From the June 1998 issue of Startups

If you're like many homebased entrepreneurs with a product to sell, the Internet has opened up a world of potential customers--literally. In fact, it's probably not uncommon for businesspeople to get orders from customers in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

But these are probably random international sales. If you want to build the import or export side of your business, what resources should you tap into? Books, Web sites and other sources are available, but if you're going international for the first time, an SBA Small Business Development Center (SBDC) is a good place to start.

One SBDC in California is dedicated exclusively to helping small companies go global. Called the Export SBDC, the El Segundo center and its satellite offices offer entrepreneurs seminars, counseling and access to trade databases. The Export SBDC has offices in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties but also serves entrepreneurs from other states who visit the area or call (310) 606-0166. While other SBDCs around the country don't specifically target exporters, many have staff members who are knowledgeable about international trade.

You might also want to look into Export Assistance Centers (EACs), which exist in every state. Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, EACs provide export-ready entrepreneurs with hands-on assistance, ranging from counseling and finding an agent or distributor to uncovering trade leads. EACs also help set up meetings with foreign buyers and facilitate trade missions and trade shows.

Another exporting option to explore is the U.S. Department of Commerce's Trade Information Center (TIC). Accessible by phone, fax, computer or in person, the center focuses on helping existing business owners export, according to Mary Beth Morgan, a TIC international trade specialist. "We send [interested entrepreneurs] a package of information including answers to frequently asked questions and a business guide to federal exporting programs," Morgan says.

"If you access the TIC online, a good starting point is the frequently-asked-questions section," says Morgan. "[This section] helps entrepreneurs run through all the things involved in exporting--market research, finding leads and contacts, etc." In addition to general information, TIC specialists can provide data on specific countries and regions, as well as on issues such as the North Amercian Free Trade Agreement. Services and consultation are free.

If you need help setting up meetings with buyers and other contacts in foreign countries, the U.S. Foreign and Commercial Service is a good resource. The individuals working for this organization, based in American embassies and consulates worldwide, are knowledgeable about trade in their respective nations. Some services are free; others involve fees.

If you're ready to import and merely need to know the rules and regulations, you can call the U.S. Customs Service port of entry nearest you, which should be listed in the White Pages under "U.S. Government." According to Mike Fleming of U.S. Customs, "Small-business owners can explain what they want to import, and we will refer them to the specialist for that commodity." The specialist can provide all the rules and regulations regarding the product you want to import.

Like the TIC, Customs offers free assistance. The service also produces a publication, Importing Into the United States, which is available for $6.50 through any Customs port of entry. It also has a Web site at http://www.customs.us.treas.gov

Required Reading

There's nothing like having a book to refer to when you're taking your business global. There are a variety of publications that help every homebased entrepreneur, from the novice to the veteran. Here's a sampling:

  • Basic Guide to Exporting is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office for $12. This 173-page book is an A-to-Z explanation of how to export, including tips on strategic planning, establishing company goals and objectives, finding trade leads and contacts, and learning how to conduct and utilize marketing research.
  • The Statesman's Year-Book (St. Martin's Press) provides a brief synopsis of the constitutional and political histories of the world's countries. There is also information on natural resources; communication; and judicial, religious, educational and welfare systems. The cost is $110.
  • The Europa World Year Book (Gale Research Inc.), $705, also provides a description of countries, examining history, government and social affairs. It looks at population and distribution, major crops and livestock statistics, trade data and financial information and lists the addresses and phone numbers of banks, trade organizations, and press and government agencies.
  • International Business Practices, available from the U.S. Government Printing Office for $23, provides information on business practices in North American and South American countries, Europe, Asia, the Pacific Rim, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Subjects covered range from exporting and commercial policies to regulatory agencies.
  • The Do's And Taboos of International Trade by Roger E. Axtell (John Wiley & Sons), $17.95, covers everything from useful resources to tips on shaking hands.

Contact Sources

Trade Information Center, (800) USA-TRADE, http://www.ita.doc.gov/tic