The Gateway to Sell to China Is Wide Open for Small Businesses

The Gateway to Sell to China Is Wide Open for Small Businesses

Can you go from the selling sweet potato cookies on the block in Detroit to exporting overseas? It’s possible.

If you can sell on the street, you can sell anywhere. Even Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, learned sales skills on the street of China growing up as a kid. The process is the same: he started with an idea, ambition, big plans, and a team to get products out there.

A lot of Americans don’t know about Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, yet last year there was more than $550 billion in sales on Alibaba, more than Amazon and eBay combined.

Gateway '17

The Alibaba Group inaugural Gateway '17 conference held June 20 in Detroit, Michigan was Ma’s vision to help U.S. businesses, farmers, and entrepreneurs explore growth opportunities in China and learn how to market and sell to millions of Chinese consumers.

“Small companies will be the future as small companies will be THE companies of the 21st Century. Embrace the future. See the future. Change yourself. Don’t miss this chance,” said Ma in the opening remarks at COBO Hall.

“Small companies will be the future as small companies will be THE companies of the 21st Century. Embrace the future. See the future. Change yourself. Don’t miss this chance.” - Jack Ma, Alibaba

The event, which brought together approximately 3,000 U.S. entrepreneurs and businesses, well surpassing original expectations of 1,000, featured presentations and breakout sessions aimed at educating attendees on what and how to sell to China so that they can grow their businesses and go global.

“You cannot ignore China. China’s middle class is bigger than the entire US population – and they are looking for your products,” said David Abney, who began his career as a part-time package loader while in college, serves as Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of UPS. Abney was one of the speakers at Gateway ‘17.

“You cannot ignore China. China’s middleclass is bigger than the entire US population – and they are looking for your products.” -David Abney, UPS

Attendees primarily consisted of small-to-medium sized companies coming from 48 states across the country, and from product categories most popular among Chinese consumers – Fashion and Apparel, Fast-Moving Consumer Goods, Electronics, Household Products, and Fresh Food.

Fresh food exporting is what C. Espsy Thomas, co-owner of the family business, Sweet Potato Sensations in Detroit, was interested in learning about. Thomas was there because she was part of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business exhibit and one of the “shining stars” of their program.

C. Epsy Thomas (photo by Pam Perry)

During the summer of 1987, C. Espsy Thomas’ parents set up a table at the 30-Block Garage Sale in Detroit with samples of the cookies, surveys for people to fill out, and 125 bags of cookies for sale. In less than 3 hours the cookies were gone; that’s when they decided to start the business. Sweet Potato Sensations was incorporated in December of 1987 and they’ve grown from sweet potato cookies to sweet potato pie regular and sugar-free, sweet potato coconut pie, sweet potato pecan pie, sweet potato cake with cream cheese frosting, sweet potato cheesecake, sweet potato cobbler, sweet potato muffins, and sweet potato ice cream.

She was one of the first alumni class of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business in Detroit. “We’ve increased efficiencies, grown our brand, increased revenues substantially, and employed more people as a result,” said Thomas.

“We’ve increased efficiencies, grown our brand, increased revenues substantially, and employed more people as a result.” - C Espsy Thomas, Sweet Potato Sensations

She said from being part of Gateway ’17 she realizes globalization as the next real possibility. “We’re going to look at the packaging for shipping, adding e-commerce to our site, and leverage live streaming for our brand,” said Thomas. She was excited to see how Alibaba and its partners are committed to making cross-border e-commerce easier, inclusive, and more profitable through innovative, web-based sales, logistics, and digital marketing solutions.

“We’re going to look at the packaging for shipping, adding e-commerce to our site, and leverage live streaming for our brand.” - C Espsy Thomas, Sweet Potato Sensations

Gateway ’17 was all about helping small business globalize their business. Jack Ma’s vision is to empower small business. He believes job creation will come from selling local products across the borders.

Another Goldman Sachs alumni from Detroit was fascinated and intrigued to be part of the event. “It was great to be a part of the 10,000 Small Business section to introduce our brand to Chinese distributors and potential partners. We wouldn't have had that opportunity otherwise. Additionally, being able to present our incredible products to a slew of Chinese partners, and talk directly to other US beauty brands who are successfully selling in China was amazing. Prior to Gateway '17, I hadn't even considered China as a potentially strong market for us, but after participating in the conference, it's definitely on my radar,” said Gwen Jimmere, who is the CEO & Founder of NATURALICIOUS and was named one of the top 6 beauty brands in the U.S. by Black Enterprise Magazine.

“It was great to be a part of the 10,000 Small Business section to introduce our brand to Chinese distributors and potential partners. We wouldn't have had that opportunity otherwise. Additionally, being able to present our incredible products to a slew of Chinese partners, and talk directly to other US beauty brands who are successfully selling in China was amazing. Prior to Gateway '17, I hadn't even considered China as a potentially strong market for us, but after participating in the conference, it's definitely on my radar.” - Gwen Jimmere, NATURALICIOUS

Gwen Jimmere, Naturalicious (photo by Pam Perry)

Gwen Jimmere, Naturalicious (photo by Pam Perry)

Tamira Chapman, Co-Founder of SourceNoire, has helped entrepreneurs source products, minimize risk, and increase value and profits for more than 16 years. She started sourcing web design services on the Internet in China and India while in college at Michigan State University majoring in Supply Chain Management. From her background, education, and experience, she knows the benefits of international sourcing – that’s why she and her partner founded SourceNoire.

According to Chapman, the main benefits of doing business overseas (especially China) are:

  1. Competitive advantage over competitors
  2. Lower cost of goods sold
  3. Higher quality products
  4. Unprecedented margins and economies of scale

“For the past 16 years, we’ve been importing, now with the information I’ve learned firsthand at Gateway ’17 – we’re looking at our business in a new direction and actually thinking about what we can export to China and the tools that are available to help up to do that.” - Tamira Chapman

In 2003, Chapman and her partner, Shane Gowdy, started sourcing apparel and consumer good products from Alibaba. She offered the following tips on doing business in China:

  1. Develop product prototype and specifications
  2. Identify global suppliers through Alibaba, Internet search or trade shows
  3. Rank suppliers according to years of experience, testimonials, and reviews
  4. Communicate specifications and sample the desired product
  5. Negotiate price, secure payment terms, packaging, minimum order quantity and lead time
  6. Develop a logistics plan for shipping and customs clearance
  7. Receive product and communicate revisions and place final order

“At Gateway ’17, we found the suppliers helpful, encouraging, excited to teach the sourcing process. Can’t wait for the next event. Since I’m from Detroit, I’m glad Detroit was the inaugural event – it’s inspiring and for small business in Detroit and other urban cities like ours, we have the ideas and the hustle to make it happen.” - Tamira Chapman


Pam Perry is the founder of Ministry Marketing Solutions, Inc. Her business helps speakers, authors, and coaches brand and monetize their message online.