I had the privilege of attending an Export Essentials workshop recently, a New Zealand Trade and Enterprise initiative running collectively with our Business, Innovation and Growth team here at Northland Inc.
It was a deeply practical two days that I'd highly recommend to those businesses considering making the leap into overseas territory. For me, however, working with my Northland Inc hat on, it was an excellent reminder of some of the great strengths – and pitfalls – of New Zealand business.
While these may not be new ideas, they remain a catalyst for some worthwhile discussion. Here were my top two:
1. New Zealand's – and especially Northland's – true economic opportunity is from added value, customising our offering and focusing on premium market segments.
Sir Paul Callaghan always maintained that the strength of New Zealand was in the "niche": we have a uniqueness, and a reputation for quality. We're Lamborghini, not Toyota, and we ought to start acting like it.
The nature of the businesses in the room mainly occupied that space. The workshop facilitators, having spent the past few years working on establishing several high-end natural health products in the United Arab Emirates, emphasised the importance of embracing this mindset, stressing that premium and value-added potential for New Zealand surpasses most other factors.
Moving from volume to value can include enhancing existing products and creating new products and services by using innovation and research and development (R&D) at the early stage.
Reducing our environmental impact along these lines can also support the shift by creating market leadership opportunities, while giving real weight to the clean, green brand that New Zealand relies on for securing top dollar.
Indeed, in terms of the value-add, the key to the castle here for us is in that storytelling arena: innovative branding, packaging and marketing. There's real interest from outside – and, increasingly, inside – in authentic New Zealand stories; and nowhere has more of these than Northland.
New emphasis on telling our stories will be crucial as we strive to achieve the productive, sustainable and inclusive economy we all want.
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If the potential for these areas in New Zealand is high, it is explosive in Northland. At Northland Inc, we saw this kind of thinking emerging through The Pick, our incubator programme. There, we witnessed the breadth and intensity of innovation present in hundreds of businesses we support via our advisory service.
How we leverage this as a region and nation leads to my next point:
Lots to be proud of
2. Don't devalue your offering.
I've been sceptical about the notion New Zealand could produce at a world-class level. After all, we're small, we're young, and we get left off world maps. But then I went to Europe and found that Swiss chocolate tasted much like Whittaker's; that the UK wouldn't have known how good peanut butter is until Pic's arrived in Tesco; or that people were willing to pay more for a bottle of Yealands than offerings from France, Italy or Spain.
We're increasingly aware of how our "humbleness culture" can make it challenging to succeed in business overseas. Indeed, our facilitators shared stories of how budding enterprises can veer into trouble: subjectivity to flattery, that small-time gratefulness to be noticed, to be given an opportunity, any opportunity.
One participant, whose product drew on the best of New Zealand quality, told us how prospective buyers would ask them to "leave off their logo", so they could use their own branding. "Free advertising," they'd say, and she and her business partner would consider it, needing the capital and weighing the exposure.
As a newbie to Northland, I've noticed self-deprecation sometimes taken to almost apologetic levels; but there's a lot to be proud of here, and it's our job to make sure people know that.
This is where Northland Inc can help. Collectively, our business growth advisers have spent thousands of hours working with new and established businesses. Many of those businesses at the Export Essentials table were there through us.
After the workshop, they'll receive personalised support to assess and strengthen their export plan. We're the first step to your next step as a business, whatever sector, size or stage you're at.
The time is right for Northland to get out into the world. Let's embrace it full tilt.
• Genie van Paassen is business growth co-ordinator at The Orchard.