Great Business Ideas: Go on a Trade Mission

Great Ideas for your Small Business: Go on a Trade Mission

“Going global” is a popular buzz phrase, but talking about doing business abroad is much easier than actually doing it.

One smart way to explore the overseas market is to go on a government-sponsored trade mission. Every year, the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration invites selected entrepreneurs in search of new business to travel to foreign countries.

Business owners apply for a slot on the trip and pay all their own travel expenses. The government organizers find appropriate local business contacts and set up an intense schedule of meetings, tours, and receptions. A high-ranking official usually accompanies the group.

Although most trade missions are coed, the White House has been organizing special missions just for women business owners. Missions have headed to London, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, and Mexico City in recent years. “The Women in Trade Business Development Missions create a level playing field for mission members to network with each other, as well as with buyers and sellers in international markets,” said Alexis Herman, former director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and current Secretary of Labor. Herman, who has escorted business owners, said the women-only missions were created by President Clinton and former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

Glenda Binkley, owner of D&H Electronic Systems Inc. in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, went on trade missions to Amsterdam, Mexico, and London with Herman. “My objective was to gather data and look at the market potential,” said Binkley.

Before making any deals or decisions, she needed to know how to adapt her security systems and other electronic products for sale and use in European countries. Other countries have different electrical systems, safety requirements, and fire codes. Since visiting Europe, she’s begun modifying some of her products for future export. She is also asking the manufacturers she buys equipment from to think about redesigning their products for export.

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In addition to collecting the technical information she needed, she attended a variety of receptions and business meetings to acquaint herself with business opportunities. “The embassies took our product brochures and matched them with prospects,” she said.

Lori Foster, who owns a gift business and a juice business in San Francisco, went with Binkley on the mission. She returned from Amsterdam with memories, souvenirs, and a contract to sell her juices to a Dutch grocery chain. “The business deal happened within two weeks of coming home,” said Foster, founder of Creative Juices, which makes upscale beverages.

Her juices are sold at Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus stores in San Francisco, as well as other out- lets. She’s also looking into ways to manufacture her juices abroad to save the cost of shipping them from the United States. “Every single minute was filled with interview possibilities, business contacts, and meeting people,” said Foster, adding that because the women on her mission all made something different, there was no competition, just a lot of good feeling. “It was nonstop business in a very pleasant way from the minute we got on the plane,” she said.

The Commerce Department sponsors trade missions for all kinds of entrepreneurs. Missions for minority business owners are organized through the “Matchmaker” program, which has taken business owners to Mexico, Canada, and South America.

The Export-Import Bank offers various programs for business owners, including financing and insurance policies designed to protect small exporters against political and commercial risks. The bank is based in Washington, D.C.; 202-565-3946.

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A tremendous amount of information is available by calling the Commerce Department’s Trade Information Center at 800-USA-TRADE. The TIC coordinates information from nineteen federal agencies. Call to receive information on various countries via fax or to speak with a trade representative. The center provides export counseling, advice on export licenses and controls, market research, and trade leads.