Your assignment: corner the widget market in Togo.
But where to begin?
How badly do people in Togo want widgets? Who will distribute them for you? And what to do about those pesky customs officers asking for bribes?
Several dozen Baltimore and Washington area business people came to the Columbia Inn for two days this week seeking answers to just those kinds of theoretical questions.
Baltimore's World Trade Center Institute put on the two-day seminar with the help of the Howard County Community College and the county Department of Economic Development. The purpose was to help businesses figure out how to better market their products abroad.
The seminar was part of a series the institute is holding in the area. The next one is planned for Harford County in June.
"It's quite an earful," said Jennifer Jones of Tuesday's opening seminar on international marketing and sales. "I think it's a very good foundation."
Ms. Jones came looking for ways to market her company's products in Argentina and to expand sales in Italy. Her employer, GTCO of Columbia, makes digitizers.
A digitizer looks like a drafting board and allows people to enter numerical coordinates into a computer simply by drawing on a screen. They have many uses. An architect, for instance, can alter a blueprint on the screen with an electronic pen and almost ZTC instantly recalculate the cost of a structure.
GTCO already sells digitizers in about 45 countries throughout Europe and the Pacific Rim. But it has had a tough time breaking into the South American market.
Import duties of 200 percent have kept them out of Brazil. And then there is always the problem of finding the right foreign trading partners.
Michael J. Mercurio, one of the seminar leaders, had lots of practical advice. Use data bases, he said. The U.S. Department of Commerce has one that includes about 35,000 companies. It also has officers assigned to individual countries to analyze trade prospects there.
"My theory about the U.S. government is there is always somebody who knows everything you need to know about something," said Mr. Mercurio. The problem, though, is finding that person among 2 million bureaucrats, he added.
U.S. embassies can also provide leads for trading partners. And local agents can be retained to find one for you. But be careful whom you trade with, said Mr. Mercurio, a vice president with an international marketing and trading company in Washington.
"If you choose some scum bum who doesn't know what he's doing or is a criminal, you can get in terrible trouble," he said.
And there are other legal land mines.
How do you compete in a country where competitors bribe officials for contracts, asked Frank Edwards of PRC Commercial Systems Inc. in McLean, Va.
Don't bribe, said attorney Eric W. Cowan. And if you do, "don't tell your lawyer," he added.
The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits companies from bribing foreign officials. If caught, he said, a company would spend more money defending the case than it would probably ever make in gross revenues in that country.
"You're going to start to close off some markets," he said. "The risk may not be worth it."