Small businesses traditionally struggle to make inroads into foreign markets due to cultural barriers and marketing costs. However, SMEs have a better chance of selling their products and services overseas if they are part of a larger package of regional expertise.
Nicoletta Marchiandi, who will speak about the internationalisation of SMEs at a 9 March meeting of the Enterprise Europe Network's Steering and Advisory Group in the European Parliament, said that relatively few SMEs have any export experience, but markets like China, India and Russia are crucial for dynamic SMEs.
"For SMEs, it's impossible to access big buyers unless they are within a specific cluster. They face the language barrier and often don't know how to get information on foreign markets," she told EurActiv.
Marchiandi, who also manages the innovation department at the Torino Chamber of Commerce, highlighted the auto sector and aerospace clusters in northern Italy, which bring academia together with companies large and small. This allows businesses in the area to market the region as a hub for high-end auto and aerospace R&D (research and development).
"We are investing a lot of money to create the entire supply chain in Torino and present it abroad," she said.
This strategy has proven successful in attracting customers in Canada and China, and gives small companies a change to tap into business which would otherwise not be open to them.
To be successful abroad, European clusters must have an innovative angle, according to Marchiandi, who acknowledges that this is not always easy for some small firms.
"Innovation must be part of SMEs' business strategy, although this can prove difficult for some, not least companies from traditional business cultures," she said.
The EU is planning to open a string of new offices across the world to help small businesses expand into new markets (EurActiv 29/01/10). A European Business and Technology Centre has been operating in India since 2008 and an SME Centre is expected to open in Beijing by the end of the year (EurActiv 24/02/10).
Similar offices in Bangkok and Moscow are also in the pipeline, along with privately-run services in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Business groups have also suggested using the European External Action Service (EEAS) to help SMEs gain a foothold in foreign markets (EurActiv 08/02/10).