You’ve probably heard some of Sun Tzu’s ancient military advice applied to business situations. His observation that “water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows” is often used as a metaphor for flexibility in business tactics. And it’s great advice for entering international markets where you encounter different barriers than when entering new markets at home.

Differences in international business culture and practices, such as the importance of carefully cultivated long-term relationships, mean that entering some markets is more process driven and less transactional than some may be accustomed to domestically. These factors can generate opportunities to leverage creative approaches to selling globally.

Perhaps unexpectedly, non-profits can be a great resource for expanding internationally. They offer several opportunities to enter markets where it might otherwise be very challenging to gain a foothold.

Scale globally with a non-profit strategy

Selling to a non-profit or NGO can be a way to secure business in international countries where the typical buyer profile from your primary markets may be harder to reach. They sometimes fund projects in-line with their mission that can’t be financed with capital from their local government.

AdEdge Water Technologies, LLC used this approach to explore Latin American markets. The Atlanta based company manufactures systems to remove arsenic, uranium and other harmful substances from community water systems. Founder Rich Cavagnaro and his team have hundreds of systems installed around the globe, providing safe drinking water to millions of people.

A culture of helping permeates AdEdge’s business. Today, AdEdge has its own non-profit affiliate, Helping Hands for Water. They have donated 112 systems for arsenic and lead removal to at risk school systems in California’s central valley.

It’s also a core element of the company’s successful talent recruitment pitch. A small company competing against the world’s largest organizations, AdEdge often hires newly minted Georgia Tech engineers who cite the impactful work and company philosophy, as well as the opportunity to work for a global company, in their employment decision.

That generous spirit also helped AdEdge enter its most profitable global market.

Enter new markets and change lives

In 2008 Cavagnaro was approached by a U.S.-based charity investigating the possibility of providing water treatment in remote Andean villages.

They hadn’t previously succeeded in efforts to sell into Argentina and Chile, and thought this might be an entry point. Although the initial project never came to fruition, through three years of self-funded efforts, the team developed a deep understanding of the market and some innovative, cost-effective technical approaches.

Eventually they undertook the charitable installation of a system in Argentina on their own and began to change lives. It’s estimated that by reducing the arsenic level by a factor of 30, they’ve helped to double the life expectancy of local women – from just 37 years to nearly 75!

At the same time, AdEdge began to work with the U.S. Department of Commerce programs including trade missions and Gold Key programs. With their established “case study,” and the help of the Foreign Commercial Service, they established collaborative relationships with key players in Latin American water infrastructure. And as a result, they sold the largest project in the company’s history, into Argentina. Today Chile and Argentina are among their most profitable markets.

Do Well by Doing Good

It helped that charitable work was a natural focus for Rich and the team he’s built, but they had to seize the opportunity when it presented itself in Argentina. There was no guarantee of a commercial payoff.

Not only has AdEdge grown and used this work to help recruit and retain top talent, but it has also established the company as a resource with the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in advisory efforts to improve water safety in markets around the world.

Ed Marsh, Exporting Advisor to American Express, has in-depth experience on a number of continents, in various capacities and industries. He founded and managed a start-up in India; successfully built channels throughout Latin America; leveraged his German birth and marriage to a German national in his extensive work in Western Europe and has deep cultural experience with Vietnam. Ed’s B2B and B2G pan-global experience has involved a variety of products and services including capital equipment, industrial automation, distribution services and homeland security and defense technology. He is a Founder and Principle at Consilium Global Business Advisors.

International sales stock photo by Vasin Lee/Shutterstock