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Global Issues: Looking Abroad for Opportunity

None of us need to be reminded of the business climate in the U.S. We are all fatigued by bailouts without strings, our tax dollars being used to pay for insane executive bonuses, American business icons laying off thousands of workers at a time, and unprecedented bankruptcies. Compounding this, of course, are the isolated cases of notorious criminals like Bernie Madoff, who bilked American investors out of a staggering $65 billion.

As many talking heads on broadcast networks tell us all too often, the problem in the U.S. is not liquidity, but rather, confidence in a financial system that appears to be undergoing a severe meltdown. Hence, consumers and businesses alike are hoarding their funds, not knowing what the future holds. To make matters worse, the Federal Government has incurred debt that will have to be paid off by Americans not yet born, rather than permit our bankruptcy laws to work for unprofitable, poorly run companies.

The bottom line is that Americans are not spending money the way they used to, and with the recession looking to be with us for a good long while still, many of us cannot wait for government. We must act on our own and take the initiative now.

Admittedly, at this particular juncture, most sales and marketing managers do not have tons of money sitting around for new ventures. But I respectfully submit the following: Researching and pursuing opportunities abroad may be the answer for companies desperately seeking out customers.

Foreign governments and companies are likely in a better position to buy your goods and services, owing to several reasons:

•The majority of foreign governments have not incurred the enormous debt the U.S. has in recent months, largely because they do not believe massive bailouts are the answer.

•American goods and services are respected in the majority of countries abroad, particularly our processes and quality control.

•Teaming with respected, credible, and profitable foreign partners is a very good way of staying afloat until the U.S. domestic economy stabilizes.

•The Federal Government and U.S. trade associations actually offer incredible services to US firms wanting to sell abroad.

•The majority of nations are very open to U.S. products and services, particularly if you team with a local partner first to facilitate joint sales agreements, trade arrangements, and marketing plans. More importantly, finding an in-country partner will help open doors you could never gain access to on your own. As has often been said, "It is better to share part of the table cloth than no part at all."

To help you get started, I'd like to introduce you to a number of websites and resources which will inexpensively help you get critical information on countries you may be interested in:

www.globaledge.su.edu/resourceDesk/tradeLeads
This excellent starter site (courtesy of Michigan State University) details ways in which U.S. companies can begin to identify opportunities abroad and collect country background information. It also provides information on regional opportunities.

buyusa.gov/home/export
The U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC)—particularly its U.S. Commercial Service and the International Trade Administration—offer very useful information, both online and through domestically and internationally assigned commercial officers. The latter are intimately familiar with selling goods and services abroad, as well as what is in demand in their responsible countries. This site also enables companies to access, either online or in hard copy form, the agency's annual Country Commercial Guides. These are lengthy reports providing information on what goods and services are in demand in each country. They also detail how to go about getting advice from commercial specialists and exploring various ways of selling in said country.

uschamber.com/international/directory
This is the link to all of the American Chambers of Commerce worldwide, whose job it is to bring American goods and services to their respective countries. Their executive directors know the business scene in their countries very well and know what is in demand. Each chamber also publishes a list of their members, which can be priceless in knowing what competitors are already operating in the country. Although these directories are for sale, they are invaluable in assessing your competition…or the lack thereof.

www.export.gov/exportbasics/TIC_FAQ_trade_leads
This DOC sites provides you with tons of information on exporting, upcoming trade shows worldwide, and programs whereby the Federal Government brings foreign project sponsors in to observe your operations, demos, products, and services.

www.export.gov/eac/index
This is another DOC site, enabling you to identify DOC commercial specialists who are familiar with your targeted countries and who are in your domestic neighborhood. At the same site, you can also obtain the names of commercial attaches at the appropriate U.S. Embassy abroad that can help. This information includes Websites and e-mail addresses.

The nice thing is, getting information and talking to business experts who can help you determine whether you should endeavor to sell abroad is a low-cost proposition. You may well have time on your hands now enabling you to test the waters. Who knows? With business slow at home, selling abroad could definitely have a silver lining.

Ed Lee is a retired U.S. State Department diplomat and Regional Security Officer (RSO) who spent most of his life abroad, protecting U.S. diplomats and American business executives. He is the author of Staying Safe Abroad: Traveling, Working & Living in a Post-9/11 World. He can be reached at ed@sbrisksolutions.com.