Starting an Import/Export Business: Advice from an Expert
Starting an Import/Export Business: Do it Today!
Merri Scott, a proven import-export entrepreneur, has been turning her passion for travel into profits since the late 1960’s. Over the years, she’s imported everything from Mexican papier mache to German scissors, turning an initial $500 investment into $80,000 her first year.
These days, she and her husband, Gary, bring home a seven-figure income with their assorted travel-related businesses.
Here, below, she tells her story and offers advice about how — and where — you can start an import/export business today.
It’s easier than ever to start an import-export business, Merri says, one that won’t just cover your travel costs, but can produce handsome returns. And it requires far less funding (and produces less frustration) than it did when she got her start nearly 30 years ago.
If you’ve ever shopped for unique souvenirs to bring home from a trip, you’ve got the instinct it takes. All you need is some on-the-ground pointers about how to turn your treasures into cash.
Read on to find out how you can follow in Merri’s footsteps (but avoid her mistakes)… and learn her pick for the best place to invest your energies.
Wishing you good (and profitable) travels,
Director, Great Escape Publishing
THE RIGHT WAY TO TRAVEL: SPECIAL REPORT
Follow in the Footsteps of a Successful Import/Export Entrepreneur – How (and Where) to Start an Import/Export Business This Year
By Merri Scott
There are so many opportunities to start an import-export business today… and if I can do it, so can you!
Start an Import/Export Business: Why I did
It was late in 1969, and I had been studying in Continental Europe for more than two years. Now, it was time to go back to the Deep South. The weather had been bad a lot during those years. My father had died. The family business that I was to enter was on very tenuous grounds.
I had changed a lot, learned a lot, and experienced a lot. I was determined to follow my entrepreneurial path and maintain my freedom, integrity, and desires.
Suddenly, it was time to return to Georgia. Only I did not want to spend a rainy, gray winter there and I didn’t want to be a burden.
So without help from others, I figured I had $500 to spare. After less than a month of research, it struck me that what I wanted was the following:
1) to make money but to help others less fortunate at the same time,
2) to spend time traveling to exotic locations learning, discovering, helping,
3) to be free from the daily grind, but at the same time be working.
Nothing seemed to marry these desires but a whispery idea of bringing products from other countries (those I wished to experience) and selling them in my own country. I don’t think I even knew the term “import/export.”
Wrestling with all of this and seeing winter looming put me under great pressure. So, I jumped in. With one import product, I decided to start my import/export business. My first small ad (cost $499) in House and Garden magazine brought in a whopping $5,000! I quickly took those profits and expanded out to other magazines: Audubon, New York Times, House Beautiful, Smithsonian, etc.
I took a bit of profit and set off for Mexico. It was a long but beautiful drive from Georgia all the way to Brownsville. My plans? Simply to get down to the sun and the sea and explore as much of that country as possible.
My 1968 Mercedes diesel, which I’d brought back with me from Germany, was perfect. It was rough in Mexico in those days — rough roads, rough experiences, rough maps, and no signs. I put 12,000 miles on that car inside Mexico, and I found lots and lots of opportunities while I was at it.
I expected to find tons of products that I could bring back. What happened was that I located many great craftsmen, excelling in wood, pottery, textiles, and papier mache. However, none of their products seemed right in their appeal to my audience.
So I sketched off some rough drawings. Before I knew it, there were lots of products pouring out of me… all I felt would be great for my markets. (While creating products, I was also desperately trying to add Spanish to my repertoire!)
Start an Import/Export Business: Traveling, Helping, and Making Money
The first year, profits were (for those times) a staggering $80,000! OK! I had an editor visit me from House & Garden to do editorial backup.
I found an orphanage in Mexico whose children wanted to paint the designs on the nursery products I would export. I found a chain of stores who wanted their own designs made.
I discovered how to work both roads… import and export. Friends in the Yucatan desperately wanted German scissors (aha! my background there was solid with contacts) and men’s cotton shirts (aha! Georgia was the largest textile manufacturer in the U.S. at that time).
I learned to fly down with my scissors and men’s shirts and come back with loads of hand-carved mahogany suns, exquisite three-foot-tall, hand-painted papier mache nursery animals, collections of hand-made cotton outfits, and more and more.
After a few years, I grew restless… so I sold the company and took five years off to study and recoup, traveling around in my 65-foot yacht (complete with captain) off the shores of Florida and the Bahamas.
Then, as life would have it, I received an invitation from Baby Doc (who had just taken over from Papa Doc) in Haiti. I went down, had a look. And while there, an American couple, the Mellons, invited me to the island’s Dr. Albert Schweitzer Hospital for lepers, to which they had devoted their lives.
What a turn of events! There I fell in love with that whole colony, saw their beautiful hand-made rugs and wooden items and brought back their work to America. And I helped the Mellons get doctors and nurses and medicine for their projects.
Now, import and export once again became the center of my universe. The look of devotion on the faces of the badly deformed lepers when I bought everything they made!
Ahh… what sweet pleasures in life… enjoying their company and laughter and getting to know the Mellons, who lived in a small cottage and toiled day and night to better that forlorn country. Seeing and experiencing these people, their talents, and their zest for life changed me forever. Plus, of course, I enjoyed the sunshine.
I repeated my import-export business formula over and over again in the years that followed, every time discovering new countries, helping, traveling, making money, and just being a multinational.
But that was the past. What about import-export for the future?
Start an Import/Export Business: Today There’s Little Risk and Lots of Travel Opportunity
Compared to the 60’s and 70’s, starting a import/export business today is incredibly simple and cheap. Keep in mind: I had huge, expensive monthly commitments to advertisements. I had to be right month after month.
Today, I’d follow the advice of my wise husband and start up by thinking big and spending small. I’d follow my passion to profit. I’d get a website and/or eBay (with practically no set-up costs) and begin. Today, just offer your import items on the Internet… the world can beat a path to you.
And where would I begin? I needn’t give it a second thought: Ecuador, the Land of the Sun.
By chance, Gary and I were invited to go down there 12 years ago. We had really no great desires, no expectations. Who would have guessed that we would fall in love with this beautiful land?
We’ve traversed almost every inch of the country, hiked its mountains, swum in the clear seas, soaked in glorious hot waters, eaten incredible foods, lived with the indigenous, bought a hacienda with 800 acres, learned a bit of Quichua, started a foundation to help others, and we’ve taken more than 1,400 people down there, too. And everywhere we go, we see opportunities of a lifetime in import-export.
Start an Import/Export Business: Why Ecuador Makes so Much Sense
All of this is so easy in Ecuador. First of all, the Spanish brought the Guild System from Europe. So, instead of searching all over a country like I did in Mexico (following countless leads, getting lost, getting threatened, and getting worn out) — today in Ecuador you can just go directly to the one village that specializes in your interest.
There’s Cotacachi — leather workers, San Antonio de Ibarra — woodcarvers, Zuleta — embroiderers, Chordeleg — filigree jewelers, Bulcay — Ikat weavers, San Bartolome — guitar makers, the Paute River — sweater makers, Gualaceo — pottery makers (throwing 60 pots a day per person), Peguche — rug weavers, even Ibarra — the ice cream makers, (plus hundreds more). And, of course, there’s Otavalo, the greatest indigenous market in South America.
I could go on and on and on. But the point is: Ecuador is organized. You can go to a single village and talk with dozens of people, look at their wares, and pick the best — simply, easily, and enjoyably.
Because of the machismo of the Mexicans, I found that as a woman I always encountered problems down there. Also, their lack of follow through was notorious. When I lived in Quitanana Roo, I discovered the Lebanese of Merida. The Lebanese are some of the best business people in the world. After my organization got so large, I found it was necessary to have them follow through for me. (They controlled most of the textile industry.)
In Ecuador, it is much different. The national drink is Chamomile tea… not espresso coffee. Got any ideas about the implications of this? We deal directly with the indigenous, thus giving them all the money and also giving ourselves the great pleasures of knowing and being with these gentle souls. Also, the country dollarized its economy in 2000… so there are no currency-exchange worries.
There’s an infectious joyousness in these people that Gary and I have fallen in love with.
How about follow through? Let me give you a true story.
A delightful client of ours went with us to the village of the wood carvers. She found in a little workroom a great French desk. This was carved in the grand 17th-century tradition. Behind that desk was a small, wiry man beaming with pride. They made a deal (at an unbelievable price). The client left. She made plans to return for the table. Time went on.
A year later, she called me, didn’t know the man’s name, and couldn’t find the invoice.
Gary and I went to the wood carvers’ village. I had translated for her and vaguely remembered the location of the workroom where she’d found the desk. I peeked in door after door and finally saw this old craftsman, diligently carving.
He looked at me, burst into a smile (one year later), wiped his hands, and rushed out to greet us. “Senora, your friend’s desk is ready!” He disappeared into his shop, brought out the original invoice and thrust it into my hands! The man had the desk, it was ready, and he was so happy that the lady would receive it.
Tell me: What other country do you know like this? Import-export is so much easier when you have organization, willing people, and a tradition of follow through. Besides nothing can be more pleasing than helping others.
What, more specifically, makes me recommend Ecuador?
1) multitudes of unique products
2) easy relations with craftsmen
3) easy-to-find craftsmen
4) good communication
5) great prices… craftsmen will make just one of anything at the same price as they would an order of dozens
6) excellent follow through
7) a chance to make a difference in people’s lives
8) a country with sunshine, but without heat and humidity
9) favorable import-export laws
10) close proximity to the States — it’s just 3 1/2 hours from the US.
We’ve brought forth BIRM from Ecuador, an unusual herbal product with a history of great successes. Clients and friends of ours in their mid-80s moved down, bought a farm, and now export tourism! Another client came down as a single young man with nothing special in mind… discovered the superb religious art (icons, called Santos), started selling artifacts over the Internet with a resounding success… but guess what else? He also found a beautiful bride and now has one child with another on the way!
A well-known retailer in Atlanta helped an entire village of weavers by placing orders for hand-made shawls embroidered with hummingbirds (Ecuador is famous for hummingbirds). She sold her first shipment in the U.S. for $60,000! The opportunities are endless; the rewards divine.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]