How To Start An Import/Export Business

- Jun 29, 2017 -

     International trade is one of the hot industries of the new millennium. But it's not new. Think Marco Polo. Think the great caravans of the biblical age with their cargoes of silks and spices. Think even further back to prehistoric man trading shells and salt with distant tribes. Trade exists because one group or country has a supply of some commodity or merchandise that is in demand by another. And as the world becomes more and more technologically advanced, as we shift in subtle and not so subtle ways toward one-world modes of thought, international trade becomes more and more rewarding, both in terms of profit and personal satisfaction.

  

Importing is not just for those lone footloose adventurer types who survive by their wits and the skin of their teeth. It's big business these days--to the tune of an annual $1.2 trillion in goods, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Exporting is just as big. In one year alone, American companies exported $772 billion in merchandise to more than 150 foreign countries. Everything from beverages to commodes--and a staggering list of other products you might never imagine as global merchandise--are fair game for the savvy trader. And these products are bought, sold, represented and distributed somewhere in the world on a daily basis.

But the import/export field is not the sole purview of the conglomerate corporate trader, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the big guys make up only about 4 percent of all exporters. Which means that the other 96 percent of exporters--the lion's share are small outfits like yours wil be--when you're new, at least.

Importing is not just for those lone footloose adventurer types who survive by their wits and the skin of their teeth. It's big business these days--to the tune of an annual $1.2 trillion in goods, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Exporting is just as big. In one year alone, American companies exported $772 billion in merchandise to more than 150 foreign countries. Everything from beverages to commodes--and a staggering list of other products you might never imagine as global merchandise--are fair game for the savvy trader. And these products are bought, sold, represented and distributed somewhere in the world on a daily basis.

But the import/export field is not the sole purview of the conglomerate corporate trader, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the big guys make up only about 4 percent of all exporters. Which means that the other 96 percent of exporters--the lion's share are small outfits like yours wil be--when you're new, at least.

Types of Import/Export Businesses

First off, let's take a look at the players. While you've got your importers and your exporters, there are many variations on the main theme:

  • Export management company (EMC): An EMC handles export operations for a domestic company that wants to sell its product overseas but doesn't know how (and perhaps doesn't want to know how). The EMC does it all -- hiring dealers, invoicing customers, distributors and representatives; handling advertising, marketing and promotions; overseeing marking and packaging; arranging shipping; and sometimes arranging financing or contracting out for a developing a credit card app. In some cases, the EMC even takes title to the goods, in essence becoming its own distributor. EMCs usually specialize by product, foreign market or both, and--unless they've taken title--are paid by commission, salary or retainer plus commission.

  • Export trading company (ETC): While an EMC has merchandise to sell and is using its energies to seek out buyers, an ETC attacks the other side of the trading coin. It identifies what foreign buyers want to spend their money on and then hunts down domestic sources willing to export. An ETC sometimes takes title to the goods and sometimes works on a commission basis.

  • Import/export merchant: This international entrepreneur is a sort of free agent. He has no specific client base, and he doesn't specialize in any one industry or line of products. Instead, he purchases goods directly from a domestic or foreign manufacturer and then packs, ships and resells the goods on his own. This means, of course, that unlike the EMC, he assumes all the risks (as well as all the profits).

Swimming the Trade Channel

Now that you're familiar with the players, you'll need to take a swim in the trade channel, the means by which the merchandise travels from manufacturer to end user. A manufacturer who uses a middleman who resells to the consumer is paddling around in a three-level channel of distribution. The middleman can be a merchant who purchases the goods and then resells them, or he can be an agent who acts as a broker but doesn't take title to the stuff.

Who your fellow swimmers are will depend on how you configure your trade channel, but they could include any of the following:

  • Manufacturer's representative: a salesperson who specializes in a type of product or line of complementary products; for example, home electronics: televisions, radios, CD players and sound systems. He often provides additional product assistance, such as warehousing and technical service.

  • Distributor or wholesale distributor: a company that buys the product you've imported and sells it to a retailer or other agent for further distribution until it gets to the end user

  • Representative: a savvy salesperson who pitches your product to wholesale or retail buyers, then passes the sale on to you; differs from a manufacturer's representative in that he doesn't necessarily specialize in a particular product or group of products

  • Retailer: the tail end of the trade channel where the merchandise smacks into the consumer; as yet another variation on a theme, if the end user is not Joan Q. Public but an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), then you don't need to worry about the retailer because the OEM becomes your end of the line. (Think Dell Computer purchasing a software program to pass along to its personal computer buyer as part of the goodie package.)

The Right Stuff

Not everybody is cut out to be an international trader. This is not, for example, a career for the sales-phobic. If you're one of those people who would rather work on a chain gang than sell Girl Scout cookies, or if you blanch at the thought of making a sales pitch, then you don't want to be in import/export. This is also not a career for the organizationally challenged. If you're one of those let-the-devil-handle-the-details types whose idea of follow-up is waiting to see what happens next, you should think twice about international trading.

If, on the other hand, you're an enthusiastic salesperson, a dynamo at tracking things like invoices and shipping receipts, and your idea of heaven is seeing where new ideas and new products will take you, and if, to top it off, you love the excitement of dealing with people from different cultures, then this is the career for you.

It also helps if you already have a background in import/export. Most of the traders we talked with were well-versed in the industry before launching their own businesses. Peter P., who founded a Russian trading company, segued directly from his college major in international business to an operations position with an international frozen-meat trading company in Atlanta, which landed him in the right place at the right time.

"I speak both Russian and Ukrainian fluently," Peter says. "I'm of Ukrainian descent. I took Russian as a minor in college, initially as an easy grade. Little did I know when I graduated back in '89 that Russia would open up to the West shortly thereafter."

The Trade Hit Parade

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the top 10 countries with which America trades (in order of largest import and export dollars to smallest) are:

  • Canada

  • Mexico

  • Japan

  • China

  • Germany

  • United Kingdom

  • France

  • Republic of Korea (South Korea)

  • Taiwan

  • Singapore

You needn't, of course, confine yourself to trade deals with importers and exporters in these countries--there are scads of other intriguing possibilities available, including the member countries of the Caribbean Basin and Andean pacts and the new kids on the Eastern Bloc, the former Soviet Union countries. But as a newbie on the international scene, you should familiarize yourself with our biggest trading partners and see what they have to offer. Then take your best shot, with them or with another country.

Target Market

Every business needs consumers for its products and services to, as the Vulcans so eloquently put it, live long and prosper. Now that you know what running an import/export business entails, you need to plan, or target, your market, and determine who your potential clients will be, which geographic areas you'll draw from, and what specific products or services you'll offer to draw them in.

This is a very important phase in the mega-trader building project. The proper market research can help boost your trading company into a true profit center, and the more research you do, the better prepared you are before you officially open your doors, the less floundering you're likely to do.

Who Are Your Customers?

Any manufacturer, supplier, crafter, artisan, importer, exporter or retailer is fair game. You can go after companies that deal in heavy construction equipment or delicate jewelry, gourmet goodies or pet food, telecommunications or toys. The only essential requirement is that they want to sell their merchandise or buy someone else's.

What's Inside

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This doesn't mean, however, that your best technique is standing at manufacturers' gates, tripping them as they walk to their cars after work each evening. Targeting by definition means homing in on a specific group.

If you have previous experience in a particular field, for example, you should seriously consider targeting that market first. You'll feel comfortable with the jargon and procedures so your sales pitch--and your initial sales--will go smoother and easier. As an added bonus, you may already have contacts in the field who can either become your first clients or steer you to colleagues in that area.

Dan S. targeted the field of technology--specifically, software solutions for commercial use and computer cables--simply because he's worked in that area for more than 10 years. He knows the field and feels comfortable in it.

Wahib W., too, began in a field he knew well, runway and navigational lights, then went on to other international construction projects, importing railroad and telephone pole materials and construction services, as well as other heavy-equipment materials.

What's My Niche?

OK. You've narrowed the list of products you'll target. Now you'll want to find your niche, the unique angle that will set your business apart from--and above--the competition. This is where you can really let your creativity shine through.

You may decide to start as an export management company (EMC, remember?), seeking out buyers for domestic manufacturing firms, or as an export trading company (ETC), finding domestic sources willing to export. Or you might want to stick with the original Trader Sam formula, importing and exporting on your own as an import/export merchant.

In Florida, Lloyd D. has positioned his company as both an EMC and ETC, depending on his clients' needs. "[As an EMC, we] work directly for a manufacturer, or his exclusive distributor/manager for international sales, as a marketing and screening provider," Lloyd explains, "and will search for and locate overseas buyers-for-resale and/or qualified distributors/sales representatives. [Our] objective is to function as an extension of [our] principal's in-house export sales efforts."

Under its ETC hat, Lloyd says, "[my company] performs in a fashion similar to that previously described, except for a diminished principal relationship, and business is typically conducted on a case-by-case or ad-hoc basis. It is more a sourcing function for the buyer and the seller."

In Germany, Michael R. describes his company's role this way: "[We are] a worldwide consultancy to SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) that wish to increase their sales and profits by using the available world markets more successfully."

Market Research

Here's a rapid-fire overview of your market research tasks. You'll want to do some in-depth investigation into each of these areas:

  • The product or service you'll sell

  • The end user you'll aim for (mass-market consumer, heavy industry, light industry, medical or hospital use, government, business or professional)

  • The country or countries you'll export to or import from

  • The trade channel you'll use (direct sales, representative, distributor or commission representative)


Startup Costs

One of the catch-22s of being in business for yourself is that you need money to make money--in other words, you need startup funds. These costs range from less than $5,000 to more than $25,000 for the import/export business. You can start out homebased, which means you won't need to worry about leasing office space. You don't need to purchase a lot of inventory, and you probably won't need employees.

Your basic necessities will be a computer, printer, fax machine and modem. If you already have these items, then you're off and running. Several of the traders we talked with started from ground zero. "We started from nothing," says Wahib W., but once they got a large project, that was all it took."

What's Inside

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Peter P.'s company started from a similar financial position. "We had very little money in the bank," he says. What they did have was a carefully built relationship with suppliers, and this valuable asset the company was able to get up and running.

One of the many nifty things about an import/export business is that its startup costs are comparatively low. You have the advantage of homebased-ability, which cuts office lease expenses down to nothing. Unless you're starting as a distributor, you can get away with purchasing no inventory, which means no outlay of funds for pretty doodads to grace display spaces (you have no display spaces!). Your major financial outlay will go toward office equipment and market research expenses--and if you're like many moderns, you already have the most expensive piece of office equipment: a computer system.

But let's take it from the top. The following is a breakdown of everything--from heavy investment pieces to flyweight items--you'll need to get up and running:

  • Computer system with modem and printer

  • Fax machine

  • Internet/e-mail service

  • Software

  • Market research and/or trade leads

  • Phone

  • Voice mail or answering machine

  • Stationery and office supplies

  • Postage

  • Travel expenses for conducting market research on foreign turf

You can add all kinds of goodies of varying degrees of necessity to this list. For example, a copier is a plus. It's also nice to have bona fide office furniture: a tweedy upholstered chair with lumbar support that swivels and rolls, gleaming file cabinets that really lock, real oak bookshelves.

But let's consider that you're starting from scratch. You can always set up your computer on your kitchen table or on a card table in a corner of the bedroom. You can stash files in cardboard boxes. It's not glamorous, but it'll suffice until you get your business steaming ahead.


Income & Billing

What can you expect to make as an international trader? The amount's entirely up to you, depending only on how serious you are and how willing you are to expand. Annual gross revenues for the industry range from $30,000 to $200,000 and beyond, with an average of about $75,000. Some traders work from home, supplementing 9-to-5 incomes with their trading expertise. Others have launched thriving full-time businesses that demand constant care and feeding. Wahib W.'s export company has a staff of five that oversees multimillion-dollar contracts.

"There are tons and tons of opportunities for [export] trade," says Wahib W. "U.S. manufacturers are at least 10 years behind the clock in exporting." So the potential for growth is entirely up to you--as long as you're willing to put in the time.

As an international trader, you're an intermediary in the buying and selling, or importing and exporting, transaction. Therefore, you have to determine not just the price of the product, but the price of your services as well. These two figures are separate yet interactive. Because you're a swimmer in the trade channel, the price of your services has to be added on to the product price, and that can affect its competitiveness in the marketplace.

Since the fee for your services will impact the success of the product, you may ultimately decide to change your pricing structure. You don't want to undercharge your client so that you can't cover your expenses and make a profit, but you don't want to overcharge and reduce the competitiveness of your company and the merchandise you represent.

Import/export management companies use two basic methods to price their services: commission and retainer. Normally, you choose one method or the other based on how salable you feel the product is. If you think it's an easy sell, you'll want to work on the commission method. If you feel it's going to be an upstream swim, difficult to sell and require a lot of market research, you'll ask for a retainer.

A third method is to purchase the product outright and sell it abroad. This is a common scenario when you're dealing with manufacturers who would rather use you as a distributor than as a representative. You'll still market the product under the manufacturer's name, but your income will come from the profit generated by sales rather than by commission.

The Commish

Import/export management companies usually operate on a commission basis of about 10 percent. These fees are based on the product cost from the manufacturer.

Let's say you're working with English lawn chairs, which cost you $110 each. Here's what you do: First, take the price the manufacturer is charging for the product: $110. Now multiply $110 by 10 percent, which gives you a commission of $11 per chair.

So your product price at this point is $121 per chair ($110 + $11). To come up with the final price, you'll need to add other costs to this figure: any special marking or packaging, shipping, insurance and any representative or distributor commissions that you'll pay to others in the trade channel, which we'll go over a little later. Once you've arrived at a final price, you'll check it against your competitors' prices (you did do your market research, right?). If your product's price is comparatively low, you can bump up your commission percentage.

For now, however, you can see that for every chair you or your trade channelers sell, you'll get $11. If you sell a thousand chairs, that's $11,000 for you!

Biting the Retainer

If the manufacturer can't discount her price sufficiently or if you feel that the product will be a tough sell, you'll want to ask for a flat retainer (the monetary kind, not the dental appliance kind). You'll pass all the costs of market research along to the manufacturer. By taking a retainer, you guarantee yourself a set income rather than one tied by commission to a "problem" product.

To determine what your retainer should be, you'll need to consider three variables associated with the performance of your services:

  • Labor and materials or supplies: This usually includes your salary or estimated salary on an hourly basis plus the wages and benefits you pay any employees involved in the performance of the job. To determine labor costs, estimate the amount of time it will take to finish a job and multiply it by the hourly rate of your salary and that of any employees you might use. You can compute materials as a percentage of labor, but until you have past records to use as a guide, you should use 2 to 6 percent.

  • Overhead: This variable comprises all the nonlabor, indirect expenses required to operate your business. To determine your overhead rate, add up all your expenses for one year, except for labor and materials. Divide this figure by your total cost of labor and materials to determine your overhead rate. Or use a rate of 35 percent to 42 percent of your labor and materials.

  • Profit: And the end result is: After all labor, materials and overhead expenses are deducted, profit can be determined by applying a percentage profit factor to the combined costs of labor and materials and overhead.


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