One way to find more customers is to expand the geographic market you are targeting. Have you considered selling overseas? It can be a great way to grow sales, but doing business with another culture can require a delicate touch.
Aaron Block would know. He is the CEO of BayRu, an ecommerce site that launched in 2007 through which Russian consumers can buy U.S. goods. With offices in Chicago, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, BayRu has sold almost a quarter million items to 160 cities in Russia. BayRu’s most popular categories are autoparts, fashion and electronics, says Block. The next- most popular categories are health and beauty, jewelry and watches and sporting goods. BayRu, which has 120 employees, is on track to earn $75 million in annual revenue in 2013, according to Block.
For this success, BayRu won the Exporter of the Year in Business Service award for 2013 from ThinkGlobal Inc., the publisher for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s export-promotion magazine. ThinkGlobal chose BayRu for its exceptional customer service and innovative marketing strategies.
Block lived in Russia working for a U.S. company and observed a lust for Western goods, but also noticed a lack of a way to supply these goods. Through friends, Block met two partners who had launched BayRu, and he partnered with them to help scale the business.
Several cultural barriers make selling goods online to Russian consumers challenging. In particular, Russian people have a preference for native, local platforms, says Block, pointing to a Russian analogue to Facebook and Google. Also, Russia is primarily a cash economy with low credit-card adoption rates. What's more, many companies refuse to ship goods to Russia because rampant fraud means that items often get lost or stolen and a complicated supply chain makes returns very difficult.
“I have plenty of friends and as close as you can get to family [in Russia] and I don’t want them to suffer” because they can’t get the items they want, says Block. “People want our stuff, so let’s get it to them.” The logistics of this simple goal are complicated. For example, BayRu, has to provide many options for Russian consumers to pay, including the Russian answer to PayPal, “reverse” ATM machines where consumers insert cash to pay for goods, and the ability to submit payments through text message from cell phones, also called SMS.
Here are four tips from Block for entrepreneurs considering dipping their toe into the export business for the first time.
1. Know who is coming to your website. Understand where your online traffic is coming from geographically, says Block. You can do this with a web-analytics tool such as Google Analytics or Kissmetrics.
2. Let your customers know you want to work with them. Once you have determined who is coming to your website and from where, make sure those potential new customers understand that you want to do business with them. For example, on your website’s homepage, post flags of the country that you want to do business with and write encouraging phrases like “Yes, we ship to Russia,” says Block. If you are selling electronics to Australia, indicating that you know there is a voltage difference will go a long way toward making potential customers trust you, he adds.
3. Run your sales through big, existing marketplaces. Don't reinvent the wheel, Block says, suggesting using the infrastructure of companies like eBay, Amazon and Sears. These platforms already have the operational tools in place to help sellers do everything from closing a deal to accepting a payment to shipping your goods.
4. Familiarize yourself with export and import laws of the countries you are doing business with. If your exporting business grows beyond the size that a marketplace like eBay can support, then you will need to get to know the specific import rules of the country you are shipping to, says Block. For example, each has its own specific customs forms guidelines and limitations on the dimensions and weight of packages.
If you are already doing business with customers in other countries, what is your best piece of advice for entrepreneurs interested in doing the same? Leave a note below and let us know.