I was listening to Radio 4’s The Bottom Line last week and found myself wondering: how many social enterprises sell in international markets — how many are exporters?
I was prompted along these lines because I had just been speaking to Sarah Crawley at iSE who said that her company had just secured a contract to do some skills transfer work (explaining how to develop social enterprise) in Barbados.
Once all the obvious jokes had run their course, I began to think about the implications of this more seriously. Why can’t more social enterprises ‘export’? What stands in their way? What are the key obstacles?
Investment may also be an issue. iSE invested in what might be regarded as classic business R&D, paying for a “trade delegation” (a staff member) to go and scope out the Barbados market and opportunities (Yes, some staff always get the dirty jobs. Oddly, this has already been mentioned.)
Transferable products, too. You have to have a range of goods and/or services that can successfully make the transition from a UK market to an overseas market. This is probably the biggest problem. If your business exists (say) to provide elderly care or teenage pregnancy advice in specific geographical parts of the West Midlands, the chances are you will struggle to deliver this self-same service in Paris or Madrid or Frankfurt. These markets probably have their own providers, complete (as you are in your own locality) with local knowledge, and local contacts.
But perhaps — as iSE is doing in Barbados — you can sell your expertise rather than your primary service in overseas markets?
I think this is the nub of it, really. For many social enterprises, the potential to sell their core services elsewhere than in the UK seems a non-starter. The obstacles seem insurmountable and in many cases they are probably right to consider them so. But perhaps they are not looking hard enough at the expertise (rather than the core services) they could export?
As well as opening up another potential income stream exporting one’s expertise abroad doesn’t carry the same potential threats as would be the case if you sell your expertise to another UK provider which might then become a competitor in your local market.
Are other readers successfully exporting expertise? Is anyone else using this as a route to bolster trade during the current downturn? It would be fascinating to hear from you if you are.