As the dollar has lost strength relative to other currencies, small businesses have gained strength in their ability to reach out to consumers in parts of the world previously inaccessible. But while this trend of globalizing small businesses has gained attention only recently, some people have been watching it unfold for a long time. Laurel Delaney has run her global marketing and consulting service aimed at small businesses, Global TradeSource Ltd., for 19 years. She is the global small-business columnist for Entrepreneur magazine and an adjunct professor of international marketing at Loyola University of Chicago. Delaney spoke recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:
Why are so many small businesses finding ways to access global markets?
I've never seen anything like it in my career. It has so much to do with the Internet and technology. People are getting hip and savvy. It's an exciting time.
The No. 1 reason is, hands down, technology. Once that's in place, the world is in our hands. Second, Thomas Friedman has a lot to do with it with his book The World Is Flat. Since that book became a bestseller, everybody wanted to see what it was all about. A lot of people read that book and thought, "Oh my God." That really, in my opinion, was a wakeup call to people around the world about how the world has changed, the interconnectedness, the ability to do business with anyone, any place, any time.
What exactly is at work with technology?
If you went back just five years, to set up a website, a small-business owner most likely had to pay to do that. You were still paying some type of a fee to host the website. But that has changed in the past few years—the ability to set up a blog for free. No longer could small-business owners use the excuse to set up a website that they can't afford it. It then gives you a presence to have the world find you somehow.
So how can small businesses take advantage of this technology in attracting international customers?
This is a time to be audacious and bold, and not just set up a little blog. The bare minimum should be the website and the blog. A service-based business should feel like it has so much knowledge to offer that it feels compelled to share it. The blog is the perfect vehicle for that. The same holds true for a family of products. If your product is that good, you can set yourself apart from people making a similar product by getting word out through your blog.
What can small businesses do to go beyond the basic online presence?
They should figure out how to set up their own social media platform—create a group under Facebook about what it is that you do. It also involves looking at competitors. Many people claim that they don't have competitors. Those people are really out of their game. Everyone has competitors. Here's an example: When I do a Google search on candles, I get two companies—candles.com and yankeecandles.com. At candles.com I see a beautiful website. But if I'm a customer in Venezuela, for example, if I do a search and candles.com comes up, I'm totally clueless by looking at their website whether or not they can supply to my part of the world. I'm clueless about if they want to take their business globally. For yankeecandles.com, buried within the flat rate shipping information, it says something about international there. These are two companies that are being very conservative.
What about looking at competitors that are doing the international side of things right?
The second part is, "if you can't beat them, join them." You look at the sites that come up first in the Google search for your area of business, and you ask: "Why are they first?" Then you look for anything related to international sales on their site and look for their distributors abroad. Call them up and ask about forming a strategic alliance. Tell them what you can do and how you can add more tools to their toolbox.
One of the interesting things about marketing on the Internet is that anyone can be looking at your business's website. How does a small-business owner not get overwhelmed by the possibilities when trying to market to potentially the entire planet?
Most businesses approach it from the standpoint that they want the world beating down their online door. But if a business owner has done their homework and found that the best place to get started is, for example, in the UK, they need to carve out a portal that is user-friendly for people in the UK. A business owner can think, "But if I aim only at the UK, the rest of the world won't be interested." But how can a business owner be all things to all people? The smarter strategy is to pick one market and be successful there, then start knocking down the barriers.