Even though a business might be considered small because of its relatively tiny staff, it can still have grand ambitions in today’s global marketplace. Just ask Mark Hilden, president of Dateline Exports. His company, based in the small, rural town of Aurora, Oregon, only employs 18 people, yet it nonetheless exports steel, timber, electrical materials, lighting, and underground utility piping to island countries spread all across the Pacific Ocean. “Our territory is anywhere beyond the International Date Line,” Hilden says. Increasingly, other entrepreneurs are sharing Hilden’s strategy of selling his small business’s wares on a large, geographic scale. In fact, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), 70 percent of all U.S. exporters have 20 or fewer employees and small businesses now account for more than $1 billion, and growing, per day in exports.
Small businesses that achieve an export foothold also tend to have better long-term growth. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, exporting small businesses averaged 37 percent revenue growth between 2005 and 2009, compared to a decrease of 7 percent for non-exporting small businesses. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that the federal government launched an unprecedented focus on expanding the role of small businesses in international trade last year. Known as the National Export Initiative, the project’s goal is to double all U.S. exports by 2014.
Still, whether a business is selling to a customer down the street or halfway around the world, creating personal relationships remains critical. Word of mouth and referrals helped grow Dateline Exports in the early years, and today, of the company’s 18 employees, five employees travel overseas frequently, four to six times per year for business. In addition to these face-to-face meetings, local agents, who are paid a commission on sales, have been established in each country to provide more immediate service and communication to customers.
“We’re out there to help the customer and the reward is that we are helping people in other nations to build up their infrastructure with quality products,” says Hilden. But the fundamental lesson is this, he says: “It’s all about people.”
Kamal Kirpalani, Vice President at the Internet e-commerce firm TouchCommerce, agrees. After more than a decade of providing online solutions to help U.S. businesses expand internationally, Kirpalani says overseas business relationships are fundamentally the same as domestic business relationships, with a few notable exceptions.
“The communication is a lot more challenging,” Kirpalani acknowledges. “In addition to a language barrier, you need to take into account sometimes significant cultural differences. This leads to more possibilities for misunderstandings to arise and means that you sometimes need to over-communicate to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
Of course, email has made communicating instantly around the world nearly effortless, but there are times when a disconnected digital handshake just won’t suffice. International travel is seen as a perk to some and a time-consuming obligation to others, but meeting in person may be necessary, Kirpalani notes.
“In the U.S., web-based meetings like WebEx and GoToMeeting are increasingly common and accepted and it is possible to get a lot done without having to travel,” says Kirpalani, who is based in Paris. But in Europe, although virtual meetings are slowly gaining some acceptance, Kirpalani claims that almost all meetings still take place face-to-face.
Don’t get lost in translation
To successfully sell in foreign markets, a small business must make a commitment —both in resources and time—to bolster communication at every step of the process. Without such an effort, a small company’s export efforts are likely headed for a steep and possibly expensive learning curve.
So, whether you’re staying put or traveling abroad to meet clients, an important early step in building an overseas relationship is to properly translate your company’s marketing materials into the local language or dialect. An experienced translator will understand the target language within the local cultural context and can help to avoid an unintended public relations disaster. When it comes to legal documents, take the time to find a certified translator whose work will be accepted by courts and government agencies in the U.S. and abroad. (To find a certified translator check out the American Translators Association website’s “Find a Translator or Interpreter” tool.)
Go big or go home
Going global will lead to new business relationships requiring as much or more time than what a small business is already handling at home. Offering up excuses in the face of supply snafus, mixed messages, or inadequate customer service will displease overseas customers as much as it does domestic clients.
“My most important advice would be to not pursue international expansion half-heartedly,” Kirpalani says. “Cultivating international relationships will probably take longer than expected to pay off.”
Hilden has heeded this strategy in his approach. Dateline Export’s in-country sales agents not only help with customer service, they collect payments as well as handle other customer or product-related issues. “One of the biggest challenges is educating customers,” he says, which is an important element of cross-cultural customer service.
Where to begin?
The Small Business Administration provides an International Business Plan Workbook at the end of “Breaking Into The Trade Game, A Small Business Guide to Exporting.” And to start your foreign market research, try perusing the U.S. Commercial Service Market Research Library, which contains more than 100,000 industry and country-specific market reports that are available to U.S. companies, students, and researchers for free.
How to fund it?
There are new SBA programs in place for small businesses considering exporting: the Export Express loan program, the Export Working Capital Program, and the International Trade Loan program, to name a few. The SBA website has more information about financing and insuring small business exports.
Other helpful resources
The U.S. Export Assistance Centers, which are staffed by professionals from the SBA, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and other private sector and public organizations, can answer many import-export questions. The American Association of Exporters and Importers and the Export-Import Bank of the United States are two more good resources. And prior to actually importing or exporting goods, it’s a good idea for any small business owner to check out the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Tips for New Importers and Exporters,” which is available online.
Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies, by Michael Soon Lee and Ralph R. Roberts, 2009.
Going Global, An Information Sourcebook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses, by Susan C. Awe, 2009.
Import/Export for Dummies, by John J. Capela, 2008.
Start Your Own Import/Export Business, Entrepreneur and Jennifer Dorsey, 2007.
The Small Business Bible, by Steven D. Strauss, 2008
American Association of Exporters and Importers:
American Translators Association
Customs and Border Protection
Export-Import Bank of the United States
International Trade Administration, U.S. Dept. of Commerce:
National Export Initiative:
Small Business Administration Office of International Trade
U.S. Commercial Service Market Research Library
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