Around 230,000 small businesses in the UK exported goods and services in 2018, despite the economic uncertainty around Brexit.
Since the referendum in 2016, where people in the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), it could be tempting to succumb to grim headlines and simply wait to receive further clarity.
But that isn’t the strategy adopted by forward-thinking small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), who achieved a 6.6% increase in exports in 2017.
The appetite for international trade was even bigger among companies that were less than two years old – with their exports increasing by almost 20%.
According to the Office for National Statistics’ Annual Business Survey, exports from all UK businesses now total £637bn.
And in many ways, it’s not surprising, given the wealth of support on offer for small businesses. This includes loans, funding, mentoring, help with intellectual property (IP) and copyright, and overseas trade missions.
Read this article for tips from a couple of businesses on achieving success with international trade. And below is a list of organisations that can help you to scale your business overseas.
How two companies used international trade support
Rockit and Perspectum Diagnostics are two companies that turned to government support in their bids to trade abroad. Here, they share their stories and advice.
Rockit on securing grants
Matt Dyson is the chief executive of Rockit, the company behind a portable baby rocker that parents attach to pushchairs or prams – to free their hands, and time.
The product was the brainchild of Dyson’s brother-in-law, Nick Webb, whose child would not sleep without him constantly rocking her pram.
With a PhD in vibration and acoustics, he developed a prototype device that could do the rocking for him.
Less than two years later, more than 60,000 Rockit Rockers have been sold across 45 countries and the company is expecting to turnover more than £600,000 in 2019. It’s an achievement that Dyson says is partly due to support from the Department for International Trade (DIT).
In 2017, as the business was starting up, Dyson and his colleagues secured grants totalling more than £10,000 from the DIT, via its Export for Growth and Trade Show Access Programme (TAP).
The team also received mentoring and advice worth more than £6,000.
Reflecting on the past two years, Dyson says: “A lot of people told us to wait for Rockit to take off in the UK before starting to export.
“But we knew the rocker was such an innovative product, and we needed to distribute it far and wide as quickly as possible to capitalise on our first-to-market advantage.
“Trade shows have been really important to us in terms of building orders and generating interest.
“We would have exported anyway, but it would have been slower without support from DIT. I also think that cash flow would have been a stumbling block in those early days, without the grants. The support has been brilliant.”
Another company that has accelerated its growth using support from the government is Perspectum Diagnostics. It provides digital technologies that help clinicians to provide better care for patients with liver disease.
Headquartered out of Oxford, the firm was recently named as the fastest-growing life sciences company in the UK.
Perspectum Diagnostics received support from Innovate UK during its initial funding stage and continues to receive advice about innovations to this day.
The company has received advice from the DIT about services and opportunities with local experts overseas.
It has also received Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credits, which it has used to reinvest in people, growth and further development of unique innovations.
A spokesman for Perspectum says the advice on finance from both the DIT and Innovate UK had been critical to its expansion, while the DIT’s local knowledge of new territories was a great help in ensuring compliance with local laws in new territories.
They add: “Perspectum has grown a successful commercial Contract Research Organisation and now trades with some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
“We would encourage any business to take advantage of what the UK has to offer in terms of advice and financial support.”
Scale your business internationally
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Sources of help for international trade
Interested in trading abroad, be it importing or exporting? Here are a number of bodies and organisations that can help you achieve your international trade goals. They are split into three sections:
Setting up and finding opportunities
In this section, you’ll find help from government agencies and networks that can provide you with the support you need.
For UK businesses looking to expand into Europe, a sensible first step is to ensure compliance with new processes and protocols required due to Brexit.
The government has prepared a guide called Get your business ready to export from the UK to the EU after Brexit. It may also be worth investigating whether this applies to the transit of goods through Europe en route to other locations outside of the EU.
Department for International Trade
The Department for International Trade (DIT) is the government department that works with UK businesses to help them export. It also encourages overseas firms to consider the UK as an ideal place to set up or expand.
The DIT and its co-brand, Exporting is Great, provide support on the whole process, from advice on creating export plans and finding export markets, to preparing to finding export opportunities and preparing to do business in a foreign country.
Enterprise Europe Network (EU)
The Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) advises small businesses on how to capitalise from opportunities available in the EU.
EEN also runs an online ‘marketplace’ where companies from countries inside and outside of the EU advertise opportunities for potential collaboration and partnerships.
Around 4,000 advisers – including a team in the UK – assess and manage each potential partnership. You can contact your local Enterprise Europe Network branch for support and more information.
Innovate UK is the UK’s innovation agency. It helps businesses to develop ideas in order to make them a success. Innovate UK connects businesses to the partners, customers and investors that can maximise commercial success of products and services.
The organisation also funds business and research collaborations to accelerate innovation and R&D.
techUK represents more than 850 member companies, primarily small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and it runs a comprehensive international business programme.
Member companies can also receive business and market intelligence, financial and practical support for overseas business visits, attendance at international conferences and speaking opportunities at overseas seminars.
Chambers of Commerce
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) provides advice and support to businesses covering all areas of international trade.
They include export documentation, market research, training, translation services and letters of credit.
The organisation also has access to a network of bilateral and international chambers of commerce, including the Council of British Chambers of Commerce in Europe, which will have experience and knowledge in local markets.
Bilateral Business Councils
Bilateral Business Councils promote trade between the UK and key regions that may be more challenging to access.
They provide a wide variety of practical services, including advice and consultancy, market research, overseas market introductions, trade missions and exhibitions, and setting up local offices. Councils include:
nibusinessinfo.co.uk is a free service offered by Invest Northern Ireland, which provides business advice, guidance and resources.
Scottish Enterprise is Scotland’s national economic development agency. It aims to identify and exploit the best opportunities for economic growth.
Scottish Development International
Scottish Development International (SDI) is a partnership between the Scottish government, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which helps Scottish-based companies to trade overseas.
Getting the details right
Getting your taxes correct is important when it comes to international trade, as is using the correct licences and understanding how to deal with intellectual property. Here’s who can help you with these key areas.
HMRC provides assistance on numerous areas that relate to the importing and exporting of goods.
It provides plenty of information and a series of guides on critical aspects such as the classification of goods, tariffs and duties, licences, taxes and exchange rates.
The Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT)
The IOE&IT is a professional membership body that aims to optimise the exporting performance of the UK by setting and raising professional standards.
Support on offer includes training, courses on critical aspects of business, recognised qualifications, and the chance to Ask the Expert on specific queries.
Intellectual Property Office
The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is the government body responsible for intellectual property (IP) rights including patents, designs, trademarks and copyright. It offers SMEs guidance on how to protect their IP abroad.
There are also several helpdesks in Europe, funded by the EU, which provide additional support.
Export Control Organisation (ECO)
If you export items that are subject to export control, you need a licence. The Export Control Organisation manages this process and provides advice.
Getting the funds in place
Cash flow is often a key issue for small businesses and the government has repeatedly pledged to support SMEs through the tricky stages of startup and growth.
As such, there are a wide range of grants and loans available, as well as live opportunities worth exploring.
UK Export Finance
UK Export Finance is the UK’s export credit agency. It aims to ensure that no viable UK export fails for lack of finance or insurance, while operating at no net cost to the taxpayer.
Businesses can access help with insurance, sharing credit risks with banks, tenders and bonds. UKEF is the operating name of the Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD). It does not lend directly but works closely with others to facilitate loans.
Start Up Loans
Start Up Loans is a UK government programme that provides affordable finance and mentoring support to early stage businesses. It is particularly helpful for businesses that have viable propositions but are unable to attract investment from high-street banks.
A subsidiary of the British Business Bank, Start Up Loans works with a national network of delivery partners that help SMEs with services including business planning, mentoring, and cash flow forecasts.
Regional Growth Fund
Small businesses can also apply for funding of up to £1m via Regional Growth Fund (RGF) programmes. These schemes are run by national or local organisations that have received RGF cash to offer to eligible businesses via grants and loans.
Non-government sources of help
Increasingly, for projects with wide public appeal, we see businesses mobilising personal relationships and social networks to generate funds. Check out sources such as Crowdfunder and Funding Circle.
For small businesses with an eye on fast or ambitious growth, it may be worth investigating whether to source venture capital money. Alternative funding such as angel investment may be worth exploring too.
Conclusion on finding support with international trade
As you can see, there’s a wealth of support and advice out there to help you with your international trade ambitions. Work out what you want to achieve when it comes to importing and/or exporting and reach out to the relevant bodies if you need help along the way.
And in no time at all, you could find your business is in a similar situation to Rockit or Perspectum Diagnostics, with you reaping the rewards that international trade can offer your company.
The small business guide to import and export
Deciding whether to trade abroad is a big decision for any small business. Learn what you need to do take the leap and discover how importing and exporting can benefit your company.