind, rather than a scattergun approach, build up your international business market by market.
When transacting business and developing relationships in your local area, it's fairly easy to retain a high profile by attending networking events and meeting in high profile places. When you're doing business across continents, that's not so simple.
Use your time effectively whenever you travel. I make sure that I schedule in some extra time around each trip to catch up with people I've met before and email people well before leaving to try to schedule in meetings.
Nick Jonsson, a Swedish businessman currently based in Indonesia, uses social media and common interests to connect with people and stay in touch when away. "Join LinkedIn groups of your interest and stay active", said Nick.
"For example, I joined the Triathlon Group in the US before I went to Las Vegas earlier this year. I asked some advice about the best Triathlon shops there and got some really good connections.
'I also caught up with one guy I met online for a run in Vegas. We stay in touch today on LinkedIn and Facebook and am sure that we will go for a run again next time I am in Vegas."
In a similar vein, I'm a reasonably active member of a Facebook group based around a network I've spoken for in Stockholm. Through the group I can maintain a presence in the eyes of my Swedish network even when I'm not in the country.
THREE: Get referred
Nigel Risner is a motivational speaker and trainer who works extensively with Chief Executive groups both in the UK and overseas. Nigel said, "Every CEO group has an overseas equivalent and I always ask chairs if they can give me a name I can speak to.
"The result is I have spoken to VIstage Florida every year at Easter for six years."
Nigel also uses his professional association membership to build his network overseas. As a member of the Professional Speaking Association UK and Ireland, Nigel is automatically affiliated to similar associations worldwide, such as the National Speakers' Association in the USA. "I also try and connect with an NSA member in every State. Last year I connected with Scott McCain whilst in Colorado ,who then emailed all of his members locally to connect with me."
I always look for referrals from the contacts I make when I travel. I also ask my connections at home who they know in a country I am visiting, as witnessed in 'Connecting is not Enough' in the past.
LinkedIn is a great tool to help you identify connections. Use the search facility to find mutual contacts with your prospects by searching by job title, industry and location.
FOUR: Look for 'showcase' and PR opportunities
Earlier this year I agreed to do a talk for a supplier to large corporates in one of the markets I am focusing on. I didn't charge for the talk but I sat down in advance with the hosts and identified who I would like to attend and they then followed up by recommending my services to everyone who came along.
As a result, on my next trip I had several meetings about prospective business with people I met at that event.
I am always open to such opportunities in new markets, as long as the audience is right. You may not be in a position to stand and talk about your business, but are there other ways you can showcase what you do to prospective clients and influencers when you travel?
Another way of getting your name out there is through the local media. One client arranged a press conference for me on a trip to Vietnam, leading to a main article on page two of the business pages of the major newspaper there, while on both my trips to Romania I have been interviewed by regional and national TV.
Alan Stevens is an international media expert. Alan suggests, "Ensure that you book some extra time before or after your speech, and make contact with media outlets a week or two before you travel. You will often find that they welcome the opportunity to interview an expert from out of town, and since it's a local media source, you will be noticed by people at the event too.
"You may even be able to persuade them to come to the event and do an interview or some filming, which will also please the organisers."
FIVE: Look for government support
I would strongly advise UK based businesses to explore the support thatUKTI (UK Trade and Investment) can offer. Local Trade Advisors can give you access to a range of grants, courses, trade missions and match funding that can make accessing overseas markets even easier.
In addition, the Trade Directors at the British Embassies overseas will offer a range of services including researching the local market and making appointments on your behalf.
I can only speak from experience from a UK perspective but many other countries offer a similar service to stimulate their exports. Check locally to find out what help your government can offer you.