We have all heard about the “global marketplace” and many small business owners have wondered just how to tap into this much-discussed global customer base. The answer to that question, however, depends on whether you plan to open up shop in your prospective country or if you simply plan to ship goods there while remaining stateside. Whichever way you decide to go, remember that doing business overseas—especially in a culture different from your own—can be a world apart from what you are used to. Still, for all the differences and difficulties you might have to face, doing business overseas is not only possible, it can be very lucrative and rewarding in a variety of ways.
International Business: Getting Started
It all begins with research; research into the countries or regions you may wish to penetrate, into the markets they offer, their political environment and their relationship with the United States. The place to start this research is with the Federal Government.
The CIA World Factbook
For a concise, but fairly complete snapshot of countries around the world (including the U.S.), the CIA World Factbook is a great place to start. It gives historical, political, demographic, economic and military information on every country in the world, doing so in short, discreet and easily digestible sections that paint a picture of the country in very broad strokes. The CIA World Factbook is a place to start, but that is all.
The U.S. Department of Commerce
The Department of Commerce has an office called the International Trade Administration (ITA), and this is the place to go when considering a move into international commerce. The ITA offers practical information to help you select your markets and products, ensures access to international markets as required by our trade agreements and works to protect American businesses from unfair competition from dumped and subsidized imports. To do this, the ITA is divided into three operational units:
- The Commercial Service . This is a global network of Commercial Officers that can offer assistance with every stage of the exporting process. It is also the primary point of contact with the ITA throughout the United States and the world.
- Manufacturing and Services . This unit is the ITA's link to American industry, offering industry-sector specialists to help identify trade opportunities for specific products or services.
- Market Access and Compliance . This unit keeps world markets open to American products with country specialists helping American business benefit from U.S. trade agreements with other countries.
For more information on the ITA, visit http://trade.gov.
Doing Business in a Different Culture under Different Laws
Once you have picked a country to do business in, you have to learn how to do business there. Some places, like England or Germany, will have more in common with American business practices and culture than differences. In other places, you will have to learn everything from how business is conducted to proper social etiquette. For example, when doing business in China, don’t be surprised when your dinner invitation is refused the first time. Ask again, the other party is just being polite. Also, don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice bowl. That is a funeral gesture and doesn’t bode will for a business dinner.
To learn these cultural niceties, it is important to find resources that can teach you what you need to know and a mentor who can answer questions. These are business people who have worked in the market you wish to enter. You will also wish to consult with law firms that have practical experience with the country you want to do business in. Not only are you dealing with a different culture, but you are dealing with a different legal system as well. Finally, someone from that country that you can trust is an invaluable resource. Hooking up with a local attorney can make getting up and running much easier by providing critical legal and sometimes cultural advice. American law firms with ties to the country you wish to do business in can furnish you with such a referral.
Back to Business 101: Market Research and Product Marketing
Just because it’s American, that doesn’t mean it will sell. You see that here, just because something is Russian, there is no promise that it will sell in Peoria. So, since novelty isn’t going to take you far, you actually have to do some leg work and study the market you want to reach and how likely it is that your product or service will sell, just as you did when you first opened your business.
You also want to see what works in terms of marketing and advertising. Do enough members of your target market own TVs to make a television ad worthwhile or would a radio ad or even billboards be a better option? What sources of information do people trust and what do they dismiss? You would much rather be associated with a trusted source than one that people don’t trust. All these questions and more have to be answered during your market research, just as they would be here in the U.S., so you can craft an effective marketing and advertising campaign.
Copyrights and Intellectual Property
Just as you need to safeguard your personal safety in some places more than others, you also have to worry about your brand in some places more than others. Make sure you know what you are getting into first and then ensure that you have all the local copyright and intellectual property protections you need to move forward before opening up shop. You local attorney can help you here. There are places in the world where logos, products and intellectual property are pirated with a gusto that would have made Blackbeard proud, so make sure that you are protected.
The Bottom Line
Follow this advice and you are well on your way to opening up shop across the seas, with all the challenges and rewards that this entails. The key is not to run into this, but to move slowly, carefully making sure that everything is in place before you go forward with this endeavor. Yes, there will be problems and surprises, but if you are well prepared and have the right people behind you both here and abroad, then you will be able to overcome these challenges and be a successful international entrepreneur.