Sherpa Creative applies design thinking to achieve business growth with Canada's Trade Accelerator Program

TAP Canada, Canada's Trade Accelerator Program, is a workshop designed to help small to medium-sized businesses strategically scale up and overcome barriers to exporting. RGD connected Sherpa Creative with the program to help expand their business and plan for future opportunities. Creative Director Wade Gilpin RGD shared insights on his experience participating in the program, the value it created for his business and how design thinking helped the Sherpa team excel in creating a strategic business plan.  


What did Sherpa hope to achieve by participating in the Trade Accelerator Program?

We have clients outside of Canada currently, but the program offered new experiences and an opportunity to improve our process and approach. It allowed us to take off the 'design hat’ and focus on new business opportunities by expanding our client/sector base.

How will this experience influence how Sherpa does business going forward?

One major takeaway from the experience has been finding out about and getting access to government programs that help new business growth both in and outside of Canada. Organizations like BDC, EDC and Mentor Works help businesses of any size pursue their goals. We learned some great methods for targetting new markets and received guidance on project management and business processes. Being in the service business means we don’t need to worry about distribution and shipping, but hearing from providers like UPS and CN on challenges and solutions was still beneficial. We have already begun applying some of these new processes and tools and will potentially connect with players like BDC when the time comes.

Were there any unexpected challenges? 

Not having degrees in finance, we worked the hardest to get our projected numbers as close to realistic as we could. Creating an export plan was new for us, but it was beneficial to see the next few years mapped out on paper, even if they are based on variables at this time. Projecting the value of certain types of projects and focusing our attention on going after them is a great strategy for helping a design company grow.


We have a large number of client projects on the go at any moment, so dedicating time to this project meant we had to be more strategic in delegating to the team. Attending the all-day meetings, reviewing our goals and planning out the strategy all took time away from Sherpa Creative's day-to-day work. 


What was the role of design thinking in Sherpa's approach for building a strategic business plan? 

We treated the business plan like a client project; in this case, Sherpa was the client. We strategized what markets made sense for the client based on the date we explored. We broke up the planned content by itemizing the key points and then expanded the language. Using Google Docs allowed us to work on the content in tandem and reference other sections in real time. Once the content was written, we had an editor review the content to be sure that it was clear and simple language. With the final draft, we set up the report as we would with any client work, using the same structure Sherpa uses for our internal documents. The strategic use of colour, strong typography and a well-organized layout was effective in earning our plan a positive response.


Our plan received the following feedback: 

"We want to thank you for submitting your completed export plan; we are extremely impressed with your level of commitment and finalized plan, it was top of the class!" -- Corrie Germin, Manager, International Business Development, WTC-T, Toronto Region Board of Trade

What value does this type of business planning bring to the design industry, and vice versa?

Canada is a great country with a wealth of amazing business to work with, but exposure to new markets can open up more opportunities. For instance, it could be valuable to offer ‘Canadian expertise' to companies looking to expand into Canada. Learning the needs of a new market also provides Canadian designers with the tools to win more contracts here at home, or help identify opportunities to improve services to existing clients. 


Reviewing your financial planning models is a key part of developing an trade plan and it's also an opportunity to highlight areas of your business that could be stronger. You might identify cycles of client work, and start looking at parts of the globe where seasonal campaigns would fall at different times of the year (i.e. countries that don't share our summers). Growth can be supported with government grants and/or partner loans.


Design brings value to everything so it makes sense that it would bring value to preparing a clear, concise, easy to read report. Making it easier for your trade partners (banks, government institutions, service providers, etc.) to understand your goals and processes will help you get what you need to succeed. After devoting so much time and effort to business planning, strong design will help you present it in the best light. Design and design strategy can help ensure you get results you need to be successful. Once you get to your new market, your brand needs to speak with the correct voice.


Find out more about TAP Canada.