November 28, 2012

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

Rise In Export Assistance Programs Helps Small Businesses Expand

November 27, 2012

Natalie Burg Natalie Burg, UPS

What could be more exciting for a small business than knowing your product is in the hands of delighted customers around the globe? At the same time, if you have no idea how to crack the exporting nut, few prospects could be more intimidating.

The good news is that would-be exporters have recently gained a pretty big advocate in the federal government.

“President Barack Obama is pushing exporting as one way to boost the sluggish U.S. economy,” wrote Rick Haglund for “Some critics say the president’s goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015 is too ambitious, but [Tomas Hult, director of Michigan State University’s International Business Center] said he thinks the target can be met.”

To reach that goal, new export assistance programs for small businesses are popping up all over the country from a variety of players. That means the right resource to help your small business join the growing export trend may be more accessible than you think.

State Programs

Many state governments, such as those in Minnesota and California, have launched export assistance programs. What are they doing to help? Melissa Anders explained for how the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) program helped 130 companies connect with 62 new markets, increasing exports by more than $21 million in the second and third quarters of 2012.

“Companies could apply for up to $25,000 to reimburse expenses tied to international trade missions, marketing research and other export-related activities,” said Anders.

That kind of help can take a great burden off of companies that are unsure if investing in the necessary research to try exporting will be worth it.

“We had a STEP-funded trip to China that helped us gain close to half a million dollars in business,” Tim Keighron of Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Managed Programs told MLive. “We know the STEP program is helping us as a small business expand through exports, help us gain more business and create more jobs.”

Non-Profit Assistance

From chambers of commerce to trade associations, economic development non-profits have been making small business growth their business for centuries. Many of them are now tapping into funds available for export assistance, including that offered by the Southern United States Trade Association, or SUSTA.

Like statewide STEP programs, SUSTA, reported WDSU News in Louisiana, reimburses businesses for costs associated with exporting. Small businesses such as Southeast Louisiana’s Magic Seasoning (owned by chef Paul Prudhomme) consider the program vital to connecting with foreign markets.

“Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Magic Seasoning’s Anna Zuniga told WDSU. “It’s a huge expense, but they reimburse 50 percent [for travel], so that’s a great help.”

University Programs

Universities have an entirely different motive to become a resource for small business exporting: the educational experience. Getting faculty and students involved in the process allows institutions of higher learning to offer small businesses more than just monetary assistance, while at the same time providing students with valuable real-world training.

“We do the market research,” Tomas Hult said of MSU’s International Business Center to, “and the Commercial Service helps them close the deal on the back end.” (For more on the U.S. Commercial Service, see below.)

Free market research and connections to overseas distributors makes university export assistance even more beneficial to companies who are intimidated by the process. In its first year, the center at MSU helped 40 businesses begin exporting.

Federal Export Centers

With exporting a top priority of the Obama administration, it’s no surprise that the federal government offers direct assistance for small businesses as well.

“Like virtually every other country in the world, the U.S. wants to increase the quantity of goods it exports,” Randy Myers wrote for Entrepreneur. “To facilitate that, the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, through its U.S. Commercial Service, operates a network of 107 Export Assistance Centers in major cities across the country.”

These assistance centers provide export and industry specialists who can help businesses locate appropriate distributors in their target markets.

The major questions small businesses have when considering jumping into the world of exports are “How does it work?” and “Can I afford it?” Whether it comes from state or federal government programs, a non-profit or a university, technical assistance and export investment reimbursement can take much of the guesswork and risk out of the equation.

With the recent proliferation of these export resources throughout the U.S., there’s likely one nearer to your business than you might have imagined, leaving only one last question about getting into exports: Why shouldn’t you?

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