Tina Shoulders’ business, Laidback, is part of a minority. Although 95% of the world’s consumers live outside the United States, the Department of Commerce reports that less than 1% of all American companies engage in the exporting of goods. About 5% to 10% of the Bronx, New York-based pop culture-inspired lifestyle and home decor company’s sales come from a boutique in Japan that noticed Laidback’s products and soon came knocking for pillows and pillow covers.
“A lot of companies today get into exporting by accident,” says John Joyce, a senior international trade finance specialist at the Boston U.S. Export Assistance Center. “Anyone in the world can access your website.”
Shoulders, 34, entering the export arena highlights how the global business landscape is accessible to small businesses of any size (Laidback generated nearly $50,000 in gross revenues last year). “The United States has done a lot of international trade, but we’ve been heavy on importing and there’s been less of an opportunity to export from an MBE (minority business enterprise) perspective,” says Sheila C. Hill Morgan, president and CEO of the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council. But times have changed, and Hill Morgan says countries including China, Africa, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico are now looking to partner with minority businesses.
Here are four steps to get you started on your journey of accessing opportunities overseas:
Decide whether you have the patience, time, and resources to invest in exporting. “It’s difficult enough for minority businesses to navigate the national market,” says Tiffany Bussey, director of the Morehouse College Entrepreneurship Center in Atlanta. Businesses must ask themselves how their product will be differentiated in order to meet the market’s needs, Bussey says. “We make the assumption that we can sell whatever works in the U.S. We need to first understand the market versus just pushing products abroad.”
Get ready for action by attending a conference and tapping into resource centers. This year’s Minority Enterprise Development (MED) Week Conference will focus on doing business globally. It takes place August 25-27 in Washington, D.C. Find your nearest U.S. Export Assistance Center and speak with a trade specialist who can assist with market research, trade counseling, business matchmaking, and trade advocacy. You can also find information about trade leads, trade barriers, and international company profiles though the International Trade Administration.
Find capital. The Small Business Administration also offers Export Express, a program that helps businesses secure loans up to $250,000. And launched this year by President Barack Obama, the National Export Initiative is a federal program aimed at doubling exports over the next five years.
Be mindful of legalities. “If you are working with an agent or distributor overseas, you want to make sure the agreement is reviewed by an attorney familiar with international law,” says Joyce. Companies exploring exports should also consult the Export Legal Assistance Network, which provides free advice on export licensing, tariffs, and intellectual property rights.