Foreign Exports: Small Business in a Big World
By John Tozzi
March 24, 2010 7:04AM
The Obama Administration wants to double U.S. foreign exports in five years by enlisting the help of small business, with new federal efforts to encourage global trade. But first, entrepreneurs must overcome concerns about getting paid. For small businesses to succeed with foreign exports, online marketing and e-commerce are essential.
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Other business owners might sour on exporting after what happened to David Old. His company, a 15-employee wood flooring producer in Las Vegas, N.M., had completed a $130,000 order for a new theater floor for a customer
in Seoul, South Korea, in 2008. The buyer paid a deposit up front, passed a credit check, and made the first two payments on time. But the final payment of $40,000, due after the financial crisis began that fall, never arrived.
Despite the loss, Old is counting on foreign sales to expand his business from $1.25 million in revenue this year to $20 million in three years, based on a process he’s developing to make high-quality block flooring out of low-grade wood. A 54-year-old Marine veteran who speaks six languages and had a previous business trading aircraft internationally, Old says customers from around the world find him online, and vice versa.
His company, Old Wood LLC, represents both the challenges and the potential that exporting presents small businesses. President Barack Obama set a goal to double American exports in the next five years in his National Export Initiative launched Mar. 11. For that to happen, he’s pushing for more companies like Old’s to expand into new markets abroad.
Companies with fewer than 500 employees make up half of private nonfarm GDP but only 30 percent of exported goods, according to data
from the Census and the Small Business Administration. Large companies dominate exports. The top 500 U.S. exporters accounted for 60 percent of the value of all exported goods in 2007, according to the latest data available from the Census. Total U.S. exports, including goods and services, topped $1.5 trillion in 2009.
Skeptics argue that federal efforts will have little effect because exports depend on foreign growth and the value of the dollar. But others say many small businesses that succeed in the U.S. just need some education and assistance to start selling abroad. “There are like-minded customers out there for almost any product category,” says Tomas Hult, director of the International Business Center at Michigan State University. “If there’s some hand-holding in that initial part of the process, we’re going to see some results.”
The biggest hurdle stopping most companies from doing business abroad is fear, says Fred Hochberg, chairman of the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that helps U.S. companies finance international trade through loan guarantees, credit insurance, and other support. “If you’re a small business in New York and you’re selling to Chicago, you know what the laws are, you know where the banks are, you know if you don’t get paid you can sue,” he says. “When you’re selling overseas, those things aren’t as clear.” (continued…)
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