Trade mission offers lessons for e-learning company

A trade mission has opened the gate for an Ontario e-learning technology company into ideal but far-away markets in Oceania, which would have been more difficult to “reach” without assistance from the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), in collaboration with provincial trade assistance programs to help Canada’s exporters.

The company, dominKnow Inc. of Ottawa, Ont., was among a group of firms with products for the educational sector that the Ontario Ministry of International Trade (MIT) led on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in June 2017, in coordination with the TCS. The mission included meetings organized by the TCS that have already netted results for the Canadian firm in Auckland, NZ.

“There’s no way without this support that we could have made this sort of a dent in an international market like New Zealand this quickly,” says Paul Schneider, senior vice-president of business development at dominKnow, noting that the TCS was instrumental in its introductions to reseller partners in New Zealand that have produced clients for dominKnow products there.

Fabienne Bovis, a trade commissioner in Auckland who oversees sectors that include cultural industries as well as information and telecommunications technologies, says her office worked closely with the TCS in Sydney and Ontario’s MIT to help dominKnow make contacts and find the right partners and clients there.

Bovis says Canadian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) should consider exporting to New Zealand. “It’s a natural fit,” she says. “New Zealand is a small but sophisticated market, with a keen eye for new technologies, and it’s an easy place to do business, with regulations similar to those of Canada.”

However, for SMEs with clients there, “distance to market can be difficult to manage, which is why it’s important for Canadian companies to find a reliable, well-connected partner on the ground,” Bovis says. “This is where the TCS really delivers.”

A software company that has been working in the training industry for 20 years, dominKnow’s flagship product is an award-winning cloud-based collaborative authoring platform. It gives teams the tools to create e-learning programs and courses for their own organizations or to develop and sell to other customers, Schneider says. The technology is primarily used for employee training.

The e-learning market is rapidly shifting and evolving, according to a recent report by Docebo, a global learning management company, which forecasts growth in the sector of five per cent per year to 2021, based on the introduction of ever-changing technologies. “According to most estimates there are several billions being spent in this industry,” says Schneider, noting that with some 30 employees, dominKnow has 85 percent of its market in North America, but is looking to expand its international footprint.

The decision-making cycle in the e-learning industry is long, says Schneider, and with a couple of major global players dominating the field, there is a lack of awareness about non-mainstream alternatives like dominKnow. The company’s unique collaborative solution puts the power and flexibility of typical desktop technology into a real-time, online environment, so that various authors on different devices can be spread around the world, working together, thus saving time and money, he adds.

Schneider says it is challenging to get the word out about the benefits of dominKnow’s product. “Rising above the noise is always a difficult problem,” he says, adding this makes the assistance of the TCS extremely valuable. “We do need to get on site and develop relationships, and that’s hard to do when you're a small company.”

As a small firm, dominKnow has to “pick and choose” where it expends resources in search for new business, Schneider says. Australia and New Zealand, while distant, are English-speaking and have many of the same qualities as North America, which makes the region a good target for e-learning companies like dominKnow.

“These are smaller markets and much more closed, though, which emphasizes the need to have folks who understand them and are part of the community,” such as the TCS and the MIT, Schneider adds. “Without their support, it could have taken several years to make the contacts we did on this trip.”

He says the 2017 mission was the third such sponsored trip that company representatives have made to international trade shows, and the most fruitful. “We applied what we learned on those other trips to this last one, and this one was more successful in large part due to the great support we received,” Schneider comments. “We definitely would go on another one if the market and location was a good fit.”

Schneider says qualities that are important to look for in a reseller in an international market include that it understands and is already actively selling to the industry, that it has experience with the kinds of authoring solutions that dominKnow offers, and that it believes such solutions are helpful to its clients’ needs. “They have to get it,” he says, which means the reseller has a better chance of being successful at promoting the company’s technology in the vast e-learning marketplace.

Having resellers abroad is critical for companies like dominKnow, Schneider says. Through the TCS introductions, it secured two of them in New Zealand, one of which, Bloom Technologies, has already sold dominKnow’s product to a company there. The Canadian company has also signed up one reseller in Australia.

Wenbo Pan, a senior international market consultant in the Export Service Branch at MIT, first introduced dominKnow to the TCS. He notes that dominKnow is a “strong company differentiated from other competitors,” and with the success that it has already achieved, “Oceania is a perfect market when it considers the next target.”

Pan says dominKnow contacted his branch in the summer of 2017 after receiving an invitation to an upcoming trade mission to Australia and New Zealand for Ontario companies in the education sector, highlighting business opportunities there. Trade mission participants pay a nominal participation fee and cover their own travel expenses on such trips, which are often held on the margins of other trade events. The 2017 mission program included attending EduTECH, the largest education exposition in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as business-to-business meetings and introductions to key contacts there.

Pan, who is responsible for promoting trade between Ontario and Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand, says this mission perfectly suited dominKnow’s interests. He says the branch works with export-ready Ontario companies interested in the international marketplace, using a network of partners like the TCS and stakeholders such as chambers of commerce and industry groups to help spread the word.

Bovis says that Pan provided her as well as Nigel Sabin, the trade commissioner responsible for information and communications technologies (ICT) in Sydney, with a profile of dominKnow, including background on the company and its products and highlighting its objectives and activities in the region.

“The TCS team did extensive research to identify local companies that may be a good match for dominKnow’s objectives,” she says. Several local companies were approached and a program of one-on-one meetings was secured. In New Zealand, Bovis and Pan offered information regarding logistics and travel prior to dominKnow’s arrival and accompanied the company to the meetings.

The TCS not only helped the company secure two partners in New Zealand, Bovis says, “but afterwards it is also important for our teams to follow up and check that the new partnerships are working well.”

Pan says that dominKnow has done its homework and is aware of its strengths, differentiation factors and capacity. “While still small, the company didn’t rush critical business decisions, didn’t start planting flags everywhere and instead evaluated its market potential carefully and allocated the required resources to target markets,” he says.

Successful entry strategies for Australia and New Zealand include understanding the market, selecting the optimal partner and providing ongoing support to that partner, Pan says. “With our offices located at home and trade commissioners located in the market, we can provide seamless services to our clients, assisting them achieve their goals.”

He advises companies to arm themselves with basic knowledge on the target market. “There are abundant resources, many available for free, for you to leverage, so please go and talk with them before booking your air ticket,” Pan adds. “Trade commissioners and their counterparts in provincial governments work together and are ready to assist you at home and overseas.”

From Auckland, New Zealand, this story is one example of how trade commissioners located in more than 160 cities around the world help Canadian companies succeed.

Read more about the Humans of the Trade Commissioner Service.

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