By Maria Valdez Haubrich
Have you considered selling your small business’s products to a global audience? If not, now could be the time. Why? In today’s uncertain economy, diversifying your customer base beyond a U.S. market can be key to successfully riding out tough times. The Internet and ecommerce have made it easier than ever to reach out to a worldwide market. Here are some factors you need to consider before taking the plunge.
- Assess your resources. Even on a small scale, selling products worldwide will require some additional time, effort and money to promote, service and ship the products. Even if you’re selling a service, such as an online software subscription, there will be translation and support issues. Make sure you have the money and manpower to do it right without diverting too much energy from your core business.
- Start slow. It’s best to start with a country that you have some familiarity with and that is similar to the U.S. in terms of language, infrastructure and legal issues. Avoid countries with a lot of red tape or limited English speakers. The U.K., Canada or a country where you already have a connection can be a good starting point.
- Do your homework. Find out all you can about the countries you are considering. Visit the SBA’s International Trade page and Export.gov to find resources and get started.
- Get connected. Business is all about personal connections, especially overseas. Tap into any connections to the countries you’re considering (friends, family, colleagues, social networking sites) to make connections there and learn more about doing business.
- Establish trust. Get to know foreign partners in person before doing business. While much of this can be done online, at some point you’ll want to visit in person to cement the relationship.
- Figure out shipping. Depending on what you’re selling and the volume, you might be able to use a simple solution like FedEx or UPS. If complex customs issues are involved, consider hiring a freight broker who can handle much of the red tape for you, streamlining your operations.
- Know how you will get paid. In the case of small sales (under $5,000) using online payment methods such as PayPal can be the simplest option. If you are dealing with larger sales, be sure to research the reputation of the customer or vendor beforehand. Your bank’s international trade department and your trade association can help. Don’t be too quick to ship product without thoroughly vetting the company on the other end, or you could get stuck holding the bag.
- Make your website global-friendly. Clearly state which countries you ship to or service. Consider setting up separate websites or pages for different countries. If needed, invest in translation services to ensure your site works for different audiences, and multilingual support staff to deal with customer queries.
The most important rule of all when going global: Have a well-thought-out strategy backed by research and planning. Thinking things through before you dive into international waters greatly increases your chances of success.
Image by Flickr user Sean MacEntee (Creative Commons)