SINCE MARCO POLO TRAVELED HIS FAMED TRADING ROUTES and Bedouins plied the fabled markets at Timbuktu, entrepreneurs have scoured the globe buying goods in one place and selling them in another. Big corporations have long been invested in the $1.3 trillion two-way trading between the United States and foreign countries. But a new era of global commerce is dawning as more American entrepreneurs venture into the import/export business. Now smaller traders--from one-person shopkeepers to mid-sized wholesalers joint venturing with other businesses--are launching out overseas.
When Todd Alexander decided to start a business importing fine Italian wines home to Atlanta in January 1993, he thought the application process would be simple. He got labels of the 60 brands he planned to import, attached a check for the registration costs of each--about $10-$20 per label--and filed the appropriate forms with the state and federal government. The only thing left was to wait for a series of personal and financial background checks to be completed. But what Alexander thought would take three or four months ended up taking nine.
Maybe it was because Alexander, who owns Vendemmia Inc. (which means "harvest" in Italian), was only 26 years old when he applied to become an importer. Or maybe it was because alcohol is one of the U.S. government's most regulated commodities. Whatever the reason, Alexander says he was grilled a hundred different ways. "The hardest part has been the paperwork for the state and federal government," he says. "There are so many forms to fill out and I hate paperwork."
For entrepreneurs looking to export, the lure of much-wanted U.S. goods abroad, from boilers to telecommunications, bring visions of cashing in on the $575 billion in exports. Equally attractive is the export of "intellectual property," a.k.a. technical skills and management training by American consultants and project managers to foreign governments and corporations. On the flip side, U.S. businesspeople who wish to import are usually either seeking to cut product or labor costs, or want to sell exotic items that aren't "made in the U.S.A."
But neither logistics nor language are keeping either side at bay. Thanks to telecommunications, transportation and other high-tech systems, the geographic borders of the world are blurring. Whether you're importing or exporting, you have to develop a market strategy, learn the process and regulations, understand the nuances of culture and customs, and be committed to making it work to be successful internationally.
DETERMINE IF YOUR COMPANY OR PRODUCT IS EXPORT-READY
If you have dreams of taking your company or product global, you first need to assess whether there's even a market abroad for what you have to sell. As a general rule, most American goods are considered wanted and valued overseas--even when similar items are made in that country. But there are a few questions you should ask yourself first: Is my product or service successful domestically? Who buys it and why does it sell well? Is there a foreign market similar to it? Will this make it easier to sell abroad?
You should also make sure your domestic business is strong enough to allow you to spend time developing the international side in both capital and time resources. You should also examine how an international sale will dovetail with your overall business plan and domestic marketing strategy. If you've made a pro-export assessment, then it's time to get some outside opinions.
"Go through any department of commerce," suggests Karen Babino, manager of marketing and business development for TransAtlantic Imports in Atlanta. "The federal and state governments, even in most major cities, have an international desk or affiliation, and in some cases, offices abroad that you can call on," she explains. When going global, advises Herb Smith, chairman of Smith International Enterprises, a global sourcing import distribution company with offices in Cleveland and Hong Kong, check with your state's economic development office. Many states now have their own international trade offices with field offices located around the world. They can provide help, from finding office space and equipment to information on special assistance programs offered to exporters
The federal version, the U.S. Export Assistance Center (EAC) can help you assess the international potential for your product. An...