The first thing they should do is conduct an organization export readiness assessment, said Jim Foley, director at the Illinois SBDC International Trade Center at Bradley University and the author of The Global Entrepreneur.
Export readiness is both internal and external.
Internally, management - the people who control the small business' money and other resources - need to be on board and committed to expanding into a foreign market.
As long as the business has a decent product or service, this is one of the most important factors in determining success or failure, said Foley.
The next step is assessing the external factors - that is, which foreign markets want a small business' services or products.
Businesses can get a rough sense from the response they have already received from foreign entities approaching them at trade shows or submitting inquiries online.
However, a serious effort at expanding into a foreign market requires serious research backed up with hard data.
The nearest Small Business Development Center is another good place to stop by as it offers general advice and resources for small businesses embarking on new ventures.
Online, Export.gov is a useful resource that contains relevant hard data. One crucial report on this Web site is the Country Commercial Guide (CCG), which contains important country-specific information. The Tariff Tool is another vital source of information.
For a fee, one can access troves of information at USA Trade Online.
For online resources outside those provided by the U.S. government, a small business owner can try the local library or university, which may have terminals that have access to various private databases.
Foley said conducting this kind of comprehensive research on foreign markets may only take a commitment of spending a few hours per week for a month or two.
This time spend will be well worth it, in his opinion.
Most small businesses will eventually want to expand to more than one foreign market, so acquiring competency in this process will likely pay dividends in the future.
Moreover, small businesses often make the mistake of reactively making the decision of which foreign market to expand to. For example, a business may decide to expand to India simply because an Indian distributor approached them about exporting to the country.
While making decisions this way could work if one is lucky, it is much better to rely on the hard data approach described above, said Foley.