Uncharted waters: How will Brexit impact SMEs in the import industry?

19 Sep 2018

Image: MAGNIFIER/Shutterstock

TechWatch editor Emily McDaid talks to entrepreneur Barry Rollins about the challenges faced by SME importers in the age of Brexit.

Importing expert Barry Rollins knows how painful it can be for UK-based SMEs to obtain goods from overseas. “Nothing is easy now when it comes to importing; throw Brexit into the mix and it will become hugely complicated,” said Rollins.

After building a successful career in e-commerce, Rollins launched Importwise three months ago, and his timing couldn’t be better.

close-up of young man with brown hair and beard wearing dark blue shirt, standing outside.

Barry Rollins. Image: TechWatch

What is Importwise?

It’s a cloud-based platform that enables businesses to book and manage international shipping, pay international suppliers, ensure quality control and gain access to trade finance. SMEs are overwhelmed by the workload required to import goods. This is simple and intuitive to use, and removes the risks involved with international trade.

We have an MVP out for trial with 10 companies that sell around the UK.

Did you develop Importwise?

I designed it from the ground up 15 months ago, and employed a team of offshore developers, who were managed by one of the top software developers in Northern Ireland, our CTO.

What’s your main focus?

Making international trade simple, saving businesses time and money. Even just booking international sea freight, it takes two to three days to receive a quotation; for instance, to get rates from China to the UK, and then road freight to Northern Ireland. Now, it can take less than 60 seconds.

It compares rates and routes instantly, like using Skyscanner to book a flight. We’ve developed our own APIs to extract data from all the major shipping providers. We use machine learning to understand each customer’s need.

What kind of products are imported through the system?

In the UK, 75pc of what we use comes in a shipping container. Each day, 50,000 containers arrive into the UK from across the world. It can be anything from office furniture to rice, coffee, wine, ceramic tiles or farm equipment.

What are SMEs’ current frustrations?

They face problems in liaising with the freight forwarder; they don’t know where their goods are and when they’re arriving. They’ll be told, ‘I think it will arrive some time next week’ and that’s not good enough. We’re the first company to use satellite container identity technology to track movements.

Who pays for it?

Importwise is free to use; we earn revenue from each of the services used.

What about the revenue side?

Our API system enables our customers to make international payments within hours whereas it takes days at the banks – and this typically saves 5pc compared to the banks.

We also have relationships with a panel of trade finance lenders who offer a range of trade finance options for users who need to front the cost of their imports.

Why don’t the banks lend to SME importers?

Banks aren’t very helpful when it comes to trade finance because of the uncertainties and risks involved with shipping. Our platform gives lenders more data – what goods are being imported and when, if they’ve been quality-controlled etc. This lets them make quick and clear lending decisions.

What position does Brexit leave you in?

Importwise uses machine learning to fully understand import and duty rates. When the instability of Brexit manoeuvres in, SMEs won’t fully understand these changes. It’s been widely reported that importers need to adopt a software platform to assist them.

So, the odds are stacked against SMEs?

Without a doubt, SMEs will be least placed to understand the complexities of Brexit. HMRC doesn’t have a phone line for import duties, it was shut down a few years ago. You nearly need a degree in advanced analytics to know what commodity code to assign to your product.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

Importwise is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Connect at Catalyst Inc, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2018 will take place on Thursday 11 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland