Studies show that American small businesses lag behind their international counterparts in engaging in global trade. Part of that is due to a lack of knowledge about other cultures and economies. Here are some tips and tools for getting the information you need to succeed in the global marketplace:
1. Gather intelligence. Before conducting business overseas, it’s essential to do your homework. A few spy tips can’t hurt, either. The Central Intelligence Agency — yes, that Central Intelligence Agency — has already gathered extensive facts on the people, history, government, economy, geography, communications and transportation systems of more than 260 countries. You can access this data through the CIA’s World Factbook which is available online free of charge. You’ll find additional resources on international markets in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and various publications by the World Bank.
2. Learn the lingo. Because of language and cultural barriers, marketing in the global economy can be tricky. For marketing-related insights from bloggers around the world — with topics ranging from socialmedia to Web analytics — head to GlobalThoughtz. To further expand your global business lexicon, check out globalEDGE, B2B International and the Global Small Business Blog.
3. Watch those exchange rates. If you aren’t careful, fluctuations in currency exchange rates can eat up your profit margins. ExchangeRate, provides data feeds to help you keep up, while sites like, Yahoo! Finance, x-rates and OANDA offer currency conversion tools.
4. Be a smart shipper. More often than not, expanding into a new global market involves a regular shipping routine. The FedEx International Resource Center is an excellent guide for small-business owners, no matter what shipping carrier you use. You’ll find detailed profiles on more than 200 countries with specific requirements that may affect your shipment. The site also offers international document assistance, a list of shipping do’s and don’ts, global trade links, and more.
5. Become a social media butterfly. Nothing has done more to open up global business relationships than the explosion of social media. MyVenturePad spotlights the most effective social media strategies for small businesses, including tips on international business-to-business collaboration.
6. Bookmark the SBA. The Small Business Administration has developed a comprehensive resource page that links to fast facts, videos, podcasts and online courses on numerous aspects of international trade. The SBA also offers financing programs for small businesses looking to go international. But remember, these are loan programs — not grants. And SBA loans typically require personal guarantees from the small-business owner, so be aware of the increased risk you’re taking.
7. Track the trends. International economic trends can quickly turn a market opportunity into a financial disaster. If you’re engaging in business overseas, it’s important to keep a close eye on the world economy, from the budget deficit in Greece to the housing boom in China. The trends can change minute by minute, but you can stay current with blogs such as Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, Global Economy Matters and Global View Today.
8. Know the rules. The laws governing business in foreign countries can be puzzling, to say the least. To clear up some confusion, refer to ENTERWeb’s list of sites that detail international business and trade laws. But don’t try to do it all yourself. Hire an attorney experienced in international business and trade laws. The best way to find such an attorney is always through referrals from other small-business owners.
9. See the world. Ultimately, the best way to stay worldly-wise is to observe the world firsthand. Cordia Harrington, founder of Tennessee Bun Company, always encourages my students to travel abroad. She says it not only opens your eyes to potential opportunities, but also to the limitations of and threats to doing business in foreign markets. So once you’ve established your business abroad, prepare to enter the Frequent Flyer Zone!