When we hear the phrase “small business,” few of us picture a company engaged in global trade. But as technology renders the world ever smaller, more and more small business owners are fixing their sights on overseas markets to find new customers.
Take Katie Hughes, for example. After four years in business, the Charlotte-based entrepreneur says she now gets about 5 percent of her sales from Europe and Australia.
Hughes, founder and CEO of Dance Yourself Fit, makes and sells a product called Slip-On Dancers, a band that can transform flats, running sneakers or just about any shoe into dancing shoes.
When placed over shoes or sneakers, it reduces friction with the floor to allow easier movement with less stress to leg joints. She sells it for $14.50, far less than the cost of athletic dance shoes.
In May, Hughes will share her export story at a Think Global, Act Global 2014 Small Business Conference at Central Piedmont Community College.
Organizers say the event itself is a testament to the growing number of small business owner looking to export Charlotte-based produced goods and services.
“There is great opportunity there,” said Renee Hode, director of the Small Business Center at CPCC. “If someone is operating domestically and they’ve achieved success, there is no reason they can’t look to expand and export their products.”
Greg Sizemore, director of the Export Assistance Centers in Charlotte, which is part of the U.S. Commerce Department, said only about 1 percent of small business owners in his region – Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh – export their products or services overseas. His goal is to push that figure far higher.
“Around the world, demand for U.S. products is not going down,” he said. “They have a reputation for being high quality, very practical, and U.S. businesspeople have a reputation for being fair businesspeople around the world, as well.”
Sizemore said his typical client is a local business owner who has one to 25 employees and does $1 million to $15 million in annual sales. Only a few actually approach that $15 million figure though, he said.
While not every product or service is right for export, Sizemore said the untapped potential is far greater than current export levels would indicate.
“If that product or service can be distributed to a wide geographic area, more than likely it can have a market overseas,” he said.
Sizemore said the staff at his Morehead Street office offer a range of classes and services for small business owners, from helping them assess and better understand foreign markets to introducing them to qualified buyers overseas.
Hughes said the Export Assistance Centers was one of her first stops after she saw the overseas demand for her Slip-on Dancers. She said her sales have been closely tied to the Zumba craze, which is spreading across Europe.
For business owners looking to test foreign markets, Hughes said it’s vital to find the right distributor to fill orders and negotiate cultural and language barriers. The distributor also must be able to replicate the strategies that made the product successful at home.
“You have to advertise in these other markets, not just put the product up online and expect it to go public,” she said.
Hughes never set out to sell globally, but the decision has opened opportunities she might not have discovered otherwise.
“The world has become much flatter, and you have to compete on a global scale,” she said. “So find your niche and make sure you really do solve a problem for that niche so that they go and ask for your product.”
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.
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