Working at home is no obstacle to entering the international market, since the vast majority of your customers will never see your office. Instead of paneled walls and an oak desk, what you really need to reach the world is a good computer system-plus perseverance and common sense.
Veltkamp recommends you "first specialize in the type of product you want to sell. Then specialize in a country or small region of the world." The second decision, he suggests, can be based on your personal interests. "If you're interested in Central America, specialize there," he says. "That can help you get to know the people in the area and learn how the [the local businesses] deal, negotiate, set prices, do business, etc."
Shapiro recommends beginning by exploring markets with languages and customs similar to your own background. "Don't start with China [if you're unfamiliar with Chinese language and culture]; start with Canada or the United Kingdom. Then when you query for information, you know what they're saying."
Dennis Hessler agrees. "Canada represents an ideal opportunity to conduct research on a foreign country," he notes in his Import-Export Entrepreneur newsletter. "[And] just about anything that sells in the U.S. will be a potential product for the Canadian market."
Steps in the Right Direction
Regardless of where you begin, Shapiro notes that certain steps are essential to success:
- Do your market research. "Find sources that can give you reliable current information [on your target country]," suggests Shapiro. "How stable is the government? What are the currency controls? Will there be a labor problem? How will you ship your product? Will it need continued service and who will provide it?" Shapiro notes that a host of online sources (including her own Export Hotline at http://www.exporthotline.com) offer in-depth country reports that can help an exporter learn about international markets, trade barriers and related topics.
- Look for contacts within your target country. Agencies that can help include the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration "country desks," the U.S. Embassy or an AmCham (American Chambers of Commerce Abroad) within your target country. Your target country's embassy in the United States can also help.
- Network with other exporters. "Talk to people who are doing it, even if they're not in your industry," says Shapiro. "Get their experiences; listen to what they say and what they went through."
- Attend export workshops at colleges or financial institutions. "Make sure you fit the profile of the intended audience," Shapiro warns, noting that seminars hosted for large companies may not meet the needs of a smaller exporter.
- Find a distributor or agent. Ask your overseas contacts for references, Shapiro says. "Don't use the recommendation of someone's uncle or cousin. You need independent, objective referrals," she says. "Always ask for references and a credit check." Shapiro notes that there are lots of people who can help you through the hassles of international commerce, including brokers, distributors, freight-forwarders and customs agents. Many of these are now listed in online international business directories.
Veltkamp adds an additional recommendation: "There's a lot to be said for actually traveling [to your target country]." Part of the fun of international commerce, he says, "is the acceptance of other cultures, the enjoyment of dealing with different folks. A sense of adventure is useful in making that international jump; exporting surprises you at every turn."