Tools of the Trade

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.

Tina Shoulders’ business, Laidback, is part of that minority. She launched her Bronx, New York-based pop culture-inspired lifestyle and home decor brand in December 2006, and it generated nearly $50,000 in gross revenues last year. About 5% to 10% of Laidback’s sales come from a boutique in Japan that noticed Laidback’s products and soon came knocking for pillows and pillow covers.

Laidback’s visibility through its website, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and product placement on television shows such as the The Real World and Ugly Betty helped put Laidback on the international radar.

“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.”

Although Shoulders’ exporting success highlights how the global business landscape is accessible to small businesses of any size, the 34-year-old designer wants more. She’s looking to increase Laidback’s international business to 25% over the next two years by working with foreign manufacturers, participating in trade shows abroad, and growing her online presence through a global design blog.

“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.

Even the government has stepped onboard. Earlier this year President Barack Obama launched the National Export Initiative, a federal program aimed at doubling exports over the next five years. The program will impact companies like Laidback, as the goal is to augment the markets U.S. businesses sell to, and create jobs by helping more businesses export. The Small Business Administration also offers Export Express, a program that helps businesses secure loans up to $250,000.

Aside from governmental support, businesses must decide if exporting is a challenge they can handle.

Before taking the plunge, 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.” 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.

Once you’re ready for action, 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.

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.