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Back the best to get Irish businesses exporting online

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THINK GLOBAL: Google Ireland's Ronan Harris points skywards. Photo: Frank McGrath

THINK GLOBAL: Google Ireland's Ronan Harris points skywards. Photo: Frank McGrath

THINK GLOBAL: Google Ireland's Ronan Harris points skywards. Photo: Frank McGrath

There are many myths that surround the Aran jumper. One of the most prevalent is that the simple moss stitching used signifies abundance, or growth.

On the remote islands that give the jumper its name, one small business was selling sweaters to passing tourists. The decision to build a website - www.aransweatermarket.com - and launch an online advertising campaign changed the face of their customer.

Queries for Aran sweaters started flooding in, not only from across the country, but from the UK, Canada and as far away as South Korea and Japan. Soon, global wardrobes were opening up to the woollen knits of the west of Ireland. In a few short years, the Aran jumpers were proving their mythical worth - the business was growing, and growing globally.

Ireland's history has been dominated by a strong economic imperative to look to a global market. As a small but vibrant agricultural economy, our main trade links were defined by geography and dominated by the relationship with our nearest neighbour.

But accession to Europe's single market and a strategic foreign direct investment plan post-independence changed all of that. By the dawn of the Celtic Tiger, exports were our main driver of growth, comprising 87pc of GDP in 2002.

Fast forward to today, and it is widely acknowledged that our strong economic recovery has been driven by export-led growth.

With the dawn of the internet breaking down traditional barriers to selling products across borders, it is now easier than ever to access far-flung customers. In a country where our export recovery has traditionally been dominated by foreign-owned multinationals, equipping our indigenous small business base with the tools to export is imperative. It is this export-led growth, driven by the internet, that needs to be fostered.

In my time at Google, I have seen first-hand the impact of working with businesses to advertise online. Small businesses our teams in Dublin work with on a daily basis go on to hire more people, build out more units and increase their revenues.

I have long advocated that businesses should get online, and Irish businesses are taking heed - 75pc of them now have a website. But the next step is to ensure these businesses are selling online, and selling globally.

Research shows that only 24pc of these SMEs are currently doing so. And fewer businesses still - just 11pc - export.

Consumers, on the other hand, are growing increasingly sophisticated.

Our own research shows that the average Irish consumer is using three connected devices daily to search, read news and shop. By 2016, estimates suggest over 20pc of retail sales in G-20 countries will be made online and 80pc of Europeans who use the internet plan to shop online this year.

With the opportunity to tap into this marketplace easier than ever before, we cannot let this pass us by.

At our current digital adoption rates, the internet is expected to account for 10pc of our GDP by 2020, or €21bn. Speeding up that adoption would mean even greater gains.

The reality of not doing so is stark - we will simply lose out to the European, American and growing Asian and Latin American businesses who are trading online, and selling to our neighbours.

But increasingly effective online advertising is just one piece of the puzzle. We need to be doing more to support our small businesses to export.

Most companies require assistance in taking the leap from local to global markets. In order to encourage businesses to make that leap, the process needs to be simplified. This means streamlining and coordinating the many programmes and initiatives - both public and private - that currently exist.

It means establishing a clear division of tasks between government bodies and ensuring good coordination of public and private sector activities.

Denmark, a country of a similar size and export opportunity to Ireland, currently tops the polls for digital enablement, according to the European Commission. Their government adopted an ambitious export strategy last year, with the streamlining of programmes a key component.

This year they will launch an online portal that will provide a comprehensive and simple overview of all the programmes available to SMEs who want to export.

Ireland should consider a similar initiative.

The Online Trading Voucher scheme launched last year by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is a crucial first step in tackling the urgency of getting businesses to sell online. Google is a strong supporter of the scheme.

The vouchers can be used to build an app or a website, to advertise online or to pay for digital marketing expertise.

The pilot results have been compelling - 70pc of businesses saw a rise in customer inquiries, and 55pc had more sales.

The majority of these businesses were selling in Ireland, but after accessing the pilot scheme, the businesses found that within six months some 30pc of their sales were coming from abroad.

Expanding the scheme to focus on the export component, or providing an additional top-up fund for businesses that reach that percentage, or indeed exceed it - a "backing the best" approach - should be the next step.

We have all the components in Ireland to be best in class at exporting online. We have a strong national brand abroad and trade links into the world's largest consumer markets. We have an English- speaking marketplace, a young, educated workforce - and most importantly, we have a culture of entrepreneurship.

The internet means that Ireland's businesses have the opportunity to be global players more than ever before. Now is the time to embrace that opportunity.

Let's make it happen.

Ronan Harris is Vice President of Sales and Operations at Google and incoming head of Google in Ireland. Learn more about how Google supports businesses to get online at www.g.co/growthengine

Sunday Indo Business