International money transactions can be an absolute nightmare. There's the time difference. The language barriers. The currency exchange. The high costs and delays of bank wires, personal checks and mailed remittances. But now there are three services that help ease the pain of trans-oceanic transactions.
American Express' Online Global Payments Service recently launched a Web site to help small businesses initiate payments to vendors in more than 41 foreign currencies (http://www.americanexpress.com/ip). After establishing an account, simply log on and type in your name, account number, and payment and currency information. Click on `calculate,' and voilà: The amount owed is displayed on-screen in the payee's currency; American Express receives the transaction and makes the payment.
"The Internet can solve a large number of the problems small firms face when making international payments," says Steve Flett, senior vice president of American Express Foreign Exchange Services in New York City.
Western Union's Quick Cash, launched in 1996, enables businesses to send payments to overseas suppliers or employees. Using Western Union's software on their PCs, authorized individuals can send funds to Western Union locations in 160 countries. Within minutes, the funds are available in local currency for pickup by the payee. The entrepreneur pays the principal and fee through a direct bank transfer to Western Union.
To receive payments from international customers, there's also Western Union's Quick Pay. With this program, small businesses can either have funds direct-deposited into their bank accounts or have checks printed out in their offices. (Western Union gives all subscribers a free printer and modem.) "It cuts out weeks of time, problems with bank wires, and trying to match up who sent what where," says Maureen Murray of Western Union Commercial Services in Paramus, New Jersey. Funds are received in full with no deductions; to date, nearly 1,500 companies have used the free service.
Abby Ellen lives in New York City and writes the "Preludes" column for the business section of The New York Times.
Names and ages: Ron Davis, 55, and BeLinda Davis, 42
Company: Caffe Diva is a drive-through specialty coffee retail chain.
Based: Portland, Oregon
Start-up costs: $55,000
1998 sales: $400,000
1999 sales projections: $1.5 million
Funds raised by direct public offering: $987,000
Caffeine rush: "We opened our first kiosk in 1996. By early 1997, we had four kiosks in Lane County, Oregon," says Ron. "But growing into other geographic areas takes lots of money. Banks turned us down, and a venture capital group wanted a substantial stake in the business, board membership, and veto power over expenditures and site selection. We didn't want to turn control over to outsiders. After investing two years and virtually all our capital, a DPO seemed to be the better, and perhaps only, option."
Bean there: "It's a full-time job; you can't do it alone. We had to hire someone to do our fund-raising," says Ron. "But it can be done."
A percolating market: So far, there are eight Caffe Diva locations in the I-5 corridor (Eugene, Salem and Portland, Oregon), and more are in the works. "We're for the caffeine-dependent customer who doesn't have time to wait," says Ron. "Our business is commuter-based, so we have to be in the suburbs, not the city."
What's brewing: Eight more stores for the fiscal year and plans to eventually go nationwide.
Caffe Diva, (503) 968-9720, fax: (508) 968-9723
Western Union, (201) 986-5562, http://www.wuquickpay.com