You’ve done it. You’ve created a business, delivered a product to happy customers, and you’re ready to expand—and not just locally, but globally. Whether your business is a small one with loads of promise or a huge one ready for greater horizons, global expansion could be for you. There are two great ways to start a journey into new international markets, make connections, and take your first steps into global expansion: trade missions and trade shows.
“It’s a great and pretty risk-free way for [companies] to dip their toe in the waters of international business,” says Derek Miller, former CEO of World Trade Center Utah (and new CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber). “It’s something that’s organized by the World Trade Center Utah on behalf of the state of Utah, so most of the programming is going to be taken care of. And where the programming is not taken care of, the WTC Utah team is there to help you to, for example, set up your own business meetings. You’re going abroad with other Utah companies. In this case, the companies don’t have to go it alone.”
What is it?
A trade mission is an international trip, in this case planned by WTC Utah, to explore international business opportunities. Gov. Gary Herbert goes on two to three trade missions a year, where he facilitates meetings between foreign government officials and Utah businesspeople. WTC Utah plans the programming for the trip, including networking events and cultural seminars.
A trade show is an industry-specific show (much like Outdoor Retailer) where companies can register, set up a booth and present their products to potential buyers. WTC Utah goes to some of the biggest international trade shows (for instance, the Paris Air Show) and sets up a large Utah-branded booth. By doing this, companies exhibiting within that Utah booth are more likely to attract more attention than they would have doing their own, smaller booth, says Miller.
“The WTC provides so many resources, so many opportunities for you to take advantage of. They want to see you grow, meet new people, read about your company in the newspaper, see you on the news. The way they do that is by doing research studies and doing trade missions that make sense.” – Matt Ashby, who works in business development for Spire Ranges
WTC Utah plans these trade shows and missions about a year in advance. They look at multiple factors in determining a destination: is it a good fit for what Utah has to offer? When should they return to a proven destination, and when should they go to a new one?
Recently, WTC Utah went to Mexico (a proven trading partner for Utah), Israel and Jordan (leaders in technology and medical manufacturing, excellent matches for Utah industries) and Singapore and Vietnam (a springboard to Southeast Asia, and an emerging market with promise for Utah companies.) From there, the WTC Utah reaches out to its contacts in the destination and begins to plan an itinerary.
“The WTC provides so many resources, so many opportunities for you to take advantage of,” says Matt Ashby, who works in business development for Spire Ranges, which attended a trade show in London. “They want to see you grow, meet new people, read about your company in the newspaper, see you on the news. The way they do that is by doing research studies and doing trade missions that make sense.”
It may be hard to wrap your mind around going to an international market. How do you know if you’re a good fit? Are you too big? Too small?
The first thing to consider is this, says Miller: do you have a product?
“You’ve got to have some product or some service. That sounds obvious. But often we’ll meet with someone who has a great idea, but a good idea can’t be exported—at least, not yet,” says Miller. “At the end of the day, what these trade missions and shows are designed to do is to help Utah companies sell to overseas customers. So you have to have something to sell.”
If you do have something to sell—be that handmade surfboards you create in your garage by yourself or medical devices that can be used the world over—you’re a great candidate for a trade show or mission. Small companies can find other niche markets ready for their product and large companies can benefit from meeting government officials they may not otherwise have had access to without the mission.
If you are considering going on a trade mission, Miller says the first step is to call WTC Utah and have a conversation with the trade mission coordinators to learn about the destination, opportunities and focus of the mission.
From there, he says to look into one of the two grant programs the WTC Utah has for businesses: the STEP grant, which is funded by the federal government, and the Utah Export Acceleration Grant, funded by J.P. Morgan Chase. The grants are typically between $5,000 and $15,000 and can be used to help defray the cost of going on a trade mission or show. Miller says the WTC Utah can help business owners understand and apply for the grants.
The second thing to consider is signing up for a business-to-business matchmaking service like Gold Key, which is run by the U.S. Commercial Service. The U.S. Commercial Service is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s export promotion entity and has offices around the world with locally engaged staff. The staff members generally know and have vetted many companies in their local area and can recommend who to meet and set expectations for those meetings and the local market based on your needs. There is a calculator on the SBA website to determine what Gold Key would cost your company—it’s calculated by size—and the process takes six to eight business weeks to complete.
“That Gold Key service is standard across all our international offices. It’s an operation where we work very intimately with the company to understand what their needs are with the market,” says Shelby Peterson, acting director for the U.S. Commercial Service, Utah Office. “[We want to know] what they already have: what relationships they have already, business partners, or who they have an agreement with. The Gold Key service is very catered to each company. Some companies need distribution agreements, some need business partners. It depends on the company and the needs they have. It is very unique and customized.”
For businesses that haven’t traveled abroad before, a service like Gold Key can be invaluable. Craig Mosman, director of business operations for Cebus DX, which attended the Singapore and Vietnam trade mission in 2017, says he would recommend the service to others.
“They took the time to come to our business, sit with us and understand what we do, and that way they could better advocate for us,” says Mosman. “That evaluation involved a couple different phone calls with teams from the U.S. Commercial Service, one in Singapore and one in Vietnam. It’s kind of a ‘feeling out’ process. It’s us explaining our tech to give them some ideas of who they ought to set up for us to meet with. They came back with recommendations on who they might be able to set us up within each location. I don’t know how a company doing business oversees—particularly if you’re traveling there—could manage effectively without the U.S. Commercial Service. You’re just constantly in a position of trial and error. You don’t know who the people are, the strength of their company, their background. The U.S. Commercial Service gives you contacts that are already vetted [so you can] meet with people who have a proven track record—substantial companies who have done business and interacted with other companies.”
“The Gold Key service is very catered to each company. Some companies need distribution agreements, some need business partners. It depends on the company and the needs they have. It is very unique and customized.” – Shelby Peterson, U.S. Commercial Service, Utah Office
Even if you decide not to use a service like Gold Key, Ashby says the key to a good trade mission is preparation. “I’m so convinced that if you take the time to find the right people—and you might have to go through 30 different companies until you find the one that’s the one that works out, you’ll have a good experience,” says Ashby. “If you’re going out there, taking taxis and knocking on doors, asking the embassy on the spot what businesses you can go talk to—with that approach, you won’t find the best or quickest ROI. If you’re able to establish all of this beforehand where you’ve got 10 meetings set up, it will be worth it.”
Going on the mission
For those concerned about cultures they’ve never experienced, WTC Utah has seminars before the mission about the local culture and gives company representatives the opportunity to ask plenty of questions in preparation for the trip. After that, it’s time to simply pack your bags and go: go network during a reception at an ambassador’s house with Gov. Herbert, go on your Gold Key business meetings, and go set up connections and relationships.
“Companies can be intimidated going to a market by themselves. Trade missions take some of that fear or anxiety away. The WTC has it down to the minute for site visits. They have scheduled visits and can network and meet potential partners. It provides a more comfortable environment for companies,” says Peterson. “Traveling on a trade mission really offers a different type of attention from foreign business partners that they wouldn’t otherwise get.”
“Companies can be intimidated going to a market by themselves. Trade missions take some of that fear or anxiety away. The WTC has it down to the minute for site visits. They have scheduled visits and can network and meet potential partners.” – Shelby Peterson, U.S. Commercial Service, Utah Office