The import/export business is heating up and with massive trade deals looming, booming emerging markets and increased demand in the service industry, it’s no wonder.
Statistics show that the global trade industry is growing, and with it opportunities to increase sales and profits, grow your market share and client base, expand your workforce and reduce the risk to your business.
So how can you get in on this trend, and do you have what it takes to be successful in this type of endeavour?
We asked two global trade experts who have experience running their own successful businesses about the realities of starting an import/export business. Here’s what they have to say.
What kind of professional qualifications and experience do you need to start an import/export business?
Paula (Lunn) Greene, CITP|FIBP, President and CEO of BEYOND Ventures Group:
The professional qualifications of a successful salesperson or business owner are similar whether you are selling domestically or internationally.
However, those that are importing and exporting internationally will need to take the time to research and have the knowledge to go beyond the border.
And if you’re dealing with controlled goods or dangerous goods, to be successful, you will need to have great attention to detail, to make sure requirements are met at all times.
If you can read a recipe, you can import and export. It’s all in being able to follow the necessary steps: do the research, get the right training, find the right products, suppliers, partners, marketing, etc.
Alberto Quiroz, CITP|FIBP, Global B2B Business Development and Sales Leader:
People who have had local success selling their product or service can also be successful internationally – you can only export what you have.
If you’re not successful at home, it’s going to be very difficult to be successful abroad. Having a strong entrepreneurial spirit is important.
You need to be able to think fast on your toes, find the resources you need right away, and not be afraid to find the right people and go out and do it.
But you need to know your product and your markets well.
Entrepreneurs make a lot of mistakes and fail. The ones that are successful because of an idea and a hunch are in the minority. People who are more likely to be successful are the ones who know what they’re doing.
They know the global trade industry. They’ve been to school, got the necessary education and training – or found those resources (professionals who know the market, global trade environment) to take you there.
In the end, even if you plan to depend on hiring the right people and services to assist your import/export business, it is incumbent on you to know what’s required. Success in importing and exporting ultimately comes down to the right training, research to know what you’re doing, and taking the time to do it right.
What type of personality lends itself best to this kind of work?
Paula (Lunn) Greene: It really helps to be well-rounded, someone who is able to put their head down and do the research, because it’s extremely important to follow through on that.
It’s also very important to be a good communicator and adapt to different people and different audiences. You need to be aware of how people will perceive your messages in both verbal and in written form, in marketing materials and face-to-face meetings.
Being able to read body language, and being aware of how different cultures would receive what is being said, is key to success in this industry.
Building on that, someone who is open and adaptable to other cultures they may not be familiar with will also have an advantage in importing and exporting.
It’s always exciting to be engaged in foreign cultures and understand what’s most important to them, to be able to serve them better.
Alberto Quiroz: Someone who is able to listen and understand that every culture is different and needs to be treated differently will have a greater chance at success in international business.
Being naturally outgoing and social can help, but introverted people can be just as successful – if not more so – because they often listen more. Taking the time to really listen to prospective clients helps to understand their needs better.
You have to be very, very flexible on how to approach a market – that includes flexibility in the product itself, the pricing, and packaging. And you have to consider that in any given region there may be local bylaws or requirements that would necessitate changes to your products and the way you sell your products.
Unless you have a product that is explosive on the market, you need to be prepared to adapt your product to fit the needs of the market you are selling to.
Even high demand, seemingly universal products can fail in new markets when they neglect to adapt.
MacDonald’s is a great example; the menu changes from region to region to provide offerings that match the local tastes. They serve seaweed seasoning with their fries in Japan, McKebabs in Israel, pitas in Greece and triple bratwurst sandwiches in Germany. Apply your concept, and adapt it to what the market wants to buy.
So you need to read and understand the market. Another example of a product forced to adapt to fit into a new market was Mars bars in Mexico. The price of North American size candy bars was too expensive to Mexican consumers, so Mars changed the size, offering smaller chocolate bars to match the market’s economic capacity.
What kind of work will I be doing? Will I be sitting in an office all day, meeting with people around the world, travelling?
Paula (Lunn) Greene: Yes to all. If you’re looking at working in international markets, you should be aware that the traditional 9-5 work day is not a reality.
You may be up at 5am conversing with the EU, or up late at night speaking to clients in Australia or the Middle East. As an international business practitioner you are very much at the mercy of the world clock – where your clients are.
Sometimes that means long days, to ensure that your work and your clients’ needs are fully met.
The good news is, this time shifting be a benefit, because if you’re working with someone who is in a time zone behind yours you can gain an extra day to deliver on timelines.
Since it’s not a typical office day, you get to control your schedule based on what makes sense for you and your clients.
A word to the wise on scheduling – a lot of people getting into international trade for the first time often make the mistake of not being aware of the holidays and traditions of their new target market(s).
If I was looking to travel to the EU to meet clients in spring, for example, I might find that most of them are out on holidays. In that region and that culture it is quite common to take your vacation time near traditional holidays like Easter.
You should also be aware that business etiquette differs in many respects around the world. For example, the expected turn-around time in response to an inquiry in Asia is a matter of hours, not overnight or a few days later as in some other cultures.
You could miss out on business opportunities by missing these types of timelines.
There are many benefits to scheduling around an importer exporter’s day, along with long days, there are often exciting opportunities to build relationships with people all around the world and become familiar with their unique customs. It’s a very exciting profession.
The typical day is never a typical day.
Alberto Quiroz: Your day will be what you can make of it, it’s really up to you and the type of business you want to run. There will be lots of travel, and networking is very important, but you can make a balance. You don’t need to be on the road all of the time.
Your typical work week will include all of the above: office work and research, networking and traveling to meet clients and attend trade shows. But it’s much easier now to use technology to connect with clients in different regions such as Skype and VOIP and email.
Although, nothing trumps face to face visits and there are many cultures that still do business this way. Human contact is a must.
You will find that business travel often comes in seasons; trade shows and networking events are more common in the spring and fall. Your downtime in the less hectic travel seasons can be your time to do research and product development.
Is it possible to start an import/export business on the side – without quitting a full-time job?
Paula (Lunn) Greene: It is definitely possible to import and export part-time, I’ve frequently worked with startups who did so. The non-traditional hours can be an advantage for those that work full time during the day.
The ability to work outside of the traditional business hours with overseas clients makes it possible to manage this type of business on the side, over evenings and weekends.
Often people who want to do this on top of their full-time work commitments put a base in place for a company that they can build on over time. And later on, they will make a choice about whether or not they want to launch full-time into their import/export business, or sell what they’ve established at a profit.
To do it successfully part-time, it’s even more important to take advantage of coaches, mentors, and specialized training to do it right. The FITTskills training opened my eyes to many aspects of import/export that I wasn’t aware of, even though I was already working in international trade.
Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available that are not a big cost/time commitment to help guide newcomers to importing and exporting.
Alberto Quiroz: It’s possible to do this part-time if you want to. For me, it’s a full-time job because I chose to make the commitment. There has to be a high level of commitment, or you need to find the resources to run the business for you.
Do you think you have what it takes to be an importer and exporter? What advice would you add for anyone looking to start their own import/export business?