A recent Department of Commerce study of midsize and smaller U.S. manufacturing exporters made a surprising finding: the majority of the companies surveyed don’t have an export plan.  What’s more, they lack international financial goals and, in general, lack staff who are dedicated to growing the international side of the business.  In addition, exporters rely mainly on U.S.-based sales efforts to generate overseas customers, and fully one-third sit back passively and let the orders come to them.

Another surprising finding was that on average it takes these U.S. companies from three to five years to generate sales in three separate country markets. This seems like a long time, an indication that such companies are missing opportunities, perhaps due to lack of planning or information on where to go for free or low cost help.

Pushing boulders up hills?

Given this data, should we conclude that President Obama’s initiative to double exports and create two million jobs over the next five years is a Sisyphean struggle?  Not necessarily.  The fondness for exporting mainly to Canada and Western Europe can certainly be expanded to other parts of the world without the need for trading partners to bolster their currencies or drop their duty rates, though these things are helpful.

The reasons companies don’t have plans may suggest an ambivalence towards exporting and an uphill battle to persuade them to be more aggressive.  But the data show that more than 62 percent want to grow their international business despite reporting that they have no written plan for doing so. One implication is that planning tools and how to use them need to be aggressively shared and used.

The first rule of export planning is that the process and document itself need not be exhaustive or exhausting.  Just a few pages starting out may be sufficient, with an understanding that the document will grow in size and sophistication as experience is gained.  Keep in mind, too, that many companies are happily exporting, many via the Internet, whose sales volume is projected to mushroom far into the future, with no written plan whatsoever.  The question for them is how much more business could they generate in how many more country markets if they had a simple plan for systematically growing their sales. To know how to pick out your markets and actually compile the elements for your plan, stay tuned to this blog for the answers!

Doug Barry is a trade specialist with the Trade Information Center of the U.S. Commercial Service.  He can be reached at

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