Small U.S. firms make big global sales

Tran made only $150,000 in sales the first year. But she says that business took off the second year through online advertising, a new website and other Yahoo online services for small businesses.

Last year, Beauty Encounter hit $20 million in sales, with 15% coming from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Latin America and Japan. The weak U.S. dollar has boosted sales abroad by 10%, with foreign customers placing larger orders for fragrances, cosmetics and skin-care products to take advantage of favorable currency rates, Tran says.

Beauty Encounter is growing so quickly that Tran plans to move her company to a larger warehouse-and-office site later this year. "I'm still kind of in shock," Tran says. "The beauty industry has always been a passion of mine, but to see it taking off on the Internet and internationally is really cool."

•A young online designer. Joe Gebbia, a 26-year-old entrepreneur and designer in San Francisco, credits sore backsides for helping him to create CritBuns (www.CritBuns.com), an online maker of colorful foam seat cushions.

As a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gebbia noticed that classmates were uncomfortable sitting on hard chairs and floors during day-long critiques of their work by professors. He designed the fashionable cushions and plunged full time into his new business after graduation.

Scores of skeptical retailers rejected his cushions, until Gebbia finally sold 200 units to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Last year, Gebbia launched his website, and the cushions were featured at a Tokyo design show and in I.D., a design magazine.

Demand for the cushions took off. Now, 25% of his sales are to customers in Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan and other countries and regions. He also plans to market the cushions as "Sports Buns" to professional and school athletic events in the USA and abroad.

"I hadn't anticipated international sales at all," Gebbia says, "but people found the website, and I started getting orders from all over the world."

•A motorcycle-riding businesswoman. As a teen growing up in Missouri, Rebecca Herwick loved dirt bikes and big motorcycles. Today, the 49-year-old Herwick is owner and CEO of Global Products (www.GlobalProductsInc.com), a St. Peters, Mo., firm that is the exclusive dealer and licensee for Harley-Davidson decals, caps, T-shirts and other gift items.

Herwick saw the international potential for Harley-Davidson products during a trip to Europe in the mid-1990s with her former husband, who founded Global Products. The demand for goods with Harley-Davidson's famous bar-and-shield logo has grown steadily each year.

Herwick sells her products through dealers and distributors in Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, South Korea and Dubai. This month, she's helping a Chinese auto dealer open the fourth Harley-Davidson dealership in China, in the large city of Qingdao.

International sales last year accounted for 10% of her company's $18 million in annual revenue, and she expects the figure to grow to 25% in the near future if she expands to potential markets in Latin America and other regions.

"When you ride a Harley, you have a sense of independence and empowerment and luxury," says Herwick. "It doesn't matter where in the world you may be — that feeling is still there."

Immigrants' connections

Why are more U.S. small businesses leaping into the global marketplace?

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