How to Start an International Sales Program Without Going Broke

11 Jul How to Start an International Sales Program Without Going Broke

The best advice I’ve heard so far about starting an export program—yes, if you sell internationally, you’re exporting—is to act like a start-up. Josh Halpern from the eCommerce Innovation Lab explained recently in a global business webinar that acting like a start-up—including doing incremental testing, learning from your mistakes, and starting out with low investment—will help you manage your risk and exit promptly if things don’t work as planned.

For a small or medium sized business, easing into international sales is a more manageable and realistic path into exporting, especially if you’re struggling to keep up with domestic growth. I recently consulted with a bakery business in Humboldt County who was approached by European buyers at a natural foods expo about selling her product abroad.

While excited about the opportunity to go global, there were challenges ahead. She learned that her product shelf life would have to be extended to cover the long ship time, and that she’d have to create new product labels to meet the EU’s labeling requirements. On their own, these didn’t sound too daunting, but coupled with trying to keep up with growing local demand for her product, she had to decide to put exporting on hold.

So, is it possible to start an export program when your time is maxed out on your domestic business and you have a limited budget? Yes! You just need to get creative and put a little time in up front.

Here are 3 strategies on how to start an international sales program without going broke (or working yourself to death!).

1. Get an intern!

This is my favorite strategy because you’re also changing a life, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and working with a go-getter who is eager to learn. Interns can be paid or unpaid, undergraduate or graduate level, and can even be virtual. In any scenario, an intern is going to need guidance from you and some investment of your time.

The upside is that an intern could potentially turn into an employee down the road, and you’ve already vetted them for their strengths and weaknesses. Here are two options for bringing an intern on board:

a) Hire an intern where the school supplements the intern’s salary, e.g., the Community Internship Program at Humboldt State’s School of Business. You can read about intern Brad’s experience working for Humboldt’s Dick Taylor chocolate company in the sidebar. Check with your local and regional universities to see if they offer these types of programs.

b) Hire an intern from an international studies or international business program. These interns are going to have skills and experience focused on a specific country, region, or language, which is beneficial if you know the market you’re targeting. Oftentimes, these programs require an internship or work experience with a global focus. Some options are the School of Global Policy & Strategy at UC San Diego or CSU Chico’s College of Business.

2. Hire a student group

Graduate programs often host project-oriented student groups that offer market research and consulting services to American and foreign enterprises. A couple of examples are Export Access Global Consulting at UC San Diego’s GPS School or the International Business Development Program at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

These groups provide business solutions for specific projects with clear objectives and a set timeline. The upsides are that the group will usually put together the project proposal and timeline, and the project will be overseen by an expert faculty advisor.

3. Hire a part-time person

If you have real sales potential in foreign markets, it may be worth it to hire a part-time person who is dedicated to getting your international sales program off the ground. Asking a current employee to add these tasks to their already full-time workload is doomed to fail. You must have someone who can focus fully on understanding the foreign market, setting up a market entry plan, researching product export requirements, establishing a logistics strategy, etc.

While it can be difficult to find someone with global trade experience, especially in more rural areas, there are resources available. For example, you can use NASBITE’s search tool to find CGBPs, or Certified Global Business Professionals, in your area. Individuals with the CGBP certification have a strong base of global trade knowledge, from global business management and global marketing, to supply chain management and trade finance, as well as knowledge on resources available to assist you in building your export program.