KARAN BILIMORIA: British entrepreneurs don't have the hunger to export successfully

The Small Business Bill announced this week is all well and good, says the Cobra Beer founder. But British businesses need determination if they're to succeed abroad.

by Karan Bilimoria
Last Updated: 29 Jan 2015

The unveiling of a Small Business Bill in the Queen’s Speech was a welcome recognition from government of the centrality of entrepreneurs to the UK’s economic growth story.

Yet in one innocuous-looking clause, it has also highlighted arguably the major barrier to the success of Britain’s most important business class. The Bill states its intention to ‘make it easier for small businesses to expand overseas’.

No one could disagree with the theory behind this statement, but the reality of breaking into new markets has often proven rather more complex for the UK’s small business owners.

I speak to business audiences up and down the country, and almost never fail to be disappointed at how few say they export to India, a country with a huge desire for British goods and services, and a population of 1.23 billion compared to the UK’s 63 million.

When it comes to exporting, Britain’s entrepreneurs simply don’t show the same ambition and relentless sense of purpose as they do in building their businesses at home.

That’s despite the clear growth benefits of selling in the global marketplace: 85% of entrepreneurs surveyed by UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) last year said that exporting enabled ‘a level of growth not otherwise possible’, while 78% said it exposed them to new ideas, and 70% said they had modified a product or service after doing business abroad.

Exporting is the great litmus test for any emerging business. Developing a product or service line within a familiar environment is one thing, but when you are selling with success abroad, then you really know you have a viable and scalable brand.

International growth is also something that needs to be embraced from the start of a business’s lifespan, not as an afterthought. When I founded Cobra Beer, my mission from the very beginning was to brew the finest-ever Indian beer and make it a global brand. We now export regularly to 30 countries, including markets as diverse as New Zealand and Chile.

The start-ups that can become scale-ups are those that move quickly to seize the significant opportunities presented by international markets.  Otherwise, before you know it, someone else will have stolen the opportunity from under your nose.

In a business world that’s never moved faster, there’s no excuse for delaying until tomorrow what could be achieved today. And for UK businesses to think big, they must think global from day one. That means taking advantage of the great esteem in which British brands are held the world over.

Entrepreneurs need to stop underestimating the benefits of the ‘Made in Britain’ kitemark, and sell to global audiences with real belief. Our businesses should be more confident of Britain’s capabilities in every field: we are one of the biggest global economies, home to some of the world’s best practitioners in fields from advanced manufacturing to design, aerospace and professional services. That should embolden growing companies as they embark into new markets.

And already, much work has been done to lay the groundwork for UK businesses to succeed overseas. I have accompanied three Prime Ministers on trade missions to India, and the UK-India Business Council is opening up offices across the country as hubs for UK companies looking to do business in India.

UKTI has a worldwide network, and we should make more of the embassies and British High Commissions that operate around the world, making introductions, supporting with launch events and providing valuable market research.

We also need the government to do more with export finance, to encourage businesses to think globally. In other parts of the world the tax breaks on exporting and the profits of export are a much stronger incentive, and that is an example we should learn from.

Still, successive governments have done an excellent job promoting Britain around the world, and trade delegations have an important role to play in showing countries like India that Britain is a willing business partner. The Prime Minister is right to say that we are in a global race: we are competing with Germany, France, Italy, America, Canada, Korea and Japan for the same trade, and demonstrating an appetite to do business is hugely important.

But the mantle must also pass to the companies themselves, to show the same desire for making deals and earning a foothold in new markets. Jump on a plane and get out there is the best advice for entrepreneurs; it’s easier than even ten years ago, when there were only two airlines and 19 direct flights to India. Now there are over 119.

It has long been my view that we have the most vibrant business culture in the world: an environment of optimism and aspiration whereby anyone from anywhere can achieve anything.

Now the same momentum that’s seen people start businesses in their hundreds of thousands since the beginning of the recession needs to be transferred to the export imperative. The next stage of growth will be found not just in the UK, but in the global marketplace. That is the opportunity for our entrepreneurs, and the hope must be that the Small Business Bill announced this week will prove a compelling call to action, not a well-meaning pronouncement that falls on deaf ears.

- Lord Bilimoria CBE is founder and chairman of Cobra Beer. He is a speaker at the International Festival for Business.

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