By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
SPOKANE, Wash. – When Coleen Quisenberry created Flexhibit to design, assemble and install hands-on, interactive science exhibits for discovery centers and children’s museums, she assumed her primary customers would be in the United States.
But that strategy changed in June 2015 when she attended the European Collaborative for Science, Industry & Technology Exhibition (ECSITE) in Italy. Presenters talked about the need for exhibits that were hands-on, interactive and focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) concepts – exactly the kind of exhibits Flexhibit (http://flexhibit.com) designs and sells. Plus, Flexhibit’s modular wall systems can be set up and taken down quickly and floors can be reset and combined in a variety of ways to keep displays fresh for visitors.
“While other exhibit companies seemed to be getting away from classic hands-on exhibits, we had gone back to them and it really stuck a chord,” Quisenberry said. Flexhibit designers have created eight different exhibits (http://flexhibit.com/exhibits) including Air Rockets, Circuit Bench and Sail Cars – and more are in development.
Interns help with export report
When Quisenberry decided to aggressively pursue export markets, she found people and resources in Washington state that could help. Those included Vern Jenkins, an international trade specialist with the Washington Small Business Development Center (https://wsbdc.org/).
The Washington SBDC is a network of more than two dozen business advisors who provide one-on-one advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. Jenkins is the SBDC international trade specialist for businesses in eastern Washington and Sharon Sappington is the SBDC international trade specialist in Seattle. The Washington SBDC receives support from Washington State University, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other institutions of higher education and economic development.
As a starting point to their discussions, Jenkins requested that SBDC student interns from local universities, including WSU and Gonzaga, prepare a research report on export opportunities. It included the Country Commercial Guides from the U.S. Department of Commerce with key information on “Doing Business” in the specific countries that had expressed interest in purchasing Flexhibit products. The report also identified in-country organizations that serve Flexhibit’s target audience.
Quisenberry met with Doug Kemper, president of the Export Finance Assistance Center of Washington, who provided direction on how to assure payment from foreign buyers. Janet Bauermiester of the U.S. Export Assistance Center helped FLEXHIBIT qualify for two STEP grants to attend international conferences, the first in Italy and the second in Montreal last October.
“We hit the nail right on the head,” Quisenberry said, smiling. “No one signs contracts at trade shows, but we were signing contracts right there.”
Thinking big, starting small
That conference, she said, led to more than $200,000 in sales and contracts with discovery centers in a variety of countries including China, Malaysia, Norway and Israel.
Jenkins, who has more than 18 years of international business experience, credits Quisenberry and her staff with thinking big but starting small, searching out export expertise from a variety of sources and then putting together a comprehensive and detailed export plan. It’s important, he said, to think through how you are going to handle every query, every purchase, every transaction and make sure you have systems in place that protect your interests.
For instance, he said, since Flexhibit installs exhibits in client-owned museums or third-party venues, the company had to consider what would happen if a site in a foreign country wasn’t prepared when an installation arrived. If the installation was delayed, who would pay for the associated costs?
With Jenkins’ assistance, Flexhibit has a pre-installation checklist for clients to complete before they schedule an installation.
Reliable expert resource
Flexhibit has a staff of 10 who design, assemble and install the exhibits. The exhibits are manufactured in eastern Washington, which Quisenberry plans to continue even as her export market grows.
“I want to know the quality is there,” she said.
While various people and programs have been helpful at different times, she said, Jenkins has remained a reliable go-to resource for big picture strategic discussions, detailed information on specific export regulations and the names of people or organizations that can help her grow her business.
“Having that resource available made a big difference in our confidence,” Quisenberry said. Because she could move forward with confidence, her company could move quickly and avoid mistakes: “We have avoided mistakes we probably would have made without Vern’s experience guiding us.”