One of the common misperceptions is that a business needs to be test launched in the US market before it can go global. Many companies start transacting internationally only when they receive inquiries via their websites and most advisors consider international expansion a second-level priority. The problem is that critical parts of the business (website, marketing, finance, IP protection and even mundane issues like product size and packaging) are set up for the US market and have to be redone to work internationally.
My experience in working with start-up and early stage companies over the past decade is that it never too early to start building an international business. In today’s global economy, as soon as you put up a website, you are involved with global commerce, even if you don’t import or export anything at that time.
The key to all of this is planning for international business from day one of operations. It means identifying a team of international trade experts (finance, legal, logistics, marketing etc.) that you can call on as needed (and not spend weeks or months trying to find the right answers) .Here are seven tips that I would recommend to every entrepreneur with a potential for international business:
- You need to define yourself as a global company. Take a look at your organization chart – it shouldn’t list international operations as a side box. Your company should have a global purpose with strategies for selling into specific markets.
- Your market development efforts should be global. That starts off with expert market research – the US government website www.export.gov is a treasure trove of reliable information. Your website should welcome international inquiries. If you are targeting specific areas, think about having selected webpage professionally translated into other languages. (Google translations are still embarrassingly bad).
- Your manufacturing and packaging processes should be acceptable outside the US. The simplest issue is using metric measurements, instead of English. Do you need international standards – for example ISO or CE? You might want to design packaging or labels to allow for a sticker to comply with local regulations.
- You should identify one or more logistics companies that can help you with the paperwork and shipping. All of them can advise you on potential issues (paperwork, certificates of origin, tariff levels etc. A good logistics partner can prevent disasters.
- You should have reliable and knowledgeable international finance and insurance partners. There are many government or private sector options so the customer really is in the driver’s seat. Just remember that it is frequently easier to get financing for an international shipment than a domestic order. Properly sequenced, there can be less risk in shipping to a remote third world country than shipping to the next town. Good banking, finance and insurance partners will be able to guide you along the right path, even startups.
- You similarly need a good legal team to support you. Notice I said having a team – not just one attorney. A good contract attorney will help prevent or easily settle disputes. On the other hand, if you have intellectual property issues (patents, trademarks or industrial secrets), you will need to find an IP lawyer specialized in international practice and ideally with experience in the markets in which you want to operate.
- You need to build international into your company processes. That means everything from manufacturing to invoicing. Management should reinforce the message to all employees that the company perspective is global. Your employees need to be trained to think globally and to be sensitive to how business is done is other cultures. The best way to achieve that is to build a staff with multi-cultural backgrounds.
CiViC 180, in partnership with K5 Launch (a business accelerator founded by members of the Tech Coast Angels), has started the International Business Accelerator (IBA) which works with startup and early stage companies to guide them through the growth process. The IBA has two physical locations: Long Beach and LAX.