Ireland can position itself as the gateway for imports and exports to and from BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) markets, the local internet industry has been told.
The internet is perhaps the one key enabling technology for exports and imports today – building bridges across oceans and continents and making business happen.
Ireland’s inward investment success over the past 20 years with the arrival of major names including Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn shows that Ireland can be both the data and services centre for the global internet economy.
But can it be a global imports and exports hub, too? Broadband issues aside, one of Ireland’s chief advantages in the digital age is its people and, ultimately, strip out the technology, business doesn’t happen without people.
A case in point is entrepreneur Liam Casey of PCH International – recently named as Ireland’s International Start-up Ambassador in China – whose Cork-headquartered company is at the heart of the booming consumer electronics industry. Casey divides his time between Shenzen and Silicon Valley because, despite the advances wrought by the internet, things don’t happen without people.
That’s why last week’s Internet Association Conference’s focus on exporting to BRIC countries was timely for Irish entrepreneurs who see the web as the lynchpin of their success.
I thought the thrust of the conversation would be around fulfilment and meeting obligations for customers half a world away. Instead, much of it was about culture and respect.
It was clear that there are many dos and don’ts to trading in BRIC countries and setting up a website for trading is just one important step.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, pointed out that the internet industry in Ireland is key to economic recovery and will play a vital role in growing the country’s reputation internationally.
Also present was RTÉ Dragons’ Den star Sean O’Sullivan, managing director of SOS Ventures and Avego. O’Sullivan is spearheading the Open Ireland campaign to create up to 100,000 jobs for Ireland’s domestic economy by filling the existing and upcoming vacancies in the hi-tech sector by allowing top English-speaking tech talent to get work visas in a quick and transparent process.
Kenny told the internet industry that this year there have been trade missions to each of the BRIC countries. Referring to the State visit to China, he said some 90 Irish companies accompanied him. Kenny said he was struck by the cultural connections. “Like us they are nationalistic, family-oriented and want to know the real depth of people.”
Kenny added that across the world there is serious interest in Ireland as a gateway to Europe and the presence of companies like Google and Facebook puts Ireland in pole position when it comes to creating the future.
Kenny said that gearing up to serve the world’s biggest countries is vital and pointed out that the strategy partnership agreement China granted to Ireland isn’t given to every country.
He noted that the digital industry mistakes of the past, such as delayed broadband infrastructure rollout, need to be avoided.
“Improving ICT infrastructure is a priority. We messed around for too long and we’re not where we should be, but we will be where we want to be,” Kenny stressed, adding he is determined to see the actions set out in the forthcoming strategy of the Next Generation Broadband Taskforce in July happen.
The success of Sonru
Fergal O’Byrne from Enniscorthy-headquartered Sonru told the story about how his company has become a global success story with offices around the world. Sonru’s technology, which replicates the face-to-face video interview with video over the internet, has been deployed globally by organisations like CERN, Apple, Sage and BioWare.
O’Byrne explained that one of the key challenges has been localising the technology to work in a diverse range of languages, from French and Spanish to Korean and Japanese.
“As we found our overseas customer base growing we found the challenge to be translation and that meant translating every function button and dialogue box.”
He said the key thing to do is establish a relationship with a translation partner and avoid trying to use free translation services.
“We’re still learning from the experience but what surprised us was once we got the process right we were able to get up to speed and turn things around very quickly.
“It’s better to go for a proper translation partner, the investment is not a bank breaker but pays dividends.”
In three to four years, Sonru has grown from its Wexford base to include overseas offices in London, Singapore, Dubai, Sydney and Johannesburg.
“We sell through resellers in countries where we don’t have the local language but in English speaking countries we prefer to have people on the ground.”
One lucky break for Sonru happened in Singapore when one of its investors liked the company so much he decided to come on board as CEO of its Asian operations to reinforce Sonru’s growth in the region.
Again, O’Bryrne warned never to scrimp on translation: “As a start-up you have to get it right early on.”
The importance of market research
Another entrepreneur who provided invaluable insights into targeting economies like Russia was Alan Kearney of a company called Gesaky, which has developed interactive mirror technology that is revolutionising the retail industry.
Kearney pointed out that it is important before trying to sell products online or in person to a new market to study that market in-depth, make use of Enterprise Ireland’s library, its people on the ground and the staff of overseas embassies.
“What we learned is to learn in advance about the people and the companies you are about to deal with. It’s also about good manners and being personable. It goes without saying that you and your product have to be as good as or better than anybody else out there. You need to understand different cultures and a big thing is humour and knowing local taboos.”
Kearney also pointed out that it is important that businesses selling into overseas markets learn to be as succinct as possible when explaining the value of their product or service.
“Remember, The Lord’s Prayer is only 66 words. The Gettysburg Address is 286 words, yet the US government regulation for sales of cabbages is over 26,000 words.
“Clearly identify the sweet spot for exactly who that customer is. Understand the person, understand their values. Can you say what it is your product does in under 25 words?”
Kearney also pointed out that the Irish can be the best salespeople in the world, so long as they remember to keep asking for the sale, particularly in the Middle East.
“Don’t oversell or undersell, people won’t believe you. Do not think that everybody works the same way as they do in Ireland or the UK. Don’t be a fluent fool. Make sure that what they are hearing is precisely what you are going to deliver.”
Ireland trade with Russia
Economist Constantin Gurdgiev pointed out that the Russian market is receptive to online sales from Irish SMEs.
“Trade flows with Russia will more than double in the next three years. Enterprise Ireland is doing fantastic work on the ground in Russia and the market there is receptive to ICT as well as food and drink exports.”
However, he warned, there are pressure points. While the Russian economy is more receptive to start-ups and SMEs, the lack of a State guarantee on export insurance is a problem.
He also pointed out that the buying power in the Russian economy cannot be ignored by Irish firms. “In 2015, Russian GDP per capita will be €20,000, compared with €13,000 in Brazil, €12,000 in China and €4,900 in India.”
Enterprise Ireland’s Kevin Sherry noted that 25pc of start-ups in Ireland now are in the digital space. “Companies need to think global and act local.”
He warned that some companies going into overseas markets don’t spend enough time translating their value proposition or honing it for a specific market.
Kearney also urged firms not to use trade missions to enter a market for the first time but to study the market intently first.
“Trade missions are not a forum for prospecting,” he pointed out. “Companies that do that can actually damage prospects for other firms that are serious about their target market.”
Gesaky’s Kearney agreed: “The important thing to bear in mind about trade missions is to follow through on what you promise. There’s no point going over to kick tires, it’s not fair on the companies that come after you. Be committed, it makes everybody’s job easier.”