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Dream of seeing your product in stores around the world? Unless you have years of international experience, you'd be wise to find some overseas distributors. Otherwise, your unfamiliarity with foreign business customs could stall your efforts.
The most helpful distributors will buy products from you, then warehouse, distribute, and sell them to customers. They'll also handle customer service. (Note: These folks are not always called distributors. In Japan, they're known as wholesalers.)
Networking among trusted business colleagues is the best way to find a reputable distributor. If you don't have many overseas contacts, take heart. The U.S. government offers an alphabet soup of programs that are designed to help small business with this -- and many of them actually work. The U.S. Department of Commerce (http://www.doc.gov/) offers a wealth of resources through the U.S. Export Assistant Center, the International Trade Administration (http://www.ita.doc.gov/), and the U.S. Commercial Services (http://www.usatrade.gov/).
Want to research potential markets? Contact the ITA's Commercial Information Management System (CIMS), which collects data that will help you track down your target customers. Ready to pair up with a partner? Call the The Matchmakers Service, offered by both the DOC and the ITA. It introduces new export companies to agents, distributors, or large retailers with an interest in their products. Similarly, the Agent Distributor Service finds qualified distribution firms that are currently handling products similar to yours. An ADS search will generate up to six names of distributors who have an interest in specific U.S. products. Smaller companies with bigger budgets should also check out The Gold Key Program, which will introduce you to pre- screened potential business associates, whether you are seeking an agent, a distributor, or a joint-venture partner.
Uncle Sam will also help you nail down the details of selling overseas. Trade missions, for instance, will help new exporters establish sales and set up representation abroad at a low cost. The DOC's Export Contact List Service generates a mailing list of potential importers for your product from the agency's automated global network of overseas firms.
Once you have found a distributor, how do you find out if it's reputable. First, secure an in-depth profile on your potential partner through World Trade Data Reports. You can obtain one of these reports through the ITA. Next, use Dun & Bradstreet's Business Identification Service (http://www.dnb.com/), which will provide you with a credit report and other financial information on the distributor. Finally, contact the U.S. Embassy (http://www.travel.state.gov/links.html) in the country in which you hope to do business and run your prospective customer's name by them, just in case they know anything. You'd be surprised at how willing they are to help.
Once you've qualified several prospective distributors, I recommend that you meet with each one and decide who comes closest to sharing your views on market penetration. Then you'll be ready to talk business.
Laurel Delaney runs a global marketing, consulting and web content providing company aimed at entrepreneurs and small businesses. She is also the creator of the much-talked about "Borderbuster," monthly FREE newsletter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.globetrade.com to sign up for newsletter.