Blackboard’s products are now available at 100 universities throughout the region. About 15 percent of the company’s international business, which represents roughly 20 percent of its operations, is conducted in Latin America today. Blackboard is expanding operations in Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Uruguay.
Lucca recommends companies research the culture and customs of countries in the region prior to entering any market. Teaming with a local partner, he said, is a good way to navigate legal and financial requirements, especially in countries without trade agreements.
Brazil, for instance, is notorious for its complex taxes and tariffs. Which is why Blackboard partnered with Brazil Grupo A, a locally based education company, to launch its Portuguese platform.
With its mushrooming middle class, Brazil has become a prime market for consumer products, making it a key stop on Export D.C.’s upcoming trade tour. Director Martha LaCrosse is leading a delegation to the country in August.
Export D.C., an arm of the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development, started this month with $800,000 in grant money from the Small Business Administration and D.C. government. The new office is to offer technical assistance and provide support for small businesses to participate in trade missions.
“Businesses that are new to exporting really need assistance with making contacts, and we can provide help through the U.S. embassies overseas,” LaCrosse said. “We do some pre-qualifications to make sure they are meeting the right business partners and buyers.”
Importers score big with Latin American food
Having business relationships in Latin American markets can be equally beneficial for exporting and importing, as Melissa Berthier can attest.
Her husband, Alfonso, not only had family connections in Mexico, but had developed business contacts while working in sales for Mexicana Airlines. That gave the Chevy Chase couple a running start when they began importing tortillas from Mexico in 2009 to sell to Hispanic grocery stores in the Washington area.
By the following year, demand was so strong that the couple began selling items online at LatinBag.com. Now, there are more than 1,000 grocery items from all over Latin America sold on the Web site. Goods are housed in warehouses in Landover and Rockville, where four workers manage logistics.
“We sell products that remind people of their childhood in Peru or Mexico or Bolivia,” Berthier said. She estimates Latin Bag takes in 1,500 orders a quarter, and obtains goods from 30 distributors across the United States.
While Berthier would not disclose figures, she said sales are up and the company is profitable. Revenue from the business is being used to grow operations.
Pastor Payllo had to hire more people at his facility in Vienna to fulfill orders for El Ciebo products last year. The number of stores carrying the Bolivian chocolate bars and drinks nearly doubled from 40 to 75 in nine states in 2011.
The El Ciebo brand already had cachet when Payllo and his wife, Carmen Segales, began distributing the products of their home country in the United States and Canada two years ago. The chocolate company has been run as a cooperative for more than four decades, with products only available in exclusive boutiques.
Now, Payllo is negotiating a distribution deal with Whole Foods, after a chance encounter with a representative at the Hispanic Chamber Expo. He anticipates needing about $500,000 in financing to keep with orders, if the deal goes through.