Nearly €1.3B less is the revenue coming from export so far this year, compared to 2019 – latest data shows some gloom results for the Bulgarian export sector which can be associated with the effect COVID-19 had on the local economy.
However, leading public and private representatives of the Bulgarian exporting SMEs believe that the national export-oriented economy shows huge potential to expand into new markets and deepen its penetration into the current ones. Having this vision in mind, on the 2nd December 2019, twelve such organizations, among which The Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises Promotion Agency (BSMEPA), Sofia Tech Park, the Bulgarian Startup Association (BESCO), and SoftUni, came into a partnership to establish the first of its kind Export Hub Bulgaria, which very recently released its official website and platform. Integrating digitalization elements in the operational processes of the companies, Industry 4.0, e-commerce, soft skills, and cultural-specific communication are only part of the training activities with which the Export Hub will assist Bulgarian SMEs to reach their full export potential.
The big idea and ambitious goals for development
The idea behind the establishment of the Export Hub Bulgaria is for it to serve as a space that allows market leaders, specialists, and entrepreneurs to assemble and exchange expertise and ideas in order to aid the internationalization of local businesses. The CEO of The Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises Promotion Agency (BSMEPA), Boyko Takov, explains that since the beginning of his work in the Agency he has had an idea to make similar activities and training but, while on a trip in 2019 to South Korea with his colleagues from Ministry of Economy and Sofia Tech Park for knowledge sharing, his vision solidified. “We saw some similar practices there but I could assure you this is not going to be a copy-paste model,” shares Boyko Takov. The goal of the initiative is to empower the export-oriented efforts of Bulgarian enterprises providing them with an online and offline platform, which will facilitate their entry into international markets. The vision of the Hub is to organize networking and educational events and to provide entrepreneurs with export know-how by giving them access to market information and experience. The first aspect of these goals will be realized through organizing monthly events starting in October 2020 with speakers from foreign embassies, commercial attaches, and other lecturers with business abroad. The first such event is already announced to take place at the National palace of culture, on the 2nd of October with the German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce.
Hands-on mentorship program: know-how, advice, and identification of clients and partners abroad
Besides organizing events for networking and knowledge sharing, the initiative will also assist operating companies in their endeavors to reach full export potential by offering mentorship programs and monthly training events. Through the online and offline 3-months mentorship program, fifteen Bulgarian companies will receive adequate training and advice about how to enter foreign markets from mentors who are experts and have experience in both succeeding and failing in the field of exports. “With the final goal to find one new foreign market for each company, the mentorship programs will also aim to ensure that all participants exit the program with new quality knowledge, connections, and at least one new business partner,” adds Boyko Takov. Even though the specific themes for the mentorship program are not finalized yet, Natanail Stefanov from BESCO outlines that some of the training will be on marketing, design, and branding as he explains that many of the Bulgarian companies have great products which they don’t know how to sell abroad. Another element in the program will be legal training which will focus on international contracts, export insurance documentation, and the specifications in the legal framework of foreign markets. Since the whole initiative doesn’t have additional outside financing and the partners rely on cooperation with each other in this respect, the support offered to the companies participating in the program will be in providing them with know-how rather than with direct financial support.
The detailed information as well as the specific tasks of the program are not yet finalized and will be presented soon on the website of the initiative, but what is currently known is that at some point during October 2020 the Export Hub will open the program applications and by the end of October 2020 it will have selected its first cohort of fifteen participants. “Of course, the pandemic situation with COVID-19 could change our plans as it prolonged the start of the initiative. But now, on one hand, we are much more prepared and, on the other, the need for such kinds of programs is already crucial for the companies,” says Boyko Takov. The Hub will be looking for companies, which provide quality products or services, are with good export readiness, with the ambition to scale up on the international markets, and with sustainable business plans. What this means is that even if a company is not particularly export-oriented but offers an innovative service or product that has the potential to be exported, it can join the program.
Looking ahead: Vision and challenges for the future of the Hub and the Bulgarian export sector
Understandably, the biggest challenge for the initiative is COVID-19 as it prolonged the start of the project and will have a substantial effect on its execution in case of new restrictions in Bulgaria and in any other country. Even though the fact that some countries have already brought back their lock-downs has had a positive effect on the business connections and potential business initiatives, there is still huge uncertainty about the future of international trade.
In the short term, the project will put efforts into the production of educational videos which will be free of charge and publicly available on the website. The forty video lessons will cover all basic topics that will be of interest to every company intending to expand its business abroad such as knowledge about different legislations, commercial practices, and business models. The vision for development in the next twelve months as explained by Boyko Takov is that the Export Hub will conduct impact and performance analysis at the end of the program and will rearrange its operations and processes accordingly after reviewing the results. “This is a pilot program for us and we are open to expanding it or adopting it so it could be more useful for the business. We strongly believe in the potential of the initiative and we hope to continue with it in the next few years,” concludes Takov.