Conducting business globally has inherent difficulties no matter where you're located on the planet. Although the Internet began in the United States and the predominant language used is still English, the cyber-landscape is changing rapidly. Believe it or not, non-English speaking people all over the world use the Web for business and pleasure.
Putting together an e-commerce-enabled Web presence is the first step towards expanding a customer base outside of a business' current geographical boundaries. What happens, though, if the company is located in the U.S. and it gets an order request in Spanish from a person from Argentina? How does its staff deal with language translation, currency exchanges, shipping regulations, and money transfers? Large companies and ambitious online startups have already answered these questions. But for small businesses, now is the time.
"Don't be shy," says Renato Beninatto, director of sales and marketing, for Berlitz GlobalNET, which offers self-study language instruction, cross-cultural training, document translation, and other services.
"Try to reach as many markets as possible," says Beninatto. "In the Internet world your biggest deal may come from where you least expect."
Once you're ready to plunge into the global e-commerce waters there are a number of ways to get started. Each has its own advantages, although you will probably need a combination of all of these approaches.
CONSULT A PROFESSIONAL
Jumping over the global e-commerce hurdle means doing research, developing the tools, and training a staff, all within the company. This can require a substantial investment, but may provide a leg up over the competition. You will likely need the help of a Web consultant and developer who has experience creating and managing sites for companies that do business overseas, preferably in your specific industry.
Immersant (formerly Bowne Internet Solutions) specializes in e-business consulting and development for global Web sites. "Don't assume that the site you have now will work just as well in another country," advises Greg Koorhan, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Immersant. "Entering the global marketplace on the Internet is tricky business, particularly if you're in an industry that requires high security with complex transactions."
But the little things count, too. Koorhan says companies need to take into account the particular social nuances that apply to individual countries and customers. "Even something as basic as the main color used on a Web site can have a negative connotation in another country," he says. Consultants are also expert enough to be attuned to the uniqueness of individual languages. "For example, German in Germany is different from German in Switzerland," Koorhan says.
TAKE GOVERNMENT HANDOUTS
Believe it or not, there are also a number of Federal and state government organizations that can provide a tremendous amount of information and assistance. Businesses should take advantage of these services, which are free for the most part.
"We help businesses find the foreign audiences for their products," says Paul Smith, manager of the U.S. Export Assistance Center, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. "Small businesses often find themselves squeezed out of domestic markets by big corporations. They need to think globally and capitalize on the positive perception of American products."
The U.S. Small Business Administration provides financial and business development assistance to help small businesses take advantage of foreign markets.
They offer a variety of financial assistance programs. The SBA's Export Working Capital Program helps small businesses obtain working capital to complete export sales.
When it's time to ship products, the SBA will help find a freight forwarder or logistics company that acts as an agent for moving cargo overseas. They understand shipping regulations for different countries and work with your shipping service to deliver goods.
Through the Export Legal Assistance Network, the SBA can arrange a free consultation with an attorney to discuss international trade questions. Legal issues include contract negotiation, agent and distributor agreements, export licensing requirements, credit collection, and documentation.
CHECK THE SHELF
Another approach to becoming global is to use existing tools and platforms that have already been developed and simply retrofit them to your business. Companies such as Glides.com (www.glides.com) provides consultation and software that make it possible for businesses to sell products, understand foreign currencies, and ship worldwide.
"Once you have a Web site you are global," states Theresa Bagg, business development manager with Action Engine Corporation, a startup based in Redmond, Washington, that develops Web search technologies.
"The world is your market," Bagg says. "Being able to converse with that market is the challenge. We have been able to partner with companies everywhere." Setting itself up to accept business from all over the globe helped the company establish that it was serious about other markets. "It showed customers that we are willing to meet them on their terms and that we put our money where our mouth is by investing in resources," Bagg says. That's when things took off. "We started getting inquiries from all over the world."
LEARN BY EXAMPLE
Many small software businesses were early to capitalize on international e-commerce. While they have additional technical expertise most businesses don't possess, with special product issues to overcome, they face many of the same business obstacles when it comes to dealing with customers overseas. Companies such as PhotoAccess.com, a 50-person dot-com that provides online tools for sharing electronic photographs and ordering prints, had to go through many of the same steps traditional businesses do to prepare their site for the world.
"We first looked at our existing site and looked at how we needed to develop that site for international viewers," says Paul Souza, design director of Internet products for PhotoAccess.com.
The company was seeking business in Japan, so with the help of Encompass Globalization they began to develop a Japanese version of their Web site. Encompass, based in Kirkland, Wash., specializes in software development for Asian markets.
"We began using En-compass to translate our corporate information and then we began to look at 'localizing' the service we developed. 'Localizing' is how you appropriate a product or service for a particular country," Souza says.
For the site design Encompass helped them identify the items on their site that had different social implications for a Japanese audience. Certain colors and images were changed. They also had to adjust their online transaction processing. One major difference was the currency. There are no decimal points in Japan's currency. They also needed to change their collection system. "Rather than taking a credit card number on line, for our Japanese customers we deliver the product and then invoice them to pay the balance at a local convenience store," says Souza. "This is how they are used to doing business, and we had to adjust our methods to offer that."
All of these issues are sure to surface when doing business overseas. So when that first foreign customer knocks on your Web site's door, will you be ready to roll out the welcome mat?