This article was first published in the July/August 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

There comes a time in the life of a growing company when thoughts turn towards exporting. Perhaps you feel you have explored the UK market as far as possible – or perhaps a more abundant natural market lies overseas. Either way, where do you start?

A good place is to ask Lord Digby Jones, former director-general of the CBI and one of the best-known faces in business (as well as being a crossbencher in the House of Lords, he holds several non-executive directorships and is chairman of Triumph Motorcycles). Jones recently took part in an ACCA webinar, in which he shared his top tips for growing companies that are planning to export. He calls these the ‘five Ps’: product, people, payment, pioneers and perseverance.

  • Product It is a basic requirement but it is often overlooked: what sets your product apart? ‘You’re going into a market where 90% of consumers will be able to get your product somewhere else,’ says Jones. So how will you compete? Price, of course, is one option, as is value – could consumers get more for the same money? But Jones warns against competing on price alone. ‘Make sure your product does something that consumers can’t get elsewhere. That might be the brand – Britishness sells – or reputation, or it might just have the wow factor.’
  • People ‘If you’re about to export for the first time, know who your mates are,’ says Jones. Advice is the most important thing you will receive, so ask for it – start with your supply chain (‘use them shamelessly’) as well as the small army of professional advisers who are there to help – embassies, lawyers and business advisers. But, he adds, it is personal not virtual contact that matters: ‘People need to shake your hand and see the whites of your eyes, and you will want to kick the tyres of their business. Gut instinct matters.’
  • Payment Jones has a simple message on payment: ‘Don’t be a fool – if you don’t think you’ll be paid, don’t do it.’
  • Pioneers Just don’t be one. ‘The thing with pioneers is that they usually ended up with an arrow in their back,’ says Jones. If you are thinking of entering a market, let someone else do the groundwork: ‘Look for fertile ground and go in on the back of someone who has already ploughed the field.’
  • Perseverance There is no easy route to successful exporting – if there was, everyone would be doing it. ‘It’s no use just approaching an agent and thinking the job’s done,’ says Jones. ‘You have to go to the market again and again. Get on local radio and talk to the local press – they will love to tell your story, and you will get your brand more widely known.’

If you get it right and work hard, exporting will pay huge dividends. But, as Jones points out, the benefits are not limited to access to a bigger market: ‘The biggest plus of all in exporting is that it helps your business to be more competitive and productive at home – partly because you have to be competitive and productive if you’re going to compete in an overseas market, and partly because you learn so much from others. Research shows that those small businesses that export stand an 80% chance of succeeding at home.’ So what are you waiting for?

Liz Fisher, journalist