What was your first export sale?
We had a pharmaceutical client who came from New York state to visit us. They signed a cheque right there, during the meeting. It was exciting because it was very early on. They wanted a small amount of chitosan to begin with, but that contract grew and grew as they scaled up their production. It was a good turning point because it was our first sale ever. We were able to leverage that, and got more investment as a result. Things snowballed from there.
How did that opportunity arise?
I was reading an article about this technology this company had developed and I thought they could use chitosan in their device, so I just cold-called them. Fortunately, they were really receptive and easy to work with. That was back at the very beginning. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never done any business, but I figured I could just make a call. Sometimes it works out. We have trained sales people now.
When it comes to exports, what do you know now you wish you’d known then?
Just how complicated it can be. I think I was born assuming you can ship product anywhere in the world, but it’s not so clear. NAFTA’s been great for selling to the U.S., but there are still regulations to meet. I was under the impression you could just get a Fedex account and ship away, but no, it’s much more complicated than that. There’s a whole industry built just on the regulatory side of this.
How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
Not a lot — it’s only been five years. But I hope NAFTA sticks around; it’s important for our company. I’d worry if the whole thing got torn up. It probably wouldn’t end the business, but it would add more complications.
What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
Take it seriously, and if you’re not sure about something, find someone who is. Depending on your industry, there are a lot of regulations and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and money if you just hire someone to do that stuff. Either that, or reach out to organizations like EDC that have this knowledge. The worst thing is to have your product stuck at the border, especially if it has a shelf life. You want to make sure the paperwork is done perfectly. Smaller companies could look for consultants and contractors. If you’re big enough, maybe hire someone full-time.
EDC resources to help you export
When did you first start thinking about export as part of your business?
From the start, I knew the business would depend on export and I knew the U.S. was going to be the main market.
When you were studying science at university, did you know you’d end up in business?
I went through university stumbling along blindly. I thought I’d either do a master’s or go to med school or pharmacy. It wasn’t until my last year, when I studied industrial microbiology. That course opened my eyes to the business of science.
What was your export journey like to get to where you are today?
The first time we ever sent anything to the U.S., it was kind of terrifying, making sure everything was done properly. We sent a lot of samples and they were getting held up all the time. Now we know the paperwork; what to do. We’re not a huge company, but that was a big thing.
Can you share the best lesson learned from a bad exporting experience?
We sent a sample to a company in New Jersey. They were very eager and they wanted things right away. It got held up at the border because the paperwork was wrong. They were pretty upset. At the end of the day, they didn’t come on as a client. That was a good lesson.
What is the one characteristic that you believe every exporter should possess?
Attention to detail is a big thing; patience. Don’t expect everything to happen right away. Talk to the experts. If you don’t know something, consult people, reach out and learn.