Local startups take on the world

Mark Brownlee
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When Esha Abrol was in business school a little more than half a decade ago, one practice was almost taught as gospel: early-stage companies need to start selling their products domestically before trying to tackle international markets.

Esha Abrol is the founder of BrandsRole.

Slowly but surely, that conventional wisdom is changing.

Ms. Abrol is behind a new company called BrandsRole. It’s designed to give advice to companies that are taking the plunge internationally before selling closer to home.

She knows first-hand the difficulties that come with trying to market products in developing countries. For example, the company for which she works, i-landhost, had to go to Bosnia for some meetings but not all of the firm’s partners were able to make it.

Now she’s hoping to help other firms that are trying to gain a foothold in international markets.

“One thing they always (say) is ‘I just wouldn’t know where to start,’” she said. “It just feels like something that is so big and beyond them.”

She hopes her company, which had three employees and three clients just a few months after it started operating last year, will help with issues such as understanding cultural sensitivities in other countries and research about foreign markets.

For a long time, there were good reasons why companies would avoid an international focus when they were just getting going.

One major drawback is that companies can incur many more upfront expenses, said Walt Hutchings, managing director of investment and trade with the city’s economic development arm, Invest Ottawa.

Companies would need to travel to foreign countries in order to meet with potential customers or investors, he said. In some cases they would also need to open up some sort of satellite office.

It can also be difficult to make contacts in remote areas of the world that might extend beyond companies’ traditional networks.

“If they don’t know the buyers on the other end, then they’re going to struggle a little bit with ‘How do I get the credit information to figure out if these guys are going to pay me at the end of the day’ or ‘Are they even credible?’” said Mr. Hutchings.

But for many companies, the prospect of tapping into international firms’ large revenue streams far outweighs the potential drawbacks.

Many companies need to head outside of North America because there simply aren’t enough dollars available to make marketing solely in Canada and the United States a viable long-term solution, said Kevin Carroll, managing director of innovation with Invest Ottawa.

Connecting with multinationals headquartered in other countries can be particularly lucrative, added Mr. Hutchings, since such firms have international supply chains.

Selling in other countries frequently comes down to “knowing the right people and getting the right funding,” said Deepak Dutt. His mobile fraud prevention firm, Zighra, decided to emphasize international markets such as Singapore, the Middle East and India during its initial marketing efforts.

Organizations: BrandsRole

Geographic location: Bosnia, Ottawa, North America Canada United States Singapore Middle East India

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