Published on October 2nd, 2014 | by Laura BAEYENS | Credit: State Library of Queensland

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Fishing in Dangerous and Unfamiliar Waters: New Europeans and the Internationalisation of SMEs

The great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh once said: “Fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” They work 24/7, sail at their own risk and sometimes come home without a single fish caught in their nets.

New European entrepreneurs are like fishermen. They sail the seas of the European and international market through building SMEs, with their host countries relying heavily on them for job creation, innovation and economic growth. Their specialty? Fishing in dangerous and unfamiliar waters of international business and trade.

Three of the most inspiring features found in both fishermen and New European entrepreneurs are that they can be providers, teachers, and risk-takers.

The Provider

The European Commission refers to SMEs as the “true back-bone of the European economy”. The entrepreneurs behind these enterprises are the bread-winners of Europe. They create jobs and foster innovation.

As for New European entrepreneurs, they bring something unique to the table: are more active in international trade than their ‘native’ counterparts, since they have networks that go beyond their country of residence. With their dual or multiple cultural and linguistic background and their international connections, they provide opportunities for SMEs to internationalise and innovate.

Mustafa Ünal, for example, established his home appliances company, UNICOM, here in Belgium and has partnered with SINBO, a similar company back in his motherland Turkey. Due to his strong connection with his country of origin and his multicultural and multilingual background, he was able to successfully internationalise by expanding his market in Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) countries, France and Germany.

The Teacher

Like expert fishermen who teach the tricks of the trade to fellow fishermen, New European entrepreneurs often exchange what they have learned in doing business with others.

For Mr Ünal, being a successful entrepreneur is a matter of “learning by doing”. Many SMEs still have insufficient knowledge on good business practices and strategies in other countries, thus hindering their internationalisation.

With his long-standing experience in the ups and downs of international business and his multiple networks, Mr Ünal serves as a role model to entrepreneurs. Many New European entrepreneurs like him share this knowledge with others, thus giving SMEs more confidence and encouragement to go international.

The Risk-Taker

Aside from the lack of resources and opportunities, what hinders many European SMEs to internationalise is the fear of failing. Despite their resilience during the economic crisis in comparison to big companies, recovery has been difficult for them. Economic risks of expanding business abroad take over.

There is also a significant cultural and linguistic aspect on this fear among entrepreneurs. For New Europeans like Mr Ünal, trying to start a business in a new country without knowing the language or the culture is definitely a challenge difficult to overcome.

The entrepreneurial spirit of New Europeans is highlighted by taking risks despite the odds and trying to adapt to a multicultural business environment. Being in a Belgian-Turkish partnership and having numerous connections in other countries, Mr Ünal noticed that mentalities in the EU and in Turkey were very different. The difficulty of integrating them was taken as an opportunity to become more productive, as he noted:

“The Turkish and Belgian mentalities are very different. In Belgium, there is always a lot of meetings. For example, to be able to work with a big Belgian company, we had to go through 10 different meetings. In Turkey, on the contrary, it is very flexible. They rush out. It can be a hit-or-miss. I found the balance between the two. The European wariness and the Turkish flexibility… it is a nice mix. »

The Next Big Catch

The European Commission’s new focus on SMEs –aimed at fostering their internationalisation– is a ray of hope for European entrepreneurs. This could be a decisive factor in future growth of the EU. The challenge is to boost entrepreneurial spirit, as competitiveness and stability are becoming more and more difficult to secure, especially for SMEs.

Mustafa Ünal and other New Europeans’ experiences can help today’s entrepreneurs recognise their full potential in the global economy, despite the risks attributed to being an entrepreneur and starting a business in a new territory.

Like fishermen sailing towards dangerous and unfamiliar waters with no guarantee that they will reel in a big catch, entrepreneurs should not be afraid of taking risks and failing, since it is in failing that we learn and grow. The battle is not won by the first bite of the hook.

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