From the July 1999 issue of Startups

Chew on these numbers: In 1998, exports from U.S. businesses hit $931 billion, according to U.S. Census Bureau stats. Imports from abroad totaled more than $1 trillion--and in almost every deal, a U.S. importer had a hand in the transaction.

How can you claim your place in the export-import action? Read on for a road map that reveals the route to riches in foreign trade.

Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam wants you to prosper by doing business abroad--and the U.S government provides a wealth of resources, free of charge, to entrepreneurs who need a boost in export-import trade. Start any hunt for international trade opportunities by checking in with the feds:

  • The SBA's Office of International Trade (http://www.sba.gov/OIT/): From information sources to sources of working capital, the SBA offers plenty of programs to boost small businesses' chances of export-import success. The details are spelled out here. While you're at the SBA Web site, don't miss Exporting by Small Firms (http://www.sba.gov/advo/stats/exp_rpt.html). It's a detailed look at the role of small business in U.S. exports.
  • International Trade Administration (http://www.ita.doc.gov): The most valuable click at this Department of Commerce site is the Trade Information Center (http://infoserv2.ita.doc.gov/tic.nsf), a first stop for info on federal help, plus acres of details on foreign nations and regions. Or for more personalized aid, call (800) USA-TRADE.
  • Export-Import Bank (http://www.exim.gov/msbprogs.html): The Export-Import Bank has money to assist in building an export business; available programs are detailed at this site, or call (800) 565-EXIM. Another plus: The agency holds seminars nationwide. Get schedule info at (202) 565-3912.

The Basics and Beyond

  • ExporTutor (http://web.miep.org/tutor/index.html): A brilliant resource for beginners, this Michigan State University Web site offers a self-paced tour through everything business owners need to know about succeeding in exports.
  • Trade Easy (http://www.tradeeasy.com): Find buyers, sellers, trade leads, products available for import and more at this online trading network for importers and exporters.

In The Zone

When it was enacted in 1994, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) rewrote the rules of doing business in the United States, Mexico and Canada. Customs barriers were shattered, establishing the world's biggest free trade zone. Want to see if there are markets for you in the NAFTA zone? Dig here for opportunities:

How Much?

Keep track of what foreign money is worth at The Universal Currency Converter Web site (http://www.xe.net/currency), which instantly converts from and to just about anything people accept as money anywhere on the planet.

Hard Copy

Informative books on going global are plentiful, and most large bookstores stock several titles worth reading. Among the best import-export books for start-up entrepreneurs:

  • Exporting, Importing and Beyond: How To "Go Global" With Your Small Business by Lawrence W. Tuller (Adams Media, $9.95, 800-872-5627)
  • Building an Import/Export Business by Kenneth D. Weiss (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945)
  • How to Start an Import/Export Business by Terry and Robert Adams (Entrepreneur Media Inc., $59, 800-421-2300)

Robert McGarvey (rjm@mcgarvey.net), who has dual citizenship in Ireland and the United States, is such an internationalist he even likes German food.