When Lawrence Scheer began selling baby clothes in 2010, he didn’t realize it then, but he was on the leading edge of a recovery in small-business exports.
Scheer’s company, Magnificent Baby, manufactures its products in China and then sells them in about 20 countries around the world.
“Our goal from the beginning was to sell as much clothes as possible — so when international interest was there, we pursued it,” says Scheer, whose business is based in New York.
Scheer took a chance that many small-business owners have only recently decided to take. A growing number of companies are turning to exporting to build their sales, reversing a downturn that began with the recession and was likely made worse by the financial crisis in Europe.
Research shows an increase in overseas sales by companies already exporting, and a growing interest in exporting among those who have yet to test the international waters. Exporters say demand for their goods, from clothing to blankets to crop-dusting planes, is rising. That makes it worth their while to deal with the complexities of exporting, including logistics and complying with the varying regulations of overseas markets.
Sixty-four percent of small businesses are exporting goods or services, up from 52 percent in 2010, according to a survey by the National Small Business Association and the Small Business Exporters Association. And 63 percent of non-exporters said they’re interested in selling overseas, up from 43 percent, according to the trade groups. Of those who are exporting, the majority — 54 percent — get less than 10 percent of their revenue from overseas sales.
That’s a comeback from the decline that started when the economy began to slump. The number of established small businesses that received at least 25 percent of their revenue from exports fell from 12 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2009, and then dropped to between 5 percent and 6 percent from 2009-12, according to a study by Babson College researchers. An established small business is at least 3 1/2 years old.
The drop was less steep among younger businesses. Seventeen percent of new businesses were getting a quarter of their revenue from exports in 2007. That number was down to 12 percent to 13 percent the last three years. One reason for the difference between older and younger businesses is that established business owners may decide to focus on their core U.S. businesses and take fewer risks overseas during a downturn, says Donna Kelley, a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College who co-authored the study on exports.
Another reason for the decline in exporting was the difficulty small businesses had finding financing for their exports. Many banks believed small companies including exporters were too risky to lend to, says David Ickert, chairman of the National Small Business Association.
But the drop in domestic business during the downturn also made many companies consider exporting for the first time, says Ickert, who’s also a vice president at Air Tractor, an Olney, Texas-based manufacturer and exporter of crop-dusting and firefighting aircraft.
For some companies, overseas demand for their goods is growing faster than domestic demand. Love and Quiches, which supplies cheesecake and other desserts to restaurants and stores, has had a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in export sales each year for the past five years, according to the company’s president, Andy Axelrod. U.S. sales rose between 5 percent and 12 percent.
Love and Quiches, which gets 25 percent of its revenue from exports of desserts including cakes, cheesecakes and brownies, sells to customers in more than a dozen countries that want U.S.-made products, particularly those considered high-end, Axelrod says.