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Small Business Exporters Tell of Triumphs and Challenges
Susan Lusi, director of the Trade Information Center (right), and John Joyce, export finance manager at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Boston, Massachusetts (second from right), were speakers at a panel on small business exporting on May 24 in Washington, D.C. The panel was moderated by Luz Hopewell, director of the SBA’s Office of International Trade (left). (photo © Cable Risdon Photography)
The multiple challenges faced by small business exporters—from protecting intellectual property rights, to financing, to handling shipping logistics—were the topic of discussion during National Small Business Week ceremonies held in Washington, D.C., this May.
by John Ward
Efforts to expand exporting by U.S. companies often focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). And for good reason: they are often the most dynamic part of the business population because they grow and add jobs at a faster rate than more mature businesses. But surprisingly, according to research conducted by the Department of Commerce, the majority of SME exporters in the United States do not have a formal exporting plan, 58 percent export to only one market, and 33 percent have never heard of U.S. government export assistance programs. Most SMEs say that they are challenged when selecting new markets to enter and understanding the mechanics of selling to a non-U.S. market.
Those challenges were the focus of a panel that met in Washington, D.C., this May as part of National Small Business Week 2010 events. The panel, titled “Exporting Forum: Customers, Profits, Jobs, and Growth: Take Your Business Global!” was moderated by Luz Hopewell, director of the Small Business Administration’s Office of International Trade, and was attended by several small business owners; business counselors; and representatives from federal agencies, including the Department of Commerce.
For More Information
A video of the small business exporting panel is available for viewing on the Web. Information about export assistance programs can be found at www.export.gov, the U.S. government’s export portal. Business counseling over the telephone is available from the Trade Information Center, tel.: 1-800-USA-TRADE.
Some of the challenges identified by the panel would be familiar to almost any small business—notably access to capital. But others were specific to doing business overseas and included the complexity of export paperwork, the difficulties of complying with international regulations, and the steep learning curve faced by potential exporters.
“It’s about education,” noted Susan Lusi, director of the Department of Commerce’s Trade Information Center. “Exporters cannot be passive when orders come in.” She pointed out that SMEs should to take advantage of the resources that the federal government makes available to them. Those resources include seminars, Webinars, and other printed materials that contain a wealth of information on every aspect of exporting, such as the Department of Commerce’s guidebook, A Basic Guide to Exporting.
Scott Green, CEO of Pucker Powder and the 2010 Alabama State Small Business Person of the Year, echoed that sentiment by recounting his company’s successful use of business counseling services offered by the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service. One such service, Gold Key, has helped Pucker Powder penetrate several overseas markets. The company expects export sales to soon account for 50 percent of total sales. “Gold Key is a wonderful program,” remarked Green.
One participant, Dan Nanigian, president of Nanmac Corporation in Framingham, Massachusetts, and winner of the 2010 Small Business Exporter of the Year award, stressed the advantages that U.S. companies have in making overseas sales. Selling his company’s temperature sensors in China is difficult. But according to Nanigian, U.S.–made products have a quality advantage, and his company “markets the hell out of them.” That effort has created a steady demand for Nanmac’s products in China despite the inadequacy of intellectual property rights protection and enforcement there and the ever-present possibility that his products could be reverse engineered and sold by the China-based competitors.
Importance of Practical Steps
All of the panel participants emphasized the practical steps that businesses need to take to succeed overseas. Those steps include taking advantage of the opportunities for face-to-face contact at trade shows, creating multilingual versions of company Web sites, finding and using overseas partners, and paying attention to the subtleties of linguistic and social conventions.
“The cultural barriers—even with English speaking countries such as the U.K. and Australia—are enormous,” noted Amy Frey, president of ATC International. “You have to be incredibly clear about … [such details as] different measurement systems and time and date conventions.”
John Ward is a writer in the International Trade Administration’s office of Public Affairs.
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