This month, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Colleen Fisher, the Director of the Baltimore Export Assistance Center. She filled me in on how Maryland businesses can utilize the Baltimore Assistance center to grow their businesses and start exporting internationally. She was full of great tips and resources.
-Whitney Harmel, Director of Strategic Partnerships
First and foremost, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Would you start by talking about the Baltimore Export Assistance center and how you’re helping Maryland businesses?
Sure! I am the Director of the Baltimore Export Assistance Center, which is the export promotion agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Our office is comprised of six individuals who help Maryland businesses export their product or services overseas. Through a network of 100 offices in more than 80 countries, we work with our Commercial Diplomat colleagues stationed in U.S. embassies in order to promote Maryland businesses on a broader scale with a global reach.
Let’s say I’m a business in Maryland and I’m looking to export internationally. Is there a step-by-step? Talk to us how about how a business embarks on that process.
When a company contacts us, the first thing we do is determine their export readiness. We start by having a conversation about their business to determine if they’re truly ready to export their product or service internationally. Are they located in Maryland? Have they exported before? What’s their capacity and export readiness? If they aren’t ready, we make referrals. We send them back a little earlier in the chain to our colleagues at the Small Business Administration or to the Small Business Development Center.
When a company comes to us and they have a viable product or service and they are export ready or close to it, we create an International Expansion Blueprint for it, called an IEB for short. We evaluate the company’s operations with a score card using red, yellow, or green; it looks at the company’s divisions, including finance, legal, marketing, sales, export compliance, and so on. If the company has a gap, we provide counseling or send the company the necessary export education to close that gap. Once we determine that the company is export ready and, if its score card is completely green, we work to connect them with overseas buyers and partners.
Our signature service is the Gold Key Service through which we help qualified Maryland companies find overseas partners through pre-scheduled business matchmaking appointments with distributors, buyers, and government officials. Depending on the company, we help them find the right partner overseas. For instance, a consumer goods company normally needs a distributor overseas, but a company like Lockheed Martin, who we work with, normally wants a representative who is retired military agent to pitch their products overseas. Every company is unique, so how we partner with them will vary. Our goal is to use our international relationships and partnerships to drive sales and growth of Maryland companies.
I would imagine for businesses looking to expand internationally, it can be daunting to get started. What advice do you have for businesses that wish to accelerate growth through exporting?
Every separate aspect of your business that is impacted needs to be considered before exporting, but it is very manageable. The key is that small businesses can find partners and to help outsource this work. For example, shipping and logistics is different internationally than it is domestically, but if you find a good freight forwarder, they handle most of that for you, for a cost. You can have them handle all the export documentation, all the tariffs and taxes that should be considered—they can do it all for you. You might want to bring those operations in-house later, but early on, outsource. Same with banking. A good business banking partner is extremely helpful as well. They should work with you to explore some of the tools that protect your company when promised payments aren’t fulfilled, which is a risk when working internationally.
All these different aspects of exporting can be handled by a third-party until a company is ready to bring them in-house. You don’t have to go at it alone. You can outsource the work while you continue to focus on what you are good at, which is making your product or service. There are also many great, free resources in Maryland to help. There is our office, the State of Maryland’s trade office, the Maryland-DC District Export Council, the great team at the Port of Baltimore. There are a ton of people here to help.
The only thing we underscore is your company’s willingness to put skin in the game with both time and money. We try to make sure companies are ready for that and that they have management committed to export. Exporting requires overseas travel. You have to show prospective partners that you are interested in doing business internationally. You will need a budget to export because it is sales, like anything else.
It sounds like there are a lot of resources available to Maryland businesses. Can you tell us how they’re marketing overseas? Are they relying on the Baltimore Export Assistance center to get their information out to the masses?
It depends on the industry. Consumer products are retailing online. If the company has robust social media channels, they are found by overseas partners. A lot of the large companies execute more target marketing strategies. They go to international trade shows to expose themselves to the market and educate consumers. If the company has a very specific product and a narrow target market, our clients will utilize a paid service with us called a Single Company Promotion, which is often an invite-only event at an Ambassador’s residence. Ambassadors invite overseas clients to learn about the product, allowing our client, under the banner of the U.S. government, to gain credibility.
Many of the smaller companies do not have the capacity for such targeted marketing, so we recommend a Website Globalization Review. Often, we look at a website and say, “this is a great domestic website, but here are 10 things you could do for increased appeal with international visitors and increased visibility overseas.” The enhancements can be as simple as including the +1 country code when listing U.S. phone numbers on the website. We also point out that in South Korea, they don’t use Google; they use the Naver search engine. Essentially it is knowing that consumers overseas are searching for products using different platforms. U.S. companies need to be visible on those platforms when targeting those markets. Those are just two examples of the range of marketing support services provided by the Baltimore Export Assistance Center.
It sounds like companies need to be of a certain maturity before exporting. Someone can’t just start a business and say, “I want to be an exporter,” and then figure out their business. They need to be established. They need a business plan and a product or service that is proven here in Maryland and looking to grow from there.
Yes, that is all accurate. Those are the companies best suited to work with us. We do work with incubators and start-ups because we want them thinking globally early on, so they don’t need to go back and change their technology or their supply chain to incorporate international capabilities. Normally those start-up companies are starved for capital and looking to recruit talent. We are better suited to work with companies with a proven solution, whether that’s a product or a service. That’s the sweet spot for us—the company that’s looking to be more strategic and grow their international portfolio.
Colleen, thank you for chatting with me. You and your team are doing amazing work for Maryland businesses who are looking to grow!
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