By Ed Marsh
As a small business owner, time is one of your most valuable resources. You’re selective with the new growth opportunities you take on, making sure they strike a proper balance between time and money invested and the potential return on that investment.
If you’re like other entrepreneurs, especially those in an early stage of growth, exporting seems to tip the scale in the wrong direction, with major upfront investment and no guarantee of a future payout.
While it might sound risky on the surface, exporting can be a feasible and a natural extension of your growth strategy. Not only can exporting increase your customer base and overall revenue, it also often brings important secondary benefits to your business.
Exporting used to be an uphill battle
Even ten years ago, a small business considering international sales faced a complex and resource-intensive journey. Growing a business into foreign markets required extensive research, best-guess market selection, frequent travel, and a lengthy process of building brand awareness in a different country.
Some business owners were successful, but others were not, which resulted in a loss of time and resources. Exporting always seemed to involve substantial risk and distraction from domestic growth opportunities at home – a stigma that persists today even though the entire exporting landscape is now more digitally advanced.
The Internet changed the exporting equation
If your business has a website, an online e-commerce store, or social media profiles, you likely already have a global presence. While small companies that provide localized services (think haircuts or doggie day care) prioritize nearby customers, many products and services can be delivered globally.
The search optimized footprint that helps domestic buyers find you through online searches will also help international buyers find you. And the widespread democratization of web access from mobile devices means every day, new consumers around the globe are going online and searching for products and services from companies like yours.
David Rosen of Kira Labs made this discovery shortly after launching his skin care products company in his Florida garage. In response to online marketing efforts intended for U.S. buyers, Rosen received an order from a customer in Japan that was so large, Kira had to more than double its monthly output. Retooling Kira’s operations to fill the order equipped the company to serve additional international buyers. Ten years later, exporting helped Kira go from a few employees to 80 and now accounts for about 30 percent of annual revenues.
Making data work harder so you don’t have to
As you receive more digital inquiries and complete more sales, you’re going to accumulate valuable data that provides a better understanding of whether customers from international markets account for significant:
- site visits
- info requests/potential purchase inquiries
- repeat business
When you’re ready to take the next steps in your exporting journey, that data can help you decide how and where to focus your efforts – for example, investing resources in better translations and local language keywords for the markets with the most engagement. Plus, data on real interest beats theoretical customs data for gauging market opportunity. As your business becomes more established in a new market, distributors on the ground can also help you to build a local presence while you manage operations from home.
Starting from scratch with no international inquiries? You’ve probably got traffic and may not even realize it. Adding simple forms on your site (often more than just a “Contact Us” page) that make it easy for international buyers to contact you can help, and translation widgets may as well. Have your website folks provide some metrics on sources of international traffic for more insight.
It’s about more than more sales
The benefits of exporting go well beyond increased sales potential. Consider the following ways a presence in global markets can make your business more versatile, more competitive and more adept at discovering new prospects.
- Diversification: Some markets rise while others stumble. By having a presence in one or more global regions, your business may be better insulated against economic shifts at home.
- Recruitment and Retention: Companies that export statistically pay higher wages and are more resilient. As unemployment rates continue to fall, having a global presence can make your company more attractive to prospective new-hires.
- Lessons Learned: Many companies discover new use cases and ways to market by observing how their product is received in other regions. For example, Micronova, which produces cleaning products for the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries, uncovered an entirely new market after a European distributor started selling several of its products for hospital applications.
Convinced it’s Time to Grow Globally? Here’s how to get started
The U.S. Department of Commerce Export Assistance offices are a great resource to help small business owners navigate payment and logistics questions related to exporting. Visit www.export.gov/locations to find your nearest branch. Additional resources for new and prospective exporters are available at www.openforum.com/growglobal. By doing your research and tapping the many free resources available to small business exporters, your first foray into the global marketplace could prove to be time very well spent.
Ed Marsh is the exporting advisor to American Express Grow Global℠, which brings together global trade experts, exporting officials, and business leaders to help U.S. small and middle market companies grow their businesses in international markets.