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How to Start an Import/Export Business

Operations

What you will be doing during your peak hours and beyond will depend upon how you've structured your services. Some traders act only as sales representatives, finding buyers and taking commissions, but steer clear of the shipping, documentation and financing aspects of the deal. Others are happier offering a full line of services, buying directly from the manufacturer and taking on all the responsibilities of transactions from shipping to marketing. These traders often specialize in either import or export and stick to the merchandise industry they know best.

No matter how exotic you want to get, your most basic tasks will be obtaining merchandise, selling it, transporting it and getting paid for it.

The Export Path

OK, exporter--you've found a buyer for your merchandise. You're a player. You're ready to roll. So now what do you do? Follow the export path:

  1. Generate the pro forma invoice--give the importer a quote on your merchandise; negotiate if necessary.
  2. Receive the letter of credit from your bank.
  3. Fulfill terms of the letter of credit: Have the merchandise manufactured if necessary; make shipping and insurance arrangements; pack the merchandise; and have the merchandise transported.
  4. Collect shipping documents.
  5. Present shipping documents to your bank.

The Import Path

OK, importer. You've found the merchandise you want to buy and then resell. You're a player. You're ready to roll. So now what do you do? Follow the import path:

  1. Receive the pro forma invoice, the exporter's quote on the merchandise; negotiate if necessary.
  2. Open a letter of credit at your bank.
  3. Verify that the merchandise has been shipped.
  4. Receive documents from the exporter.
  5. See merchandise through customs.
  6. Collect your merchandise.

A Day in the Life

What does a trader's day really look like? What does he do in between preparing pro forma invoices, requests for letters of credit and shipping documents? Here's a behind-the-scenes peek, courtesy of Michael R., the international trade consultant in Germany:

  1. First hour: Read statistics printed overnight by the computer to see if each representative/agent has fulfilled his plans, and initiate changes if necessary.
  2. Work on the internet for one to two hours to see what inquiries have come in, then answer them personally or forward them to past or present clients who may be interested.
  3. Have short meeting with colleagues to see if assistance is needed, then support them or trouble-shoot.
  4. Look at the day's newspapers to see whether there's any movement within my industry where I should act fast.
  5. Take a coffee break.
  6. Look at the mail and handle or forward items.
  7. After lunch, take time to reflect on what has and what should have happened.
  8. Discuss problems and/or chances for the future with prospects and/or business partners.
  9. Look again at e-mail and the Web for news and new opportunities.
  10. At the end of the day, there should be about an hour to discuss again with colleagues how the day went and/or problems that came up.
  11. One or two evenings a week, attend business events or meetings with partners for discussion.

On the Road

A trader isn't always at home behind his desk. What does he do when he's out on the road? Here's another behind-the-scenes peek, courtesy of Jan H., a Belgian tire trader:

Note that Jan's day, in typical European fashion, evolves through a 24-hour clock, or what we think of as military time.

Day in Belgium:
07.00 - 09.00 Office work, e-mail, fax offers, mail, etc.
09.00 - 12.00 Drive to airport, meet customer from Finland; back to warehouse, customer chooses products
12.00 - 13.00 Lunch with customer, general discussions
13.00 - 18.00 Visit with a customer from Nigeria; long discussion, haggling over prices, payment terms, etc.; supervise loading of containers bound for the United States; phone calls, fax, e-mail; arrival of a customer from France, discussions
18.00 Quick trip home to change and shower
19.00 - ?? Pick up French customer at hotel, have cocktails and dinner, more negotiations

Day on the road in Germany:
05.00 Leave home for 400 km drive
08.00 Arrive at first supplier; discussions and purchase of goods
10.00 Leave for next supplier
11.00 Next supplier; discussions without any result
12.00 Visit customer; make a sale
13.30 Visit another supplier; more discussions
15.00 Leave for another 300-odd km drive
18.00 Arrive at hotel; check e-mail on laptop, phone calls
19.30 Sauna and swim at hotel pool
20.30 Dinner with supplier, then to bed!

How to Start an Import/Export Business

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