Escherichia Coli Bacteria

Trading Globally from My Dorm Room

Dorm Room Start-Ups

You probably know the stories of college student entrepreneurs who made it big, from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and Bill Gates’ Microsoft, to the founders of Dell, Google, and Yahoo. FedEx and Kinko’s were business models created by college students. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard got their start at Stanford University before launching the original Silicon Valley startup in a garage.

I might not walk among these giants, but in the early 1990s, I ran a small biomedical supply company — out of my dorm room.

Embassy Expos – How the State Department Helped Me Pay for College

Back then, before the Internet, before email, and before mobile phones became ubiquitous, I started a subsidiary of Science Center, Inc. called SCI International. Our company manufactured inoculating loops and needles, the mundane but vital workaday tools that scientists (especially microbiologists) and their lab technicians the world over use to transfer bacteria from a culture to a petri dish.

My business partner handled the manufacturing and shipping out of our home state of New Mexico, but I ran marketing and sales out of Washington, D.C. while attending the George Washington University. We wanted to expand our business and go global. Among the documents I’d picked up from the Small Business Administration, I discovered a program called “Embassy Expo.”

How it worked: you could send your products and literature off to the the State Department in Washington, D.C. which conveyed them to U.S. Embassies around the world hosting expos for prospective foreign buyers. So I packaged up our products with a few brochures and a price list and mailed it to the State Department. Then we waited.

Image of Early SCI Lab Equipment
A tool for verifying the internal diameter of the loop

I’d actually forgotten all about it until my fax machine started making its high-pitched beeps in the middle of the night, and my roommate launched into his own high-pitched whine telling me to shut it up. I got up, bleary-eyed, to turn the machine off and there it was – our beautiful, glorious first order — from the United Arab Emirates.

From Zero to Thirty in 18 Months

A few weeks later, we received an order from Japan. A few weeks after that, we received orders from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and more. It didn’t take long to firmly establish an international clientele (and secure a reliable way to pay my college tuition). Over the next 18 months, our business shifted from no international sales to 30 percent of our business coming from international orders.

At that time, a business of our size would have been unlikely to sell products all over the world without the help of the State Department program, even with my fax machine and my giant brick of a cell phone. Today, small businesses just need an Internet connection to go global and they can do it from the minute they hang out their digital shingle.