How to Start an Import/Export Business

Target Market

Every business needs consumers for its products and services to, as the Vulcans so eloquently put it, live long and prosper. Now that you know what running an import/export business entails, you need to plan, or target, your market, and determine who your potential clients will be, which geographic areas you'll draw from, and what specific products or services you'll offer to draw them in.

This is a very important phase in the mega-trader building project. The proper market research can help boost your trading company into a true profit center, and the more research you do, the better prepared you are before you officially open your doors, the less floundering you're likely to do.

Who Are Your Customers?

Any manufacturer, supplier, crafter, artisan, importer, exporter or retailer is fair game. You can go after companies that deal in heavy construction equipment or delicate jewelry, gourmet goodies or pet food, telecommunications or toys. The only essential requirement is that they want to sell their merchandise or buy someone else's.

This doesn't mean, however, that your best technique is standing at manufacturers' gates, tripping them as they walk to their cars after work each evening. Targeting by definition means homing in on a specific group.

If you have previous experience in a particular field, for example, you should seriously consider targeting that market first. You'll feel comfortable with the jargon and procedures so your sales pitch--and your initial sales--will go smoother and easier. As an added bonus, you may already have contacts in the field who can either become your first clients or steer you to colleagues in that area.

Dan S. targeted the field of technology--specifically, software solutions for commercial use and computer cables--simply because he's worked in that area for more than 10 years. He knows the field and feels comfortable in it.

Wahib W., too, began in a field he knew well, runway and navigational lights, then went on to other international construction projects, importing railroad and telephone pole materials and construction services, as well as other heavy-equipment materials.

What's My Niche?

OK. You've narrowed the list of products you'll target. Now you'll want to find your niche, the unique angle that will set your business apart from--and above--the competition. This is where you can really let your creativity shine through.

You may decide to start as an export management company (EMC, remember?), seeking out buyers for domestic manufacturing firms, or as an export trading company (ETC), finding domestic sources willing to export. Or you might want to stick with the original Trader Sam formula, importing and exporting on your own as an import/export merchant.

In Florida, Lloyd D. has positioned his company as both an EMC and ETC, depending on his clients' needs. "[As an EMC, we] work directly for a manufacturer, or his exclusive distributor/manager for international sales, as a marketing and screening provider," Lloyd explains, "and will search for and locate overseas buyers-for-resale and/or qualified distributors/sales representatives. [Our] objective is to function as an extension of [our] principal's in-house export sales efforts."

Under its ETC hat, Lloyd says, "[my company] performs in a fashion similar to that previously described, except for a diminished principal relationship, and business is typically conducted on a case-by-case or ad-hoc basis. It is more a sourcing function for the buyer and the seller."

In Germany, Michael R. describes his company's role this way: "[We are] a worldwide consultancy to SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) that wish to increase their sales and profits by using the available world markets more successfully."

Market Research

Here's a rapid-fire overview of your market research tasks. You'll want to do some in-depth investigation into each of these areas:

  • The product or service you'll sell
  • The end user you'll aim for (mass-market consumer, heavy industry, light industry, medical or hospital use, government, business or professional)
  • The country or countries you'll export to or import from
  • The trade channel you'll use (direct sales, representative, distributor or commission representative)

How to Start an Import/Export Business

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