Panama is a country with many opportunities for SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises), especially for those businesses looking to be successful in importing or exporting to and from Panama. Getting started can be challenging, but it isn’t impossible. Randall Castillo Ortega, a leading importer and exporter in Panama and Costa Rica, provides some recommendations, so you have an idea of where to start.

If you’re ready to get started, your company must count on the following: a bilingual receptionist, a production chain that responds to high demand spikes, a commercial team capable of facing the new challenge (travel, irregular schedules); financial ability to make the leap abroad, product or competitive service. But beyond all this, the important thing is your commitment (as a manager, owner or majority partner) to the decision to internationalize the company, an obsession that you must infect the rest of the departments and staff (generate a sense of belonging on your payroll). And this applies to both export and import of products and services.

In foreign trade, there are three phases that determine the consolidation of the business project in the target market. The first is commercial sales operations abroad. For this, a commercial intermediary that collects the goods at port and markets it is sufficient. The second is cooperation with a local partner who takes care of the whole process. The last is productive implementation.

Whether as an exhibitor or as a visitor, participating in trade shows is fundamental. Says Castillo, “Trade shows and expos will allow you to know the market conditions and make contacts with potential partners and suppliers. However, choose well. It’s a job that requires a lot of dedication at first. Sometimes, you will have to go to two expos in a row. After dismantling the stand of the first one, you find yourself changing clothes in the airport to fly that night to another country, and the next day assembling the stand of the second fair.”

Entrepreneurs need to become very familiar with the following terms, as they are part of the fundamental documentation in external operations. Business documents, which include commercial invoice, pro forma invoice, certificate of origin (processed by chambers of commerce) and content list or parking list. Customs, the ATA and CPD notebooks (allow goods to be temporarily shipped to 75 countries); Single Administrative Document (DUA), processed by the Tax Agency; Intrastat (periodic declaration). Transportation – this is the transport letter by road, rail, sea and air. Certificates include insurance, health certificates, etc. Lastly, there are customs procedures. You will have to formalize the registration in the Exporters’ Register and VAT.

Choosing a partner or supplier correctly is a key factor in the process you’ve started. Fairs are an excellent option to get in touch with them, but be suspicious of those who want to close an agreement at the moment. Asserts Castillo, “Before signing anything, look for information about that potential partner or supplier: company size, production, talk to companies that have worked with it, their financial solvency (in the case of a partner), and compliance with delivery times (supplier).”

Correctly selecting the destination for your exports is essential. Prioritize markets with identified demand that are right for your products. Consider currency, geographic position and language and evaluate which markets are most likely to accept your products well. It’s vital that you know the cultural differences between the countries you’re willing to adapt to. The best way is to start small, focusing on just one or two countries and then increase your reach from there.

After identifying potential export destinations, it is essential that you conduct a good market study on each of the possibilities. You should consider the size of the markets (and opportunities), who are the main competencies and potential partners.

This primer will only get the foot in the door; it won’t make the business successful. That will only come with hard work and dedication, and continuing efforts to position the goods or services at the forefront of the competition.

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