Even in these days of tightening federal and state budgets, there is a piece of good news for small businesses that want to grow through exporting. The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) has announced that it still has grant funds available through its State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) in the current fiscal year.
STEP funds come in two categories. One category is reimbursement for travel expenses to trade shows or conferences that get the applicant company’s goods and services in front of an international audience. The other category, administered by the U.S. Commercial Service, is money for marketing to potential foreign clients.
“Some companies have used STEP funds for translation of their website into another language or translation of their marketing materials,” said Liz Isley, STEP program director and partner relations manager, global business services, for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
The maximum grants amounts are $3,500 for travel and $2,000 for marketing assistance, Isley said.
Wilmington- based Lee’s Tackle has used STEP grants a couple of times, said owner Andrew Lee.
The funds paid for travel to marine equipment trade shows.
“We were able to meet boatbuilders and dealers from places like the Netherlands, South America and Turkey – people we wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise,” Lee said.
The family-owned company, which was founded in 1920 by Lee’s great-grandfather, sees promise in exporting its leisure fishing equipment to countries whose recreational fishing practices mirror those of the U.S.
Lee’s Tackle manufactures equipment such as outriggers and rod holders for recreational hook-and-line fishermen at its plant on U.S. 421 and employs 15 people.
It’s just this kind of business that can expand and prosper through exports, Isley said.
“Exports are a key component of North Carolina’s economy and are crucial to its continued growth,” she said. “In 2016, North Carolina exports approached $30 billion and supported over 187,000 jobs. The STEP Program has been vital in our ability to get more small businesses to start or expand their exports.
“The program provides North Carolina small businesses the resources needed to expand their markets, grow their business and create new jobs. Since 2011, North Carolina’s STEP program has assisted small businesses over 900 times, resulting in an excess of $400 million in reported sales.”
Isley is “fairly confident” that STEP will receive continued federal funding in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“North Carolina is a strong player in this program,” she said. “We provide a proposal that is realistic and achieve our goals, and [federal officials] like that. We’ve received
STEP funding since the program’s inception in 2011, and our companies typically receive the maximum award.”
Another Wilmington-area company is packing up for a trade show in London this September, thanks to a STEP grant.
Saltwash, a young manufacturer of a paint additive that gives a beach-weathered look to furniture and home accessories, will show off its product as part of the North Carolina booth at the 100% Design show. The show bills itself as the UK’s largest trade event for architects and designers.
“We have a potential distributor in Northern Ireland who wants to distribute [Saltwash] throughout the UK,” said Jaime Hunter, who owns Saltwash with his wife, Carol.
“We’ll meet with some of his prospective clients and drum up interest.”
STEP funds can be used for a third purpose as well, said Alex Viva, an international business development counselor with the Small Business and Technology Center at N.C. State University. Some funding goes into specialty programs such as Gold Key, operated by the U.S. Commercial Service. Gold Key connects American small businesses with specialists within target export countries.
A business can tell the U.S. Commercial Service what countries it would like to go into and give those officials a wish list of contacts, Viva said.
“The U.S. Commercial Service will set up meetings and provide interpreters,” the former global tech sales professional added. “In my past life, I have used Gold Key. It minimizes your time and maximizes your efforts.”
STEP provides “free money to use strategically,” Viva said, but he cautioned that a business must have a clear idea of what it plans to accomplish with the grant.
“You need some type of plan so you know what you are looking for before you go blindly into a trade show,” he said. “What markets are you most interested in? Where can you be most competitive? Where is the best use of your time and effort?”
Viva, who works broadly as an export consultant within the SBTDC, also recommends that small businesses explore the SBA’s Export Express loans that support a business that has a firm order from an overseas customer.