BUSINESS WITHOUT BARRIERS by Glynis Whiting, Managing Partner at TIAO
What if non-tariff, non-physical trade barriers were removed? British chambers of commerce in overseas markets and the UK have started using technology to facilitate international trade around the world.
Restrictions imposed by governments are not the main barriers to trade. The greatest barrier for SMEs is finding the right people to help them do business in a new market. There is an ever-growing number of online platforms which seek to use the internet to create business opportunities. Learning from Amazon and other giants, many businesses would like to find an easy and inexpensive way to extend their market and develop business. But in the online world, with scare stories every day of cyber-crime and online hackers, how do you know who you are really dealing with?
Traditional face-to-face networking, the tried and tested way to develop business with people you know, like and trust, is often very inefficient. It can be time consuming and expensive, especially for small businesses and startups with limited resources. Chambers of commerce have traditionally provided a strong, trusted environment in which companies can build long-term lasting business relationships. Networking events, personal and business development opportunities are the mainstay of the chamber calendar. However, building your business this way can be a slow process, and chambers themselves can find recruitment and retention of their business members in a competitive environment to be challenging.
AN ONLINE PLATFORM FOR CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE
COBCOE, the organisation representing British chambers in mainland Europe for over 40 years, has teamed up with TIAO, a new technology company based in Belgium, to put together the best of both worlds.
The challenge is how to create a global online platform which combines opportunities for every company to do business with each other in an environment in which the key ingredient is trust. Trust cannot be bought – it must be earned, and as we have seen in recent months, in an increasingly connected online world of social media, it can easily be lost.
COBCOE Connects is a matchmaking platform for businesses anywhere to find opportunities to grow their business in a trusted environment “at the click of a button”.
TRUST IS THE KEY INGREDIENT
Chambers of commerce know their members, often over many years. They also have unique insights into their local marketplace; how it works in practice, what are the key questions every business new to the area needs to ask – and all the answers.
So the COBCOE Connects platform is personally moderated at a local level by chamber staff, who can also call on the expertise of their own members – an unparalleled hub of local professional knowledge and support creating a unique trusted environment for new entrants to the market.
TIAO itself is predicated on this premise – TIAO stands for ‘Trust is an Outcome’ and this element is core to how COBCOE Connects works at every level.
WHAT DOES COBCOE CONNECTS OFFER?
The platform offers four services which together create a unique trading hub for companies:
1. The means to develop and enhance their profile, searching out the right opportunities
2. A tailored, automated ‘matchmaking’ service between company members within the COBCOE network
3. Facilitated transactions between members that have ‘found’ each other via the platform
4. A service platform for strategic partner companies – these may be at COBCOE level, like our founding partners Kompass International, or at the local network level. The offer can include visibility and branding or a more direct service offer for a limited number of selected members to assist their trading experience.
WHAT DIFFERENTIATES COBCOE CONNECTS FROM OTHER ONLINE PLATFORMS?
• Multi-level/ multilateral – The reach and breadth of the network across Europe and beyond with companies locally and internationally, whether for export, accessing supply chain webs across the world, for joint ventures, investments in any marketplace – business without barriers.
• Membership driven in-depth local knowledge in each local chamber/network, from startups to major corporates – everyone can build a profile and reputation on the platform.
• Moderated – The unique aspect which ensures that the platform is a safe and trusted space in which to do business. Much of the matchmaking online is automated, but there will also, when needed, be personal follow-up by each chamber/network. This personal contact through known networks is a key element which builds trust for all participants.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
There are five distinctive features:
1. Create a profile and upload opportunities
Each chamber becomes a network on the platform and uploads basic information about its members (company name/description/sector, etc.) Members are
then individually invited to activate their membership of the platform (with acceptance of terms and conditions) and build their profile in the platform. This can include as much detail as possible about who they are, what they do, their key products and services as well as the key people running the company.
They can also upload business opportunities – what they are looking for – to offer or state what their needs are. All key words are searchable by others, which increases the opportunity to make the right match.
2. Intuitive search to find a future business opportunity or partner
The COBCOE Connects search engine helps define every search using key words that match what is written in profiles and opportunities and other search criteria. Members can refine their search (location, sector, name, size of company and other keywords). Based on the information in the member profiles and the opportunities they have posted, other members can find them. Once they have identified a possible match, members can make direct contact with them via inline messaging directly to the primary contact of their match.
3. No dead ends – guaranteed search results
With COBCOE’s strategic relationship with Kompass International, every member has access to the 4.8 million businesses in 68 countries around the world in the Kompass International Directory.
COBCOE and Kompass work with members to select any or all of these companies, to invite them to join the platform, and participating networks have the opportunity to offer full network membership where relevant. Each member can invite up to 100 companies (five at any one time) to join the platform and develop further contacts.
4. Improve results by building trust
Trust is a combination of three elements: delivery, transparency and accountability. As TIAO puts this at the heart of the platform, every member can improve their results by building trust through their TIAO score. The TIAO score rewards delivery by how active they are on the platform, transparency by the completeness level of their profile, and accountability by how responsive they are and how many opportunities they upload. The higher the TIAO score, the higher the company ranking in searches.
5. Moderation – integrating digital with personal
The role of the chamber/network moderator is a unique element in building trust in the platform.
Each chamber/network has a dedicated moderator. Although most connections in the platform are automated, the role of the moderator is a key differentiating ingredient to:
• Act as a personal point of contact for all chamber members in the platform – this works in two ways – adding value to the membership offer, plus raising the profile of the chamber with new prospects;
• Assist members in using the platform (creating profiles, doing searches and posting opportunities) and support with match-making and business development opportunities;
• Validate applications for new memberships – maintaining trust in the network and providing opportunities to recruit new members to their own network.
The moderator has real-time access via a personalised dashboard to what is happening on the site, so can make personal contact where necessary as well as monitor activity and report back to the chamber and its members, promoting success stories.
A moderators’ community has been created, which meets online fortnightly to develop ideas and share experience nationally and internationally.
At a time of increasing global uncertainty and potential political impasse, businesses need support to weather the storms and navigate in ‘choppy waters’. It is, conversely, also a good time to act and take advantage of global opportunities.
People like to do business with people they know, like and trust. Chambers and local business networks are uniquely positioned to deliver real business opportunities because of the unique combination of:
• Local knowledge and experience of business reality in each market or sector place, either in-house or via the breadth of existing/prospective members, who may be local SMEs or larger B2B service providers with international coverage;
• Strong personal, often long-standing relations with members which cannot be replicated by governmental or single commercial players – ideally placed to provide personal moderation;
• Global reach of the COBCOE network – multi-lateral/multi-level network of networks;
• Personal moderation – COBCOE will help chambers/networks to interact and exchange best practice. The COBCOE accreditation process is continuously improving the effectiveness and governance of chambers and the growing ‘moderators community’ assists with the sharing of ideas and experience;
• User-led – The platform is being continuously developed, facilitating more self-learning to improve the matchmaking
WHO IS BEHIND COBCOE CONNECTS?
Launched as a pilot in 2017, COBCOE Connects is now fully operational with fourteen partner networks already online, plus COBCOE to moderate companies from further afield and two additional networks joining every month. As of June 2018 participating chambers were Thames Valley Chamber Group and Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce in the UK, Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, with British Chambers of Commerce in Belgium, Italy, Lithuania, Slovenia, France, Finland and Bulgaria in mainland Europe and COBCOE Turkey.
It is early days in the development of the platform, but feedback from companies is already positive. As one of the UK’s largest electronics distributors said at the Hertfordshire Chamber launch in June 2017: “COBCOE Connects is an opportunity to both procure products throughout Europe and possibly sell as well. We do appreciate that it is early days for this platform, but this makes for exciting times.”
The TIAO team, which has developed the software as a service for COBCOE Connects, has in-depth understanding of both technology and, more importantly, how chambers and their members work.
Marc Decorte, Chair of TIAO
The Chairman of TIAO is Marc Decorte, President and CEO of Shell in Belgium and Luxembourg with considerable experience in chambers of commerce and technology startups. Explaining what attracted him to TIAO, he said: “I only look at startups that have a disruptive element in their business model. They must create a new opportunity that did not exist before. One of the criteria for success is that TIAO starts from the customer, and that’s what I liked. They didn’t start with the technology. They knew that business was missing an element and that it was an opportunity for the chambers, and from that they generated the idea.
“TIAO has a very clear understanding of what chambers do, what chambers need, what the opportunities are, and what members are looking for. And they can position themselves as partners, rather than suppliers to chambers. That’s essential.”
He believes that the platform offers a unique win-win opportunity, adding, “Being active in chambers of commerce, I see two key elements:
1. The number one hope that members have on joining a chamber is that they will grow their business
2. Growing business very quickly equates to going international, for exporting, finding distributors and partners they can trust
“For chambers, to go on a platform is a unique opportunity that nobody else can offer. It’s like virtual networking. It creates the possibility to do commercial business in a digital way. If I was a chamber, this would be the tool to give my members a concrete offer about what the value-add is of joining and staying a member.”
TIAO is one of the fastest growing business development platforms in Europe. The founders and team members bring together a unique set of relevant experiences and expertise: experienced serial entrepreneurs, management and board experience in chambers of commerce and governmental agencies, multinational global sales, marketing and strategy expertise, plus in-house tech entrepreneurs with a solid track record of building platform startups and online services.
Marc Decorte, Chairman of TIAO has 35 years’ experience in technology, business development, marketing and in driving the bottom line of B2C and B2B businesses at global level. In the last six years, he has built up extensive expertise in digital transformation through his current position as CEO of Belgian Shell and former position as Global VP Connected Digital Technologies at Shell.