The mission of Going Global, which appears on MidwestBusiness.com
on most Tuesdays, is to educate and inform Midwest technology companies
on what local technology companies are doing internationally so other
firms can learn from the successes of like-minded peers.
CHICAGO – The
U.S. Department of Commerce blows me away. They do more to prepare
their trade officers for promoting American companies abroad than many
other organizations I know. They provide extensive language, cultural
and business training, which is much more than most businesses do.
some ways, I wish I would have pursued a foreign services career to
take advantage of all those benefits. Instead, I’m afraid I’ve
disqualified myself. Since I’ve worked for a foreign government
(regardless of how foreign Canada is), I can no longer aspire to that
their best to help their constituents, and in some ways, they provide
some real value. But beware because too many uninitiated and aspiring
international businesspeople have depended on them too much and have
been very disappointed.
I was working a number of years ago with a sportswear manufacturer that wanted to expand internationally.
The client heard
from a friend that the U.S. government programs were great and was told
he should use them. For some reason, my client was hellbent on
following his friend’s advice. We decided to exhibit at a trade show
abroad, and against my advice, they contracted with the U.S. government
for them to arrange meetings with potential distribution partners.
assurances that they were fixing us up with potential partners who met
the exact descriptions we’d specified, we narrowed it down to a (by
this point former) distributor. After meeting him and then follow-up
conference calls after we returned to the U.S., it turns out that all
this supposedly best-qualified partner ended up wanting to do is design
The lesson is
that the government organizers have little accountability for their
programs. They don’t share in the success if they make a good match and
they suffer few repercussions if it doesn’t work out. They rustled up
some warm bodies who were tangentially related to what we were seeking
and let it go at that.
A few months ago,
I was on the phone with a prospect from another state who informed me
his firm was participating in a government-organized trade mission as
their first foray abroad. They are a HR technology services provider
and the government was taking them to Saudi Arabia. I was somewhat
taken aback because Saudi Arabia is not one of the first destinations I
would choose to recommend for many clients.
If you’re simply
seeking prospective clients or partners with lots of money, then you
can probably find them there (especially with oil and hence gas prices
where they were in 2008). But doing business in the Middle East is
vastly different from doing business in the rest of the world. Many
markets are much better cultural fits. Decision making is very
dissimilar to that with which we are accustomed.
interfaces into Arabic can be much more challenging than other
languages. The mission organizers have spots to fill. They’re not
organized with the best interests of all the participants in mind.
Their interest is in simply making America and the particular
politician leading the trade mission look good. They’re not concerned
about making any long-term connections.
Their role is to
just create the opportunity. Does that mean companies should always go
to English-speaking countries first? Not necessarily. But jumping on
the bandwagon just because it’s leaving also doesn’t always make sense.
another government bureaucrat on behalf of a client and explained about
this particular client’s technology. While she knows little about
technology solutions, she wasn’t impressed. Though we requested her
help in making some introductions, we were in effect stonewalled. She
made an arbitrary and uninformed decision about the viability of this
Based on that decision, we were denied the use of the services of the U.S. government.
We pay taxes.
We’re entitled to just as much support as the next guy. Still, she
created a barrier denying us access that should have been open to us.
They make these decisions because they can. They’re in a position to
assist those they choose to assist and not serve those they don’t
choose to serve. Sure, you can ask for their help, but that doesn’t
mean they’re going to answer.
organizations can be very inconsistent as well. The state of Illinois
has had a virtual amoeba of a foreign service organization that expands
and contracts on the whims of the current head of the state. When he
was governor, Jim Thompson expanded to many cities throughout the
world. His successor (Jim Edgar) dismantled most of that network.
It has vacillated
back and forth a couple times since then. If you ask for the services
of an office in one country in one year, you might not be able to go
back to them again the next year.
On the other
hand, there are some great benefits to working with governmental
organizations to help your business grow globally. Some foreign-based
trade officers are very connected and can make introductions to great
contacts. Some locally engaged workers know their industry sectors very
well and can be a great source of information and connections.
In most of the rest of the world, government officials are more highly respected than businesspeople.
with their help can be doubly advantageous. As their programs aren’t
expensive, they’re therefore less-risky investments. In some cases,
though, you still get what you pay for. The dilemma is you don’t know
who is good to work with until you’ve worked with them. That takes some
trial and error. You are often restricted to only approaching one
market at a time, which takes more time.
The difference in
the level of service offered by foreign officers based in different
countries varies greatly, and unfortunately, there are no standards.
Some work long and hard and focus on making connections for their
constituents. Others punch the clock, write some semi-informative
reports and call it a day. The only way to figure it out is to give it
Some Americans are under the impression that foreign governments can be helpful in helping us export to their countries.
product-starved countries (of which there are fewer and fewer these
days) they will, but in my experience, that’s usually not the case.
Foreign representatives are happy to take your money in foreign direct
investment in their lands and give you many reasons why their country
is the best place to put it. Their role is to help their countrymen and
women export their wares here rather than to help us sell our wares
building these relationships and helping Americans export to their
countries, I’ve met a few enlightened foreigners who recognize that
they will gravitate up to investments (starting with sales offices that
grow into distribution centers, etc.) as sales of U.S-based companies
in their country grow. These far-sighted individuals are the exception
rather than the rule.
officers are government workers. This means what they do is political
and politics is different from business. While they may be some of the
best-educated, well-spoken and polished individuals you’ve ever met,
don’t expect them to be well-versed individuals in business. Most have
no experience and still think they could excel at it if they so chose.
But they can’t.
They fall into
the same traps as our government workers do in protecting jobs at home.
They need to touch a lot of people in a small way and they can’t work
with you deeply. Leverage their resources to your benefit as best you
can. The bottom line is don’t put all of your global eggs in their
basket and trust all your business in new markets with people who don’t
have the same interest in it as you do.
Michael Muth is managing director of GATA,
an international business development consultancy that helps technology
companies build international partnerships. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Click here for Muth’s full biography.
Previous Columns in 2007:E-Mail This Article to a Friend or Colleague
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Q&A: Motorola WiMAX Director Tom Mitoraj on Unstoppable Freight Train (11/26/2007)
Q&A: Motorola WiMAX Director Tom Mitoraj on Global WiMAX Differences (11/20/2007)
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Q&A: InterPro Translation CEO Ralph Strozza on Translation Tools, Costs (9/18/2007)
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Q&A: Madison Capital Partners CEO Larry W. Gies on Specific Country Issues (7/10/2007)
Q&A: Madison Capital Partners CEO Larry W. Gies Jr. on Cultural Differences (6/26/2007)
Q&A: Madison Capital Partners CEO Larry Gies on International Private Equity (6/11/2007)
Q&A: Scott H. Lang of S.H. Lang & Co. in Chicago on Foreign Deal Making (5/15/2007)
Q&A: Scott H. Lang of S.H. Lang & Co. in Chicago on Middle-Market M&A (5/8/2007)
Q&A: Scott H. Lang of S.H. Lang & Co. in Chicago on Middle-Market Firms (4/24/2007)
Q&A: George Filley of NAVTEQ in Chicago on Data Localization, Reach (3/27/2007)
Q&A: George Filley of NAVTEQ in Chicago on Partners, Personal Privacy (3/20/2007)
Q&A: George Filley of NAVTEQ in Chicago on Digital Mapping (3/7/2007)
Click for 2006 column archive.
Click for 2005 column archive.
Click for 2004 column archive.
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