Offbeat Insider Knowledge on Imports: Some Basics and Why the "Loaf Question" is Important.

10/10/2011 07:11 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2011
  • Atim Oton Designer, founder of The Creative Side Fashon and Design Incubator, and the co-founder of Black Design News Network (BDNN).

Early this month, I responded to a series of questions by a Crain's Business reporter on the state of importing for small businesses like mine -- see article here. And as I replayed some of the questions and the responses I gave; I realized, I really do have some lessons to share. As a company based in New York, Calabar Imports, my company has leveraged its location, contacts and city in more ways than some importers I know. How? Let me show you some ways.

Talking Is Research, Right In Your Backyard

A design friend of mine this summer told me I talk too much. I agree with him, I do. I am a people person and I have been known to talk to strangers on an elevator, on the street or just about anywhere. So, as an importer, this talking comes in handy. And when I am looking to enter a new market and country such as Senegal or Morocco, I take advantage of my city: I live in New York.

New York is a great place to meet people from almost any country. How and where? New York cabbies are a good source; Restaurants are my other best places to visit; and the city has so many community groups that represent its immigrants. What I have learned from these three entities are some simple basic truths. New York is a city of immigrants and some of these immigrants work in this city in various ways from driving a cab to running a restaurant or a community association. And they provide firsthand information, as most of these are immigrants who know their home city or country well and can share useful information before I go there. They are my first insiders to a new country and I am more interested in their down-to-earth information than what most embassies can give me.

My talks with my insiders usually focus on the cost of things, where to find products and affordable places to stay. They always end up with "a cousin" who is in the business; knows someone in the business or can show me around when I get there. This basic research helps me more than what I would have paid for and are some of my starting points to guide me before I go to the country. They also help me with the research I do using Google.

The Loaf Question

One of my first questions for my research is: How much is a loaf of bread your city? Why? It is actually one of the most important details as it tells me about the real economy in the city and country I am researching. Bread is a staple worldwide and if a New York City loaf is $3, and Senegal is $1, then, I know that the real economy is one-third of New York's. That simple calculation gives me the cost of living, and when I get into the country, I actually buy a loaf to verify the price.

Your Roledex is your Friend, use it wisely.

I am a constant networker, offline and online. I have about 2500 plus people on Facebook and more than 500 on Linkedin that I tap into periodically. Some I know very little but I consider vital to my network. I reach out to them when I am seeking information and share with them things I am working on. I am known to use the phrase, "a friend of a friend on Facebook (or Linkedin)." Some I have sought or connected with for future projects, some for current and others just because there are some parallel projects or commonalities.

My Senegal connections come through friends and some from "walk-ins" into my business. I keep people. No, let me be more frank. I hoard people. I keep business cards of people I meet. I have a stack that's probably about 10 years old. I value them and keep them as reminders of our meetings, update information as needed and reach out when I am seeking more information.

For importing, I reach out to see if they do know other people in a particular city. For example, my Senegalese chef friend in New York is a friend of my Senegalese designer of Facebook. Knowing this is vital to me as an importer, because, I will talk with both of them before my trip. Importing is about contacts and relationships; keeping them is vital and taking time to use them wisely is critical.

The City Has No Secrets, It Is Open For Business

New York City is a delight to be in; you can find an importer of any product you are doing research on. My other best place to look is the wholesale district in Manhattan. I do however miss it; it is disappearing fast as higher rents are killing these businesses. But I consider it my "importers' free research laboratory" as I get to actually see the products that are being imported from country that I am researching. But one secret is to see what products are not actually being imported and to asking other importers why they are not importing them. That is a good sign and test of your market potential.