How to Start an Import-Export Business

Products from around the world make up the majority of the goods in the average North American home – everything from tapestries to shoes to the latest tech gadget whirring at your child’s fingertips has come from overseas because of an import-export business.

They are the matchmakers of global trade, linking producers with foreign buyers. To do this, they search for products with export potential in foreign markets via B2B marketplaces, cold calls, development offices of embassies, and trade media.

Market Research

If you are establishing an import-export business and want to minimise the risk, conduct a thorough market research before investing your hard earned cash. Stay neutral while collecting information to ensure you do not jump to conclusions before all facts are presented.

The type of market you choose and profit expectancy will be the factor that will determine how much fund do you need to go for an import- export business. Many business who import and export product for sale generate a huge profit every day but it is important to mention that they are selling in a competitive Industry which requires some time and money invested.

There are three types of import-export businesses My first category is imported-export merchants who are buying and selling products themselves directly, second category, export management company, are working with local producers to oversee their export operations, and the third category is export trading companies who simply find foreign buyers for your domestic products. Decision of which kind of import-export business you want to do will depend on your strengths and interests.


The first challenge you will face in starting an import export business is identifying your target market and customers. This is usually the toughest part of starting any business.

This includes answering questions, travelling overseas, trade shows and calling development departments of embassies. It includes cold-calling prospective clients and searching for names in trade press and the internet.

In many instances, you will source ‘just in time’ – that is, you will find something that is taking off or looks set to take off, when it comes to products. Then, you will search for an overseas manufacturer to source from. This is an ETC (export trading company) type of business. Or there are other businesses that will go more the ecommerce route, which will sell directly to the end consumer (e)commerce and an import export business – these types of companies sell through Amazon, Ebay, Etsy.


The world of exports is one of possibilities, but a clear knowledge of global trading regulations is needed, as are sharp negotiation skills and bulletproof sensing mechanisms to detect market demand. Depending on the product, profit margins can be anywhere from 5 per cent to 100 per cent, but the road to consistent profit and break even is a long and winding one.

What we can say is that it’s a good idea to pick something, if possible, that you like or genuinely understand, such as mobile phone technology or USB sticks – anything where your learning curve is reduced because you already have the background you need.

I advise going to the manufacturers and factories there, and checking that you like the product, and more importantly, they are of good quality. This is one of the best times a serious import-export entrepreneur will spend and the money you would incur will prove to be rewards. Most governmental agencies in your country offer a fair amount of guidance, resources and even venture assistances for import-export entrepreneurs.


Whether you are a private individual intending to operate as an export agent yourself, an import-export management company, or an export trading firm, you will need to provide information about your chosen activity. You will also need to register your business. The rules – in terms of how to register and any special categories of traders – differ by state and type of business.

If your area of expertise might lend itself to a particular type of product or goods that are destined for a certain niche market, maybe an independent import-export business is where your venture should start. There is a lot of cash to be made that can also take you on a tax-deductible tour of the globe.

For example, if you know your foreign shipping and logistics inside out, manufacturers might hire you to be their sole export agent and handle all their sales abroad. You take a cut on the sale of their merchandise and they don’t have to pay for space advertising to sell their goods, and they don’t have to pay the high shipping fees for international logistics fees either.


Given the huge importance of customer satisfaction, keeping good relationships with your suppliers is essential for any import-export business. Fortunately, there are a number of ways of achieving this, such as online directories, trade fairs and industry associations. Building up trust and a reputation for good quality and reliability will help distinguish your company from your rivals.

This is no different to any other business; you should have a full business plan and be able to present your vision for your project to any prospective investors or partners.

Clearly, you should pick a company name to reflect the products or services you are offering, something that is distinctive and sticks in people’s minds. Bear in mind, too, that it’s easier to be an expert in things that you understand and are interested in: that’s your ‘circle of competence’, as Warren Buffet calls it. It’s much easier to research new products and become convinced about them if you’re passionate about them. It also gives your brand credibility.

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