There are a number of reasons you might consider looking abroad for business. First, consumers are no longer buying like they used to, and with a population of about 300 million, the United States is a tiny market compared to the rest of the world (population 6.6 billion). Second, with the dollar weak against most other currencies, foreign buyers are getting a good deal right now from American vendors. Lastly, with e-commerce, the Internet, and international payment gateways widely available, there are really no significant barriers to selling many types of products or services outside the country. There are, however, some tips that may make the process easier.
Recently I caught up with an outgoing entrepreneurial businesswoman Julie Austin. She owns a Los Angeles company, Hydrosport. Its main product is an inexpensive personal hydration system called Swiggies, which are water and energy drink containers that snugly fit on your wrist.
Hydrosport has been in business a number of years with a highly successful distributor program. As the recession set in and U.S. sales began dropping off, Austin started looking at other markets. She found a great deal of demand for her products in the Far and Middle East. It is now her biggest market. Austin hasn’t had any problems doing business in multiple countries. She develops a relationship with a local distributor who buys her product and then develops the local market.
“I sell in Singapore, Israel, Cambodia, and countries I didn’t even know existed. One of the great things about selling abroad is checking your e-mail and finding orders from out-of-the-way places like Christmas Island. Where in the world is that?” she said.
Austin chose an e-commerce vendor and payment gateway vendor that had the ability to handle shipping and payment receipt from most all foreign countries. Nearly all of her international customers are distributors. Before her Web site was translated to Italian by one of her distributors, foreign buyers were not shy about her English language Web site. The one country Austin has had difficulties bringing her product into is Japan. To sell her product in Japan, the government required very expensive product safety testing. Austin elected to simply avoid that market. She pointed out that her product has been independently tested by U.S. companies and is certified free of BPA, a substance in plastic suspected of being harmful to humans, and is made of food-grade materials approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
I also talked recently with James C. Roberts III, an attorney who helps companies navigate setting up global business operations, to find another perspective on expanding overseas. Roberts has been globetrotting on behalf of his clients for 30 years. His firm, Global Capital Law Group, faced the same kind of challenges when he opened an office in Milan, Italy. Roberts has a few tips for companies seeking to expand their markets overseas:
- Resist the temptation to be U.S.-centric. As you are working with companies and individuals in foreign countries, remember the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
- Companies should spend a lot of time working with the foreign investment offices representing the various countries. They are able to cut through a great deal of the complexity.
- Build the international aspect of the brand. Invest in marketing and business development. Make sure that people are aware of your international presence.
Both Roberts and Austin are very bullish on doing business overseas. While Roberts is a seasoned international business lawyer, he still faces new bureaucratic and cultural challenges in foreign countries every day. Austin, too, has had to master some aspects of doing business worldwide. Still, both of them say there is real gold in overseas markets.