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This Philippine Start-up is Helping SMEs in Southeast Asia Go Global

1Export wants to lower the barriers of exporting by helping SMEs with document processing, pricing, labeling, and trade facilitation.

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BY Ezra Ferraz - 24 Aug 2017

SME southeast asia

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

While small businesses may focus first on their local market, Philippine start-up 1Export wants to help them go global. The idea came about when co-founder Mel Nava was working as an export trade specialist for a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company. She was asked by the Department of Trade and Industry to speak at their Doing Business in Free Trade Areas (DBFTA) forum.

Nava was inspired by her first-hand interaction with these small business owners.

“While they were interested in exporting and saw the potential benefits to their business, they chose not to, due to lack of knowledge and the potential hassles in the process. These businesses would rather focus on growing their existing market, than struggle to learn and prepare themselves to be export ready,” she says.

Together with co-founder Clive Lim, Nava is now trying to help these businesses in Southeast Asia who might otherwise ignore the opportunities available in exporting their products.

“We want to lower the barriers of exporting by helping small and medium businesses with document processing, pricing, labeling, and trade facilitation. By helping business owners with their export compliances, we save them time and money that they could use to focus on production or marketing,” Nava says.

Their long-term goal is a platform that automates much of the complexities associated with exporting a product. According to Nava, the ideal user journey would be for business owners to log-in to their platform, create an order to process certain export requirements, and then get updates on each request.

For now, 1Export is operating as a concierge model, wherein they manually service each client who needs exporting help. Their range of services includes assessment, preparation of requirements, processing of requirements, and client feedback.

Yet even if 1Export is doing all these tasks manually for now, they are still able to bring value to their clients, most of whom they have obtained through trade shows or word-of-mouth. As one example, 1Export is regularly able to process the license to operate (LTO) by the Philippine FDA in only two months, compared to the industry average of six months, by constantly following up with the agency.

In another instance, one company who had been exporting small quantities of their product to the United States was told that their products were too expensive.

“However, after availing of our pricing service, we found out that their products are priced at par with other countries, such as India. They are now able to negotiate with buyers; unlike before, when they would not know what to do because they were told that the product was too expensive,” Nava says.

Translating this level of customer service into an automated platform will be the biggest challenge facing 1Export, but it’s part and parcel to the industry.

“Everything about exporting is manual: Businesses find trusted buyers in trade shows which require people to travel to make those relationships; people have to physically file the export documents to make sure it’s done. With so many concerns on exporting, determining the real pain point to put in tech is tricky because the last thing we want is to code something people won’t use,” Nava says, adding that they are addressing this by focusing on what their customers really need and making their own operations as efficient as possible.

To best serve their exporters, 1Export is also trying to understand their buyer’s behavior.

“Right now, we are studying how we could make purchasers buy faster from manufacturers, and we hope to incorporate this eventually in the platform. We understand that while we help with export compliances, our current services become more valuable if there is a buyer willing to import the goods,” she says.

Based on her experiences building 1Export, Nava has a lot of advice for entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia who want to export their products.

“Compliance is key to successful trade. Over the years, international trade has been stricter with trade regulations — scrutinizing everything from the raw materials and packaging used, up to how the product is supposed to be labeled and declared. All these vary per country and continent, so it’s important to get these things right, especially if you don’t want to deal with the hassles of regulatory agencies in your country or your target market’s country,” she says.

“While price is still important in exporting, those that comply with the country’s regulations get ahead because they are able to get through borders smoothly and sell to more channels,” she says.