When Tim Houselog traveled to Mexico in February 2016 on a Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. global trade venture, he knew his Scrape-N-Burr tool for the welding industry had potential for growth south of the border.
“We had already been seeing our product shipping into the cities on the border in Texas and California,” says Houselog, president of Neenah-based Innovative Product Ideas, LLC.
What he needed was a way to connect with potential new customers and facilitate additional sales. The WEDC trade venture helped Houselog to do that, customizing and planning meetings for him, even arranging for a translator and transportation. On the trip, Houselog obtained multiple orders from a new, large distributor and is continuing to build new relationships with other companies he met with on the venture.
“It was just a real turnkey situation that makes it really easy to get in there and get right to business,” Houselog says. “There’s so much help upfront.”
That’s the goal of WEDC’s trade venture trips — to make it easy for Wisconsin businesses to connect with opportunities internationally.
“Whether they’re a cheesemaker or a metal bender, each of those companies and participants will have their own individualized, customized set of appointments that meet their specific business needs,” says Brad Schneider, export development manager at WEDC. The program arranges all in-country logistics so companies can focus on their appointments.
Each year, the WEDC visits Canada, Mexico and China, the top three export countries for Wisconsin in terms of total dollar volume, says Mark Rhoda-Reis, international business director at WEDC.
“We want to make sure that it makes the most sense, especially for companies who are newer to exporting,” Rhoda-Reis says. “Canada and Mexico should just absolutely be on their list because of the proximity and ease of doing business.”
Even with tensions over trade and tariff issues, it’s still a good idea for companies to plan for exporting their product or service, Rhoda-Reis says.
“When there’s turmoil in a market and some uncertainties, in some respects you may want to double down on the amount of contact that you’re having,” Rhoda-Reis says. “You want to continue that relationship because over time those conflicts change.”
WEDC plans about three additional trade ventures per year to various other markets, including upcoming trips to France/United Kingdom and Australia. The agency examines trends and growth in markets to assess the best potential for Wisconsin companies.
Company costs for each trip vary, but are generally between $1,000 and $3,000 per participant, which includes most in-country costs of the program. The trips are subsidized by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s StateTrade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant, Schneider says. The full, non-subsidized cost of the trips
can exceed $12,000.
Many of the participating companies are graduates of the ExporTech program, Schneider says. ExporTech is a three-month program in which companies develop an international marketing plan that identifies particular countries or markets for their product or service. But ExporTech is not a prerequisite for joining the trips. Houselog, for example, learned about the Mexico trip through the WEDC email list.
Trade ventures are appropriate both for companies that are new to or have had limited exposure to exporting and those that have already been selling to international markets, Schneider says.
Some companies can use the ventures to gauge potential for shifting market segments, such as going from government to industrial sales, Rhoda-Reis says.
“In that case, they’re either A, trying to renew what they had or B, they’re trying to find that next segment, which ends up being a totally new market,” he says.
Rhoda-Reis points out that not every company uses the trade ventures to find customers, distributors or partners. “Some companies can use this to verify whether this is the right market and to verify whether it’s the right product,” he says.
“Nothing beats being there and sitting across the table from a prospective partner to be able to get a better feel and accurate assessment of whether they are the right fit for you,” Schneider says.
As another benefit, ExporTech graduates can apply for additional exporting development help through an International Market Access Grant, gaining up to $25,000 of services.
ExporTech graduate Marianna “Yana” DeMyer, CEO of the Lena-based water purification company Roving Blue, has been on three WEDC ventures — to India, South Korea/Japan and the Middle East.
“From just a logistic standpoint, it is a huge help,” DeMyer says. “India is a giant country. We did the equivalent of New York to Florida to California, and they handle that for you.”
While it’s too early for Roving Blue to assess the value of the trips in terms of revenue, DeMyer says they’ve been invaluable in terms of developing contacts and recognition at a cost that is far less than trying to arrange a similar trip on her own.
“Our main problem is just awareness,” DeMyer said. “And with the quality of the contacts that you get, they definitely build awareness.”
Like Houselog, DeMyer hopes to participate in future trade ventures to continue to grow her market.
“If you want to export, there are two ways to grow your sales — domestically or internationally,” DeMyer says. “You are cutting yourself off from future sales growth if you don’t export.”
Upcoming trade ventures
The WEDC is planning multiple global trade ventures in the coming months:
• Australia, Nov. 9-17
• Mexico, Feb. 16-22, 2019
• Canada, March 24-29, 2019
• China, April 5-17, 2019
• France and UK, June 15-26, 2019
Global trade venture delegations benefit from an in-depth country briefing, organized tour and prearranged customized meetings with potential customers that fit with a company’s export goals and capabilities.
For more information, visit wedc.org/programs-and-resources/global-trade-ventures/.
To learn more about the ExporTech program, visit wedc.org/exportech.