By Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP
New America Network, Inc., a network of commercial real estate brokerages headquartered in Hightstown, NJ, now serves more than 200 individual markets including the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Holland, and Canada.
MBR Research, Inc., a small combustion research and development company based in Princeton, NJ, now does half of its business in Europe despite the fact that MBR is composed of three Ph.D. research scientists who are not marketeers.
Adrienne Zoble Associates, Inc. of Somerville, NJ, provides market planning, public relations, and advertising services and now has customers in eight countries in Europe and South America. They never visited the countries.
So how did these and other companies “go global”? Is there some formula for small business success in an international economy?
Like growth in domestic markets, each situation is unique, but there seem to be some commonalities. You must think “big” to see opportunities. You must also follow through with a quality product or service in a timely manner.
When he first founded the company in 1978, Gerald Finn envisioned New America as an organization comprised of local market experts across the world that, through a centralized system, would be accountable to corporations with diverse real estate service needs. So expansion of New America into the European market in 1986, through the acceptance of London-based Grimley & Son into its membership, was just one step in Finn’s grand global plan.
“Grimley shared the same vision we have in meeting corporate real estate service needs and the quality we demanded,” says Finn. “We knew that our corporate clients would need European-based operational sites. Grimley had that capability and was already a ‘chartered surveyor’ which is the highest designation available to a real estate service firm in the United Kingdom.”
Finn is also quick to point out that he is glad he selected a merger partner who spoke English because “the cultural differences are so wide between the United States and Europe that you want to avoid that added difficulty of a language gap.”
MBR Research, Inc. established European customers by first contracting the services of Svein Borgersen of Princeton Global Technologies, Inc. MBR Research had developed unique simulation software systems for use in defense and private testing efforts to minimize tens of thousands of dollars in mechanical testing costs. Svein was able to identify countries with available funds and the need for the technology as well as the technological expertise on how to use it. Svein used his network of contacts to schedule demonstrations at larger defense related organizations in Scandinavian countries. Much of their sales effort took the form of telephone and facsimile communication rather than multiple trips back and forth between Scandinavia and the USA.
Adrienne Zoble started her international expansion through the development of a product and the use of publicity. Zoble promoted her workbook, The Doable Marketing Plan: Business Survival and Growth for the ‘90’s, in periodicals like Travel Weekly, Reseller Management, and Industrial Distribution. Not only is the workbook selling, they now have international possibilities for seminars and marketing consulting assignments. Adrienne says she has learned a great deal about foreign currency exchange rates and shipping/handling charges, and feels “wonderful” when she gets to answer “yes” when asked “Are you an exporter?”
My own firm expanded into international assignments when our corporate clients acquired European-based competitors and/or entered global scale joint ventures and then expanded our role. There were a few key points in the process at which we needed to speak up and express our interest in doing work overseas. In a few situations, the possibility had not crossed the client’s mind. If we did not say something, they could have assumed that they would need to hire a European-based consulting firm.
Several of our international consulting assignments can be traced to our public speaking — the ultimate in “speaking up.” A good way to draw a global-oriented audience is to invite the Trade Consuls of other countries to seminars. Ms. Barbara Giacomin has an office right in Princeton where the sole focus is on encouraging United States/Canadian trade.
A few years ago, we got an excellent response to a direct mail campaign to attorneys and accountants. It included an invitation to attend a conference at which a member of our firm was a featured speaker. The mailing also included a request for referrals for other similar speaking opportunities. Most importantly, the cover letter included a sentence that mentioned our availability to provide the seminars on an international basis. Only a few more people attended the conference that would have otherwise gone, but we ended up with three invitations to provide speeches as a result of that mailing, and, yes, one of the speeches was outside of the USA.
It is of the utmost importance to follow up on international leads acquired at speeches and seminars. It may mean opening up the front of the phone book to learn how to make an overseas call, but it is definitely worth it.
Over the years, we have also found that public officials need to know when you are scheduled to do a public speech and/or that you have an interest in “going global.” For example, Congressman Dean Gallo had an interest in enhancing international trade opportunities for New Jersey. He even created a small business import/export task force in the mid ‘80’s. Representatives of governmental agencies involved in international trade are also good additions to seminar brochure distribution lists.
There are some excellent resources within New Jersey for the aspiring small business exporter. New Jersey’s Commerce Department works with small business owners who want to expand into international trade. New Jersey’s Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) provide one-on-one counseling for small business owners who want to get into exporting, plus they have sponsored some excellent economic development conferences that have included presentations that detail how to get business in specific countries.
Other resources include the US Small Business Administration’s Newark office and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Each county has economic development offices. Plus, I have found my regional Economic Development Council to be particularly helpful.
Some of our other international assignments have resulted from leads generated during association-sponsored trade missions. NJBIA (New Jersey Business and Industry Association), the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Women Business Owners each sponsor trade missions. The trade missions I prefer include a series of pre-set, one-on-one interviews with government and corporation procurement officers. It is so much easier when someone from your association has paved the way for you. Trade missions are expensive, but you can be very productive if you plan your trip and combine a trade mission with a personal vacation.
Business associations also sponsor procurement fairs that can lead to international opportunities. In 1986, we had sent a representative of our firm to MARKETPLACE EAST in Washington, DC, that was co-sponsored by the US Small Business Administration and the National Association of Women Business Owners. The focus of the event was federal government procurement. We learned a great deal about the federal government procurement process through participation at the event, and established some contacts with larger firms who already had government contracts who were there looking for potential subcontractors.
We became a subcontracted firm on a large project behind a much larger Washington, DC-based “prime” that has a number of contacts with the US government. As with the trade mission approach, the way was essentially paved for us to do work in Latin America. We just needed to add our expertise to what the prime contractor had to offer. That was a much easier way for us to go about it. Not only did the people in the other firm know more about doing business in Latin American countries, they could afford to have a full time government contract proposal team and know how to “work” the system. Unlike the “sponsoring prime,” we do not specialize in government contracts. Representatives of the “prime” contractor told us that they were impressed by the fact that we know to include USA after our address.
Another example of a fairly inexpensive way to get international visibility is to list your firm in standard directories. There are dozens of them. HRD Directors use ASTD’s Marketplace Directory. We have had numerous opportunities to compete in bidding situations when vice presidents of Human Resource Development have sent requests for proposals to firms like ours that were listed in that directory of consultants and trainers. In one case, we were one of only three firms that responded to an RFP. I recall thinking at the time that our competitors must have been convinced that doing business internationally was not worth the risk, and their assumptions would help pave the way for us.
Even less expensive than directory listings is the free press release option. We can trace one of our favorite assignments back to publication of a press release. We offered free copies of a self-assessment instrument our firm had created for managers. We had submitted our press release to twenty different magazines, all of which are published in the United States. To our great surprise, we received over 1000 requests for copies of our “Compatibility Test,” including letters from the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Germany, and Hong Kong. Frankly, we were not geared up to fully develop all of the leads that resulted from that press release at that time, but we will not make the mistake again.
The same press release led to other calls from the Technological Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. We received a call from a team of academicians who were studying the application of Japanese management methods in European-based small businesses. The phone calls led to many things including invitations to speak at conferences, research grant possibilities, joint venture leads, articles in European publications, and referrals.
Also, as we expand our library of audio and video taped products, we are trying to keep international options in mind. At this point, it still sounds expensive and clumsy to us, but watch. Someone reading this article will no doubt contact us to offer some assistance in opening up channels of distribution! The point here? Speak up — be it in person or in writing.
Today’s business periodicals include numerous “How To” articles about doing business in specific countries. The July 1991 issue of Business International, for example, included several practical hints and leads for business in Europe, Mexico, the USSR, and Japan. If you have a target market in mind, it would probably be a good idea to collect copies of such articles that are focused on your target. Plus, there are books about cultural differences and international business courtesy available in most book stores.
I enjoy attending seminars on international trade when I attend conferences. Plus, there are private consulting firms that specialize in coaching their clients in the exporting process. So in addition to speaking up, I am suggesting that people interested in “going global” read about it and capitalize on the wealth of learning opportunities that exist. I am always amazed when I see only a small handful of people attending seminars on international trade.
Recently, I have been impressed by the energies being expended by many chambers of commerce to encourage international trade among member firms. The Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, for example, adopted the slogan “Think globally to survive locally.” Last year they surveyed their members and learned that 34 firms were already involved in international trade. The Chamber then provided a series of excellent case-study style seminars based on international trading experiences of local member companies including K-Tron, Inductotherm, and Aquatrols.
Like the introduction of a new product, expansion into a new market place takes some investment of time, effort, and money. For many firms, geographic expansion (including international options) offers a chance to thrive let alone survive during this recession.
When you think you want to “go global,” consider:
- Doing market research, including contacting public agencies, attending seminars, and reading articles
- Looking for joint venture possibilities
- Mentioning your availability to serve international customers on your brochures and direct mail pieces
- Subcontracting to larger corporations, especially those engaged in government contracts
- Participating in procurement fairs, trade shows and trade missions
- Using free publicity/public relations
- Making public speeches, expanding your invitation list and following up on leads
- Publishing articles
- Running directory listings and display advertisements
- Trying targeted direct mail or telemarketing campaigns
- Asking for referrals
- and most importantly, speaking up to express your interest in international trade.
Let others know that you are interested in international trade. You might be pleasantly surprised to see how much help you can get to make that dream a reality. Over my 20 years in the consulting industry, I have found that just speaking up and expressing an interest in international trade opens doors. People will not know that you are interested in doing business on an international scale unless you tell them. Yes, research about a specific target marketplace is helpful, but I have found that the greatest barrier to small business people doing business internationally is that they inadvertently edit out possibilities because they assume they could not handle it.