Insights into happiness, satisfaction and achievement

In my last blog I wrote about the three research projects I’d undertaken as part of my work with ESI Media. One was about Commuter Commerce, another was about Londoners and the final one was called Achievement.

Project Achievement was designed to show what it means to achieve these days, how people measure their own sense of achievement and what it all means to marketers. There’s a short film all about it, which you can view here.

However, you can get only so much information into a four-minute film. In this blog piece I’ve chosen to describe some of the findings that didn’t make it in. They provide some interesting insights into happiness, satisfaction and achievement.

The research findings are based on online research amongst 1,300 respondents representative of people online in the UK aged 18-65. The questionnaire was ‘in field’ shortly after the UK’s Brexit vote.

The findings show that 79% of respondents believe in a divided Britain, split between those able to achieve and those unable. However, two thirds believe they’re on the side able to achieve.

The majority of people who voted for Brexit feel they are on the side able to achieve and that is also the case for those voting Remain. Remainers are marginally more likely to feel enabled, but only marginally.

Those who sense they’re able to achieve feel enabled to do so by their education, aptitude, education and knowledge of what is going on in the world. It’s a fast changing world so they need to keep up. All these factors are notably personal to them.

Those who feel unable to achieve blame factors that are less under their control: the economy, politicians and the social background they were born into.

Feeling able to achieve, however, is different to feeling that you have already achieved. Whilst 79% feel able to achieve, only 22% feel they have already done better than those they compete against. Most (55%) feel they have done no better and no worse, so far.

Although people concentrate on achieving in their relationships and job day to day, people measure how well they’re achieving in life by the great experiences they’re having. It’s one thing to do well, but you won’t truly feel you’re doing well unless you’re having experiences that show it.

Measuring achievement in great experiences is not just a millennial thing, as I suspected it might be before breaking that finding down by age. It is done to a similar degree across the ages. Salary and job title as measures of achievement, on the other hand, become less important measures of success as we age.

Between the ages of 18 and 54 people are most likely to compare themselves against their friends to judge how well they’re doing in life. However, this emphasis on friends falls steeply through the decades.

After 55 people view things with a wider lens and are then more likely to judge their own achievements against those of the population at large; their parents and colleagues, rather than the achievements of their friends.

Peoples’ biggest driver, when it comes to achievement, is the desire to do no worse than their friends, rather than a desire to do better. Only 35% of those who compare themselves to their friends want to do better than them.  Behavioural economists will see this finding as proof that loss aversion is a bigger driver than going for a win.

It is little different between men and women. The desire to achieve more than your friends is not a testosterone thing.

It is an age thing though. At 18-25, there is a more even divide between those wanting to best their friends and those wanting only to do no worse than them. By age 55 only one in five still want to nail their friends at the game of life.

Marriage makes people no more or less likely to want achieve more than those they compete with. Having kids does, though. Two fifths of parents want to do better than those they compete against.

And London seems to drive or attract competitiveness too. In the capital half those in the workforce want to do better than their friends.

However, competing with friends is a bad idea, you’re more likely to feel you’re doing less well in life than if you compete against, for example, your colleagues or your community.

It’s a matter of self-selection, of course. People tend to pick friends they like and that reflect well on them. In doing so they lengthen the odds of feeling like they’re doing better than them. So, compete against other people or pick less impressive friends.

So how can you feel happy about your achievements in life? Take a leaf from Del Trotter, “This time next year, Rodney…” You won’t be alone. Most of us feel enabled to achieve even if we aren’t winning yet.

Rely on your own attributes and don’t be ground down by factors you can’t control.

Enjoy the fruit of your success. You can’t take money with you when you die and great experiences show you you’re doing well. It needn’t be selfish. For example, charities are coming up with great experiential ways to help those less fortunate.

Finally, choose whom you compete against wisely. It’s healthy to have friends you admire but competing against them will give you a mountain to climb. If you’re super-competitive, go for it. If not, try only to do no worse than your friends – or benchmark yourself against others.

And remember there’s a happy ending. By the end of your working life you’re likely to view your successes with a wide lens, comparing them against the nation as a whole. It’s a sense of perspective it takes a working-lifetime to achieve.

Posted in Media, People | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Three projects in three films: my time at ESI Media

Recently I finished a sixteen-month stint as the head of audience and insight at ESI Media, the publishers of The Independent and Evening Standard.

My time there was bookended my two monumental events in British newspaper history. The Independent print edition was closed two weeks after I joined and the title became digital only. A few weeks before I left, George Osborne, then a sitting MP, took the reins as editor of the London Evening Standard.

Between those two events I ran the research team and delivered research projects. We made three-minute films about three of the research projects and they can be found here.

The projects were designed to be standalone projects in their own right. When the team and I finished them we realised they complimented each other. In effect, the three films together create a triptych effect; three pictures that sit together side by side creating a bigger picture.

The first project the team and I delivered was christened Evening Catch. It is about the money commuters spend after work – from visiting shops and venues on the way home or in the evening to shopping online at home or even whilst commuting.

It was a timely project because mCommerce whilst commuting had recently been dubbed Commuter Commerce by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. They’d even put a figure on it. It was worth £9.3bn in Britain alone in 2015.

It was also timely because I’d just arrived at ESI and wanted to deliver the kind of project that would deliver lots of ammunition to the salesteam; nothing too esoteric at this early stage.

The questionnaire generated much data about the money being spent by commuters, category by category. It also revealed the importance of London (and Evening Standard readers) to commuter commerce. This is understandable because Londoners are ahead of the tech curve and most workers commute by public transport.

The film is a lovely animation and we join a set of characters as they shop and spend their way into the evening.

The second project was about London and Londoners. This time we joined forces with the research team at the buying agency Zenith to run the project.

We set ourselves two questions. Are Londoners a more valuable advertising target than non-Londoners? And do advertisers need to fight harder for attention in a city bombarded by advertising?

The research revealed that, for three reasons, Londoners are more likely to be influenced by advertising. They’re more likely to make a purchase on gut feel and advertising informs instinct. They’re friendlier towards advertising and less suspicious of it (as a result of that they feel no more bombarded by advertising than average). They’re also able to act on advertising, being surrounded by points of purchase; most work close to high street shops, for example.

The film tells this story and points out that these points are even truer for London’s Evening Standard readers.

The final film is about Achievement. This was the most esoteric of the three topics.

A big finding of the research was that people measure how well they’re doing in life by the experiences they’re having. In fact it is the number one measure, ahead of salary, job title and even work-life balance.

There’s a big city story here too. If you live in a city like London with great experiences on your doorstep, even after work, you’re likely to enjoy them and feel like you’re achieving.

Big cities also help people copy, collaborate and compete, thereby driving achievements. As a result they instil a sense of confidence. Londoners consumer confidence is in the positive zone whilst, after Brexit, the nation’s consumer confidence is below zero.

The film about Achievement brings these factors to life.

I hope you enjoy them if you get a chance to view. If you do, I hope you agree with my triptych analogy. To me they’re also windows looking back on an enjoyable time with the likeable people at ESI Media.

Posted in advertising, Media, Newspapers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The characters of UK cities and out-of-home ad exposure

Earlier this year I delivered my second piece of analysis for Route Research Ltd. My first project for them had looked at the topic of commuting and the impact of commuting on out-of-home (OOH) ad exposure. This time around I looked at the unique characters of UK cities and what they mean for OOH ad exposure.

Route Research Ltd oversees the collection of data from GPS devices carried by 30,000 respondents. The data takes a picture of the journeys made by those respondents. The GPS data is matched against the position of OOH advertising and against demographics and attitudinal data collected by questionnaires.

You can read more about Route’s methodology and the commuting project here. For now though, let’s dive into the findings about UK cities. (I’ll just pause for one moment, however, to reassure you that sample sizes per city analysed were more than enough to draw the following conclusions.)

Firstly, there’s a strong correlation between number of advertising frames in each city and the size of the population. This correlation is strongest when the size of the population in the surrounding area is taken into consideration. An exception is Edinburgh, which has more frames than its population size, might suggest. But then Edinburgh is a national capital and a tourist destination so has great appeal to advertisers.

Edinburgh folk also spend a long time out and about each day, with an average of three hours thirty-five minutes spent in public places. That means they are out and about for the same time per day as Brummies and just narrowly behind Mancunians. Notably they’re ahead of their Glaswegian countrymen (three hours fifteen minutes).

In fact, at the end of the week, between Thursday and Sunday, Edinburgh folk are out and about for more hours on average per day than dwellers of any other city analysed. However, before they get complacent about this new accolade, Edinburgh folk should take heed of Nottingham. Specifically on Fridays Nottingham dwellers spend the most time out and about of any UK city on a particular weekday.

You might have your own idea of why. The reasons might include pedestrianised city centres, late night shopping centre opening hours, vibrant nightlife and city centre living.

If you’re an OOH advertiser you might want to make use of this information when booking advertising. Digital screens mean advertisers can book ads on particular days in particular locations. Knowing that Nottingham folk are out and about longer on Fridays, and that this translates directly into longer periods of time under the influence of OOH ad sites, is useful information.

But where is ad-saturated, mega-commute-time, Johnny-big-capital-city London in all of this? The reality is that Londoners aren’t out and about as much as you’d think, each day. Sorry London!

London’s rush hours are a massive opportunity for advertisers as commutes are long and commuter hubs crowded. However, a Londoner spends an average of two hours and forty-four minutes out and about each day. Compare that to the three hours thirty-five minutes of Edinburgh folk. In fact, Londoners are out and about for less time per day than dwellers of the other fourteen cities I analysed. Long working hours plus tendencies towards socialising and shopping in local boroughs take their toll on time out and about.

The fact that London is so full of OOH ad sites does, of course, mean that Londoners are highly likely to be exposed to OOH ads during the time they do spend out and about. However, it doesn’t pull them into first place.

They spend an average of thirty-one minutes of their time out and about under the influence of OOH ads (that is 19%). By contrast Edinburgh folk spend thirty-three minutes under the influence, which is more than Londoners but just 15% of their total time out and about.

Again these are useful considerations for advertisers looking to increase the reach and frequency of their OOH campaigns.

In times when UK high streets are often criticised for looking the same it is refreshing to think that the unique geographies and other quirks of UK cities add character to their residents’ travel patterns.

And if you’re Nottingham and Edinburgh advertising folk, take pride and enjoy the fact it isn’t all London, London, London. But then you’re probably already out and about enjoying your cities anyway!

Posted in advertising, Marketing, People, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feel the fear and do it anyway: safety and security issues when booking travel

At the beginning of this year I was commissioned by the holiday company Travelzoo to conduct a global survey about people’s attitudes to safety and security on holiday. Do safety and security concerns have a big impact on where people choose to holiday? Do concerns vary from country to country? How informed are people about the level of risks in countries they plan to visit? Are such concerns growing because of recent terrorist attacks in holiday locations?

The results of the survey were shared with Professor Yeganeh Morakabati and her team at Bournemouth University. They blended the findings with their own academic research to produce the white paper: “State of Play: the impact of geopolitical events on international tourism in 2017”.

The white paper called for better clarity of information regarding the safety and security of tourism destinations. It called for such government information to be simplified, less open to interpretation and more readily shared by travel companies before customers book. It also called for a system of standardisation or certification
of safety and security for major tourism areas, such as hotels, resorts, restaurants, theatres and other venues.

Richard Singer, the President, Europe of Travelzoo launched the white paper during a session at the ITB conference in Berlin earlier this year. We’d consulted the ITB’s Dr Roland Conrady during the production of the research. The research findings, white paper and recommendation were a welcome addition to the ITBs conference, which had safety and security as its theme.

The debate that followed grabbed the headlines within the travel industry press.

You can read the white paper in full here and catch up with the industry debate here.

However, I’ve chosen to blog about the trends that I personally found interesting from the multi-country research.

The research was based on online research amongst people who had booked overseas travel online in the past. Countries covered were Russia, India, South Africa, USA, Japan, UK, Germany, France and China. The questionnaires were translated into local languages. 6,032 interviews were carried out across those nations.

The research was carried out very early in 2017 and, of course, the fieldwork time has a bearing. For example, Paris was seen as a more dangerous place to visit than London but then Paris had recently been hit by terrorism and the 2017 attacks on London had not yet taken place.

The research told us that safety and security is on the minds of over 90% of people in each country when they book travel. However, it is most ‘front of mind’ for the Russians, Indians and South Africans. In these countries people are worried about a greater range of safety and security issues, from disease to crime to war. Compare that to France and the UK where concerns are less ‘front of mind’ and mainly about terrorism.

It means the French and British are conducting only light-touch checks on regions before holidaying there (a simple internet search suffices for many) but Russians, Indians and South Africans are turning to far more sources (they’re far more likely to check crime rates, for example).

In all countries at least three in five people said safety and security was more of a concern than ever these days. They feel the world has become more dangerous and this wasn’t a view only held by older age groups; the young feel it too.

Terrorism is the biggest fear in all countries (in South Africa terrorism is a major fear but less distinct from other worries like crime in general).

However, the fear isn’t deterring them from the idea of travelling abroad (or so they say). For example, only 4% of Americans (who had booked foreign travel online before) said they wouldn’t book a foreign holiday now because of fear. However, 24% of these Americans said they are concerned about the risk they are taking (the largest proportion compared to other nationalities – but then the Americans felt like the most targeted by terrorists abroad). They’re feeling the fear but doing it anyway.

So, yes people are concerned and increasingly so. However, it was interesting to test the role that price plays. We did that by asking the following question:

Imagine you have a choice between two holidays, both of which are equally appealing to you. One is in a country that you feel is absolutely safe. The other is in a country you believe has a small risk of [insert risk]. Would you choose the holiday with a small risk if the holiday were £100 [or local currency equivalent] cheaper per person?

Although we tested many levels of savings (up to £1,000), the first level of £100 had many saying ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ to risk. Risk of disease was most likely to deter bargain hunters and natural disasters put the least off. Despite terrorism being the biggest concern people are surprisingly likely to risk it for a saving. This is perhaps because terrorism can theoretically strike anywhere and incidence levels and casualty rates aren’t high.

It implies that, yes; they’re feeling the fear and doing it anyway but especially when there’s a small bargain to be had.

In another experiment respondents were asked if they would stay at a resort hit by terrorism in the past, assuming the package was, in all other respects, a good deal. In this scenario people said they were more likely to stay at a resort hit by terrorism ten years ago than one year ago. Time heals, to a degree.

However, the Japanese were the least likely to want to stay at such a resort, even one hit ten years ago. In fact, a larger percentage of Brits (23%) would consider a place hit by terrorism a year ago than Japanese (16%) who would consider a resort hit ten years ago. These are cultural differences, of course. The Indians were the least put off by resorts that had been hit by terror attacks.

Altogether the research painted a picture of consumers concerned about safety and security at a time of global insecurity. It is heartening that such concerns aren’t dissuading them fully from international holidaymaking. In fact, the extent to which people are tempted by good deals in affected areas is a measure of human resilience. However, measures like those suggested by Travelzoo and Bournemouth University can only make people better informed about the risks involved – a good thing, surely, in troubled times.

Posted in Business, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Media Researchers and the long road to ‘Excellence in Research Presentation’

Last week the research project I led for Metro and MailOnline, Millennial Rules, won the Mediatel award for Excellence in Research Presentation.

It was a happy moment, standing on stage with Ryan Uhl, Head of Operations, Insight and Creative at Mailonline, Charlotte Pilgrim, Head of Insight at Metro UK and Barbara Feeney, Head of Trade Marketing at Metro UK.

It was a particularly good thing to happen three years after starting my own business, Neil Sharman Ltd.

Around the time I went self-employed I attended The Media Research Group conference in Berlin. There someone quoted Richard Marks (head of judges at last week’s Mediatel awards) saying today’s media researchers are like chefs, concocting their insights from a range of ingredients, not single sources. Greg Gowan of ITV garnished the point, saying today’s media researchers need to be celebrity chefs because presentation is so important.

Why is presentation more important than ever?

When I started in media research I had a computer (the salespeople didn’t have them) and a long shelf full of reports. A brief would come in and I’d get the reports down and fire up Telmar. When there was something to say, people were keen to hear.

A few years later a brief would come in and before the chance to get facts and figures together, my inbox was full of emails from colleagues sending around links to articles. We all had the Internet now. Often the email didn’t contain an explanation of how it was relevant. It was an insight free for all (or insight free, for all).

Now the good researcher had to be one step ahead of the link sprayers by being proactive and having analysis done and on the shelf, ready to be adapted to the briefs that came in. There was generally less patience to wait for a considered view.

Attention spans were getting shorter because there was now a lot to be distracted by. It didn’t just apply to the media researcher’s internal clients but the company’s external clients too.

‘Insight’ was in great supply and disjointed points were being easily passed off as insight in the new day of text light, image heavy presentations. Design could lend gravitas to the flimsiest points.

With ‘insight’ more broadly defined and readily available, the job of insight was changing too. It wasn’t enough to make good insight led points to support your place on a press schedule. You had to sell without selling; points made overtly no longer needed listening to.

Suddenly people were talking about ‘thought leader’ research that ‘added to the debate’ and sold oh so softly. Media researchers needed to be more widely informed rather than ‘deep dive’ experts on their corner of the industry.

It became quite a golden age for the curious media researcher; we were now dealing with broad and fascinating topics. I’ve tackled happiness, achievement, baby boomers and commuting and delved into disciplines like behavioural economics and marketing science.

So, years later, wearing the cap of Neil Sharman Ltd, I found myself pitching at MailOnline and Metro’s Kensington headquarters for a thought-leader project about millennials.

People told me it was too broad a topic to tackle as millennials span a decade and a half but if people can write books about the Romans (who spanned 500 years), surely I could find something to say about millennials.

It was a brave pitch and I have to take my hat off to MailOnline and Metro for going for it. I asked them not to try and add to a vast amount of often-disjointed insight into millennials. I asked them to help make sense of what was already written because so much is confusing and contradictory. We’re told millennials are short of attention but the most educated generation. They are leaping up the career ladder thanks to their digital dexterity but they are economically shafted and unable to get a job. They work their fingers to the bone but are lazy and entitled.

In short I suggested we should explain the contradictions and take the time to join the dots, not add others.

What I also have to take my hat off to my clients for is this. Although I worked with CrowdDNA and Alligator on the qual and the quant, there was an army of people within MailOnline and Metro who worked on the project too, from designers to trade marketers, event organisers and copywriters. The post project drinks event filled a beer garden.

The research was launched with a celebrity packed game show called Who Wants to be a Millennial, at Advertising Week Europe. So really I should name check Joey Essex as one of those on the team too.

The design of the micro-site is excellent and designed to give something to those seeking quick insights and those seeking full detail and clarity. The microsite contains a longhand report with several chapters as well as advertising rules, top traits and millennial views that feed off it.

One of the judges, David Pidgeon, editor of Mediatel Newsline, summed the result up as follows: “As someone whose job it often is to communicate the results of complicated research to a broad audience, I was particularly pleased to see that the winners really went to some lengths to bring the work to life and find interesting ways to ensure people could engage with the results”.

Indeed, that is true. I’m glad it showed because a lot of people deserve a lot of credit for getting the project the recognition it deserved.   I wasn’t the chef (and certainly not a celebrity chef) but one of many working hard in the galley.

Posted in Newspapers | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unbelievable Truth – hosting a conference quiz

Recently I was asked to chair a session at the Media Research Group (MRG) conference in Warsaw.  The delegates, I was told, will be tired after a long day travelling from London and after sitting through several conference papers.  So, I was asked to run my session as a lighthearted quiz.  

I’d done similar at a London evening meeting of the MRG where I’d adopted the format of Room 101.  However, in Warsaw I borrowed from the Radio 4 quiz The Unbelievable Truth, a format that asks contestants to lie outrageously and others to identify the truths.  

I had four contestants and asked them to each make a five minute address in which they talked about 5 ‘facts’ from their own research.  The contestants were researchers from Facebook, ITV, Kantar and the media agency PHD so their research was sure to be of interest. However, one of the five ‘facts’ in each address was a lie.  Could the bleary eyed audience spot the fake?  I also gave my own five minute address and here it is.  Can you spot my fake? (answer at the end).


Hello MRG – let me tell you about some of the research Neil Sharman Ltd has been up to since we last conferenced together.

Firstly I worked with Route Research Ltd. All their respondents carry GPS enabled devices.

We looked at how the nation commutes. We laid out the lengths of commutes of each respondent and created a bell curve. There’s a bulk of people with average commutes and fewer with very short or very long commutes. What was interesting though was a nick in the bell curve at 35 minutes – which rather ruined the shape.

The reason, it seems, is that commuters dash for the line, aiming to get into work at 30 minutes, a psychological barrier. So, there’s an absence of arrivals at 35 minutes. What’s more, we discovered a law called Marchetti’s Constant that tells us people in different societies and through history have had an ideal travel to work time of 30 minutes. A longer commute can be a drag and we try hard to shave time off.

TRUTH ONE: So, Route data shows a nick in the commute time bellcurve at 35 minutes which is proof of Marchetti’s Constant in Route data.

Commutes are also interesting to The Evening Standard.

According to the Cebr, TRUTH TWO: One in five mCommerce occasions now take place whilst commuting. Advertisers should take note: such Commuter Commerce is, according to Cebr, already worth £9bn.

At ESI I’ve launched research called The Evening Catch that breaks down commuter commerce spend by advertising category.

Commuting is one form of travelling and flying on business is another. A smoother link between topics you’d be hard pressed to find!

I was commissioned to write a report for JCDecaux Airport on SME business flyers.

I worked with Millward Brown to send a questionnaire to a sample of 500 business flyers from SME companies across a mix of industries. They were senior decision makers in their businesses. With Brexit on the horizon I asked them what Brexit might do to their business.

TRUTH THREE: UK SME business flyers told me Brexit is good for their business

The proportion saying Brexit would be good for their business was 43%. The proportion saying Brexit would be bad for their business was 29%.

Now SME business people are people and young people are people and young people are called millennials. That a less smooth link between topics.

But it allows me to talk about a research project that I led for Metro and MailOnline. Millennial Rules.

Charlotte Pilgrim of Metro will tell us more about it later in the week but I can tell you a finding from the questionnaire served by Alligator Research to 1,001 Millennials and Generation X’ers.

TRUTH FOUR: 49% of millennials feel they are empowered by their tech know-how to do a better job at work than people with more experience but only average technological know-how.

That’s a bold claim, isn’t it? If you’re sitting out there with a lot of experience plus average technical know how it isn’t good enough to hold off the threat from almost half of all digital natives. Be afraid.

And finally…

Millennials are people but robots aren’t! Another seamless link as I switch topics.

I’m also switching out of media for a moment as I’m now going to tell you about a project I did for another client, Travelzoo.

The project was robots in the travel industry. Robots are already working in the travel industry already – but how likely are we humans to accept them?

I ran a multi country study using Norstat. The questionnaire went to people who book travel online in each of the UK, France, Germany, Spain, America, Canada, Japan, China and Brazil.

In it we asked people about scenarios, such as this. Imagine you’re checking in at a hotel in a different country. The receptionist is human and very competent.

Now imagine you’re at the same hotel and the receptionist is a robot. The robot is very competent. Which do you prefer?

OK, most people preferred the competent human, of course.

Then we asked them to compare a competent robot to a less competent human, which do you prefer? You can start testing what people can stomach.

We did the same for waiters and bar staff, security staff, cabin crew and several other job functions. A surprising stat was this.

TRUTH FIVE: In the comparison between the competent human waiter and the competent robot waiter, the Chinese actually preferred the robot. The ratio was 58% versus 42%

And that’s it. The end of my whistle stop tour of Neil Sharman projects since MRG Berlin but did I bamboozle and confuse – or did you see through me like a one-way mirror in a focus group?







Answer:  The lie was ‘truth’ four.  The real figure was a much bigger 75%

Posted in Media | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Seven reasons for SMEs to do more business overseas

Recently I wrote a report for JCDecaux Airport on the SME market and particularly SMEs doing business overseas. It was launched at Coq d’Argent in the City of London.

To write it I did extensive desk research, interviewed six SME businesspeople around the country (Sheffield, London and Edinburgh) and conducted research with Millward Brown amongst 500 SME business people who regularly fly on business.

Within the report I identify seven reasons why doing business overseas is becoming more attractive or necessary to SME businesses. They are outlined below. Incidentally, the fieldwork pre-dated the Brexit vote but impending Brexit only magnifies some of the seven reasons.


ONE: Improving Financial Performances

Businesses with the potential to do business overseas might be encouraged to do so because financial performances are improving.

The proportion of SMEs in profit has increased since the downturn. According to the BDRC SME Finance Monitor 80% of SMEs interviewed in Q3 2015 reported making a profit in their last trading period. This was unchanged from Q2 2015 but has increased steadily over time. It was just 69% in Q3 2013.

The economic climate is less of a barrier to doing business overseas for SMEs. BDRC report that, “From a peak of 37% at the start of 2012, the proportion of SMEs seeing the current economic climate as a major barrier has declined steadily and was 13% in Q3 2015. This means that ‘legislation and regulation’ is now just as much of a barrier as the economic climate (13% overall)”

It has led to some optimism. 86% of the business flyers responding to the survey conducted for this research agree that any UK company with the opportunity to do business overseas would probably be wise to take it.

Most SME’s expect their businesses to grow or not to contract. Research amongst SMEs by The Daily Telegraph and Easyjet found that, Slightly more than a half of those questioned (56%) expect their businesses to grow in the coming 12 months.” The Albion Growth report gives a slightly higher figure (61%) for a slightly longer time period (2 years). Albion found that only 4% expected their business to contract.

However, optimism is cautious.

The Telegraph continues, “almost a third of the sample put their business growth estimate at less than 5%, and a further 23pc expect to grow by no more than 10%.

The net balance for both sales and orders are still positive but have fallen. The recent figures from Lloyds’ Business in Britain report shows a dip in the total sales and orders balances over the last six months in 2015 for SMEs.

The same report also pointed to a decrease in the positive net balances for total exports – and especially exports to Europe.


TWO: Spreading costs, risks and customer bases across markets

Against this backdrop of cautious optimism another reason for SMEs to do business overseas is to spread their costs, risks and customer bases across markets.

Goldman Sachs reports that SMEs improve productivity by spreading risks and costs across markets.

Alastair Morris, Sales Director of Pryor Marking Technology described the importance of spreading risks as follows: “Today our business is about 40-50% export with product going to over 60 countries around the world and in fact we have distributors or partners in around 60 countries where we have regular sales that we’re shipping product to every month… If some markets are struggling you’ve usually got enough business in other markets that are OK, it brings a lot of stability to the business, spread across different markets”.

His thoughts were echoed in the following advice from a business flyer who completed our online survey, Pay considerable attention to the currencies you will be working with, consider how big movements in those currencies will impact your business. Try to divide a bulk of your overseas income between major currencies, like Dollars and Euro’s. Regardless of how well your business is doing in any given region, currency fluctuations will have a big impact, by hedging your currencies, you should find that as one currency goes down another goes up, mitigating your losses”.

Barclays found the main reason SMEs do business overseas is to spread their customer base. They also found that over a quarter (28%) of SME firms that do business overseas do so to reduce the effects of UK market conditions and to overcome limited domestic opportunities. 18% said it was necessary to help them remain competitive.

The Lloyds’ Business in Britain report also concluded that weakening demand in the UK is seen as a big threat to business for SMEs with one in three identifying it as the main threat to business.


THREE: Trading further afield than traditional markets

Spreading costs, customers and risk is all the more possible as new markets open up.

The government are keen to point SMEs to the opportunities in new markets. The following is from the government report Exporting is Great; Export Guide.

While the USA and the EU remain the UK’s largest trading partners, high-growth countries such as China, Brazil and India are becoming increasingly important export destinations. Characterised by rapidly rising populations and GDP levels, all expect significant import growth between now and 2018.

This growth is in part due to the rise of the global middle class. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) forecasts that this will double to almost five billion by 2030, presenting a major opportunity for UK firms like yours to export the types of high-quality products and services at which we excel.

Trading further afield does have appeal for UK exporters. According to SME research by Albion Ventures, “15% [of SMEs] are looking at new markets within the EU, while an even higher proportion (19%) are looking outside the EU.”

Alastair Morris, Sales Director of Pryor Marking Technology has found the Indian and Chinese markets have increased in importance for them. Both are taking up more of his time. He says, “The BRIC countries have been a very important story for Pryor. We have a joint venture in India, which has become the market leader in the domestic Indian market, a very important market for us. Obviously having a joint venture there takes a lot of management time. China has also grown and developed very strongly and is now our second largest export market.”

Alistair Hill, CEO and co-founder of On Device Research is eyeing other markets. “Over the past two years we’ve opened up two other offices in Dubai and Singapore. After that we don’t have any plans at the moment but, as I’ve said, we have to be global and there are other territories we’re looking into particularly in South Africa in which we’ve got clients and its of interest and then afterwards we’d love to be in Latin America but it’s a push too far at the moment”.

There are big growth opportunities on offer. Iain Weir, Marketing Director of Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd points out the strong link between a country’s rising GDP and opportunities specific to his business.

“There’s been fantastic growth and that growth has been global. We’ve seen continued growth in developed markets such as Europe, North America but very excitingly growth in developing markets, the BRIC countries, in particular and other small developing markets… You tend to see a correlation between a growth in GDP in a country and a growth in aspiration and demand for Scotch whisky”


FOUR: ‘Inadvertent’ and ‘Born Global’ exporters

A fourth factor pushing UK SMEs towards doing business overseas is that they are being exposed to opportunities far sooner, more frequently and in more unsolicited ways. This is driven by developments in technology.

Barclays note that nowadays many SME firms “do not plan to export: they fall into it, or regard it as a part of their normal business”.

They report that 59% of these companies were approached directly by new customers from abroad whereas only 40% actively sought overseas customers.   Existing clients or suppliers introduced 25% of them to new overseas customers.

In fact, 41% of respondent to the survey carried out for this report said that one of the reasons their company does business overseas is that they get enquiries from abroad without really trying.

In his report on small business firms Lord Young writes, “Those firms that are trading online can become ‘inadvertent exporters’ by overseas customers accessing their site and becoming customers. In Growing Your Business, I reported that 25% of PayPal’s activity in the UK comes from overseas trading. 81% of SMEs on eBay export to five or more countries. Last year, eBay launched a new initiative to support UK businesses to sell overseas by allowing them to create a shop for other eBay sites across Europe.”

Lord Young’s report (the report concentrates just on small firms, not all SMEs) quotes a finding that “The internet represents a £19 billion business opportunity for small firms in the UK.”

Barclays believe this new trend means, Having a master plan is not considered as a pre-requisite to securing overseas customers.”

However, they also say that, “There is an argument that owner-managers could be missing out on valuable opportunities to do business abroad by taking a more reactive rather than proactive approach to exporting.”

Not only are SMEs being presented with exporting opportunities they are being presented with them from birth.

A recent Barclays report concluded that British SMEs are ‘Born Global’ these days. By this they mean that they were doing overseas business practically from the moment they were created.

Many of the respondent to the survey carried out for this report work for companies that had been ‘born global’ as 52% said their company had started doing business abroad within a year of being established.

Barclays note that of those SMEs currently exporting and set up during the period of 2007 and 2014, 65% started trading overseas within their first twelve months. This is a proportion that has grown through and after the economic downturn. Just 34% of businesses set up before the downturn had traded abroad within their first year.

Making this finding particularly poignant is the fact that the UK is ranked third out of 14 OECD countries in terms of the proportion of start-up businesses less than two years old in the business population. 21% of the UK business population is made up of business less than two years.

Diamond Dispersions is a company that launched towards the end of the noughties. Sue Wright, Director and co-founder of Diamond Dispersions

describes how they were ‘born global’. “The inkjet market is worldwide. There are three or four big players in the UK but mostly the market is overseas so we decided that we would go ahead and go abroad for the market so we export about 85% to 90% of what we make here and it goes all over the world”.

Alistair Hill, CEO and co-founder of On Device Research, another recently launched company, found his company needed to be ‘born global’ too. “The market is global now whether you like it or not and we can’t help that our clients are all over the world and, as a result, travelling is absolutely essential. If we were just focussed on the UK market we would probably not exist in a few year time because we wouldn’t be able to compete on a global scale so there is no option for us”.


FIVE: Move to a digital economy

Digital products like On Device’s cross borders far more easily than those of a company like Diamond Dispersions who ship product around the world. The move to a digital economy means an increasing number of start-up SMEs will find themselves doing business abroad, especially as digital solutions can be used throughout clients’ global operations.

One SME offering a global, digital solution is Showpad. Emma Acton, Senior Director of EMEA Marketing of Showpad notes:

“It’s a global solution. What we often find is that we start with one team or one department and then they start to see the value of the platform and roll it out elsewhere within the business. Sometimes the initial project can be for the entire salesteam straight off.

We might start in the UK and expand out to mainland Europe or vice versa so we might start in mainland and back into the UK or even the US, we’ve got a lot of global customers so they’re a customer of ours in Europe and they’re a customer on North America or Canada as well so sometimes we start with one department or one team and then expand out so travel is definitely on the cards for the salesteam and the sales management to go out and talk to those customers.”


SIX: Clients expect

SMEs are finding that clients increasingly expect them to be able to operate in different countries.

89% of business flyers responding to the survey conducted for this report said the sector their company operates in is becoming more global these days.

In fact, 33% said one of the reasons their company does business overseas is that their biggest clients expect them to operate in multiple counties.

Emma Acton, Senior Director of EMEA Marketing of Showpad says, Organisations, particularly the big guys that we’re selling to, the big customers, they expect you to be global; they expect you to be able to do it across the board.”

That expectation had a big implication for the ambitions of the business. They had to develop global ambitions very quickly. “Whilst we started small we’ve had to expand out and grow the business across Europe and North America.”

Alistair Hill, CEO and co-founder of On Device Research, a tech startup business describes the expectation of big clients as follows.

“A lot of our clients are big global companies and they only want to work with clients who work globally. If you only work regionally they don’t really want to know so its not a luxury to us its essential and that’s why we keep on pushing into these new markets”

He too felt the need to quickly develop a global strategy; It’s a deliberate strategy for us. Long term we aim to be a global company and as a result we have offices in different places in the world and clients all over the world. And really our clients buy from us because we are global as well so its an essential part of our strategy and therefore travelling to these places is a business requirement rather than an opportunistic event.”

He also described how the plucky SME with a willingness to enter other markets could steal an advantage over rival companies in those markets.

“We have local competitors in lots of different markets and they are snapping at our heels all the time. They do struggle though because they’re not global however the global companies who are doing what we’re doing, they are incredibly competitive and really we’ve learned from that, that these local companies although they have fantastic capabilities they don’t win the big contracts because they can’t do things globally.”


SEVEN: The size of the prize is increasing

As a result, risks and rewards are increasing. Alastair Morris, Sales Director of Pryor Marking Technology describes how the size of the prize is increasing.

“The aspect of internationalisation that is difficult is that customers are becoming more global, becoming more corporate, they’re connecting different manufacturing sites around the world so whereas a company manufacturing in the UK looking for an equipment supplier would be likely to buy it from a UK company the customer is now global and they want to source a single supplier for their global business.

It’s an opportunity for us because it means customers we’ve got we can now supply globally, into lots of different manufacturing sites, it’s a risk for us in that if that customer is a foreign customer that’s sourced a local supplier they then get the bulk of the business so there’s a definite shift towards global contracts which is both an opportunity and a risk.

It is ever more important that we are a global company, that we’re able to support projects in a lot of different countries and we see that on contracts we’re negotiating now”.

The business flyers who responded to the survey conducted for this report feel that risks and rewards are increasing. The majority see greater risks and rewards. Interestingly, more of them see greater rewards than risks.

Notably, 71% of them say their company is pitching for overseas contracts that are worth far more than the overseas contracts being pitched for a few years ago. Around three quarters expect overseas revenues to contribute more to the company’s revenues in the next few years (30% expect it to contribute a lot more, 41% expect it to contribute a little more).



Posted in Business | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment