The vast majority of the world’s consumers – 96% – live outside the United States. If you’ve ever wondered how you can expand your business or where your next customer is coming from, especially in these tough economic times, looking overseas might just provide the answer. The growth of the internet and increased globalization have combined to make the task of exporting less daunting than it once was. There are huge potential markets out there, but successfully breaking into them still requires forethought and planning.
A bare bones action plan should include the following steps:
– Make use of resources
– Research the market
– Market your product
Before jumping into the deep end, you should take advice and make use of other people’s expertise. The Small Business Administration (SBA) and the export.gov website are good places to start in the USA. As well as free online courses to help entrepreneurs understand the basics of exporting, the SBA can direct you to online and local counsellors who can provide more thorough training.
Start by taking the free export readiness self-assessment at export.gov. Registering with the website will give you access to their trade leads and market research.
They can also help you to:
– Access training and counselling programs
– Develop an export business plan
– Conduct your own market research
– Find foreign buyers
– Finance your export scheme
In 2011, Virginia Beach company SteelMaster Buildings won the first UPS Growth through Global Trade award for small businesses.
International Development Manager Emma Granada says: “I was given the task to expand the international business of the company and did not know where to begin. We reached out to available resources such as the SBA, the Ex-Im Bank (Export-Import Bank of America) and the US Commercial Services. This gave us the confidence and resources to learn the requirements of international trade, such as transportation options, legal issues and tariff implementation.”
The US Commercial Service also runs Export Assistance Centers throughout the country that can offer invaluable advice and assistance. When California-based Certified Worldwide LLC (CW) decided to export their lines of over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, supplements, they knew they’d need help navigating the regulations regarding the export of health-based products to various countries.
Director of business development Hal Selim set up a meeting with the Export Assistance Center in Ventura. From there he connected with Commercial Service trade specialists on the Health Care Technologies Team who helped him obtain the correct Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certificates.
“Without the experience and on-the-ground support of the U.S. Commercial Service, we would not have surpassed the export challenges that we met early on when we began exporting,” Selim says. “Had we tried this on our own, we would not be as well positioned in international markets as we are today.”
Practical export considerations are important but before that you have to decide which markets to target. Thorough market research is essential in order to determine if there is a demand for your product, the level of competition and current market conditions.
Grace Davis started Omega Environmental Technologies as a one-woman operation in 1989. They now supply automotive air conditioning systems to worldwide markets, but Grace explains how she started off on a smaller scale:
“I went from country to country and I studied the marketplace. To see how many people are manufacturing systems for AC, how many people were distributing, how many shops there were. Wherever a car manufacturer was, that was my market. I started by selecting which countries I wanted to target first. I couldn’t do everything on my own. At the beginning my main market was Spain, because I speak Spanish and they needed the products.”
The way you market your product will to a large part depend on who you perceive as your customer base. For business to business sales, many of your contacts will be met through networking and recommendations; at personal meetings, trade fairs, expos and conventions. You may also decide to enter into a ‘white label’ agreement with a local partner. This is when the partner takes your product, rebrands it and essentially sells it as their own. In this case they will ultimately be responsible for marketing the product to the consumer.
If you intend to sell directly to foreign consumers, you will have to take care of the marketing yourself. This is where the internet comes in extremely handy.
Localizing your website can be a great way to reach across borders. English accounts for only around a quarter of total internet usage and multilingual users put more trust in websites written in their own native language. A recentstudy of internet users in the European Union found that half of respondents regularly visited English language sites, but only 18% would make a purchase from a site that was not in their own native language.
Fully localizing your site to a country-code Top Level Domain (such as www.example.de for Germany or www.example.fr for France) engenders trust by giving your site a more ‘local’ feel and will also give a boost to your SEO (search engine optimization) for local search results.
Good quality translation is key to localization and this is doubly important for keywords. You should never rely on automatic translation for keywords, as a phrase that works in one language or country might not cross over to another.
A literal French translation of the term ‘bullet train’, for example, would yield a nonsense phrase. In France, a more common term is the acronym TGV – short for ‘Train à Grande Vitesse’ or ‘high speed train’. In neighbouring Belgium, however, high speed trains are often known to as ‘Thalys,’ referring to the name of the major operator running these trains between Paris and Brussels.
Social media give businesses an unparalleled way to directly communicate directly with customers. All the big players like Facebook and Twitter have international audiences and settings but it might be worth looking into other local competitors as well.
In China for example, Facebook is banned but sites like QQ and Sina Weibo offer alternatives. VK is the market leader in Russia and Orkut is still massively popular in Brazil and India. Whichever platforms you opt for, link all your profiles and develop a cohesive social media plan.
There’s a lot to think about when you decide to export internationally as a small business or solo entrepreneur. But the effort is likely to be rewarded by an increase in sales and exposure to a whole new market.