WPG sat down with Doug Barry, a former senior international trade expert with the Department of Commerce, who is now a vice president at Conover + Gould Strategy Group. Dr. Barry is the author of numerous books on the export process.
WPG: What kinds of help is available to small and midsize companies that want to start or expand their export activities?
Barry: In the U.S., as well as other countries, government at different levels provide significant support for exporters. Everything from initial planning to complicated advocacy cases involving procuring foreign government contracts. Most of the services are free. Having provided many of these services for the Department of Commerce, I can vouch for their high quality and impressive results.
WPG: Why aren't these services better known?
Barry: When I was doing this work, we were often told that we were the best kept secret in government. We cringed when we heard this. In fact, we promote and promote, but a business is ready when it's ready.
WPG: When is it ready?
BARRY: Ideally it should be ready immediately, meaning that if you have a good product or service, there are far more buyers outside your country than inside. With the explosive growth of Internet access and the number of people worldwide moving into the middle class, e-commerce allows people everywhere to shop the world for everything. Setting up a website that accepts payment in foreign currencies used to be a colossal pain in the neck. Now, it's a breeze, and inexpensive. Shipping used to be the preserve of specialists. Now the big logistics companies assiduously court the smaller exporter, offering online tools that allow the business owner to prepare and file documents that used to require third party experts. It's not inaccurate to say we live in a whole new world.
WPG: How do you find buyers?
Barry: There are lots of sources, and it depends to some degree on the kind of business and industry you're in. Many smaller businesses fill their order books for the year ahead by selling at trade shows where international buyers are present. For example, a new business owner contacted me last week wanting to know how to find international buyers for his natural food product. I recommended he go to an internationally natural food products show in California. I put him in touch with an international trade specialist at a local Export Assistance Center who happens to know a lot about this industry.
So the owner will go to the show in the spring as an observer. He'll learn about competition, pricing, and consumer preferences in different countries. If the show looks promising, he'll return the next year as an exhibitor. He'll get the buyer list in advance and can start marketing to them before they meet at the show.
WPG: Other kinds of help?
Barry: Government agencies like the U.S. Commerce Department have business matchmaking services that find foreign buyers. They do this by fostering deep relationships in the countries where they have offices, which today number over 80. The Government imprimatur is valuable in that information is provided about buyers that is not easy to come by from other sources. Fear of the unknown and of not getting paid are major reasons why companies avoid exporting. Even though such fears can be exaggerated, anything that lowers risk and eases intimidation, is worth exploring.
WPG: Then there’s WPG…
Who can forget? Members of WPG enjoy the Concierge Service that provides customized advice on going global. If you're just starting out in business and don't have a business plan, the network of Small Business Development Centers can help you write one with an export focus. If you need financing, try the Small Business Administration and the Export-Import Bank, one left for dead by conservative members of Congress, now back in full swing.
WPG: The world economic outlook isn't looking so rosy now.
Barry: It's not great, but world GDP should be over three percent this year, about the same as last. The dollar is strong, making U.S. goods more expensive, but the U.S. isn't competitive in low-end stuff anyway. The opportunities are always there. Reduce investment costs by using the available free export services. Explore e-commerce. Attend a trade show. Learn and borrow from the best in the world, and separate yourself from the rest. Having a global mindset is just a good thing, it’s a necessary part of competing and thriving in today’s world.
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