Although the Internet is sometimes hailed as one of the greatest business tools developed this century, there's at least one commercial activity for which it is often more trouble than it's worth: finding good international trade leads.
Every global entrepreneur should be aware of this apparent Net aberration. "The overwhelming majority of [trade] leads you find on the Internet are garbage," says international business consultant Jeffrey P. Graham, president of JPG Consulting in Philadelphia. "Usually, out of every hundred leads published, no more than three are even worth pursuing. Big companies have the human resources to sift through everything and find the good ones, but small businesses just don't have the manpower."
As a former executive director of the South Carolina World Trade Center, J.E. "Dewey" Teske has experienced this phenomenon firsthand. "There's a huge number of wannabes [to watch out for] who have an e-mail account and think they're going to do tons of trading," says Teske, who now works as an international trade consultant in Charleston, South Carolina. "At the trade center, it took the constant effort of a staff of five to qualify those leads."
Christopher D. Lancette is an Atlanta-area freelance journalist who covers international business for a variety of local, national and international publications.
Smoke And Mirrors
Even marketing your product internationally on the Internet is hit-or-miss. You'll find the vast majority of Web buyers aren't serious potential customers. "About 90 percent of the people who approach me because they've seen one of my ads on the Internet turn out to be flakes," says William Saale, an importer-exporter of cigar accessories and small motorcycles. "They're people who just want free samples or information." The 29-year-old CEO of Phoenix-based Success Trading International Ltd. got so fed up trying to find solid leads that he turned the job over to JPG Consulting.
Graham says prospective buyers aren't the only people who act disingenuously. Companies or governments soliciting services are often just as guilty. They've been known to charge document and bond fees to entrepreneurs who really have no chance of being chosen to work on the projects they're bidding on and to post leads simply to put price pressure on their existing suppliers.
Making things even more difficult is the fact that buyers are just as wary of you as you should be of them. A proliferation of suspect goods is floating through cyberspace. As Graham says, "Anybody with access to the Internet can peddle their wares."
Where The Leads Are
So where should a small company turn?
Saale advises entrepreneurs to hire a consultant. Teske, meanwhile, says small companies should consider buying ads in relevant trade publications such as Commercial News USA and consulting with legitimate government-run trade authorities. He notes, however, that the best use of government leads may be in developing contacts for future efforts, as trade leads are often outdated by the time they appear in government listings.
Graham points out that valuable Internet sources do exist. He recommends Trade Compass (http://www.tradecompass.com) and Venture-Web (http://www.venture-web.or.jp) as helpful sites. As a general rule, though, he encourages global entrepreneurs to find leads the old-fashioned way: "The best leads are referrals, tips given to you by a third party who knows your company."