Importing and exporting is fraught with the perils of the unknown. Making a mistake if you own a local or domestic small business can be rocky; getting it wrong if you are an international trader can be monumental.
The road is littered with casualties, such as the importer whose container of products did not meet Australian standards and could not pass Customs, or the exporter whose goods were freighted under the wrong Incoterm and he was obligated to assume unwanted (and expensive) liabilities on the other end.
Networking and establishing a base of helpful contacts is advisable for any small business. But it is essential for most SME importers and exporters.
The complexity and risk which are part and parcel of international trading can be managed easily in a large company, by hiring employees with expertise in specific areas. SME exporters and importers, on the other hand, need to make a real effort to build external relationships with specialists, providers and with other small businesses engaged in buying and selling overseas, to tap into invaluable advice and experience.
It’s about business helping business – surely a sound economic formula. And it’s not difficult to find good opportunities to be part of the international trade community. In my experience, business people in this sector are very willing to pass on advice, tips and useful contacts here and overseas.
Organisations hold free-to-attend events, eg Australia China Business Council which has regular breakfast round tables, conducted as group-help for participants with particular challenges in China. SMEAA’s core reason for existing is connecting businesses. BECs (Business Enterprise Centres) around Australia have end-of-day networking sessions, some specifically for international traders. Groups have formed on LinkedIn to bring together the import export community.
On the fourth Wednesday evening of each month, a group of SME importers and exporters gathers in a pub in Parramatta for Import Export After 5 networking. This is loosely organised by the Greater Western Sydney BEC and import/export procedures expert, Corinne Campbell. There is a regular hard core who turn up most months, and others come and go. Sometimes they are armed with questions or have specific issues to discuss, knowing that they will encounter specialists, such as commercial lawyers or freight professionals or financial experts, who can give them some direction. I’m one of the hard core supporters, and I’ve observed the interaction and business-bonding which has developed over that time.
There is some structure to the evening, in that people sign in and any providers of commercial or government services get a red dot on their name badge. This helps the importers and exporters in the room identify them if they have service-specific questions. But much of the lively interaction is between importers and exporters swapping information and adding to their store of experience-based, practical advice.
So just get out there. Support, advice, tips and the huge benefit of others’ experience await you. Make it a key focus to reduce the risk presented by the What you don’t know, you don’t know factor…..by meeting the right people and finding out stuff.
One importer who swears by networking and just being Out There is a case in point – from importing his first small shipment of high quality organic wild Canadian salmon less than two years ago, David has worked hard to develop the connections and confidence to trade, for example, large quantities of chicken wings from Brazil and lumber from Indonesia to Japan.
Serendipity is what I suspect I love most about attending relaxed networking events in the world of import/export. Moving around the room chatting to this one then that…..Who will you encounter next, which fascinating business or business idea will you learn about, what extraordinary stories of perseverance and challenges overcome will be shared…. ?
And it is also about reaffirmation. I come away from such events so impressed with the indomitable spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship alive and well in the Australian SME importers and export community.
Barbara Sullivan is a small business owner (TradeConnex International) and is co-owner and director of The Import Export Show.