Nothing Happens Unless You Make the Sale (Part 1)
Apr 21, 2009
By John Freivalds
My first two experiences in selling Latvian goods and services over twenty years has taught me that you need to follow a number of guidelines to have any chance of success. These include:

• A hook, something to catch people’s attention
• Volume, scalability
• Avoid being the low price spread- you can’t under price China
• Constant and effective badgering
• Sell using whatever message is easiest- “made in Latvia” means very little
• Start wherever you can
• Speak the language so if the marketplace not the English you learnedly speak in Riga
• Make sure that the seller is contributing something to your effort; some sellers’ have asked that I pay for samples to take around!
• Provide sample-lots and for fee
• Have the English copy to describe what you have to see done by a native speaker- no exceptions!!!!
• Concentrate on public relations (free), not advertising( expensive) to get your message across

But I will say my first two experiences putting those rules in practice were the most fun for they were the first and gave me a lot of satisfaction at being there at the beginning.


The first contact in Latvia selling something in the United States came in 1988 (I think) at the Jacob Javits Center in New York . I was in New York on the other business and noticed some sort of trade show about Eastern Europe going on. So in a break in my schedule I went over to the Javits Center.

I walked around and then I saw a sign that said InterLatvija. Wow! I walked over and there was this young woman, Ilze, selling Latvian artwork for cash, no checks, and no credit cards. Latvia had its own trading company, InterLatvija at the time.. She was sent to sell paintings. Ilze spoke halting English and was a patriot, not a party functionary. She promised her friends that she would buy a fax machine and smuggle back to Latvia in the crates holding the paintings she didn’t sell.

She did not know about credit cards or taking checks. So potential buyers who came had to bring wads of cash (remember this was 20 years ago and a hundred dollars was a lot of money). The word got out to the Latvian community about her and she started selling.

“Janis” she asked “can you help me open a bank account?” I called a friend who worked at Chemical Bank and we opened one of the first foreign bank accounts. We used my address in Minneapolis as hers.

I spent a lot of time with Ilze and was curious how InterLatvija worked. It was headed up by a guy who later worked for Adazi., Its director Alberts Kauls would later be appointed Gorbachev's agriculture minister for the whole country. We ran the numbers on how much an artist would be paid, InterLatvija’s commissions, taxes, turning over the foreign exchange earnings, more taxes and learned that if you followed the rules, the artist would have to pay more than he earned from dealing with InterLatvija. Alas it was liquidated in 1991.

My fifteen minutes of fame

My second experience with selling in Latvia came in 1989 when I was part of a delegation of 26 Latvian –American businessmen went to Latvia to take advantage of perestroika. We stayed at the Riga Hotel and set up the first business center in Latvia, We brought our own American trained secretaries to run it. We had all chipped in and bought computers, fax machines, copiers- even paper clips from Finland and set up shop.

The trip was publicized on the radio and people called to make appointments. One of my appointments was from a young guy who wanted me to invest US $ 1 million in a new crematorium in Riga. His idea was to fly recently dead Latvian Americans (we are getting older her in America) to Latvia and cremate them in Riga. Then the ashes would be buried in cemetaries in the towns where the individual was born. His company would make sure the gravesites and head stones would be kept nice. The name of his firm was - Animus.

What was amazing to me, out of all the forty some deals that were presented to me, everyone seemed to know exactly how many dollars they needed, but no one could tell me how much money I would make from these deals. And whatever money I did make it would be in rubles, which I then would have to exchange (hopefully not in the men’s room where every waiter wanted to buy whatever dollars I had,)

One day I had notes from 40 different people wanting to see me. My head was too full of ideas and romanticism about Latvia to think clearly. No sleep, too many meetings, and vodka. One day I just stayed in my room and tried to sort it out. I came up with two ideas: selling advertising in Atmoda, the first real Latvian paper and selling neckties (Atmoda ended and was reborn as Diena). I chose these two because I am in the communications business and I knew someone who was importing goods from the former Soviet Union already.

But I did bring one proposal home with me. This was from the Carlson Companies whose subsidiary, Radisson Hotels, eventually helped establish the Radisson Daugava. For my efforts I became a “friend of the Radisson” and can stay there for US $65 whenever I am in Riga. Otherwise, hardly any one knows of my efforts.

You’re getting a monopoly!

The Latvians I met on that first trip took themselves very seriously. When I told Arvils Aseradens, now the publisher of Diena-the leading Latvian newspaper- that I was willing to sell ads for Atmoda, Diena’s precursor, he said “It’s quite a privilege for you as you now have a monopoly.” On my last trip to Latvia I gave him the original contract to keep as a souvenir.

In any event we were able to capture the imagination of the advertising community in the US. The Associated Press ran this headline and story: ... [continued here]

The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the Latvian Chamber of Commerce in the Americas.

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