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How (and why) to export services: Insights from two women entrepreneurs who’ve done it

By: Kylie Adair

Post-pandemic, the money companies are spending on workplace conflict resolution has doubled.

Penny Tremblay sees it everyday, as an Ontario-based conflict mediator and author of Sandbox Strategies for the New Workplace. The demand for her services has shot up since COVID, and not just here at home. Responding to requests from all over the world, Tremblay began traveling to help professional teams navigate this virtual-first new normal.

In other words, she began exporting her services.

It’s gone so well that she’s now putting together an export strategy, with the help of the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s Trade Accelerator Program.

Service-based businesses like Tremblay’s are less likely than manufacturers to export — and women are more likely than men to run service-based businesses. It’s one reason women are underrepresented among Canadian exporters. But with the right resources and support, more women business owners could boost those numbers, and travel the world offering their services to new and exciting markets.

Why export services?

Exporting services can be expensive for a business, especially if those services are delivered in-person and the business-owner (and maybe their staff) must travel to the international client. Not to mention the sheer effort it takes to break into a new market.

“​​I’m well known in Ontario for who I am and what I do,” says Tremblay. “I’m starting over in the U.S. — and it’s tough starting over.”

But Tremblay says it’s worth it. For one, exporting lends credibility to her expertise: if her training resonates with a wide range of people across a variety of cultures, it’s tried and true.

And preparing for export, with all the honing her offerings and getting really clear on her business plan involved, has strengthened her business, no matter where her customers are based. “The more you do to prepare yourself in your business for exporting, you’re also preparing for bigger domestic business as well.”

For Dr. Moira Somers, a psychologist, family wealth consultant, and executive coach, the U.S. offers a values-aligned market, particularly when it comes to her work helping clients navigate money mindsets. “Openness to the idea that money has a personal component, the U.S. has been ahead in that in some regards, even in terms of regulatory guidelines for financial advisors.”

Canada is catching up, Somers says. Meanwhile, exporting her services to the U.S. has given her 15 years of experience that she can now start applying in exciting ways at home, too.

How to help your service-based client prepare to export

Get a great lawyer and accountant — right away

“If I had anything I could do all over again,” says Dr. Somers, “I would have consulted an immigration lawyer from the outset.”

Dr. Somers recalls a time early on in her exporting journey when she was traveling across the U.S.-Canada border to work with an American client. She thought she had all her documents in order, the same documents border agents had accepted on previous trips. But she was turned away, and had to work out an alternate plan to deliver on her promise to the client.

“In the end, I did what I wish I had done years earlier, which is just to bite the bullet and hire a U.S. lawyer with expertise in cross border service delivery, and make sure that I had the absolute best, most airtight visa.”

Similarly, it can be tricky for new exporters to figure out taxation, especially for those providing services internationally. Information on service taxation tends to be less straightforward or formulaic than taxation on goods, so Dr. Somers recommends hiring an accountant with lots of experience supporting service-based exporters as early in the process as possible.

Start by building relationships from afar

“One of the challenges is that in order to get what’s called an E1 visa, which is sort of the pinnacle for consultants, you actually have to have a demonstrated track record having U.S. customers, and that being a significant portion of your income,” says Dr. Somers. It’s a bit of a catch-22, she says: How does one build up the necessary U.S. business needed for that visa — without a visa to do business in the U.S.?

Dr. Somers says there are workarounds. “There are some interim steps that sometimes have to happen, like courting you, having U.S. customers that you service from Canada, having remote service offerings, having things like book sales or other ways of demonstrating [your business in the U.S.].”

That’s why building a network in your client’s target market is so important. Not only does it open new opportunities, but it establishes the legitimacy officials need to grant business owners access to those markets.

Research local markets

Whereas it may be easier to suss out demand for certain goods in international markets, understanding the demand for services can require deep research, says Dr. Somers. “Research the assumption that there might be more lucrative possibilities elsewhere. Really figure out if that’s true,” she advises. That may mean consulting that aforementioned global network, hiring local business analysts, or testing out a few international contracts before going all in on an export strategy.

Ultimately, Dr. Somers says, export isn’t right for every service-based entrepreneur, but it might just be for your client. “There’s nothing with staying local, or staying national. But if it looks like you have some amazing opportunities [internationally], if you’re willing to do the deep digging, then more power to you.”

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada and CanExport Associations.