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Get a Passport and Grow! Exports Aren't Just for Manufacturers

American business needs to export more. That's the clear signal from economic figures. As consumer spending languishes, the domestic growth we are all used to may not be coming back for a long time -- or ever. So if you want your business to grow, you need to start looking to other markets.

Why should this come as such a shock? One reason is that Americans as a whole aren't wildly international. Only about 28% of Americans hold passports -- compared to 41% for Canada and over 70% for the U.K. The good news is that the U.S. passport rate is rising as younger generations want, and expect, to travel more.

Another reason for American economic insularity is that the U.S. itself constitutes such a vast market that millions of successful companies have done fine but serving local markets only. Major consumer brands like the Cheesecake Factor and Chipotle Grill are purely stateside institutions; Eileen Fisher is virtually unknown outside the U.S.

But the big argument I always hear is that economic growth resides primarily in service businesses (which is true), and you can't export those (which isn't true). One of the most interesting developments in the world of international business has been the inroads made by Vistage into China. Vistage is in the company leadership business, using advisory boards, peer mentoring and coaching to help entrepreneurs achieve greater business success. Although it owns a certain amount of intellectual property, it is purely in the service industry, educating, training and developing business leaders. As the Chinese economy expands, there's a crying need for management training. And that's what Vistage provides.

Of course, in breaking into China, Vistage is also building networks that may help its stateside members expand too; that's one of the beauties of its model. But what's most provocative about this expansion is that it shows how successfully even the most local service business can become international. And it proves that manufacturers aren't the only ones for whom export is a growth option.

Many will argue that exporting is risky, and they're right. If you don't study your market, if you think everywhere is -- or should be -- just like home, you'll fall flat on your face. (Remember Michael Eisner claiming -- in the land of chateaux -- that Disney's Cinderella castle was the finest in France?) But do your homework and the growth opportunities (financial and intellectual) can be immense -- for manufacturing and service companies alike.

If Vistage can do it, can you?

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