(MoneyWatch) Alexandra Mathews loves to travel, but she never expected her road bug would help build the family business.
But her San Antonio-based company Lucifer Lighting, which makes high-quality lighting fixtures, has been growing thanks to the stylish lighting executive's globetrotting ways - and deep Rolodex.
Mathews recommends that other U.S. manufacturers expand by growing overseas, noting SBA stats that 97% of all exporters are small businesses. The trick is to compete hard and brush up on local business customs.
The methods are working for Lucifer Lighting, with products known for sturdy designs and state-of-the-art LED light bulbs. Mathews has expanded the 100-person company through sales arms in Asia, Europe and Latin America, mainly by adding international distributors. Today she has more than 40 such resellers in dozens of countries, selling products labeled "Made in the USA."
How Lucifer Lighting got there is a model for other U.S. manufacturers, says Mathews. She offers five tips for companies looking to go global:
1. Use your own connections.
"Start with local people you may already know in foreign geographies," says Mathews. "If you don't have local connections, visit your target countries or cities - definitely do not rely on phone or email to get business going initially."
2. Learn the local brands and pricing.
"Be ready to speak intelligently about how your product fits into the local market by knowing competitive brands and price points," she says. "Most important, understand that you may need to be flexible with your pricing to be successful."
3. Be flexible.
Local customs may demand something other than the formula you're used to at home, says Mathews. "So it's essential to be open to different business terms and processes. They might be standard in the foreign market," she explains.
4. Watch for language issues.
Mathews has two rules for communicating with overseas prospects: First, be extra clear in written communication, and second, don't take every word you read literally. "Even among English-speaking countries there are cultural nuances that can create misunderstandings," she says. "Those potential differences are magnified when communicating with non-native English speakers."
5. Stay in touch.
Frequent contact with new business partners and prospects is essential, especially given the cultural and geographic divide. "With any local distribution partners you develop, keep mind share by staying in regular communication," says Mathews. "It's the same as with U.S. distributors, but even more so."
When you find a strong distributor partner, the results can be impressive - and lucrative.
In China, for example - a lighting market better known for poor-quality knockoffs - Mathews has been working with a distributor that's also a family business, just like Lucifer Lighting, with different family members based in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. The partner recently rang up an order for 25,000 downlights for the Wynn Macau, keeping assembly lines in San Antonio humming away.
"It's satisfying to export U.S. products into a market with high import duties and many cheap local products, while also being able to protect our products from being copied," says Mathews. "That's the tremendous advantage of a strong local distributor partner."
Mathews adds that some of her best foreign distributors also have full-time people positioned in U.S. cities. That helping resolve order issues and customer needs faster. This is true for her UAE distributor, which gets many of its orders for big projects in Dubai through companies based in London and New York.
"Developing a global network takes time," Mathews cautions. "But you'd be surprised how quickly a new market can open up for you if you have great products and a flexible, friendly outlook."