“Trade finance is a $17 trillion global market, and there is a clear need. How hard could it be to come with a solution?” Tim Nicolle, the Founder and CEO of PrimaDollar wondered.
He started PrimaDollar in the UK in 2015 when he saw that there was no easy-to-use trade finance product available to exporters across the world.
Tim found that it was very tough to build a simple transactional trade finance product that worked generically, no matter where the exporter and importer might be located and what industry they might be in.
“We spent 3.5 years getting a lot of things wrong, learning, pivoting. Pretty much all the clichés for startups apply to us: “move fast and break things”, “lean start up”, “fail fast” etc,” he says.
However, the Eureka moment for him came in during mid-2018 when the team successfully established the product-market fit.
Tim says that meant squeezing all spreadsheets out of the system so that there was 100 percent capture through automated systems, and then being able to ask certain clients to change how they worked.
“Before the product-market fit, business is wide and shallow. You do everything for everyone. Once you establish focus, you become very narrow and very deep – and push the competitive advantage that follows from specialisation,” Tim says.
In 2019, PrimaDollar financed nearly 2,000 shipments involving over 300 clients across 32 countries. The team claims to have delivered a 400 percent, compound annual growth rate for the third year in a row.
'Fin' before the 'tech'
Tim recalls that it has been a long road, going from three people in a room to over 50 people across 12 countries today. PrimaDollar presently has offices in Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Delhi in India.
Things started by getting on to a plane to Dhaka, Bangladesh, and walking around “trying to find factory owners who wanted export finance”.
“This was early in 2015, and it was 18 months before we got our first trades properly running. We built the ‘fin’ before the ‘tech’, which is the other way round from everyone else. But without use cases, we had no reference points to build systems from. This is a big difference between us and others in fintech,” Tim says.
However, the company’s initial business was focused on MSMEs, but the team soon realised that the risk return in trade finance was not adequate in that segment. This led to the pivot to trade finance with lower rates and reduced risks.
“Our core market became mid-cap and large-cap exporters rather than smaller companies and we engineered our cost base and process to match,” Tim says.
Overcoming the challenges
The company ran out of money multiple times, particularly because it could not get the product-market fit right – consequently, it could not scale.
“But our stakeholders were patient and heavily involved at the board level. Some of our board meetings were very long. The collective IQ of our board is staggering and we have benefited hugely from their guidance,” he says.
Talking about future plans, Tim says, “In 2020, we expect to reach profitability, and become fully digital on the client-facing side. We also expect to be booking our first trades via third-party portals – as exporters start to take trade finance from shipping lines and freight forwarders, which is delivered by us invisibly in the background.”
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)