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SMALL BUSINESS | SMALL TALK: Advice From the Small-Business
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Lots of Help for Those in Import-Export Field

November 11, 1998|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: I'm thinking about starting an import-export business with friends in Europe. I would appreciate it if you could direct me to some organization that can tell me what permits, licenses, fees, etc., I need to get the business off the ground.

--Ernie Monteiro, Los Angeles

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Answer: There are several sources of help for someone starting or operating an import- or export-oriented business. One is the Small Business Development Center and Center for International Trade Development, a government-funded agency that offers low-cost training and free counseling for importers, exporters and would-be businesspeople who need help getting started in this field. There are centers in Pomona, Pasadena, Glendale and Los Angeles. You can reach them at (909) 629-2247 or by fax at (909) 629-8310.

Another source for free, one-on-one export consulting is the Export Small Business Development Center based in El Segundo. It can be reached at (310) 606-0166. Jim Tenner is the individual who distributes information and makes appointments. The export center has a Web site with information on its programs and a calendar of events at http://www.exportsbdc.org. It offers classes for start-ups and advanced exporters on topics such as financing, transportation, marketing, documentation and licensing. The Export SBDC is a nonprofit organization funded by private corporations, the Small Business Administration and the Commerce Department.

The U.S. Export Assistance Center in Long Beach--(562) 980-4550--is actually four federal agencies combined under one roof. They do not provide help for start-ups or for importers, only for existing export businesses that have made at least one sale, even if it is domestic. You can fax the center at (562) 980-4561.

The four agencies that operate out of the center are the Commerce Department's U.S. Commercial Service, which offers trade promotions assistance, including information on how to do business, find leads and market in other countries; the Agency for International Development, which provides procurement opportunities for U.S. businesses to bid for contracts on overseas jobs; and the Small Business Administration and the Export/Import Bank, both of which make working capital loans to companies that have been in business at least a year and have proof of deals in hand in the form of letters of credit, purchase orders or contracts.

The SBA makes loans up to $750,000, and the Export/Import Bank offers loans above that amount, as well as offering political and credit-risk insurance protection for companies doing business in certain countries. Both agencies' loans are for a maximum of one year for an individual transaction or for revolving lines of credit if the company can show continuing sales.

Need more help? Try the Export Managers Assn. of California at (310) 606-0161 or the Export Legal Assistance Network at (626) 296-9161. ELAN is a national network of attorneys who answer legal questions for exporters on a pro bono basis. I am the regional coordinator for that group.

--Michael Doram, customs and international trade law, Creskoff & Doram, Pasadena

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Q: I had an idea for a specialized dance magazine, but I realized after speaking with a publisher friend that starting one requires a substantial amount of capital. Not having the funds to launch it myself, could I possibly sell my idea to a larger dance magazine? How would I protect the idea?

--Candace Lee-Gallerani

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A: Before you take your idea to anyone--potential collaborators, investors, purchasers, manufacturers--you must own the proprietary rights to that idea. The initial step in owning your idea is to create an inventor's journal, where you record your idea and how it was created, whether it be a recipe, a new magazine concept or a new product. You can purchase an inventor's journal, which is a mechanically stitch-bound notebook, in an engineering store. Paste ideas, drawings, receipts and any other documentation you can think of into the journal and then sign and date it and have it witnessed.

Once you have your journal done, investigate the intellectual property opportunities available, whether they be copyrights, trademarks or service marks or patents. You will want to own the domestic and overseas rights if you envision that your idea will have international marketing potential. The Los Angeles Public Library downtown is an excellent place to do a search to determine whether someone else already owns the rights to this idea. Contact the Library of Congress' Copyright Department or the U.S. Department of Commerce Patent and Trademark Office to get more information about applying for legal protection for your idea.

Once you have applied for a copyright or patent and the process is pending, you have a tangible asset or group of assets that you can think about selling or licensing. But even at that point, you still need to make sure that anyone you present your idea to signs a confidentiality agreement before you disclose your concept to them.

Put together a prospectus on your proposal that includes its target market, profit potential and some marketing ideas. For a new magazine concept, I would suggest you create a mock-up of the magazine's premiere issue. If you have a unique title in mind, make sure you file for trademark protection for it.

Our nonprofit organization offers classes for inventors that cover in detail how to go about the steps necessary to protect and market an idea or invention. You can reach us at (805) 962-5722.

--Alan Arthur Tratner, president, Inventors Workshop International, Santa Barbara

If you have a question about how to start or operate a small business, mail it to Karen E. Klein at the Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016, or e-mail it to kklein6349@aol.com. Include your name, address and telephone number. The column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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