The financial crisis of 2008 led to many developments in fintech generally and alternative lending specifically. We’ve heard many of those stories before. One of the problems the crisis revealed is the restriction of capital, particularly among international small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Another problem was the massive proliferation of mobile coupled with the “digital self” that allowed lenders to identify the types of businesses people engaged with. Digital data became a game changer for a lot of companies employing new technologies. One company got the bright idea to solve both of these problems with a single solution aimed at SMEs making their first entrance into the online ecoystem.
Who Are Kountable, And Why Do They Count?
Kountable saw its genesis in 2013 with CEO and Co-founder Chris Hale getting together with co-founders Craig Allen and Kathy Numera.
“We looked at trade finance in a different way,” Hale said, adding that one of his co-founders spent 30 years doing trade financing at the institutional level. Typically being an instrument extended by banks, Kountable puts the emphasis on the finance rather than the trade part of the equation. The financial crisis, Basel III, and other regulations that followed handcuffed banks in their ability to extend capital to SMEs. Kountable stepped in to fill the void.
By using a cloud-based platform for the import and export of goods, Kountable gives SMEs access to trade. By outsourcing third-party logistics and bringing curated transactions so deals get institutional level treatment, the company helps SMEs sidestep problems they would typically have accessing top tier products.
Currency management is one area that requires Kountable’s due diligence. As they buy in one currency and deal in another, there are commercial terms, such as paying suppliers, during negotiations.
The company is successful when it simplifies the translation between big and small. Hale said, in most trade finance deals, you have big-to-big (that is, enterprise-level business trading with enterprise-level business). For example, Cisco might sell a network bridge to a multinational corporation. But when you have a small business involved (Cisco selling to a bank in East Africa, for instance), Kountable ensures that everyone gets the same retail treatment. By bringing users together in a mobile app on a cloud-based system, the company makes it seem institutional to both parties.
“The asset is a trade receivable,” Hale said. For example, an alternative credit fund that extends a $150M line of credit. “We align ourselves with the success of the transaction by pricing our service like a margin-sharing arrangement.” The four-step process includes:
- Kountable collects directly from the end customer
- The bank buys new servers from Cisco
- The reseller negotiates the margin for the procurement process, importation, and installing services
- Kountable takes a portion of the margin for the trade services it provides.
The Three Components of the Technology
The technology includes three key components:
- Identity management—The small business reseller downloads a mobile app and shares his or her data with Kountable. That includes social media, business registration, and personal info about the owners and shareholders. Kountable builds a “robust profile” on the SME and runs Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) processes for validation. The company also looks at supply, and, if it’s a private business, customs. The company looks at trade as a network. The more transactions they do, the more the network effect creates a safe environment for more transactions.
- Cloud-Based Control Management System—This digitally manages assets on the operating side and the financial side of a trade transaction. Hale said it’s tricky because there’s not a lot of financial data inside the transaction. Most of the info is operational. That is, goods are paid for and shipped–in transit, through customs, etc. Traditional financial institutions aren’t set up for this. This system manages the operations and payment of this trade asset. The reason it’s important to have collaboration taking place between the reseller and the in-country partners (who help with the documentation of the banking relationships, clearing customs, and more) through the mobile app with the Kountable team in San Francisco is that they all plug in to make sure transactions go smoothly. These two elements combine to create a financial asset.
- Trade Accounting Service—The investor who extended the $150M line of credit (LOC) is consuming trade receivables as collateral. The trade accounting service will be able to report on the synthesis of the financial and operating information in order to report the portfolio value to the investor.
Not being a formal venture fund, Kountable is a “traditional single family office with a portfolio of private companies with double bottom lines.” The company has raised $15M, 85% of which came from the family office with capital added from other investors. These are for-profit companies, of course, but the business focus is on the “larger good.” The concessionary returns the company receives by leaving some of the money on the table to make a significant impact is a part of the reward.
Kountable Key Differentiator and KPIs
“Our committed focus is to the SME,” Hale said. This led the company to build a network of enterprise-level participants and a technology platform to cater to that user. “Most other trade platforms focus on digitization of a two-party trade,” but it’s all “enterprise to enterprise.” Kountable was created to help the global SME population. “That focus on the SME as the user has created an ecosystem unlike any other platform I’m aware of.”
Kountable has about 5,000 SMEs registered and moves $3 million per month in trade transactions. That’s in two countries–Kenya and Rwanda. Interest from 40 other countries has led to building a platform to address the market demand.
“We have a line of sight to profitability just by working within these two markets,” Hale said. “[We’re] building
global expansion to go outside of the family office this year.”
SMEs in Kountable’s two markets buy goods from the U.S. and work with U.S. supplies to sell to customers in East Africa products they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. In the year ahead, Kountable plans to work with U.S. SMEs on similar transactions.
Kountable’s Competition and the Future of Trade Finance
Kountable’s competition consists of large procurement companies, groups like Tradeshift, and financial relationship companies. On the other side, there are e-commerce platforms, like Amazon, that are more consumer focused.
“There really isn’t a competitor that fits together a solution targeting our market specifically,” Hale said. The competition is mostly peripheral.
Hale believes the future is going to see trade financing dramatically influenced by digitization across the board. “The players are focused on enterprise-level digitization, where invoicing becomes an Application Programming Interface (API) and customs brokerage becomes digitized. As that continues, the nature of trade financing will evolve toward a a focus on operations.” He sees this evolution ultimately leading to the incorporation of the blockchain. “The elements of smart contracts and the distributed ledger are very well suited to the network approach to trade facilitation.”
Kountable’s near-term plans are to continue demonstrating the universality of its solution. Hale said they have significant demands in many regions of the world, including the U.S., and the goal is to plant some flags in some specific markets. Along with the U.S., he mentioned Southeast Asia and Latin America as potential growth regions. “There are many elements of our transactions that are replicable across different verticals and different regions,” he said.
The company is looking to internalize its engineering team and build its other respective teams. They have a number of product launches in the next quarter and a half including a redesign of the mobile app. Beyond that, Kountable is focused on growth capital for market expansion, enterprise sales, and putting in place the legal and financial structures needed to move into Southeast Asia markets like Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia.
By focusing on the double-bottom line, Kountable not only has a bright future in the spaces of trade and trade financing, but the company is also doing its part to improve the quality of life in areas of the world where goods, services, and technology would be otherwise less accessible. And while it isn’t evident if the company will ultimately succeed, it’s certainly evident that it should.
Written with Paul Keenan.