While some may say the business of business never changes, how and where it gets done certainly does. Consider the foresight of financier Nathan Rothschild, who in 1815 used a fleet of carrier pigeons to find out about Napoleon's Waterloo defeat before anyone else in London. Today, a burgeoning corps of modern-day Rothschilds continues to experiment with new techniques, with many angling to find a similar advantage over the proverbial "next guy."
For companies intent on plying global markets, it is now easier than ever to capitalize on the ever-shrinking globe, giving small companies all the perks once reserved for large multinationals. Some have learned how to support employees spread far and wide across the world. Others are creating intercontinental markets on the Internet to foster trade where there was none before. Still others are not only selling their services to the world, but also their expertise on how to do it.
David Kim doesn't want to level the playing field. He aims to bulldoze it by opening up Asia's manufacturers to small North American buyers. Backed by the financial power and corporate connections of a Hong Kong investment trust, Kim is president of Asian-Trader USA Inc., (www.asian-trader.com), a Los Angeles e-commerce Web site that will be the gateway to more than 150,000 makers of consumer goods throughout China. "What we're trying to do is take advantage of our role as an aggregator. The five-store chain will be able to buy at discount pricing and at volumes of a much larger customer," he says. "We can literally sell anything Asia has to manufacture. So our catalog is just the starting point with products mainly of interest to sector distributors or resellers."
Other features of the site, which debuted in December, include auctions and a section for submitting requests for quotations where companies can ask for a product and get qualified leads. The company chose Los Angeles for its North American headquarters because the city is the leading U.S. port for Asian trade. A crew of 15 technical workers staff the servers in Hong Kong, Kim says, but customer service and call center workers located in L.A. will be contact points for buyers.
"This access to more than 150,000 manufacturers means you only have to deal with us, not a factory in some province you can't pronounce. In 13 years of international trade experience I found that there are just too many buyers and too many sellers," Kim explains. "What the Internet allows us to do is gain some control over that. But three guys in someone's bedroom who happen to know HTML can't do this. What we're building here is a platform, and we want to push the limits of transparency."
Not content to simply offer a clearinghouse, Kim says his company will have a physical presence with offices throughout Asia and a series of online tools that let buyers and sellers integrate their order tracking, monitor their accounts, collaborate with other members, and expand their businesses. Asian-Trader.com has eight people at work in Los Angeles, connected to 25 others in Hong Kong via an IBM Netfinity server network running Microsoft NT. Offices in Taipei, Beijing, and Singapore are coming online quickly.
HAVE TECH, WILL TRAVEL
As an advocate of "virtual" companies for nearly 20 years, Don Taylor makes his living practicing what he preaches. The database software architect lives in South Carolina, works with his son, who is based in San Francisco, and employs about 30 people, some of whom he's never met in person.
Taylor's company, Data- InfoTech Inc., has developed information systems for the Mayo Clinic, Playboy Enterprises, Sprint, and other multinational companies. His latest venture is Women's HealthNet, a Web site and content provider of healthcare information.
"We have two people in Australia and two programmers in London. They work with us interactively just like anyone else on the project," Taylor says. "We have a PR consultant with offices in London and Tokyo. But it's transparent. I can't tell you where Andrea is today, and it doesn't matter. In a personal way, I'm aware that she's moving around, but from a working relationship it's not relevant."
Taylor has also relocated his company three different times as his wife completed her medical education. "She went to medical school in Omaha from 1986 to 1990, then took a residency in Charlotte, N.C., and now works in a practice in Rock Hill, S.C. We lived in three different houses, but my clients may never have known that. But just staffing up and down in each of those places would have been a tremendous cost," he says.
The company's bi-coastal offices have about 75 telephone lines, including dedicated links for data transmission, as well as cable-modem and high-speed Internet access. Yet most of the company's tools are plain-vanilla shared Web sites such as Hot Office, which offers secure, shared Web pages, e-mail, and chat facilities along with other hosted services.
Pentium PCs, Macs, and IBM Thinkpads are the hardware preferences, though Taylor admits that when you're working with free agents you can't dictate their purchases. His accountant is a home-based worker, and online bank arrangements allow for transactions by e-mail any time. Redundancy and preparation are Taylor's watchwords. He makes sure that every one of his cohorts has a back-up e-mail service. He uses three: Hot Office, a separate POP3 account, and a free HotMail address, just to be safe.
"Every one of our employees has at least two ISP providers and two e-mail sources. And we cannot exist without teleconferencing. Sprint is our first choice, but we also use MCI as a backup provider," he says. "We rely on Sprint's personal teleconferencing because you don't need to schedule it, and we can put as many as 20 people together, and another can handle as many as 200 people. We have all the same meetings as any other company, but we'll tell people to log onto a particular Web site and call in, post an agenda, or we'll post something on a Hot Office bulletin board. We do a lot of Powerpoint presentations because it converts so easily to HTML."
For more formal presentations, Taylor may use more sophisticated presentation software that can control the machines of users and ensure that everyone is on the same page, instead of on eBay or ESPN.com. He uses whiteboard applications to tally online votes or to get instant feedback.
"Five years ago you would have flown out and presented your slides in their boardroom," he says. "Today we give them the codes, meeting number, and anyone with Internet access can dial in avoiding all the costs for us and the client. We're one of the most cost-effective database-management creators around. If I needed programmers and database architects, and was limited to only people I could find in Rock Hill, I'd be sunk."
TECH TO GO
Increasingly, workers take their offices with them anywhere on the planet, staying in business with e-mail, cellular phones, and pagers. But just because it can be done doesn't mean it will be easy too. One concern, warns David Shear, president of International Management & Development, is the security of your gear and information in less-developed nations, where phone service and other amenities may be unreliable.
In the past he has worked on projects such as creating retraining and employment programs for the thousands of Soviet Army officers whose work was made obsolete by the end of the Cold War. Shear is currently working on a development project in Nigeria.
Traveling for weeks at a time overseas makes you reliant on the technology, he says, especially in the constant upgrading of hardware and software. "We found ourselves putting $50,000 or $100,000 into new equipment, every two years or so," he says. "But we're using a password-protected Web site for exchanging financial documents, contracts, and other sensitive materials. That's our entire business."
After a recent meeting with the president of Nigeria, Shear and several associates had to report back to their own co-workers and to U.S. government officials. Two large oil companies with operations in Nigeria are participating in his proposed training programs, so Shear gained access to one company's secure, private communications network.
Instead of relying on a hotel's phone and Internet connections, he was able to use the assets of a corporate partner. "Nigeria is a very difficult place to do business. Calls out of the country on an AT&T connection will not be accepted, so e-mail is the best way to communicate," he says.
To be sure, Shear's company has benefited from the resources that clients like Raytheon, Siemens, or General Motors can provide in countries around the world. But his experiences in France, China, Senegal, and Ireland have shown him that there is always a way to accomplish whatever a project needs doing.
"We're using the Internet to train work forces in operational and management techniques on everything from agriculture to rehabilitating urban infrastructure," says Taylor, "It can be done."