In case you missed it, earlier this year the president announced the National Export Initiative, which has a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. Just four months later comes the initial report on the plan, which pumped billions into new funding and support staff trained to help businesses start or expand their export efforts -- especially small businesses.
Already, exports are up 17 percent. Here's how your business can ride the export wave to increased sales:
- Identify exportable products and services. Many small businesses don't think they have anything that could be exported. But services are often exported -- thanks to free-calling services such as Skype and the Internet, it's not hard to do consulting with a customer abroad. And about any product you can think of -- as long as it won't explode en route and isn't on a federal blacklist as something that could aid terrorists or the like -- can be shipped abroad.
- Pick a country. Think English-speaking and/or nearby for a start, experts say. Somewhere where you understand the culture, speak the language, or have at least visited. Start with one country, get the hang of it, and expand from there.
- Make federal connections. Many business owners have a generally anti-government stance (especially, in my experience, the current administration). But in exporting, it's all about letting government help you. You don't want to just get on a plane to a foreign country and wander about, trying to talk a company into buying your goods -- it's too risky. Go to a U.S. Export Assistance Office, where staff has been increased and given additional training for small-business help, thanks to the initiative. They can connect you to U.S. Embassy workers in your target country who have pre-screened potential customers. They also run trade missions and trade conferences where you can connect with foreign buyers. The Commerce Dept. has a Gold Key program, and if you're in food, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service can help you.
- Figure out the financing. This is the step that boggles many small business owners, so let's slow down here and learn how the money goes 'round in foreign sales. First, you need a business bank that has experience in exports -- ideally, one with preferred status with the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which guarantees and directly funds export loans. Once you have a foreign order, your business often needs a source to fund manufacturing the goods you'll ship. Your bank will help you handle the Ex-Im paperwork that will make your loan happen.
- Get paid. On the payment end, you may set up a letter of credit with your bank that guarantees your payment, or require C.O.D. Or you may even help your buyer finance their payment -- the Ex-Im bank offers foreign buyer loans, too.
While questions remain about whether the nation's ports could really cope with twice the shipping volume, the initial trend toward more export is encouraging.
Are you planning to get into exporting, or to expand your exports? What barriers do you feel stand in your way? Leave a comment and let us know.