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Sourcing International Customers/Suppliers

One of the biggest challenges for a company when deciding that it needs to move overseas is deciding where to start. Many decide to never start because it just seems like an insurmountable project. While moving your business from a strictly domestic affair to an international one will have many facets, the most important one will be sourcing customers and/or suppliers.

In moving overseas, it must be remembered that even more so than doing business in your home country, international business is a relationship affair. Looking up “Widget Manufacturers In Saudi Arabia” in Google and then calling them to check prices and starting to import them isn’t going to be very effective, and your experience is likely to be a negative one in which delays, disputes, and other negative factors arise. The online route might give you some good information on whether it is generally better to source your widgets from Saudi Arabia, as opposed to Vietnam. However, to get to the right widget manufacturer, you are going to need be introduced or recommended to them by someone that they trust. Consequently, you are going to need to build up your credibility. And in order to do that, you will likely need to do one or more of the following:

1.) Reach to the trade mission of the country’s embassy.

Virtually every country that has diplomatic relations with the United States will have at least one consular officer whose job it is to help facilitate trade between the United States and that country. You should reach out and establish contact with this individual(s). If you have a consulate of that country in a city near you, reach out to them. Although many of the details of what you will need to do business in that country may very well be found on their website, reaching out to them and asking for recommendations of people who you can contact to facilitate business in your industry will put you on their radar. If possible, ask about any consular- sponsored trade promotion events that you might attend. Finally, be sure to get on any email list that they might have. By doing these things, you will be starting to establish credibility with them, and any recommendations that they provide are likely to be companies and individuals who are connected. And these are often the folks who you want to be doing business with anyway.

2.) Get involved with country X/American Chamber of Commerce.

If you live near a large city, it can be useful to find out if there is a chapter of a local Chamber of Commerce that focuses on a specific country such as the German-American Chamber of Commerce for example. There isn’t a specific Chamber of Commerce (CoC) like this for every country, but if there is one in your area for a country that you are looking to do business with, I would highly recommend that you take some time and start attending their events. This especially true if you are smaller company. Many consular trade officials won’t want to spend their time with a company that is considered “too small”. However, many of the CoCs have ties to the embassies and consulates of the country in question, and they really don’t mind dealing with companies that are “too small”. They often have a hard time finding people to attend their events and/or volunteer for their organization. By getting involved (even if just for 6 to 12 months), you will become visible and can perhaps use this to develop a relationship with the consular staff.

3.) Approach business organizations for your own industry.

As a business owner, you are always incredibly busy and it can seem as if you have too much to do. However, it is worth taking time to become familiar with organizations that focus on your industry. If there is a local chapter of one such organization in your area, sign up for their newsletter, pay a membership fee, and most importantly, attend events. For a busy business owner, these organizations can sometimes seem an irrelevant waste of time & money, and in certain cases they undoubtedly are. However, many business owners who do sign up for the newsletter often miss the most important thing, which is to attend events. If you are going to make an organization work for you, you need to become involved and attend their events. The dirty little secret of most of these sorts of organizations is that most people don’t attend or get involved. By doing so, you immediately elevate your own profile. By doing this and getting involved, you can establish yourself as one of the local “industry experts”, the purpose of which is to add to your own credibility. While the business organization may or may not have connections with folks who do business in the country you are looking to engage with (great, if they do), but being a “local industry expert” can be of assistance as you approach the relevant chamber of commerce or consulate referred to in items 1 and 2.

4.) Trade shows.

Attending an industry trade show can be an invaluable source of contacts as you seek to source overseas business partners. While having a booth there for your company would be ideal, some smaller companies may not always have the budget for that. Simply attending a show that will be featuring companies in your industry/country that you are looking to enter can be productive. While it might sometimes seem that visiting booths and handing out business cards that will soon be forgotten is a waste of time and money, that is not necessarily so. Engaging representatives from the various companies/entities in conversation can be productive in itself. But even better is if you are able to invite the rep for dinner or drinks to continue the conversation. The point of attending these events is to build relationships to further your company expansion into country X. Trade shows give you the opportunities to do this that are unlike any other, if you know how to use them.

It may seem that doing items 1-4 is a lot of convoluted effort to source international business partners when maybe just doing things online would be easier. I would point out that in going overseas, you are going outside of your culture AND your legal system. If having good relations with suppliers/customers is indispensable in a domestic context, it is even more critical (if that’s even possible) in a foreign context. You need a partner that understands and has experience with the other culture and legal system, because you don’t. Building a good relationship with a foreign business partner is going to take a lot of extra time & effort, and there really aren’t any short cuts where this is concerned. Having a bad partner in any business can end up driving it into bankruptcy. The risks are even greater with a foreign business partner, because you aren’t familiar with doing business with that other country. Taking the extra time and energy to make sure you partner with the right entity can not only be critical to making sure that your foreign venture succeeds, but it can even ensure that your whole company survives the attempt.

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