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Local Business, Global Following
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Local Business, Global Following

Small companies are exporting more than ever before. Here’s how that benefits American communities.

Spotlight on state Solon, OH

Photography by Ty Cole

It’s an August morning in the Cleveland suburb of Solon, and in a brown building off Route 43, employees at Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve are already busy preparing for the holiday season. In the facility’s largest room, where 70,000 bars of soap are cooling on rows of shelves, Ben Hennes pours a pot of mud and clay shampoo into molds. Nearby, Katie Dyer operates a machine that cuts a massive block of soap into 300 bars. In a separate kitchen, Gilda Weinstock packages dozens of shower lotion bars by hand. These products and more will soon be shipped to nearly 200 countries across six continents. “We make about as much as we can in a day,” says Christine Hill, the company’s chief product chef. “The numbers we have to hit to satisfy our holiday orders keep getting bigger.”

Ida Friedman Kasdan could never have imagined owning an operation of this size in 2001, when she made her first batch of organic soap in her kitchen in Moreland Hills, a small village about five miles from Solon. At the time, she was a middle school science teacher experimenting with a way to help treat her husband’s eczema. Just a few years later, however, Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve was a full-time business, and it’s grown substantially in the years since—the company has added hundreds of new products, hired more than a dozen new employees, and outgrown two production facilities. Still, it’s very much a family enterprise rooted in the local community. About half of the company’s 20 employees are Friedman Kasdan’s children, their spouses, or longtime family friends. Sam Friedman, who is Friedman Kasdan’s son and serves as the company’s brand director, personally picks up soap ingredients from businesses in the area: beer from Great Lakes Brewing Company, coffee from Rising Star Coffee Roasters in Cleveland, and grains from Stutzman Farms in Ohio’s Amish Country.

Even so, visitors to the Solon factory need look no further than the shipping department to see that this local company has a global reach. On one wall, a paper map of the world is covered in dozens of pushpins, each indicating a country where customers have ordered Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve products. “Sometimes I’ll go in the packing room and I’ll look at the addresses on the packages,” Hill says. “I’ll see the Isle of Man, Bali—I’m like, ‘Where did you hear about us?’”

Until recently, large businesses were the ones best able to seize opportunities in international marketplaces. “They had the legal and policy teams that could navigate international regulations, customs procedures, tariff schedules, and other regulatory hurdles,” says Jake Colvin, the executive director of the nonprofit Global Innovation Forum. The rise of digital payment options, search engines, and e-commerce platforms has leveled the playing field. In the past two decades, the number of small and mid-sized businesses that export has tripled, and today, they account for 98 percent of all American exporters. “Technology creates a boundaryless marketplace,” says Julie Stitzel, the vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness. “It allows a business of one to compete with a business of 500, both in the U.S. and internationally.”

Exporting presents tremendous benefits for small businesses, says John Murphy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for international policy. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s purchasing power is located outside of the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, exporting businesses also create more jobs, grow sales faster, and pay their employees more than non-exporting businesses. “Nowadays, with the online portals and tools that are available, firms sometimes find themselves suddenly exporting to a much larger number of countries quickly,” Murphy says. “You can see them achieve that growth and start making new hires and it’s tied directly to international trade.”

In Colvin’s words, small businesses are now “born global.” And for many of them, exporting is simply an inevitability in an increasingly connected world, rather than a part of a conscious strategy. That was the case for Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve, which Sam Friedman says initially attracted customers beyond the U.S. via word-of-mouth on European discussion boards. But today, the company intentionally uses digital tools such as Google Ads and Google Analytics—which anyone can learn to use for free through Grow with Google—to expand its global reach and better understand its customers. Recently, for instance, Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve’s CFO David Braun noticed through web analytics that shopping cart abandonment rates were far higher for international customers than domestic ones. The problem, he surmised, was high shipping costs, so Friedman quickly set about negotiating with the company’s shipping partners to lower them. “A year and a half ago, it had gotten so bad that we were only sending out like three or four international packages a week. Now, we have seven or eight a day just because we were able to offer significantly lower shipping prices,” Friedman says.

While the number of small businesses that export has ballooned, there is considerable room for growth. Today, just 1 percent of America’s 30 million small businesses export, 58 percent of which only export to one country. Many small businesses do not sell products or services that are right for global expansion. But for those who do and are eager to grow, selling overseas is a great opportunity. The Small Business Exporters Association found nearly half of non-exporting small businesses say they would export if they had the knowledge to get started, and had help navigating regulatory barriers and payment concerns. Those resources are increasingly available online, including how-to guides from shippers like FedEx and searchable databases of trading partners from government agencies like the Small Business Administration.

Even at Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve, a model American exporter by all accounts, Friedman believes he could do more to grow his company’s global market share. Soon, he’ll travel to Denmark and the Netherlands for his first overseas business trip, where he plans to meet with wholesalers he hopes could become small distributors. He also aims to use analytics more regularly to understand the habits of shoppers in other countries. Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve’s international customers, he says, are “banging at our door,” and he wants to give them what they want. But expanding Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve’s global business isn’t just about keeping people abroad happy; ultimately, Friedman says, it’s about making a greater impact on the lives of his friends and neighbors in Solon. “There’s something very special about growing a community like we are and supporting the people around you like we are,” he says. “The best we can hope for is that every year we bring in another.”

Small businesses are doing more business internationally than ever before.

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