A Matter of Import

Shipping in South African wines; support from your peers

Q: I am starting a business importing wines from South Africa. How do I find buyers? Benedict Valentine

A: There are a few things you need to do before you go hunting for buyers. First, make sure your supplier is willing to sell to you exclusively in your area. You also need to make sure you're on top of the myriad laws pertaining to alcohol imports. You'll need a federal permit, and then you'll need to make sure you comply with the rules of each state in which you'll be doing business. If you haven't figured that out yet, the International Trade Center SBDC in Dallas (www.iexportimport.com) provides assistance to businesses nationwide. You might also want to check out a book from U.S. Customs & Border Protection called Importing into the United States, as well as the Web site of the Federation of International Trade Associations (fita.org).

Once you've cleared those hurdles, you need to do the same legwork you would do for any domestic product. First, research the history of similar wines and see how well they've sold in the U.S. That should also give you some idea of which distributors and wholesalers typically carry your sorts of wines. Next, talk to those wholesalers and distributors, ideally in person, about whether your product would be appealing; if not, why not; and what steps you could take to increase your odds of success. Getting some consumer research under your belt—determining who exactly is most likely to buy your wines, and where—will help you make a stronger case.

While importing alcohol typically requires you to use a distributor, it may be possible to sell other products directly to retailers. That will save you money, since you won't have to pay a middleman. To help you identify the retailers that are most likely to sell your products, do as much research as you can online, interview distributors and other industry pros, and network furiously at trade shows. But take that route only if you have the time and resources for a major selling and marketing effort.

Q: How can I find a support group that will help me deal with the stress of entrepreneurship? I've tried two Small Business Development Centers, as well as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, with no luck. Dourniese Hawkins

A: Outside support is critical for entrepreneurs, who often suffer from a sense of isolation. Rather than looking to institutions for help, you may be better off looking to other entrepreneurs living with the same challenges. Try to set up meetings with business owners you know and respect, and get their input on your situation. If some are willing, you might consider creating a board of advisers to meet on a regular basis to give you guidance.

If you don't have the right individuals in your Rolodex just yet, it's time to start networking, either via a trade group for your industry, the local Chamber of Commerce, or a regional business group such as the Seattle area's Northwest Entrepreneur Network. You might also try the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), which has 80 chapters nationwide and about 8,000 members. Online communities such as Meetup.com also facilitate networking by entrepreneurs. Another option: more formal mentoring programs, such as those run by the Athena Foundation or NAWBO. The Entrepreneurs' Organization offers mentoring for those whose companies have at least $1 million in revenues.

For intensive work on a specific business challenge, you might consider a business coach. Rates generally run $100 to $250 an hour. Keep in mind that there is great variation in expertise among people who call themselves coaches. It's a good sign if your would-be coach holds certification from the International Coach Federation, has completed a program accredited by the ICF, or is accredited in using tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. And you should always do extensive reference checks.

If none of this is helpful, Steven Berglas, a psychologist and coach, says you need to ask yourself a tough question: "Did you choose entrepreneurship for the right reasons, or would you be happier in another vocation?" Food for thought, at the very least.

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