How E-Commerce Can Take Your Startup Global

Latest posts by Ed Marsh (see all)

The global reach of the internet allows buyers from around the world to easily find your business and communicate with you, creating exciting growth opportunities for entrepreneurs and startups. The final step (buying from you) is also more accessible than ever.

Completing international transactions involves new skills and considerations that can feel daunting and time consuming. However, many common e-commerce platforms include tools to help simplify the process, save some time and help manage details like online payments and logistics.

E-commerce can streamline the actual sale and fulfillment of orders to put export growth entirely within reach for even the smallest of businesses. Many startups already sell domestically through the internet, so the question is, what is different about international e-commerce? Is it feasible for you?

A proliferation of platforms, from product forums for artisan handicrafts to contracting sites for independent freelancing service providers, are available as resources to enable both product and service exports. So, for product and service startups alike, the answer is probably “yes,” and it’s a great opportunity.

Take your e-commerce international

E-commerce allows businesses from solopreneurs to thriving startups to simplify the buying experience. Contrary to the perception that e-commerce is just for retail, it’s suitable for B2C and B2B products, as well as remotely delivered services that are culturally appropriate for overseas markets.

Offering a product or service that international buyers want to buy is the first hurdle. In order to decide if e-commerce is feasible for your business, consider the following factors:

  1. Can you scale to meet the additional demand? The classic “good problem to have” is exciting growth – be sure you’re ready to ramp up your business
  2. Have you successfully grown sales through domestic e-commerce? It’s easier to learn the international details after you’ve already mastered the basics

Find the right platform

Three common e-commerce technology approaches can all support export sales. These include: public platforms, your own online store and crowdfunding.

Ramp-up time and cost of implementation are primary considerations. In all cases, it’s essential to price carefully and to consider international currency, costs for shipping and logistics, and compliance to ensure that buyers are clear on their obligations and total purchase price – and that you’re protected from unexpected expenses.

Public platforms

Many businesses sell on public e-commerce platforms, which provide “storefronts” and direct access to the community of buyers and their searches. These platforms exist for products and services, and often incorporate functionality that manages multi-currency payment and disbursement. They may also provide functionality for buyers to anticipate their “landed” or fully loaded price including shipping and customs, all in their own currency.

Online stores

The prevalence, affordability and simplicity of webstore software means that many companies run their own e-commerce shops. Export sales through these shops are often feasible, but the burden on the seller is typically higher to proactively consider and manage payment, logistics and compliance details. 


You might not think of crowdfunding as an e-commerce solution, but it can be a great platform to build international interest and initial orders, if done strategically – and many times in partnership with other approaches. The social nature of campaigns means they’ll often reach foreign buyers, and contract services are available for fulfillment of campaigns that involve products.

Of course, there’s no requirement that companies use the same platform for all markets. In fact, there may be some compelling reasons to take a variety of approaches at different stages of a startup’s exporting growth trajectory, or a mix of approaches for a mix of markets.

Play to the strengths of e-commerce

Beyond streamlining a transaction, e-commerce can provide other business value in certain situations. This is particularly true in markets where cultural differences and commercial hurdles can be barriers. Public e-commerce platforms strive to make the process easy for buyers and sellers.

Large public platforms often include localization as part of their service. In fact, some of the most exciting innovation in the area of machine language translation is being driven by large e-commerce sites seeking to facilitate cross-border commerce.

Specific platforms also facilitate market access and reach. China is a notoriously difficult market for many U.S. sellers to enter and profitably grow on their own. Chinese e-commerce platforms that offer built-in cultural familiarity, mobile and bandwidth optimization, and have strong local Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can help U.S. exporters efficiently reach buyers and complete sales there.

Finally, because e-commerce transactions are often between your business and an individual international buyer, you’ll often avoid the potentially expensive, confusing and time-consuming local market regulatory requirements that accompany wholesale sales.

Understand the details

While e-commerce can extend your reach and simplify transactions, it’s important to remember that these sales are going to international markets. As a business owner, you have responsibilities and decisions to make, including:

  • Certification and labeling
  • Export compliance
  • Protection of intellectual property
  • Pricing
  • Fraud prevention
  • After-sales service
  • Fulfillment

Various state and federal export support agencies offer expertise and coaching around these considerations.

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Gateway to greater growth

For some companies, e-commerce is the perfect international growth solution. It offers a manageable way to access and sell to diverse markets, potentially reaching some of the 95 percent of the world’s consumers that live outside of the U.S.

For others, it may be a better approach to enter specific markets or reach particular segments. It can be used to build awareness and learn about a market before tapping indirect sales channels or perhaps even, eventually, a local office of the company.

Whether it’s a first step or the next step, it’s often a viable option for U.S. startups to sell internationally.

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