It's hard enough keeping tabs on suppliers and customers within your own area code. Networking and expanding overseas? That's for the big guys, right?Not necessarily. In the U.S., small businesses thrive in niches overlooked by the big corporations, and the same holds true in other countries. These days, as the American economy stumbles, looking beyond the U.S. may be the key to success. Wall Street trembled when General Electric ( GE - Get Report) reported disappointing earnings this spring, since results from the country's second-biggest company are widely seen as a bellwether for the whole stock market. To stem losses, GE announced plans to sell off its appliance business, which could fetch anywhere from $4 billion to $8 billion. This week, during visits to South Korea and China, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt revealed that the top potential bidders for the business were all foreign companies, including China's Haier, South Korea's LG Electronics and Sweden's Electrolux. But it's not just American CEOs who are making deals beyond their borders. Also this week, Germany-based Deutsche Post, whose DHL shipping unit has been struggling in the U.S., announced a partnership with one of its American rivals. Under the terms of the deal, UPS ( UPS - Get Report) will now provide air transport for all DHL shipments in North America. Whether it's an American company selling a division to a foreign competitor, or a European company forging an alliance with its American competitor, the theme here is the same: Big business isn't limited by nationality or geography.
Does the same hold true for small business? Maybe not for the many businesses that are by definition local, such as the corner pizza restaurant or a suburban landscaping company. But businesses in certain industries not only rake in more profit by selling overseas -- they lose money if they don't. "Smaller technology companies have to take advantage of the global market very quickly," says Dr. Fariborz Ghadar, director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Small software and biotech firms are learning that it's no longer enough to be first. "Once you come up with a new technology, it used to be that it took 10 or 15 years for it to be copied," says Ghadar. "Now, it can be copied in a year or less -- when Intel ( INTL - Get Report) develops a new chip, Samsung has it soon after. At the same time, the cost to develop that technology has gone through the roof. If you don't go globally quickly, you're leaving money on the table." Companies that sell to style-conscious consumers also should move fast, while the buzz on their products is hot. (Think Apple's ( AAPL - Get Report) iPhone, which was launched in Europe and Asia soon after going on sale in the U.S.) A photo of your company's cool new chairs or handbags can show up on design blogs around the world within a few days, and you'll lose out if you're not ready to sell to overseas customers. Although the challenges of selling to an international market may intimidate some small-business owners, Ghadar says that thanks to the Internet, it's easier and more affordable than ever.
"Going global isn't nearly as expensive as it used to be," he says. "You don't need to travel around the world to make contacts; you can search company Web sites on the Internet and email potential partners or suppliers." No matter what your industry, you should know your competition -- regardless of what time zone they're in. It's also relatively easy to set up international sales through your company Web site; once the basic framework in English is done, you can have it translated into other languages. Thanks to the weak dollar, foreign shoppers are more willing than ever to buy relatively cheap U.S. goods. "Today, small businesses have to go out there very aggressively," says Ghadar. Yes, diving into the world of international commerce can be scary. But the rewards are there for companies brave enough to grab them.