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How to Take Your Company Global

Global growth can be both daunting and rewarding. Here are the steps to take, the mistakes to avoid, and the basics of exporting and importing.

The American market for almost everything is huge, but it's not large enough for many entrepreneurs. For these growth-minded business owners, the rest of the world is their oyster. Seeking international growth by going global as an importer-exporter offers opportunity aplenty. Some of the specific advantages presented by successfully growing globally include:

  • You can extend the sales life of existing products and services by finding new markets to sell them in.
  • You can reduce your dependence on the markets you have developed in the United States.
  • If your business is plagued by destabilizing fluctuations in your markets due to seasonal changes or demand cycles, you can even out your sales by tapping markets with different or even countercyclical fluctuations.
  • You can exploit corporate technology and know-how.
  • Finally, by entering the global marketplace, you'll learn how to compete against foreign companies-and even take the battle to them on their own ground.

The overriding reason to go global, of course, it to improve your potential for expansion and growth. And there are too many international opportunities for us to catalog them all here-or even in a much longer book than this one. The obvious opportunities are the markets in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Japan. But those only scratch the surface. There are many other fast-growing, less-competitive markets.

Just spin the globe and you can find an opportunity to sell something, somewhere. Unearthing just the right opportunity for you involves more work, of course. This information will get you started on that work.

Questions to Ask Before You Start
Experts agree that growing a business in America is risky enough. But what if your aspirations prompt you to debut your concept in a foreign land instead? Wesley Johnston, professor of marketing and director of the Center for Business and Industrial Marketing at Georgia State University in Atlanta, highlights the factors that can either make or break your business when you try to grow by going global. Here are key questions to ask yourself:

  • Will the product sell well in the targeted culture? Think market research. The good news is most American products and services are embraced overseas. But if many of your potential consumers are lactose-intolerant, you'd want to steer clear of opening an eatery that sells only cheese pizza, says Johnston.
  • Is your target market familiar with your product or service? If not, be prepared to invest a lot of time and money in consumer education. On the flip side, if you're the first one to introduce a new and exciting concept, "the product then becomes synonymous with your company name or chain," Johnston explains.
  • Do you feel comfortable in that country? Since you'll probably have to live there temporarily to operate the chain in its early stages, you'll need a working knowledge of the language and culture.
  • What is the infrastructure like? Can you get Western-style accommodations and support? How good are the roads? Are your supplies guaranteed? What about the reliability of hot water?

If you don't get the answers you want with the first foreign market you're considering entering, that may not mean your idea is poor-just that you picked the wrong place. "It's a big, big world out there," Johnston says. "I don't think there's any one idea that won't work somewhere."

The Pitfalls of Exporting
Along with promise, going global carries an equally heavy load of peril. From chasing too many opportunities to getting whacked by currency fluctuations, the game of international expansion has many threats that domestic-only businesspeople never see. You can grab the brass ring of growth by going global, but only if you avoid the pitfalls.

The moment you've been waiting for has finally arrived, and you're ready to export your product. Now what? Your first order of business is to heed the hard lessons learned by those who have gone before you. Many have blundered, but that doesn't mean you have to. Below are some of the most common exporting mistakes, according to John E. Cleek, program director at the Bloch School of Business Administration at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

  • Failing to plan your strategy. "Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to this problem, but larger ones are often guilty of the same mistake," says Cleek. "It takes far more time to extract yourself from problems created by lack of planning than it would to do it right the first time."
  • Chasing inquiries the world over. Just because dozens of countries show interest doesn't mean you're ready to market your product everywhere. Patience is key. "It takes discipline to respond to an inquiry from a country about which you know very little," Cleek says.
  • Assuming if it works in America, it will work anywhere. Not true-you need to tailor your sales and marketing efforts to each country. Don't ignore the cultural differences that shape the marketplace. The same goes for pricing, shipping, payment terms and packaging.
  • Assuming business will be done in English. Familiarize yourself with the local language. Says Cleek, "It is the height of ignorance to expect other people to learn our language to buy from us."
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