WorldFirst: Is now still the time for SMEs to export abroad?

Clara Shi is Vice President of Ant Group and CEO at WorldFirst
Clara Shi is Vice President of Ant Group and CEO at WorldFirst
We catch up with the CEO of WorldFirst to ask whether the time is still right for smaller firms to export overseas and seek trade with new markets

In today’s global economy, importing and exporting has never been easier. But, with macroeconomic challenges affecting many firms – particularly smaller firms – the incentive of whether or not to invest has been drawn into fresh question.

We catch up with Clara Shi, Vice President of Ant Group and CEO at WorldFirst, to examine why now is the most important time for SMEs to be seeking trade with new markets.

Tell us about WorldFirst: your history, and how it fits into the wider Ant Group brand

WorldFirst is a British home-grown company, founded in 2004 with a mission to help SMEs in navigating the complexities and high transaction costs associated with cross-border foreign exchange and international payments. Since its inception, WorldFirst has evolved into a global leader, offering a comprehensive suite of services encompassing cross-border payments, foreign exchange, and funds management, catering to over one million SMEs across Greater China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia engaging in global online trade.

WorldFirst fits into the Ant Group as a key pillar of the group’s international business with a focus on serving business clients in international trade. We share Ant Group’s vision of “creating future-ready digital infrastructure for the service industry, and bringing small and beautiful changes to the world”. In line with this vision, we have made substantial investments to facilitate seamless global trade for SMEs and merchants. Notably, we are focused on integrating our SME clients with over 100 online marketplaces worldwide, including heavyweights like Amazon, AliExpress, and 1688.

Why is now the most important time for SMEs to be seeking trade with new markets? 

In today's challenging economic landscape, businesses have been coping with rising inflation rates, escalating operational costs, and a dwindling consumer confidence that has curbed consumption, consequently denting revenues. For instance, the UK has witnessed the sharpest decline in retail sales this year since the onset of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

As enterprises strive to combat inflation and diversify their revenue streams, international trade emerges as a potent strategy to expand horizons. It provides a gateway to tap into the demand of global markets. 

In particular, we are seeing regionalisation accelerating amidst globalisation. Trading with emerging markets, such as Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, has brought accelerated growth for our clients. Transaction volumes within emerging markets on the WorldFirst platform grew by 36% between the first half of 2023 and the second half of 2022, far exceeding the 6% growth seen in traditional markets. Southeast Asia and Latin Amercia both delivered growth rates of over 40% for our clients in the same period.

Why is it so important for UK SMEs to tap into Asian markets? How much of an opportunity does Asia present?

China and Southeast Asia, in particular, are strong international markets for UK businesses to trade with, given the region’s strong trade ties and affinity to digital payments solutions – which helps to make cross-border trade more seamless. 

In addition to this, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, almost a third (30%) of UK SMEs purchase supplies from China. What’s more, the UK recently signed a trade pact with 11 APAC countries – a trade area that covers around 500m people. All these elements make Asian markets highly relevant to UK SMEs, and we’re seeing more small businesses and merchants looking to discover ways that they can successfully trade cross-border to open up new revenue streams. 

With added investments in talent and product in Asia, WorldFirst has been building such new digital bridges of cross-continent funds management to help UK businesses capture these new opportunities.

What best practices in payments should SMEs be looking at when exporting or importing goods?

Firstly, safety and security are critical. It is the foundation of our business. SMEs should opt for a platform with rigorous risk-control and compliance protocols to ensure that their hard-earned revenue is secure. It's vital to safeguard your business’ funds and protect against fraudulent transactions.  

Speed is also paramount. In today's international trade landscape, speed and cost efficiency are vital for business success. Selecting a service that can offer instant cross-border payment with no cost is key to improving the competitiveness of a business. 

Moreover, businesses should opt for a platform that goes beyond simple payment processing to offer services like working capital management and financing. This holistic approach ensures that all your financial needs can be addressed conveniently within a single platform.

How do you help SMEs tailor payment methods to specific markets?

Local currency accounts play a pivotal role, and we’ve continued to introduce more of these so that our SME clients can transact directly in their preferred currencies and avoid double conversions to save costs. For instance, the WorldFirst Cross-border Pay solution offers international buyers an option to make payments to sellers on China’s leading wholesale marketplace without the need to set up an onshore bank account in China. Buyers will also benefit from highly competitive foreign exchange rates, as inbound payments are settled at the offshore yuan rate. 

Accessing more local markets is a source of growth too. We plan to expand our services into new markets, particularly in emerging regions like APAC and Latam. This expansion will bring SME clients closer to untapped growth opportunities and broaden their global reach. Indeed, we’ve already seen substantial turnover growth on our platform derived from trade corridors in emerging markets.

How does WorldFirst support SMEs as they strive to tap into international trade? How do you plan to grow your own service to support SMEs?

WorldFirst’s primary objective is to provide unwavering support, accompanying our SME clients throughout their growth journeys. We do this by offering essential cross-border payment and financial services on demand (whenever and wherever they require). We are dedicated to ensuring that we can consistently deliver on this.

As mentioned earlier, our commitment to speed is paramount. We recognise the importance of speed in the business world. Therefore, we provide a ledger-to-ledger service that enables instant international payments if both parties use our platform. We also heavily invest in upgrading our technologies to increase our “go-to-market” speed and we always strive to be first to respond to the evolving needs of SMEs.  

Another crucial aspect of our strategy is to open up new growth markets for SMEs in international trade. This involves increasing the number of local currency accounts we support and providing access to more marketplaces, particularly those in emerging markets, on our platform. This enables SMEs to seamlessly trade like a local when entering new markets, positioning them effectively in the market to engage with their target audience.

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