Helping entrepreneurs to do their export homework

Helping entrepreneurs to do their export homework

Exporting can seem daunting but Scottish Enterprise’s international market research service is available to help businesses investigate overseas opportunities.

Life is full of old adages: “look before you leap”, “plan to succeed” and “do your homework first” are just some of the phrases and sayings that immediately spring to mind. And when it comes to international trade, all these truisms come into their own.

Carrying out research is the all-important first step for any company that’s considering exporting its products or services. Investigating the size of markets, the competitors already operating in them and any potential business partners may sound a wee bit daunting – but help is at hand.

“We provide up-to-date business intelligence – such as market research, company information or credit checks – to help companies inform their decisions, which can be anything around understanding the size of a market, identifying new customers, or finding a new supplier or distributor,” explains Emily Wilson, research manager for the international market research service run by economic development agency Scottish Enterprise. “We can underpin those decisions with really good robust research.”

The service is free for companies to use because it’s fully-funded by the Scottish Government. Within five days of making a research request, businesses will either receive the information they require or an update on progress.

“The information comes from a range of sources: we subscribe to a range of commercially-available databases that cover market trends and company information across a wide variety of sectors and geographies, which gives us good global reach in terms of the markets we cover; and we also use online sources because there’s a wealth of information that’s already out there in the public domain from governments and trade bodies,” says Wilson.

“Some of the most frequently asked questions come from people who are exporting for the first time and they want to find out where there are good market opportunities for them – what’s the size of market for their sector in a particular geography? Is it growing? What are the forecasts? We can also be asked who are the key competitors in a particular geography.”

The service is available to all companies in Scotland, no matter which sector they operate in or which area they’re based. Asking Scottish Enterprise to carry out research can save companies time, money and effort.

“We get requests from across the board, although the food and drink and oil and gas sectors tend to ask us the most questions,” Wilson points out. “But we get questions from companies of all shapes and sizes, from lifestyle businesses and start-ups all the way through the medium and large companies. It’s a real mix.”

Since the start of the financial year, the team has responded to 743 research requests from 533 companies, with just over 24% of those requests coming from repeat customers. There’s no limit on the number of times that companies can come back to ask further questions.

“The number of companies coming to us with inquiries is growing because we’ve invested in the service over the past year to support businesses that are looking to export,” adds Wilson. “It’s a hugely-valued service – we can see that because customers come back repeatedly.

“But it’s not just about growing turnover – sometimes a company may have an idea about going into a particular market but once we’ve provided them with research they realise that it’s not right for them and so we help them to avoid costly mistakes.” International trade represents a massive opportunity for Scottish businesses. Scotland’s exports increased from £23.4 billion in 2010 to £27.5bn in 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The food and drink industry, including Scotch whisky, accounted for £4.8bn, with the energy industry clocking up £4.2bn, including renewables and excluding oil and gas. Professional services – such as accountancy and law – tipped the scales at £2.3bn, followed by petroleum and chemicals at £2.1bn.

The European Union was Scotland’s biggest overseas trading partner, scooping up £11.6bn of exports, followed by North America at £4.4bn and Asia at £2.9bn. In terms of individual countries, the United States topped the table as Scotland’s largest export market, soaking up £4bn, followed by £1.9bn for the Netherland’s distribution hub and the same figure for France, where Scotch whisky massively outsells cognac.

Jamie Bruski Tetsill, founder of Shapes of Things

Fashion designer Jamie Bruski Tetsill set up Shapes of Things in Glasgow to provide “a fun and edgy alternative to typical baby and children’s fashion”. He first used Scottish Enterprise’s international market research service three years ago when he was writing his initial business plan.

“I needed to find out facts and stats on trends and top stores in a range of countries,” he explains. “I’m a creative person, and having that business support really helped me.”

The company is now exporting its baby and children’s clothing to a wide variety of countries, including Australia, Japan and the United States. The business has focused on markets such as Houston, New York and Pennsylvania, along with Sydney and Western Australia.

His latest move has been into the Benelux countries, where he has appointed agents for Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands following a recent trade visit. “The trip was very successful from start to finish and we’re already seeing orders coming through,” he explains. “The agents absolutely loved our designs and collection.

“We set ourselves a very tight timeframe of carrying out a month of research and then spending a month arranging meetings. We managed to turn the project around really quickly.

“The model worked really well for us and so we’re adopting the same approach for a further 16 European markets. We’re aiming to go to the Playtime Paris exhibition at the end of January – we’ve been using the research service to try to get appointments for Paris and already we’ve got 20 appointments in the diary, which is really good.

“The support from the research service was great, helping us to identify the agents and how to get in contact with them.”