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Some legends will never fade away. Others just get better with age. The image of small-business owners as "Mom and Pop" operations, although outdated, continues to play an important role in American culture, for it serves to remind today's entrepreneurs just how far they've come as an integral segment of the nation's economy.
That doesn't mean Mom and Pop have vanished from the landscape. To the contrary, many enterprises depend on the brains, skill and willpower of key family members to succeed in a fast-paced marketplace. But those who own and operate the more than 24 million small U.S. firms that keep our economic engines spinning are today more technologically wired, more financially savvy business people than previous generations.
And no longer are they tethered to those quaint Main Street storefronts. They're going global in ever-increasing numbers.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration's (SBA) Office of Advocacy, small firms made up nearly 90 percent of all exporters and produced one-fifth of the known export value in 2001.
Such key facts haven't gone unnoticed by the White House. My recent appointment to the President's Export Council was an unmistakable sign that President Bush is serious in his efforts to get the small-business community more involved in international trade. And, SBA and the Commerce Department have launched major initiatives to aid small firms that want to explore doing business in other countries.
But before they start packing, the Moms and Pops with visions of international deals dancing in their heads should do some serious investigation. Foreign trade isn't for everyone. It can be very rewarding, but even the most savvy business person should approach with caution.
Many innovations, such as international credit cards make it easier to do business and ensure payment from customers overseas. But larger and more complex issues are looming in major foreign markets.
Take China, for example. Hardly a day goes by without news of another well-recognized U.S. brand entering the Chinese market. So when small-business owners envision a population of 1.3 billion people, they tend to see at least 1 billion of them as customers. But these ever-optimistic entrepreneurs should be aware of the obstacles that must be cleared before any business can open its doors.
Even though China was admitted to the World Trade Organization and agreed to implement many marketplace reforms, the country still artificially pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar, putting American producers at a considerable competitive disadvantage. What's more, the Asian nation maintains other barriers such as quarantines that slow U.S. agricultural exports, discriminatory tax policies that unfairly benefit Chinese producers and regulations that add costs and consume resources.
What export-eager small-business owners must realize is that while globalization is making the world smaller and easing the path for them to participate, challenges abound in countries that zealously protect their markets while seeking to exploit ours.
Mom and Pop can go global, but they must have fair and open markets to succeed.
Jack Faris is President and Chief Executive Officer of The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the nation's largest small-business advocacy group. A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1943, NFIB represents the consensus views of its 600,000 members in Washington and all 50 state capitals.
For further information or any other inquiries, you are invited to contact:
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Telephone: (202) 543-6800 -- FAX: 202.488.4437
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