It’s been three weeks since we published our UK SME Brexit Survey, ‘Optimism Amongst the Uncertainty’ and I have a confession to make, I would never have expected that the survey would include the word optimism in the title.
How could this be, when the news agenda of the past several months has been dominated by stories of us staring into the abyss on free trade, customs backlogs, punitive tariffs, and the image of M25 being turned into a carpark on the day Brexit takes effect?
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had conversations with around 50 UK companies on the topic of international growth, including those that I met at two events in London last week hosted by our partners at Go to Market Global. I was keen to equate what I was hearing in my conversations with the ‘optimism’ that came through in our survey.
I’m pleased to report that the sentiment expressed in the survey shone through in the discussions I had:
- Companies talked to me about how they can grow their business, about why their product or service is great, and better than their competition. The passion and enthusiasm where shared amongst all UK SMEs I have spoken to – the excitement and drive to grow their business very much remains despite the uncertainty of our upcoming exit of the EU.
- When talking about international markets, Brexit wasn’t the first topic of conversation. They wanted to talk about how to get active in the market; from channels to key customers and possible partnerships.
- In our report, we saw how existing exporters were driving this optimism and I spoke with several companies active in Europe who are now actively looking to expand and diversify into additional markets. They talked about this in an optimistic and measured fashion, not a fearful one.
But, they also talked about their challenges:
- Funding and financing for international growth is the biggest one. The additional up-front costs (eg product development), lead times and working capital implications of doing business abroad are a deterrent, especially to smaller companies.
- These types of companies are crying out for international market knowledge and guidance. Many companies talked about getting to a point of ‘comfort’ beyond which they would be happy to take the decision to progress their international plans.
Most telling of all, the companies I spoke to don’t see Brexit itself as the challenge. Rather, it’s something to be dealt with, an event that will bring challenges and opportunities, which will guide their international growth plans; where they choose to do business, with who, and how. Some of the more experienced exporters I spoke with talked about international business never being entirely straightforward, and that it never will be; challenges are one of the few constants in business, and they are just part of the exporting journey.
As the political debate rumbles on the exact nature of Brexit, the message from companies was clear – it’s time to shift gear and engage with companies on the meaningful support they’ll require to contribute to the UK Export Strategy targets of 35% GDP and 400,000 new exporters. I’m confident that some of the great companies I met last week will contribute to this greater goal.
The ambition and capabilities of the companies, and partners like OCO Global is out there. We look forward to building relationships with companies and working with government and partners to help make their exporting plans happen.