Q: I've found a source for a product I think would sell well overseas. How can I begin exporting it? I don't have a lot of money to invest.

A: In today's global economy, even the smallest business can do deals with companies around the world. Exporting can mean big profits to a small business. However, it's important not to rush to go global. For all the opportunities exporting provides, it can also present as many challenges. Too often entrepreneurs fail to understand the ins and outs of doing business on foreign soil-and they learn the hard way. Fortunately, there are a lot of free, low-cost resources and programs available to help you work your way abroad. Here are a few:

  • Start your legwork online.ExportHotline.comoffers a database with more than 5,000 market research reports, a directory of business-to-business contacts, and industry reports in more than 80 countries that detail import and export conditions on specific products. Browsing the reports online is free. You'll find more help at TradeNet's Export Advisor. It provides comprehensive information on export law, market research, tutorials for beginning exporters and trade leads. Both sites list upcoming trade shows. Consider attending a local show to check out the wares of other firms or to possibly showcase your own.
  • Sign up for export training. Export Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) offer counseling in export market strategies and hands-on training programs. The Export SBDCin El Segundo, California, for example, offers one-session classes as well as the six-week ExportWise certificate program. Track down other programs by calling your local SBDC and asking to speak with an export specialist.

New-to-export firms may also qualify to enroll in the six-month Market Entry program, which provides training, consultation and support. Eighteen centers nationwide offer the program on a rotating basis. For more information on the program qualifications, call the U.S. Export Assistance Centers at (800) USA-TRADE.

The cost for both types of training programs can range from free or a nominal fee, to a few hundred dollars.

  • Tag along on a trade mission. Government agencies, nonprofit organizations and some larger companies regularly set up trade missions to help small businesses penetrate new markets. Such trips offer exposure to the culture and the processes of the environment. Traveling as part of a larger group, as opposed to going alone, can save your small venture a lot of money. Trade mission lists and information can be found at a local district export council, chambers of commerce or state export assistance offices.
  • Establish a Web presence. A descriptive Web site for your product(s) can give you an edge. Global partners can conduct business with you through your site regardless of time differences. You don't have to spend a fortune setting up a storefront in cyberspace. In fact, you can create a professional Web site and build an online store for free through Bigstep.com.
  • Figure out your financing. The lack of proper export financing is a frequently cited barrier to trade. Bankable Deals: A Question & Answer Guide to Trade Finance for U.S. Small Business provides advice on financing export deals and getting paid. Request a free copy of the booklet from the SBA at (800) U-ASK-SBA.

Kimberly Stansell is an author, entrepreneur and businesswoman in Los Angeles. She has a knack for turning her desires into reality with little or no money and helps others do the same in her book Bootstrapper's Success Secrets: 151 Tactics for Building Your Business on a Shoestring Budget (Career Press). For more business-building tips and resources, visit her Web site, www.kimberlystansell.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.