July 16, 2016

Resources for Globally-Minded Small Businesses

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On May 25, 2016, I attended "Startup Global Seattle" in Seattle, Wash. Sponsored by Microsoft Accelerator Seattle, the Global Innovation Forum, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Silicon Valley Bank, the forum's focus was on exploring "the opportunities and challenges for startups and small businesses in the global marketplace and to discover resources to help your globally-minded business succeed." This event featured several panelists discussing key topics such as navigating international compliance and protecting intellectual property, succeeding in the global digital economy and global e-commerce, and understanding how to access the resources to reach new markets.

I agree with the remarks made by Jeremy Snodgrass, an attorney specializing on IP licensing at Microsoft, that startups and small businesses should understand the full range of their IP assets. In my experience of advising business owners and entrepreneurs, many are aware of patents as an IP asset but they overlook (or underestimate) the valuable role trademarks and copyright provide to their company's IP asset portfolio. While it is necessary to retain legal counsel in navigating the IP filing process to protect a company's invention or brand, I recommend that every entrepreneur take advantage of the excellent resources that the United States Patent and Trademark Office provide with respect to patents and trademarks.

Diana Mooney, Director of the U.S. Commercial Service Seattle, noted that many small business owners can find useful information through Export.gov, which "provides trusted market intelligence, practical advice and business tools to help U.S. companies expand in global markets." Throughout my professional career, I have routinely used Export.gov as a primary resource in learning about the opportunities and challenges of doing business globally. Small business owners and corporate executives alike will find value in many of the export guides available through www.export.gov/Export-Guides.

For example, Country Commercial Guides, which are prepared by trade and industry experts at U.S. embassies worldwide, provide important information such as market conditions, opportunities, regulations, and business customs for over 125 countries. These guides are an excellent starting point to find everything you need to know about doing business overseas, detailing eight important factors to help you decide if a market is right for your product or service: 
  1. Doing Business in ...: Provides a broad overview of the market and the top reasons why U.S. companies should consider exporting here. Recommends strategies for entering the market and summarizes challenges or barriers for U.S. companies;
  2. Political and Economic Environment: Links to the State Department's website for background information on the country's political environment, its bilateral relationship with the U.S. and the country's membership in international organizations;
  3. Selling U.S. Products and Services: Provides guidance and best practices for selling U.S. products and services in the market, includes typical use of agents and selling to the government. Provides steps for establishing an office or joint-venture/licensing partner, and conducting due diligence. Discusses the state of e-commerce, franchising, and direct marketing;
  4. Leading Sectors for U.S. Exports and Investment: Identifies the top industry sectors that have potential in the market. Provides a general overview of each sector, including trade data, challenges, sub-sector best prospects, and a list of relevant websites and trade shows;
  5. Trade Regulations, Customs and Standards: Describes trade regulations, customs and standards in the market. Provides information on import tariffs and documentation U.S firms should be aware of when exporting, including any prohibited items or temporary entry procedures;
  6. Investment Climate Statement: Describes the country's openness to foreign investments and provides information on the country's investment policies, the labor market, political violence and levels of corruption. Describes foreign trade zones and laws for protecting property rights;
  7. Trade and Project Financing: Describes the country's financial system and how U.S. firms typically get paid. Describes the banking system and provides information on foreign exchange controls in the market. Describes important sources of funding for project financing; and 
  8. Business Travel: Describes relevant business travel information and business customs, includes any special visa or entry requirements, potential health risks, travel advisories and information on travelling around the country.
My colleagues and I at ROI3, Inc. regularly refer to the China Country Commercial Guide as we develop mobile applications for smartphone and tablet users in the world's largest mobile phone market. We are also utilizing the Country Commercial Guide for other countries as we explore new business opportunities in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

As a startup entrepreneur or small business owner, what resources do you utilize as you prepare to expand into foreign markets?

Aaron Rose serves as President and CEO of ROI3, Inc., a Seattle, Wash.-based company that empowers people in emerging economies through innovative, technology-based solutions. He is also the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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