Kiplinger Business Forecasts
Online Trade Missions Helping Smalls

By Beth O'Leary
Sept. 8, 2000

Trade missions conducted primarily over the Internet, rather than face-to-face, will help more small firms get into the exporting game by keeping fact-finding costs down and saving business owners time.

Currently, only 1% of the nation's 25 million small firms export. "A lot of small businesses can't afford the cost of traditional trade missions," says Elizabeth Vazquez, vice president and cofounder of Tradebuilders, a new company that conducts virtual trade missions for small and midsize businesses. Business owners typically must fork over thousands of dollars to travel to foreign countries to make business contacts, with no guarantee of success.

But virtual missions allow smaller U.S. firms to connect online with potential foreign business partners. So small business owners don't need to pay to go abroad for exploratory missions or leave the company for several weeks, something that many don't have the staff or resources to do.

Tradebuilders will be facilitating a two-month virtual mission between the U.S. and Canada for women-owned businesses in the health care and business services industries starting Sept. 11. The mission will be sponsored by the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Office of Women's Business Ownership and Office of International Trade, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Canadian Consul General in Atlanta, Ga. To participate, small firms must pay a $250 fee.

Originally, the mission was to be limited to firms in the southeastern U.S., but it will most likely be broadened because of the enormous interest it's getting from women business owners. "This obviously touched the nerve of a lot of women who are poised and ready to do this is if they could just see a way to accomplish it," says Sherrye Henry, associate administrator for the SBA's Office of Women's Business Ownership.

Participants will get the chance to take part in a videoconference on Oct. 11 and will meet with their foreign business partners at a deal-signing ceremony at the beginning of November, both of which are considered important aspects of the virtual mission. "We know that contracts depend on trust, and being able to see each other face to going to make a big difference for these women," says Henry.

Another two-month virtual trade mission, this one between the U.S. and India, will begin on Sept. 25. That mission will focus on the electronics and information technology industries and will receive assistance from the SBA and three Indian business associations.

According to Vazquez, Tradebuilders will likely conduct a virtual mission between the U.S. and Singapore in early 2001, along with a second one between the U.S. and Canada. Each mission will have a specific focus-for firms in certain industries, for women-owned firms or for young entrepreneurs. And each mission will likely receive both government and business assistance.

Vazquez says that many local and federal government offices are "overwhelmed" by requests from small businesses for information and support on exporting. But these offices often don't have the resources to help everyone, which is why partnering with a firm such as Tradebuilders is a good solution.

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