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When Thad Hooker and his wife, Lisa, first took over Spirit of Asia , a Florida company selling high-end furniture and accessories, they, like many entrepreneurs, were unprepared for sourcing overseas. Unlike executives of large companies, the Hookers hadn't done a tour of duty overseas and didn't have retinues of assistants to help them when they bought Spirit of Asia in 2001. "I decided to source from Southeast Asia, but I had to find out everything myself," says Thad Hooker, 36, who had previously worked for a large insurance company. "It felt like a crapshoot."
So Hooker played catch-up--quickly. He exhaustively researched sourcing options before he ventured overseas, comparison-shopped source countries and did on-the-ground research himself. He was also lucky: On his initial trip to Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, Hooker caught a ride with a local taxi driver who was interested in art and antiques. Hooker signed the man up, gave him a digital camera, and now employs the former driver as a furniture scout on the ground. Today, Hooker has a profitable shop in Fort Lauderdale, is considering opening other locations and has launched a website to sell his products nationwide.
As margins have shrunk in most industries, entrepreneurs have had to look overseas to survive. Small companies are increasingly sourcing directly, rather than using middlemen: Hooker saves as much as 60 percent by buying items directly in Asia instead of using a broker.
While there is a wide range of source countries to choose from, a handful are the hottest. China is now the biggest recipient of foreign investment in the world, particularly for labor-intensive products. "You can always produce cheaper in China," says Jennifer Adams, CEO of Velocity Source Group International , a consulting firm in Oakland, California, that helps entrepreneurs find factories in Asia.
Other Asian nations, such as Thailand, rival China's cheap labor with better legal systems, says Chris Runckel, president of Runckel & Associates , a Portland, Oregon, consulting firm. And Eastern Europe is a hot spot for higher-value items. It boasts highly educated work forces that are cheaper than those in Western nations.
Once you've decided to source overseas, you must figure out exactly what you can spend in order to make a profit. Adams suggests that entrepreneurs study all parts of their manufacturing to understand which parts are the most labor-intensive and could be outsourced.
The initial search for overseas sources starts with abandoning preconceptions about countries, says Mike Lord, director of the Flow Institute for International Business at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "You can't assume things will be comparable to America," says Lord. "You can't even assume that all parts of a country will be the same."
Runckel adds, "You can't expect any degree of legal protection [in foreign countries]."
Your research must include learning about the local customs and culture of the countries you're considering, says Laurel Delaney, president of GlobeTrade.com, a Chicago firm that helps businesses source and sell overseas. Adams adds that being blustery, a typical American negotiating strategy, rarely works in Asia, where quiet diplomacy is usually the best way to seal a deal.