Sankar Das Gupta is co-founder and chief executive officer of Electrovaya – a Mississauga-based supplier of lithium-ion battery power solutions.
When and why did you first start thinking about exporting as part of your business?
From day one. I think the U.S. is always the biggest market for a Canadian company. Even in 1996 (when the company launched) we had major sales into the U.S. We picked up marquee clients and customers and we were big in the aerospace industry. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency were big clients.
Tell us about your export journey, and how it got the firm where it is today?
The global market is massive, but initially we had problems selling in Europe and Asia, because they’re not used to buying technology products from Canada – they’re used to buying commodities. It took some effort to show there’s a lot of great technology coming out of Canada. Language was never a problem as the world business language is English. For contracts, we learned that it’s good to have some local legal personnel.
What is the biggest difference between selling in Canada and selling in another country? How did you adapt?
EDC resources to help you export
The sales culture in countries like the U.K., Germany, the U.S. and Canada is very similar – very professional. When selling into southern Europe, relationships are more important. Long dinners and lunches are common. When we are selling into France they want to get to know you. It’s a slight cultural nuance. China, Japan and India are extreme examples where relationships matter.
How has exporting changed the way you market/sell your products in Canada?
We found it was easier to sell the initial product in the U.S. than in Canada because Canadians do not take as much technology risk, especially from a new company. Canadian clients see our exports in San Francisco or New York and that gives them confidence. They think: “OK, if the Americans are buying they must be reasonably good.”
Can you share the best lesson learned from a bad exporting experience?
You have to meet potential clients face to face. As much as we like Skype and other long-distance technology, when we didn’t make the effort to go in person, almost invariably we wouldn’t win the contract. Face time is very important. Another problem we had was getting paid. Sometimes we sold to smaller companies and we didn’t realize they would have any problems making payments. After that, we started shipping everything under a letter of credit, so we get paid at the moment we ship.
When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
The world has become globally competitive. You don’t have knowledge or information asymmetry any more, now everybody knows everything. One has to be much better prepared and see that the competition will be absolutely brutal and global. The other major challenge in the lithium ion battery space is predatory pricing, especially in Asia. That’s affecting the industry in Europe and North America. We are one of the few guys left standing. In Asia the governments look at it as a national strategy, but here we look at it more competitively. So your technology has to be fantastically better, not just a little bit better, to be able to compete.
What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about exporting and trade?
Use the trade commissioners – they are real hidden assets with deep knowledge of your target countries. They can help with finding clients, linking people up, making phone calls – they’re the liaison between the exporter in Canada, who may have limited resources, and new markets. The second thing is to take advantage of Export Development Canada’s flexible financing programs and EDC’s people in the field.
What is the one characteristic that you believe every exporter should possess?
An obsessive personality. It’s a ‘round-the-clock job. Today I had to send emails at 3:45 in morning.