Start-up of the week: Couture Intel

2 May 2016

Our start-up of the week is Couture Intel, a resource for shoppers who travel that enables them to do price comparisons on branded goods.

Couture Intel is about giving you instant access to information on the price of branded goods while travelling, giving shoppers who travel the satisfaction of knowing they are making the right decision.

“We asked ourselves what the travelling shopper needs when shopping in places like NYC, ‘Am I getting a good price on this Michael Kors bag in Macy’s or would it be cheaper to buy the bag at home in Dublin’?” explained Couture Intel founder Maria Phillips.

‘We are no longer in a local market place, we are travelling further and experiencing more than ever before’

“The same goes for makeup, a briefcase, iPhone or even your Hugo Boss suit. Using the Couture Intel search engine you can locate the bag in both countries through our app, we display both prices in euro, you can now clearly see where is the better deal, including tax refund.”

The market

“Touristic spenders are our target market. Touristic spending combines travel with the specific intention to shop,” Phillips said.

According to the Global Report on Shopping Tourism by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO): “Shopping tourism has emerged as a growing component of the travel experience, either as a prime motivation or as one of the major activities undertaken by tourists at their destinations.”

“Couture Intel meets the touristic shoppers needs by eliminating risk, facilitating pre-purchase of currency and bringing instant, accurate price comparison information to the user in a simple, easy to understand format, in their own language,” Phillips said.

‘Essentially, we want to do for touristic shopping what Uber did for taxis. They don’t own a single taxi’

“The opportunity is global. 1.3bn people travelled in 2015 and 25pc of those cited shopping as a primary motivation. Now, look at the global luxury goods market, which reached $250bn USD in 2015, $30bn is directly attributable to the weak euro and spenders from China, the US and the UK.

“We are no longer in a local market place, we are travelling further and experiencing more than ever before. As much as we want to buy locally, we say no to spending on larger ticket items when we can get better value online or abroad. Couture Intel understands the shoppers’ needs and we make the purchase decision easy.

“We would really like to partner with Fáilte Ireland in the future. Ireland is in such a strong position to welcome international shoppers with the weak euro and high VAT rate,” Phillips said.

The founders

In previous roles, Phillips has managed teams and led the end-to-end statutory and regulatory reporting process for an entity with a $2bn balance sheet.

Her experience varies from ‘Big Four’ to pharma and telecoms. Throughout her career, her ability to review and systemise complex processes within companies has added value and saved time.

Her co-founder Niall Collins is a web developer and engineer. As a previous company founder, he has designed and built a specialised software services platform.

The company is actively searching for additional tech support and also a CMO.

The technology

“We are building a platform for price comparison on branded goods, a resource for the shopper when travelling. Instant access to information and satisfaction in knowing you are making the correct decision,” Phillips said.

“Let’s look at a London shopper who wants a Canon EOS 1D X Mark II Digital SLR camera body. Buying this in London costs £5,199. This exact camera in NYC costs $5,999, which equates to a saving of £1,500.

“Couture Intel’s search engine and app can clearly display this information for their review and before they make the flight they can already see if they will save. These savings would pay for flights, accommodation and a holiday easily.

“In China, companies are being built on the new trade of travelling to purchase goods in Europe for customers. The driver of this is a weak euro and tax refunds. Significant savings can be made for the Chinese consumer who wants to ensure the authenticity of the item and this is also a real driver for them to travel.

“We help this shopper streamline the process and save them valuable time.”

The ultimate goal? “World domination seems like the answer to this question, otherwise why would we bother? Essentially, we want to do for touristic shopping what Uber did for taxis. They don’t own a single taxi. We are following a similar model.”

Progressing from MVP to beta

Phillips explains the company has built its alpha MVP and it is now progressing to beta using a different tech stack.

“It’s very exciting and with this new build comes a lot of work and research but that is coming along nicely and we are moving forward.

“We are lucky in that what we are doing doesn’t require an army of employees, so we can achieve a lot with our lean budget.

“The Bank of Ireland StartLab incubator programme in Galway has been invaluable to us and we finish this programme in June. We are considering other programmes here at home and abroad that are of interest to us. Until June, it’s a case of putting the head down and just keep moving forward.”

Only the resilient make it

Phillips said that the start-up journey has been a steep learning curve.

“The challenge has been to adapt and move forward constantly.

“I returned to Ireland last year and I have been blown away by how energetic the start-up scene is here. There are so many avenues for information, it’s a far cry from when I left Ireland.

“It was a huge step forward for us to get the Bank of Ireland StartLab incubator and the resources and contacts made through the programme has been fantastic. In general, the resources available in Ireland are great, although it is very competitive to get funding, but that just makes you put the work in and try harder.”

Her advice for other tech start-ups is to be patient and see the bigger picture.

“This takes time. It is not an overnight process, so if it is your ambition to be your own boss be prepared for the long haul.

“Start with your Local Enterprise Office and keep Enterprise Ireland on the horizon and keep pushing through. I am a huge Instagram fan but, here in Ireland, for business, you have to connect on Twitter.

“It is a funny arena to get involved in, many highs and lows, but ultimately, from what I see, only the resilient make it,” Phillips concluded.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years