Venturing abroad? Help's aplenty
WHEN it comes to helping local firms venture abroad, the authorities appear to be revving up to speed.

Last year, IE Singapore helped 22 firms achieve combined overseas sales of more than $1.7 billion. A further 1,000 Singapore-based companies are said to have benefited - to the tune of millions - from new guidelines allowing them to avoid double taxation for overseas marketing expenses.

It's an impressive result for the former Trade Development Board, which reinvented itself in 2002 to focus on the internationalisation effort. Add to that Singapore's relentless pursuit of free-trade agreements (FTAs), and what we have is a bold, ground-breaking commitment to create the best possible regulatory climate for Singapore to do business with the world.

Timely, relevant and insightful information could be our secret weapon in the fight for global market space.

Of course, there are still administrative hoops to jump through to get more substantive assistance. That's only to be expected when public funds, which can amount to millions in grants or co-invested seed capital, are involved.

Financial schemes are welcome, but they aren't the only leg up that small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) can receive from those tasked with taking Singapore abroad. Even a cursory browsing of the websites of local statutory boards Economic Development Board ( and IE Singapore ( reveals an aggressive, almost bewildering buffet of resources: from market intelligence to country profiles, grant schemes, business networks, business matching services, even a 'venture abroad' guide and an Internationalisation Readiness Toolkit to help SMEs assess their own readiness to expand overseas.

Still, there are the usual grouses. Large corporations, such as government-linked corporations, have the wherewithal to go their own way; they can bring formidable resources, extensive research and sheer clout into their overseas ventures, and can afford to bear greater risks with their investments abroad.

But while it is precisely during this economic watershed that the need for Singaporean firms to expand abroad becomes all the more urgent, SMEs in lean economic conditions are ironically more likely to be caught in a crunch for the 4Ms needed to internationalise: Money, certainly, but also Manpower, Management and Marketing.

While they may have carved out a respectable niche in Singapore, SMEs often lack the critical extra oomph of expertise, willing and able staff, sufficient market knowledge, credible partnerships and promotional savvy needed to succeed overseas.

The alienness of foreign territories - where anything from subtle differences in market tastes, uncertainties in the regulatory framework and language difficulties can sink a fragile new venture - makes it all the more daunting.

An acquaintance of mine put it in a different light: When it comes to venturing abroad, the harder the going is, the better. Lack of information is a hindrance, but this information arbitrage could also prove an important competitive advantage in the long term. The more difficult it is to enter and thrive in a new market, the less crowded the competition and the better the chances for the pioneers who are more prepared and committed to make it work. He reckons most SME bosses don't use Google enough - that there is plenty of useful business information publicly available on the Net for those who'd bother to put in the due diligence.

Timely, relevant and insightful information could be our secret weapon in the fight for global market space, and this is where IE Singapore's facilitation efforts, business support initiatives and wealth of hard-earned experience could prove more decisive than any number of grant schemes.

Indeed, some companies that have ventured abroad and learnt their lessons the hard way are now teaching others to do the same - and making a tidy sum in the process.

For instance, Asia Exchange, a local start-up with a regional reach, was set up in 2003 to help local companies expand abroad, particularly in the Australasian and South-east Asian region. Taking advantage of a healthy 11 per cent growth rate in exports between Asean and Australia, and the FTA between Singapore and Australia, they offer hands-on consultancy services - including market research, distribution advice and even business planning, financial analysis and entry strategies - to SMEs with little experience in penetrating foreign markets. It's good to know that our companies are not the only ones needing help or asking for it - the Asia Exchange office in Melbourne also does a decent trade helping Australian firms get into Asia.

Their business development manager H.M. Toh reckons competition in this field is 'tremendous', with 'top-tier consultancies all the way through to one-man operations' eager to help companies internationalise. By looking after the groundwork and negotiating the tricky waters of a foreign regulatory environment, or by sousing out potential partners or premises in advance, such consultancies take much of the basic jitters out of venturing abroad. It's a way of outsourcing risk and research to those who've already done the homework, leaving the SME to focus on its core business products, processes and growth.

Enlightened industry facilitators such as IE Singapore should see such service providers as key partners in the ongoing drive to go global, and could support, reinforce or even highlight their activities. Venturing abroad is still a major milestone for any company and should be considered with due care. But the opportunity to go global should boil down to appetite, ability and commitment rather than a dearth of quality information. For those ready and willing to move out, there's plenty of help to call upon, and little time to lose.