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International SMEs: A UK Start-Up Goes Global

January 30, 2019

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Many SMEs are comfortably successful in their home market, but struggle with the idea of expanding internationally. Finola Billings explores how one success story shows that UK SMEs have the potential to go global.

While SMEs account for around 99% of private sector firms in the UK and create about 60% of private sector employment, Brexit’s looming uncertainty has left many SMEs concerned about expanding their businesses to markets overseas. The government’s survey back in 2016 found that a quarter of larger SMEs (those with 10 or more employees) saw Brexit as a major obstacle for their business and that SMEs were more concerned about Brexit if they were involved in exporting goods. To add further concern, businesses must factor in uncertainty over the timelines of Brexit, a potential no deal, and the prospect of less capital investment to their business, since much of SME funding in the past has relied on the EU.

But while factors such as a lack of financial backing, time-constraints and a simple case of fear of the unknown are enough to put off any entrepreneur from expanding their business overseas, one entrepreneur had a global vision for her UK-based start-up right from the beginning. Even amidst the Brexit uncertainty, Shobana Patel founded an international ‘Spreading Soulfulness Movement’, and its resulting business offshoot - Soulful Group, a publishing house promoting expressive writing.  Despite the start-up’s humble beginnings in Leicester in 2017, Soulful Group is now a growing global community-come-business. In spite of the current climate, Shobana talks of how SME businesses owners can still grow with just a little creativity, purpose, and determination.

After leaving work due to her ill health and experience of workplace bullying, Shobana Patel began developing her international business - Soulful Group (@soulfulgroup). During unemployment, Shobana became increasingly interested in the concept of living a healthier, more soul-fulfilling life. As she did so, she met people who wanted her advice on writing and poetry, since she had previously self-published her own. Within a matter of weeks, she was hosting regular creative writing gatherings in her home town of Leicester under the banner of ‘Soulful Wordsmiths’ with the aim of encouraging people to use poetry and spoken word to find peace and healing. ‘Soulful Shobana’ was born.

These seeds soon grew into her ‘Spreading Soulfulness Movement’. An expanding community of individuals that believe everyone can live a life more in tune with their true selves and have a mission to positively impact 1 million lives with this message.

‘Soulfulness is about leading a conscious life,’ she explains. ‘It’s about understanding ourselves and humanity from a perspective of truth and expression, joy and authenticity. And it’s about finding universality in humanity rather than difference. Being kind and compassionate. Life’s intangibles all come into the soulfulness pot.’

Now, just a couple of years on, Shobana is promoting and publishing the movement’s related books, here in the UK and beyond, all under the name Soulful Group.

‘Soulful Group is a publishing house with a big purpose,’ she told us. ‘We exist to promote the art and craft of poetry, spoken word and creative writing. Originally, Soulful Group was never really intended to be anything other than a virtual business. But it was always bound to grow, since it is based on a borderless vision of the parent movement I set up - the ‘Spreading Soulfulness Movement’... So, in that way, the publishing house was always seen as venture that would start off in our home town of Leicester but something that might venture out into new markets as and when new authors were found.  There was no real strategy. It has all just been organic expansion. Currently, our key focus is being a footprint in Goa, India.’

‘Soulful Group’s expansion evolved creatively and organically out of conversation with a poet in India. It left us with the will to take a chance on working with foreign writers. And since I already had personal desire to spend more time in India for charity and community activities, in a way, it was always going to happen. It just happened sooner than expected.’

‘We have a Swedish Author now. So, we feel we can tackle the EU market soon.  We also have a following on social media from American poets, so we might expand into the US market, too.’

Whilst we might gasp at the idea of starting an enterprise without designing a full-proof business plan, Shobana explains they are still in the early development stages and the most essential point is knowing how to sell your product or service to the desired market.

‘Actually, there hasn’t been many challenges yet. So far, it has all been done with relative ease. We are in very early stages, so we are yet to pursue tasks such as sourcing international printing and binding services and getting into their book stores. This is all yet to come.’

‘But we live in a world where we are all connected. We must stop seeing international markets as something separate to us and consider it as something that simply needs to be entered. See it as something that is a natural extension of yourself and your activities. Understand that people are people, wherever they are, and don’t get fixated on understanding cultural norms. Instead, get fixated on explaining your product or service and why that can add value to their customers and market.’

And whilst many small business owners might worry about how to adapt their home-grown leadership skills for an international audience, Shobana emboldens small business owners to let go of this fear. She suggests if you start thinking globally, you will become as such.

‘I would not say I have adapted myself into leader with a global vision. Instead, the global vision adapted me. You do have to step up your game and be brave when dealing with international markets.  But, like I said, in some way the vision was always destined to go global due to the ‘Soulfulness Movement’ I was developing. The activities of the publishing house really had to come hand in hand with that.’

Shobana has now expanded from her original business concept to include a radio show (Soulful Living), a podcast (Soulful Conversations), a vlog (Soulful Stories) and a blog (Soulful Musings). A creative writing group (Soulful Pen) is the next stage under development. Since the idea of living a more conscious life can be nearly universally accepted, or at least understood, Shobana can continuously develop the business by reaching out into foreign markets and creating new business arms.

So, while there may still be abundant uncertainty in the UK, Shobana’s final remarks encourage other business to follow her lead.

‘I truly believe that any business can spread globally because the world and its people are more alike than different. A purpose is more important for a business than the product it sells.’

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