How to Start an Import-Export Business

The world of imports and exports can be an exciting, profitable opportunity for just about anyone with a computer, phone, and the willingness to do the work. Import/export agents are the connection between manufacturers and the worldwide market.

Becoming an import/export agent requires basic sales skills, strong organization skills, and attention to details. Most of your efforts revolve around building solid business relationships with manufacturers and distributors domestically and overseas. The typical commission is around 10% of what you broker, so the more you move, the better you’ll do. Though there is quite a bit of competition in the business, there are hundreds of manufacturers looking to broaden their geographic scope of distribution and millions of products to deal with — everything from cheap plastic toys to clothing to stereo equipment moves through import-export agents.

Like any other startup, there is a lot to do to before the money starts rolling in. You will need to identify potential companies to work with and introduce yourself (and your new company) to them. Ask manufacturers for samples and catalogs, statistics on their current foreign distribution, and the demand for their product in their own country. Ask distributors or retailers for the basics of their operations — who covers what territories, what products they deal in, what products they are looking for, anything that will help you determine what they buy and what they sell.

Once you have selected the type of products you plan to focus on, do your homework on the industry. Learn the history of demand for those types of products (Affected by the economy? Social trends? Who is the end user?). Review a variety of sources including newspapers, trade journals, business magazines, websites, trade association statistics, even financial statements for related companies. If you are new to the business, filling in your knowledge gaps will take some time and effort. If you are experienced in the field, you still need to put in the effort to ensure you are on the right track.

You will need an experienced international banker to help you set up your banking needs. An excellent credit score will make the process much easier, as you will be able to get started without much cash up front. You will also need a competent attorney to draft contracts between you and your manufacturers. Usually, you will be able to use the same contract for later deals by simply changing the name of the other party. You will need to secure a freight forwarder as well to handle the actual merchandise from manufacturer to final destination.

Starting an import/export business can be an excellent option for taking control of your own work life. It takes time and a good amount of concerted effort, but the payoff can be significant over time. Like any other business, it is essential that you master the fundamentals of business ownership as well as the customary operations of the field before launching. For the right person, with the right set of skills, the import/export business can be an exciting, profitable opportunity.