William Hakizimana and Austin Grandt co-founded Export Abroad, a software firm with the goal of helping manufacturers increase their global sales.

Export Abroad Climbs from the Cargo Hold to the White House

Oct. 13, 2015
A Wisconsin startup aims to help manufacturers by automating and simplifying the process of exporting their products.

It’s not every day that you see someone working as a baggage handler at Delta Airlines reading a copy of The Economist. So when William Hakizimana saw fellow employee Austin Grandt perusing the magazine, he struck up a conversation.

Grandt had taken a summer job at Delta but his real passion was the project he was working on in his off-hours – developing a software business that could help manufacturers navigate the difficulties of exporting their products. Grandt had been writing software and working on building websites since he was in middle school and had a degree in international economics.

Grandt soon discovered that Hakizimana was a refugee from Rwanda who was finishing up his master’s degree in Bioinformatics at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Moreover, he knew something about logistics as one of his grandparents had been in the business back in Rwanda.

From this chance encounter, Grandt and Hakizimana co-founded Export Abroad, based in Madison, Wis.

“Our software helps manufacturers increase their global sales,” Grandt told IndustryWeek. “Logistics companies also utilize our software to provide research and sales leads to clients in order to convert and retain their business.”

Export Abroad received a boost when the fledgling company’s founders participated in the White House Demo Day on August 4. That event was designed to boost “inclusive entrepreneurship” by featuring startups with women and minority founders from across the nation. The White House pointed out that just 3% of America’s venture capital-backed startups are led by women, and only about 1% are led by African-Americans. In addition, women make up only about 4% of venture capital investors.

Grandt and Hakizimana met luminaries such as Daymond John, the founder of apparel company FUBU, and Megan Smith, the chief technology officer of the United States. They also participated in President Obama’s press conference on the event.

“It was a very good opportunity,” Grandt said. “We were basically demoing, showing people our stuff, trying to talk to as many people as possible. We made some good connections.”

Grandt got the idea for Export Abroad during a summer internship at the Department of Commerce’s Commercial Service. He was helping provide companies with market research and saw that much of the work was done manually, such as copying data from the web to an Excel sheet. He saw an opportunity to automate the process and provide more time-sensitive data.

Grandt noted that many companies remain intimidated by exporting. According to the most recent government data, only about one-fourth of manufacturers export. Most companies that do export only ship products to one country. The vast majority of U.S. exporters are small or medium-sized companies.

For the companies that do export, the rewards are considerable. According to a study by the Institute for International Economics, U.S. companies that export not only grow faster, but are nearly 8.5% less likely to go out of business than non-exporting companies.

“We automate the three biggest hurdles that companies face when they are first trying to go abroad,” Grandt explained. Export Abroad’s software helps them identify the best foreign markets to target for their products. Then they can provide companies with targeted sales leads.

“Instead of giving a list of 1,000 from one of the lead gen sites where only 50 are in your core market, we are going to start you out with 20 very highly curated leads that are more targeted and you can begin working on,” he explained.

In addition, Export Abroad helps companies with customer management – keeping track of what products are being sold to each customer and managing the information associated with international business.

Export Abroad’s customers include logistics companies, export management firms and export consultants. The software helps them increase their business, Grandt says, because it automates processes that are time-consuming and expensive.

“Instead of needing $7,500 to $10,000 for a market feasibility analysis, we can do it for a much lower price,” says Grandt. He says export firms can free up their own time and help their customers grow faster by doing a better job of identifying market targets.

Export Abroad also works directly with manufacturers. Grandt says customers typically have sales of at least $50 million annually. These companies either are exporting on a very limited basis, perhaps to just one country, or often see their domestic growth slowing and look to exports as a way to maintain their sales momentum.

Grandt told IndustryWeek the company is busy working with companies to gain a deeper understanding of what data they need and improving their software. He says there are product enhancements in the pipeline that will help customers have more insights into global market changes, geopolitical risks and trends that may impact their export business.

Like many entrepreneurs, Grandt has a laser focus on his business and the challenge of creating products that customers will embrace

“We’re running a 100 miles an hour here,” he said, adding that there may be more time for work-life balance in the future, but for now, “It’s all hands on deck.”

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