Small businesses make up the largest group of exporters in the United States, but they have a lot of room to expand. Ninety-three percent of the companies that sold goods across borders in 2011 were small firms, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and their sales accounted for 24 percent of the nation’s total exports. However, while many small businesses are exporting today, the majority of those companies (60 percent) did business in just one foreign country. How can we leverage technology and a global mindset to scale to more places?
Although selling goods in multiple countries can be complicated — you’ll have to navigate various cultures, regulations, and build relationships with local and regional suppliers — advances in technology have made it easier, even for small companies or start ups that can’t afford to pay consultants to help them devise a global strategy.
Here are six tips for expanding your business to multiple markets overseas.
1. Think small to go big. You’ll stretch yourself too thin if you research and develop a product for every possible market — and you won’t have a clear payoff. Instead, start small by building your product in a lean way. This means designing one version of your product – or better yet, a customizable version that leverages the power of others – often makes sense for an early global customer base. If you’re not sure which international markets will demand your product the most – this is a great way to experiment and savor the pleasure to find out where your product is relevant. From there, you can decide how to customize and localize – and importantly which countries you should spend your time on with marketing efforts, etc.
2. Be in good company – make it easier on yourself and surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. Many cities around the world are setting up business clusters to incentivize new companies to jumpstart their local economies, and they are especially interested in technology and manufacturers. East London, for example, has established TechCity where both innovation and venture capital abound. India has set up special economic zones to welcome tech companies with engineering talent and tax incentives. Some clusters are less formal and not necessarily tech-focused, but you’ll find entrepreneurship in every corner (places like the neighborhood of Tiong Bahru in Singapore not only offer innovative retailers, but the neighborhood’s design and restaurants also inspire!)
3. Tap U.S. and international government resources around the world. The United States Commercial Service (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) has officials placed in embassies and consulates around the world to help companies with overseas trade. The officers can help you by providing you with insight on issues related to exporting, including regulations, manufacturing standards, shipping, customs information, and hiring. These specialists can also connect small-business owners with potential foreign partners. Further, countries around the world have trade investment promotion agencies that can help you navigate local in-country business issues and can be a great source of information, alongside U.S. government resources for American companies.
4. If you’re going global, hopefully you’re not staying in one place: Leverage the cloud. Business owners and their employees are no longer sitting in a single office these days. Especially not if they are exploring international marketplaces. Given then, business owners must have the right tools in place to manage and track key business information, from financials to customer information, while on the go. Cloud-based business management solutions, including mobile apps, can make your life a lot easier when trying to secure a deal while waiting in line at the airport, or sitting in a hotel room.
5. Get your customers to do some of your legwork. If you build a loyal following, your customers may help spread the word about your product on a global scale. For example, Fenugreen, a social enterprise that provides its product FreshPaper to combat food spoilage around the world, has done a great job leveraging its passionate customers to bring their product to farming communities around the world. With the help of word of mouth (in addition to a robust e-commerce site and shipping capabilities), the company now sells FreshPaper in 35 countries, with customers as varied as a farmer in Malawi and a women’s catering cooperative in Haiti.
6. Pick your partner wisely. Even if you’re only doing business within the United States, you always want to ensure the companies and individuals in your supply chain are operating in a way that reflects your own company’s values. This is especially challenging when your potential partners may be halfway across the globe and you may never meet them in person. Doing your homework is always, always worth it. There are a number of resources available through the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of State that you can leverage, in addition to your own reference checks of potential suppliers, vendors and partners.
Photo courtesy Lindsey Grossman.