For small businesses, exporting can be both exciting and terrifying. So much opportunity, and so much risk!
We’ve gathered our top 3 tips for other small businesses looking to get into exporting, but if there were one key takeaway we could recommend, it would be this: be flexible and keep an open mind. With the help of experts, government resources, meaningful relationships, and most importantly a flexible plan, we’ve been working hard to drive international sales for the past six months. You’re going to learn a lot in this process and being flexible and curious about learning more will truly be helpful!
1. Start with a Plan, and Be Ready to Change It
One of the most important things we’ve learned is that exporting or “going international” can change your entire business. There may be changes to your operations that you can’t currently foresee based on any number of foreign market conditions. We started actively pursuing exports when we had been selected for a wonderful state-funded grant program (see tip #3), and we had the enthusiasm of everyone on our team. We didn’t have a formal plan and at first, we thought it would be best to expand in foreign markets we were already seeing sales in. This was a very reactive approach that left us no room to act strategically – we didn’t really know if those were the best markets for us. We have a small team and want to be as efficient and strategic as possible. We built our two-year plan thoughtfully by utilizing expert advice, researching and prioritizing our top markets, and building realistic goals and metrics based specifically on our products.
Got your plan? Good. Be ready to scrap it at a moment’s notice. Here’s where being flexible and open-minded really comes in. Before you start exporting, you can’t know what you don’t know. Unexpected roadblocks and new opportunities will come up, so be willing to re-think your strategy and re-work your plan if you need to.
2. Get Everyone on Board
Have you gotten together with your internal team to talk through what the implications of exporting will be? If we hadn’t talked to our IT team, our timeframe to get to market in any country would be seriously delayed. How could we sell in any country if we didn’t have a web presence? What impact would selling in a foreign market have on our current website? Our IT department could answer these questions or be able to research them in a language they could understand. It is important that your team understand their role in your international success. Getting all your internal experts together to talk through the process for each market will be vital to your international efforts.
3. The Two R’s: Relationships and Resources
Building relationships is vital to the success of any business, but when you’re heading out into unchartered waters, the right connections can help you foresee and avoid risks and unknowns along the way. Attending exporter events put on by your state or the federal government, local economic development groups, and chambers of commerce can be a great start. Experienced and new exporters have all been where you are now, and we’ve found that they are happy to talk about their experience. We’ve also tried to stay as connected to our local resources as possible; there are local, state, and federal programs and funds available to exporters of all sizes, and there is no reason you shouldn’t use them! Checking with your local economic development office or Small Business Development Center and attending networking events is a fantastic way to start!