Feature Story

How Small Businesses Are Going Global

by Anne Field

The prospect of global expansion used to be a daunting process for small companies. The Web has changed all that.

Time once was if you ran a small business, the prospect of global expansion was a daunting, time-consuming and costly process—a near-impossibility. But the Web has changed all that.

Just look at Collin Canright. For most of his 25 years in business, Canright's communications and marketing firm served only U.S.-based clients—many, in fact, located in the general vicinity of Chicago, his company's hometown.

Then, about three years ago, Canright started experimenting with social media. He'd become an avid blogger a few years before, writing about topics of interest to his clients in treasury management. But when he heard about Twitter, he began tweeting about his posts. After that, he noticed something curious: Organizers of Sibos, a major European financial and banking conference, were promoting the event on the social media site. It was an eye-opener. "That was the last sort of group I thought would be on Twitter," he says. So, he began tweeting about financial topics, using the Sibos hashtag—and he noticed the number of his followers skyrocketed.

Disqus: How have you used social media or other Web tools to expand your business globally?

Then, one day last year, Canright got an email from one of his followers in Uruguay. Turned out the fellow ran a software company and wanted to hire Canright's company, Canright Communications. for a project. Over the next month, Canright looked at the prospective client's website and LinkedIn profile and scoured Google for other information; at the same time, they exchanged 20 or so emails. And, much to his surprise, Canright got the assignment—without ever meeting, or even speaking, to the client.

"There are few things I can be as definite about as this: I would never have cultivated the client without the use of this technology," he says. "I probably would never have even heard of the company."

What Canright discovered was something many other small business owners are finding, as well. With the Internet, they can market their companies and conduct business globally—and they can do so inexpensively and easily, often without setting foot on foreign soil. Social media, blogs, SEO, new collaboration tools, videoconferencing—they're changing the rules of the game for many small businesses. "With these technologies, you can enter markets you never could have entered just a few years ago," says Ken Gaebler, head of Gaebler Ventures, a Chicago-based small business incubator.   

Of course, as Canright found out, social media use can open all sorts of doors to global markets. Anastasia Valentine, CEO and founder of Sandbox PM.

a 10-employee Ottawa-based company that helps clients launch products, also made that discovery recently. When she started the firm in February, she began promoting webinars on LinkedIn, targeting specific groups, like decision-makers in high-tech startups. Then she started blogging and tweeting about such relevant topics of interest as crowdsourcing. And she made a habit of stirring up conversations with thought-provoking, open-ended questions related to her areas of expertise. ("How do you do a virtual book launch?", for example). Thanks to those efforts, she attracted interest from such companies as a book publisher in Paris and a software firm in Germany, both of which became clients. Now, although she originally expected most of her business to come from Canada and the U.S, she's hoping revenues to be split evenly between global and North American clients by 2012.

Smart SEO is another useful tool. Gaebler, who also runs Walker Sands, a marketing firm, says he's attracted the interest of several overseas firms looking for p.r. companies in the Chicago area by using the right terms. 

Or, consider PetRelocation.com,  a seven-year-old, 27-employee Austin company that moves pets for clients who are relocating. The company has used its blog to drive prospective global clients searching online to the company's website. For example, about three years ago, it started strategically adding such content as experts' answers to questions from people relocating their pets. (Example: "How do I move a rabbit from Kenya to Dubai?") "People doing searches ask very specific questions," says operations manager Rachel Farris. "We wanted to make sure that when anyone from anywhere in the world asks a question, they'll end up finding out about us on Google." A significant portion of revenues now comes from global clients.

Attracting customers is only one way that Web technology helps small companies sell overseas. PetRelocation, for one, also relies on the Web to conduct business with global enterprises once they become clients—for example, using a program that allows customers to sign contracts electronically, so they don't have to deal with faxes or snail mail. As for Sandbox PM's Valentine, she collaborates on projects with global clients using such tools as Google Docs or tracks the progress of deliverables with a project management tool, BaseCamp. She also holds meetings via videoconferencing.

Still, should her global business keep growing, Valentine says she'd consider setting up a physical office overseas. "If we have a concentration of major customers in one place, it makes sense to be there in person," she says. "Technology can't replace face- to- face contact."

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