magazine - June 2005
By Joshua Kurlantzick
When Thad Hooker and his wife, Lisa, first took over Spirit of Asia, a
Florida company selling high-end furniture and accessories, they, like
many entrepreneurs, were unprepared for sourcing overseas. Unlike
executives of large companies, the Hookers hadn't done a tour of duty
overseas and didn't have retinues of assistants to help them when they
bought Spirit of Asia in 2001. "I decided to source from Southeast
Asia, but I had to find out everything myself," says Thad Hooker, 36,
who had previously worked for a large insurance company. "It felt like
So Hooker played catch-up--quickly. He exhaustively researched sourcing
options before he ventured overseas, comparison-shopped source
countries and did on-the-ground research himself. He was also lucky: On
his initial trip to Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, Hooker
caught a ride with a local taxi driver who was interested in art and
antiques. Hooker signed the man up, gave him a digital camera, and now
employs the former driver as a furniture scout on the ground. Today,
Hooker has a profitable shop in Fort Lauderdale, is considering opening
other locations and has launched a website to sell his products
As margins have shrunk in most industries, entrepreneurs have had to
look overseas to survive. Small companies are increasingly sourcing
directly, rather than using middlemen: Hooker saves as much as 60
percent by buying items directly in Asia instead of using a broker.
While there is a wide range of source countries to choose from, a
handful are the hottest. China is now the biggest recipient of foreign
investment in the world, particularly for labor-intensive products.
"You can always produce cheaper in China," says Jennifer Adams, CEO of
Velocity Source Group International, a consulting firm in Oakland,
California, that helps entrepreneurs find factories in Asia.
Other Asian nations, such as Thailand, rival China's cheap labor with
better legal systems, says Chris Runckel, president of Runckel &
Associates, a Portland, Oregon, consulting firm. And Eastern Europe is
a hot spot for higher-value items. It boasts highly educated work
forces that are cheaper than those in Western nations.
Once you've decided to source overseas, you must figure out exactly
what you can spend in order to make a profit. Adams suggests that
entrepreneurs study all parts of their manufacturing to understand
which parts are the most labor-intensive and could be outsourced.
The initial search for overseas sources starts with abandoning
preconceptions about countries, says Mike Lord, director of the Flow
Institute for International Business at Wake Forest University in
Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "You can't assume things will be
comparable to America," says Lord. "You can't even assume that all
parts of a country will be the same."
Runckel adds, "You can't expect any degree of legal protection [in
Your research must include learning about the local customs and culture
of the countries you're considering, says Laurel Delaney, president of
GlobeTrade.com, a Chicago firm that helps businesses source and sell
overseas. Adams adds that being blustery, a typical American
negotiating strategy, rarely works in Asia, where quiet diplomacy is
usually the best way to seal a deal.
Working with a consultant who can compare the strengths and weaknesses
of countries and set up appointments overseas before you fly is a good
first step in your search. Local trade organizations and chambers of
commerce often offer assessments of consultants.
Some entrepreneurs shun consultants, preferring to use online
marketplaces, but these can be risky. Michael Zey, professor of
management at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey,
says: "If you go to the net and put in 'sourcing to China,' you'll get
a slew of companies purporting to help you through the barriers. The
question is, How do you know if they're good?"
Thad Hooker knows the danger of relying too much on the internet. "I
did a lot of internet research before a trip to Vietnam," he says. "But
when I got there, I found the people I'd contacted tended to be
[middlemen], not direct contacts with factories or artists."
Some smaller companies planning to source extensively hire an executive
who has overseas experience with a larger company, even if the
executive's work was not in the country from which the company is
sourcing. "If [the executive] has had experience in another developing
country, even Mexico, those soft skills and experience--dealing with
red tape and corruption--are transferable," says Runckel.
Whether working with a consultant or handling sourcing yourself, you
should also examine industry research on suppliers through
organizations like the Federation of International Trade Associations
and trade groups specific to your industry. Also look into U.S.
government assistance programs. FITA has comprehensive business
directories on many source countries, while the Export-Import Bank now
offers larger capital loans for small global traders. The U.S.
Commercial Service's Gold Key Matching Service introduces entrepreneurs
to U.S. embassy officials overseas, who then introduce Americans to
If you've been briefed on foreign cultures, know what you're looking
for and are stocked with in-flight reading, you're ready to hire a
supplier. At this point, remember a few crucial keys for success:
1. Hire a source that's not a competitor. It's best to find a supplier
whose own business does not directly compete with yours and who isn't
tempted to rip you off. Intellectual-property protection can be a major
problem in Asia. Robert Kushner, 38, president of Pacific China
Industries, a novelty manufacturer with 20 employees, mostly based in
Hong Kong, knows the drill. He recently outsourced a product to a
factory in China, and the samples came to him with a design flaw. "The
factory [told] me, 'We know how to fix the flaw.' Why? Because they'd
already knocked off my item and were selling it themselves," says
To protect himself, Kushner now insists on having his own inspector
inside Chinese factories. For valuable items, he spreads the product
components across numerous factories so no one supplier has the
prototype for the entire piece. His most trusted supplier does the
Other smart entrepreneurs, Runckel notes, insist on a nondisclosure
agreement before they contract with a source, or they try to patent the
item in the source country itself. That way, if a supplier rips them
off, it is vulnerable under local law. Hooker obtained an official
importer certification from Thailand, which could help him curry favor
with the Thai government if he runs into any of these problems.
2. Determine a source's turnaround time. For many entrepreneurs,
finding a source that can move quickly is critical. Three years ago,
Mia Abbruzzese, 39, left her job as an executive for a major shoe
company to start her own shoe business, Boston-based Morgan & Milo.
She's learned an important lesson along the way: When you have a small
company, you don't have as much power with factories as a large company
operating its own factory does. "I can't dictate to my factories--being
smaller, you don't have that kind of control," says Abbruzzese. "So if
I can find someone who can do it quickly, I can succeed."
3. Give your source an exact model of what you want produced. "It's
always better to cost something from an actual item rather than an idea
of an item," says Adams. You can obtain a form called an ATA Carnet
from the U.S. government that lets you import commercial samples
Finding someone who will accept an irrevocable letter of credit--a
promise by a bank to pay the source--is also important, Runckel says,
because this adds a bank's oversight to the process. In addition to
letters of credit, other types of financing include a bill of exchange,
which is essentially a check. Of course, like a personal check, a bill
of exchange has a higher risk of fraud. Some entrepreneurs, like
Hooker, prefer to use cash for smaller orders because they get better
deals from sources that way.
Logistics is another area that can perplex entrepreneurs. "Don't assume
that your source understands transport; you have to manage it
yourself," says Runckel. He suggests finding a top-quality freight
forwarder who has worked with first-time importers. The freight
forwarder can assist you with all elements of cargo, including
negotiating the documents needed to move containers, such as bills of
lading, which are the contracts between the source, the shipping
company and the buyer.
Once you've chosen a supplier, you're ready to source. Constant
communication is a must. "It's super-important to show your face [in
the source country]," says Adams. She suggests being in e-mail or phone
contact with your suppliers at least once a day.
Typically, your first contracts will be on a per-project basis.
Eventually, the relationship can evolve to longer-term contracts, which
help insulate entrepreneurs from potential currency fluctuations.
Successful entrepreneurs give a steady stream of business to sources
they like. "Showing the factory you can capture a lot of orders shows
you have a future," says Kushner. "Sometimes you take an order that
doesn't make you much money to keep your volume up."
Eventually, something might go wrong. Even the most successful
entrepreneurs can have trouble overseas. Sometimes the trouble starts
at home. Hooker knows. "Last summer, I shipped a container of Thai
triangle-shaped pillows [to the United States]. We brought them in, no
problem, at customs," he says. The furniture store that the pillows
went to was displaying them in its showroom when someone from the
Department of Agriculture saw them. "Turns out, inside these pillows
[was] rice straw," says Hooker. Rice straw is banned in the United
States. "They impounded all those pillows. We had to give a credit for
[them]. It definitely hurt us." Hooker learned his lesson. These days,
he studies U.S. customs information so scrupulously that other
companies turn to him for advice: He now sources for larger furniture
companies, who rely on his Asian expertise. While that may be more than
you want to do, putting in some time and effort will make you a foreign
expert in your own right.
The frenzy over sourcing overseas sometimes draws in entrepreneurs who
would be better off not buying a plane ticket. Mike Lord, director of
the Flow Institute for International Business at Wake Forest University
in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that before making a move,
entrepreneurs should seriously analyze whether they will save money by
"Many companies are convinced they have to go to China, but they don't
understand that the downsides to moving [production] can outweigh the
lower labor costs," he says.
Certain types of businesses are the best prospects for staying in the
United States. According to U.S. China Business Solutions, a consulting
firm specializing in helping U.S. companies source in China, it doesn't
make sense for small and midsize companies to source in China if their
initial order will be less than $200,000, given the upfront costs of
hiring an agent, setting up shipping, obtaining samples, and making
trips to the source country.
Companies that require a high degree of intellectual-property
protection might also consider staying close to home. And higher-value
items America. "If you're in a business where you make magnetic
resonance imaging, and people can't wait weeks for a part to come from
China, maybe it doesn't make sense," says Lord. "If you source, you'll
have to build up an inventory here, in a warehouse in the U.S., so the
item is always available. That could be more expensive than just making
Here are some resources to help you get started sourcing product
Federation of International Trade Associations: The Federation of
International Trade Associations offers a comprehensive schedule of
trade events and conferences, a directory of trade leads from across
the globe, an enormous database of other trade-related websites in
numerous countries, and meeting boards on which entrepreneurs can find
GlobeTrade.com: GlobeTrade.com is a leading consulting firm for
exporters and importers, and a clearinghouse on sourcing products
Small Business Exporters Association: Part of the National Small
Business Association, the SBEA brings together smaller companies with
an interest in exporting or participating in global supply chains. The
organization also maintains databases of overseas trade leads, offers
access to export financing, and helps you prepare applications for
government financing for export projects.
Stat-USA: Stat-USA is an excellent clearinghouse of economic and
financial data about all foreign countries as well as market analysis
of key foreign nations.
U.S. Commercial Service Gold Key Matching Service: Click on "Export
Assistant Services." This program arranges pre-screened interviews with
potential business partners, agents and distributors in foreign
nations. Gold Key also provides market research about various countries
and can arrange transportation and translation services for meetings
with potential sources.
U.S. Export Assistance Centers: Located in larger U.S. cities, the
Commerce Department's Export Assistance Centers provide counseling for
businesses considering exporting or importing. They can also inform
entrepreneurs about how to obtain the correct documentation for
exporting and importing, how to find shippers and other vital details.
Kurlantzick is a writer in Washington, DC.