As an undergraduate at UW-Madison I had a somewhat rare double major, namely Scandinavian Studies and Business. To join the two I completed a specialization in International Business.

As part of this program of study in 1989 I attended a course on the imminent creation of the European Communities. The first half of the course was spent visiting manufacturers in Marseille, France and the second half of the course took us to European Union capital city of Brussels, Belgium.  Overall it was a terrific experience.

The French seemed annoyed to have us poking around in their plants but were happy to take us out for two hour lunches which included half-bottles of wine followed by espresso. The Belgiums were pleased that we were paying attention to what was occurring in Europe and took us around to their favorite breweries in the evenings.

There were similarities and differences between manufacturing plants there and at home but the basics were evident in both. All these years later though one lessons stands out which had little to do with the plants or halls of government we toured.

Our teaching assistant (TA) for the course was a graduate student majoring in International Business. On our first night in France we were sitting around the hotel lobby when our TA came down with a big bag full of coins. She asked at the desk for a pay phone and was steered to a bank of them against a wall. We all watched as she proceeded to pull coins from her bag and place them in the phone’s coin slot again and again without being able to connect her call.

After awhile one of my classmates went over and asked if he could help. She said she didn’t know why her coins weren’t working, and he watched as she tried again  He immediately diagnosed the problem. She was using American coins in a French pay phone!

I remember her as a decent TA, and am sure she was a very successful graduate student, but it was mind boggling that someone in her chosen field of study could make the mistake that she made. On the one hand it showed some foresight to pack coins to make calling home easier, but of course she forgot about the currencies being different. On a basic facet of international commerce she scored a failing grade.

I think about this experience now as this newsletter issue focuses on exporting and global commerce. Foreign markets are similar to domestic ones in many ways, but with some key differences. For example currency differences in payphones are easy to realize (I am quite confident she never made that mistake again) but may not be top of mind to those venturing outside their boundaries for the first time.

This is where Exportech and the WMEP can help. The experts available through the Exportech program are seasoned practitioners that can identify the relevant issues and help you successfully navigate your way to becoming successful exporters.  And they can also spare you the equivalent embarrassment or frustration of trying to put American coins in a French payphone.