Digitalization is just the first step to international growth

Anne-Christine Genouville, director of the Franco-Belgian Chamber of Commerce, knows what it takes to cross borders and start building again, both personally and professionally.
Ayoub Assabban
Ayoub Assabban
October 24, 2022
mn. read

For Europeans, the idea of opening a new international market is attractive — and rightly so, given the bloc’s geography and economic strengths. But just because there is a shared border or even a shared language doesn’t mean that doing so is simple. While digitalization can lay the groundwork for opening new markets, there are still significant efforts to be made in order to successfully grow your revenue thanks to international markets.

If anyone’s well-placed to understand that, it’s Anne-Christine Genouville. As the head of the Franco-Belgian Chamber of Commerce for over 10 years, she’s helped many French entrepreneurs who have managed to grow their businesses in Belgium; she’s also tried to help many others who didn’t manage to do it. The difference between the two? It’s not a question of product quality or potential market-fit. Instead, it’s a question of mentality.

“I first saw the challenges on a personal level — I left Paris with my husband and family, and we moved to Brussels thinking it was very close to France. What I found out as I tried to go into business for myself is that it isn’t enough to share a language and a border; there are big cultural differences, and navigating them is very complex.”

She found that there was a common series of steps taken in terms of internationalization: information gathering (for example by using market studies to understand how your offer will be perceived/received), export (the first steps to place your product on the market), and eventually growth (which could include opening a local office or subsidiary).

“No matter what market you want to open, whether it’s the country next door or one on the other side of the world, you have to put real effort into preparing the way. Someone in France can’t think that they’ll win Belgian or Dutch market share more easily than they could win Australian market share just because they can hop on a train and be there in a few hours.”

Anne-Christine notes that this means there are certain costs to expansion that are unavoidable. Those costs can be related to reworking one’s messaging, hiring local salespeople, becoming a member of local business organizations, etc. “You can’t just say, “We’ll spend €4000 over the next six months and that should cover it,” she says. “Luckily, we’ve seen that most companies we work with have evolved in that way, the owners understand that there’s a certain level of commitment to make.”

She’s also noticed that, contrary to her own experience when starting to work remotely 15 years ago, today’s business owners are very open to maximizing the utility of digital tools. As could be expected, the COVID crisis was a huge accelerant in that process.

“At the Chamber, we were already using digital tools, but we also had a lot of in-person events and interactions. When the crisis arrived, in under a week we’d converted as much as we could online, and all of the PMEs that are part of the organization were part of that, everyone followed along and started to work and interact in a new way.”

While people were of course happy to get back to those in-person gatherings once the health situation had stabilized, the digital floodgates had been opened.

“Today our events are even warmer and lively, because we had to go so long without them. But in the meantime, digitalization really took over in every aspect of people’s businesses, and people are investing to make sure that their processes are up to date and ready for growth.”

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Many thanks to Anne-Christine for providing her perspective on digitalization and international growth! For more thoughts and interviews on these topics, head to the OrderCast blog. And if you’re a PME looking for a no-code, ready-to-install ordering solution, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Ayoub Assabban

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