International Business Pre-Flight Checklist IV

Previously, I touched first on the need to Get Executive Thumbs-Up, then to Analyze Market Horizons and Prove Demand. Up next: Allocate Resources.

Can you afford the trip? Or, rather, trips. Lots of them. Face time with selling partners and customers is your key to success, especially when up against local competitors. Your sales and support co-workers and staff can count on a few new passport stamps every year, as you cultivate international revenue for your company. So budget accordingly across all departments to cover the special skills and resources that are needed when dealing globally.

Yes, your company may be in for an extreme makeover: accounting, product management, operations, and sales teams will take on new duties, and have to re-think basic procedures. For instance, does your accounting department need to hire foreign exchange and letter of credit experts? Does your HR director know how to recruit, hire, compensate, and motivate employees located in local markets? Will you need to contract with a logistics company to outsource fulfillment, support, and warehousing?

If you’re the one in charge of developing international markets for your company, you will quickly find out which of your co-workers will be on your case about moving their cheese, vs. those who become avid cheerleaders for you as you build up international sales. Like it or not, nearly all American workers have a direct hand in international trade. Most of us work for small to mid-sized companies, which in turn contribute the lion’s share of export/import revenue for our nation’s economy.

Handling most international transactions usually requires extra time, flexibility, and patience … all of which are in short supply in many businesses these days. In your role as international sales leader, have a weekly to-do item that will advance the cause of team-building. Enlist the help of those cheerleaders and your bosses to help you convert angst to adulation across add departments. Jumbo-sized boxes of chocolates from faraway lands won’t hurt, either, so leave room in your bag and shop the duty free retailers before taking off!

International Business Pre-Flight Checklist III

In 2 previous entries, I touched first on the need to Get Executive Thumbs-Up and then to Analyze Market Horizons. What’s Step 3 on the checklist? Prove Demand.

Is the destination worth the time and resources? There has to be tangible, measurable demand for your products and services in international markets, which signals long-term revenue growth, which you’ve already quantified in step 2’s analysis. Are your solutions able to reach new markets in their current or altered form, motivate local partners, win new revenue?

Here is where time spent at industry fairs in your target countries will pay off. While I encourage you to make friends with local distributors and brokers — they are great at local networking, and can introduce you to trusted resources in banking, legal and logistics circles — I advise against signing ANYTHING resembling a distribution agreement with them, exclusive or not, for the time being. It is just too soon to go steady, and you want to protect your goods and services from sandbagging by nefarious competitors or those who intend to steal your intellectual property. Sorry if I sound jaded here, but I’ve seen this scenario play out more than once.

While planning your trip, don’t forget to enlist the aid of the hard-working team at the US Department of Commerce Export Assistance Center near you. Though they work for Uncle Sam, these people think like entrepreneurs, have global-scale rolodexes, and act with the sense of urgency that business owners can appreciate. Their services, many at no cost, include access to in-market studies for your particular industry, ranging from political and regulatory obstacles down to current and forecasted market growth based upon point-of-sale data from retailers and world-class research. Put your tax dollars to work for your business!

At this step, companies very often make the strategic decision to split product lines down domestic vs. international lines. Feature sets that are vital to winning international revenue — multilingual interface, for instance — may be of negligible value to your domestic customers. And once this happens, be certain that your operations, accounting, and logistics functions can handle it. More on that in future entries.

Next installment on the list: Allocate Resources.

International Business Pre-Flight Checklist II

First on the list was to Get Executive Thumbs-Up. Item 2 in the pre-flight checklist is… Analyze Market Horizons.
Do you know where you want to go, and how to get there? An in-depth market analysis reveals whether you can win a hefty enough slice of the pie to warrant the formation of an international business plan.

First, define current and projected viability for products and services like yours, in all desired regions. Use point-of-sale register data from providers such as AC Nielsen, for instance. What challenges await your company in terms of regulations and tariffs? Second, describe market trends, who buys these goods, and why. What are attributes and priorities of these future customers? What aren’t they getting from existing products that yours can provide them? Third, write a scorecard for you vs. competitors; drill down to a feature-by-feature or price per unit analysis as needed. Can your product prevail in its current form, or is retooling a prerequisite? Fourth, flesh out what will become your product roadmap for international markets. Define existing and upcoming offerings, and why you feel they will win international business.

That’s a 30,000-foot view of the makings of a viable analysis. For the works, consult an international marketing expert with proven success in your industry. I know of a great one…

Next installment on the list: Prove Demand.

International Business Pre-Flight Checklist

Is Your Company Ready for Takeoff? Follow the lead of experienced airplane pilots: create a pre-flight checklist and then adhere to it as you ready your new international business projects for takeoff.

Selecting a new international sales partner? Localizing product to comply with trade regulations? Deciding where to locate distribution or manufacturing centers? Designing multilingual product packaging? Buying advertising in new outlets? Sponsoring an overseas trade fair? Unless you take time up front to gauge the project’s fit vs. your checklist, your company’s share of international sales deals may soon be filling the other guys’ pipelines.

Here’s step one of a checklist; adapt it to fit your company and industry.

1. Get Executive Thumbs-Up.
Do you have clearance from the tower for takeoff? Your company’s success in international business relies upon complete, enthusiastic support by its leaders. Ensure involvement in each phase of product roadmap, head count, and budget formation, making sure that your C-level executives, board members, and controlling investors review and endorse. That makes for smooth sailing when it comes time to approve company investments in product design, engineering, marketing and sales, and logistics.

In my first role as international sales manager, my VP boss and his boss the CEO were in lockstep with me year in, year out. They kept abreast of international trading partnerships, co-hosted sales meetings, went to bat for me during engineering reviews, and traveled with me to close key sales. We maintained an annual revenue share of 40% from international trade, and added significantly to the market value of the company, which came in handy during mergers and acquisitions.

Next installment: 2. Analyze Market Horizons.

It’s World Trade Week!

As you read this, about 31 million Americans are at work in jobs that are directly supported by international trade. Nearly one in every five U.S. jobs are linked to exports and imports of goods and services.
Contrary to popular belief, the United States remains the world’s largest manufacturer. Since NAFTA was launched, U.S. manufacturers have boosted their output by more than 50%; U.S. factories account for over 20% of the worlds manufacturing output. Indeed, in California alone, more than 700,000 jobs are supported by the $117 billion in manufactured exports from the state to the rest of the world.

This week-long observance of the absolute relevance of international trade to the US economy began in 1926 – like today, a most notable period of economic angst and isolationist leanings. The idea was hatched by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, who sought ways to promote growth for the booming southern Cal region and the new Port of Los Angeles.

Hat’s off to the resourceful folks at the US Chamber of Commerce whose website,, is chock full of trade data.

This month, the southern Cal region is still on it. In the remaining days of May, there will be gatherings in Santa Ana (Mexico Trade Outlook) and downtown LA (The Americas Business Forum) featuring some progressive, hard-working teams of government and trade officials. I will attend both, and will let you know how they go!

Socially-Aware Branding

“Brands belong to customers, not companies.” The authors of Groundswell posit that social networking phenomena have turned the tables on how brands are conceived, launched, and shepherded towards their intended customers. Readers are encouraged to view those ominous clouds looming on the horizon not as threatening hailstorms, but as promising abundant rainwater and bumper crops.

I recently advised a client to let his company’s reputation for personal service and quality craftsmanship make its own way into the social networking sphere. How? By gathering customer and prospect fans in such venues as Facebook. Let the good word on stellar service and top-rate products linger, in places where friends and families talk about everything from soccer tournaments (“silkscreened T-shirts, free delivery”) to prom dates (“buy one corsage, get one free”) to new blenders (“let’s pulverize Chuck Norris… if we dare”).

I’m especially gung-ho on this idea for providers of community-based goods and services, who can place calls to action that trail user social networkers of a certain age or affinity group or sports team who live within a slice of nearby zip codes. And that, dear friends, is why the latest Yellow Pages is about as hefty as my 8th grade yearbook.

Although your brand’s reputation roams far and wide online, you can still help shape its perceptions. Forrester Research (see Groundswell) reports that over 75% of online shoppers rely upon word-of-mouth endorsements. We fill virtual carts and book travel while hanging on the words of anonymous reviewers, as if they were yakking with us across the back fence. How do those vital ratings make it to e-tailer sites, you may ask? From the likes of companies such as the delightfully-named Bazaarvoice, who make tools that gather unbiased reviews seamlessly into any e-commerce page — yours or your retailers — wherein your products are displayed and sold.

I purchased Groundswell at Amazon because it was recommended by another marketing professional whom I trust, and because Amazon hinted that I might enjoy it. I then gave it a high five because it improves how I earn my living. Socially aware brand campaigns lead to high customer rankings and abundant business. Reap the harvest with the right tools!

Gee Whiz Job: Grab-Bag Retailing

“Funny, I Feel Like I’ve Left Something Behind…” More than 810 million air travelers took off and landed somewhere in the USA during 2008, from all around the world, on 10.7 million flights. That’s a lot of baggage, and one humongous lost and found room. Where do orphaned suitcases and their contents go?

Enter Unclaimed Baggage, based in Scottsboro, Alabama. These smart folks buy left-behind luggage, unclaimed after 90 days of intensive back-tracking to find owners, and re-launch the goods into the retail world, as one-of-a-kind buys for creative shoppers. Over 1 million items pass in and out of Unclaimed Baggage’s store, which I imagine resembles a very well-organized rummage sale without the funny smells. There’s even a concierge … go ahead, check to see if your AWOL bag of Tijuana treasures ended up there!

“Oh, I Dunno What I Want… Just Buy Me Something…” Recapture that lost thrill of reaching into a grab bag and pulling out… Something. Or satisfy that vague yen for Something new and different. The brains behind the online retailer SomethingStore have reduced the retail transaction down to the lowest common denominator: You, $10. Me, thing. We, trade. That’s it. I’m trying to imagine what their inventory control system must look like, or if I could make heads or tails out of their POS data reports. Oh, well. Pay the 10 bucks, sit back and wait for Something to arrive. I think I will try this out, and let you know what I get.

Birthday Gifts: This Time, It’s Personal

What do David Bowie, Tinkerbell, and The Smothers Brothers have in common? Today, I received a most awesome and eclectic assortment of birthday presents, items that scream “Family Joke”, time spent in favorite places, throwbacks to the olden days. No ordinary melange of gifts, these…

– a lithograph of La Rambla in Barcelona, mi ciudad favorita del mundo. Made all the sweeter because my daughter picked it out for me and toted it home.

– a pair of gifts for office use that poke fun at “Successories”. You know the smarmy sort of drivel I’m talking about: a eagle in flight at dawn, a lonely long-distance runner, ponies splashing through surf. A headline inspires viewers toward “Achievement”, “Discipline”, “Vision”, proper hygiene, high credit scores, pressed trousers, etc. My wife and I hoot with derision at this foppish faux-art, so were thrilled to hear about, offering a line of “Despair” gift items. My take today? A mug with a helpful “it’s half empty” message. And a lithograph (“like a poster, only swankier”) of a crew rowing into the fog that admonishes its viewer to “GET TO WORK: You’re not paid to believe in the power of your dreams”. Now THAT’S motivation!

– the best damn set of Disney schwag ever. What might you expect in the way of gifts from a 17-year-old who’s shopped while on a school trip to Disneyland? His buddy suggested batteries, but my boy came through: a Tinkerbell backscratcher (ever notice how Joy on “My Name Is Earl” resembles her?) and a hypnotizing, palm-sized Mickey laser orb with keychain. That there is going on my belt loop, for use on unruly customers during meetings.

– a 2-album set of David Bowie live, recorded in Sydney in 1978 (post-Ziggy, neon-and-40s-shoulder-pads, pre-Biafran wife era). A hint of bootleg makes these record albums sound tougher — new opening riff on “Rebel Rebel” — and sweeter, because it reminds me of when my buddies and I saw Bowie in concert back in ’74. My daughter found it in a shop on Brick Lane in London. The shop clerk said, “you’re a good daughter”. I agree.

– a DVD set of “Smothers Brothers”. I remember watching Tommy and Dick with my family and the best part was that we would all laugh at the same things. Plus, great example of “when worlds collide”: guest appearances by The Doors, Glen Campbell, and Ike and Tina Turner. The bro’s are wearing matching nehrus in their cover shot.

My point in all this — and I do have one — is that there’s a world of retail options that let creative shoppers hone in on any aspect of someone’s life, present or past, and find that once-in-a-lifetime gift. You may find they know you better than you think!

Now… anyone know how I can get those Bowie tracks from turntable to iPod??

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