Belfast Telegraph

Overseas markets draw homegrown companies

A recent survey has revealed that less than 20% of small businesses are targeting potentially lucrative markets in the developing world. Firms need to look at expanding their reach, says Ron Immink

I was talking on the radio recently about a book called Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here.

Shift is a fantastic book about the future of work.

It takes two future scenarios, the dark one and the bright one, and it predicts how that is going to impact on our work life. The truth is probably in the middle.

Two things from that book struck me. One: no more doom and gloom please. The book talks about continued bubbles, booms, busts and crashes as an ongoing feature of our future lives. We might as well get on with it, instead of procrastinating about how terrible it all is.

Two: our future is already here. That future is export and the expertise that we have developed in exporting.

I assumed that everyone agreed that the focus of most businesses here was on the global marketplace of billions instead of just focusing on six million people across the island of Ireland. And I assumed that every company on the island understood that, was preparing for it and knew what supports were available.

You can imagine my surprise at some of the results from a survey we at Small Business Can carried out recently. Thirty per cent of the companies surveyed don't know what state supports are available from the three main agencies on this island. Most of the companies surveyed are selling into developed markets - Britain, France, Germany, Holland and America.

But less than 20% are targeting developing markets like Africa, South East Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe and South America. Companies are targeting the most competitive markets in the world and are ignoring markets that are open and welcoming to businesses from this island.

What the research also shows is that businesspeople want to talk to other businesspeople, which is where Small Business Can comes in. Here are some of the things that we are doing:

  • We have created an export group as a dedicated community in which to interact and share.
  • We are putting export up on our forum as a dedicated topic. We are making it a pillar of growth in its own right.
  • We have put our directory of all agencies on the island up into our new Small Business Can wiki. Let's try to get all the supports into one place and then we can let everyone know about them.
  • We are asking our community for articles and information about Forex, hedging, letters of credit, merchant services for overseas payments on websites and treatment of VAT.
  • We are seeking people that have sold abroad to be made available for questions and answers on the site.

And thus we are contributing to the future that is already here and getting help from the people that are already in that future.

That future is export (just to make that point again, and again ... . and again).

Bonsai hobby becomes family business for Birkenhead-born Len and his wife Mary

Bonsai4u is a two-person family business set up by Len McCarthy with support from his wife Mary seven years ago. "It started out as a hobby," said Mr McCarthy, who was previously a school caretaker.

"One day I came home from work through Martinstown and there was a banner outside the credit union office which said, 'Start your own business through Invest NI', with help from its Start a Business Programme.

"My wife suggested we go down to find out about it. We went to see one of Invest NI's people in Ballymena and he said that we could do one of their courses. We took the course - before that we knew nothing about business. The last thing on my mind was bonsai, which was only a hobby. Then it occurred to me and my wife - bonsai."

Although Mr McCarthy came to Northern Ireland from England in 1982, his Birkenhead accent remains distinct.

And when he did his market research he returned to his River Mersey roots.

"I spoke to someone in Liverpool," said Mr McCarthy. "And he told me that lots of people went over there from Northern Ireland to buy bonsai because no one was selling them in Northern Ireland.

"So then we registered a business account with the bank, but we needed a decent supplier. I was buying my bonsai online and I spoke to my supplier.

"He told me of a very good, big, supplier. I contacted him and now he ships the bonsai over here to us. We went to a car boot sale and sold one tree.

"Someone said to me we would be much better selling at a market and suggested Nutts Corner. We went there and sold seven trees. The following week we sold 14 and the next week we completely sold out. Then we got a better position at Nutts Corner and our sales escalated."

Mr McCarthy has done some dealing on eBay, but has found that bonsai is not ideally suited to an online marketplace.

"It's difficult to get photos that show the trees properly," he said. But Mr McCarthy's enthusiasm for his trade shines through. "It's great to have a business that is also a hobby," he said. Because bonsai remains as much a love affair as a business, Mr McCarthy has no intention of stepping down simply because he is now 59.

"It's not really a business, it's a hobby," he stressed. "So I can see myself going on as long as I can walk." www.Bonsai4U.org.uk

Farm wizard software brings a touch of magic to small business and agri industry

Terry Canning comes from a farming family and it seemed natural to him to bring together this background with his skills as an experienced IT architect, who has worked at a senior level with BT and Nortel Networks. So much so, that he gave up his job with Nortel to go it alone.

"I was working for Nortel and had been working in China for 10 months," Mr Canning said. "I then took voluntary redundancy."

By then he was working on his ideas for software that could enable farmers to use an internet-based interface to comply with the increasingly stringent and varied obligations to record the history and welfare of their animals. In 2004, Mr Canning approached Invest NI with his ideas and they were impressed. "I won a Smart Award, which gave me 75% of project costs, about £40,000," he said.

"I then started working in my attic, writing software, basing that on my knowledge of my dad's farm. I went to DARD [the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development] and they bought 50 subscriptions for farms in Northern Ireland."

Mr Canning then went to his bank, which advanced funds under the small firms' loan guarantee scheme. By this time, the business was already supplying the software to 150 farms in Northern Ireland and it had ambitious plans.

"Our software makes it easier for farmers to maintain records," said Mr Canning. "Ever since foot and mouth, farmers have had to keep records on vet treatments, animal movements and fertility. And on performance of the herd, for example on milk production."

Farm Wizard enables farmers to meet tougher legal requirements and also support the growing focus of retailers, and consumers, on food provenance.

Today Farm Wizard supplies about 1,000 farms in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. But it has also broken into other markets. "We have a number of corporate clients, for example, Dovecote Park, a beef processor which provides meat for Waitrose," said Mr Canning. Dovecote Park also uses the Farm Wizard software to provide reassurance on the provenance of its beef for other customers around the world, including the US, South America and for the largest grocery retailer in Africa, Shoprite Checkers.

The Farm Wizard software has gained wide respect across the farming industry but remains a small business. The operation sounds as if it is going well and is very busy? "Absolutely," said Mr Canning.

www.farmwizard.com



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