Fluent Buries the Blockchain in Its Pitch for Supply-Chain Tech

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One of the latest startups developing a blockchain-based financial network is not counting on the buzz surrounding its tech to make its pitch.

Blockchain technology is most commonly associated with bitcoin, which uses a blockchain distributed ledger system to record and verify transactions. But the concepts of blockchain and bitcoin are hard for many people to untangle, and there may not even be a point to trying to explain the difference.

“If you just say, ‘We have this blockchain and it can settle things,’ that means nothing to the end user," said Casey Lawlor, chief marketing officer of Fluent, a St. Louis, Mo.-based startup that connects banks and businesses and is striving to eliminate their inefficiencies with a real-time payment and invoicing system for lending into large enterprises.

The company plans to eventually join the wider world of financial services, but it’s coming in at a different angle, starting small even though it’s selling the benefits of a huge network. In Fluent's current phase, it sees more value in marketing its solution as a supply chain management tool as opposed to a blockchain system.

“A product built on blockchain technology should provide a qualitative advantage to the end user,” he said. “In five to 10 years no one will care if their software is being run on a blockchain-based system, but they will be very aware of the massive improvement over traditional systems."

The global average cost to process an invoice was $13.47 in 2015, according to research by Ardent Partners, a supply chain research and advisory firm, and the average time to process it was 11.4 days. The market average percentage of straight-through processed invoices was just 24.6%. The invoice exception rate, the rate of invoices that need to be altered, encoded manually, or scrapped and resent because of error, was 13.1%.

It’s too early for Fluent to say how those numbers would compare using its own network, but Lawlor said it assumes higher straight-through processing for businesses. Payments and information live on the same digital platform and the company provides in-app secure messaging that connects accounts payable and accounts receivable teams.

“Adoption of digital alternatives have led to an average cost of $2.94 to process an invoice with a 9.8% exception rate,” he said, citing Ardent. “We believe that by adding value to the supplier through the supply chain financing platform, we can drastically increase supplier adoption and with our superior technology and improve on these numbers.”

Inefficiencies like manual processes, high exception rates and labor expenses all contribute to invoicing costs and result in a lack of straight-through processing. That’s a company’s worst-case scenario, Lawlor said, because it drives up exception rates along with the need for more complex, manually-processed invoices.

The pain is especially high for large companies that process thousands of invoices monthly and make transfers globally, Lawlor said. Fluent is currently looking to onboard businesses with $100 million in revenue or more.

“Only by putting these processes on one streamlined system that connects payments, purchase orders and invoicing on one platform can you eliminate much of the manual processes and inaccuracies by automation, providing collaboration tools and flagging any abnormalities for review,” Lawlor said.

Traditionally, supply chain payments have been paper-based, slow and costly. And in recent years, buyers have sought extended payment terms from their suppliers, requesting and sometimes even demanding 120-day pay periods, usually to maximize the use of their capital. But that practice is especially burdensome for small suppliers; it drives up their prices and drives down their ability to expand.

“If you lower the cost of capital dramatically by implementing the Fluent multi-lender supply chain financing platform, buyers can increase days payable outstanding while their suppliers have access to cheap working capital,” Lawlor said. “This means lower costs for buyers, stronger suppliers, and an overall healthy supply chain that can better withstand fluctuations in the global economy."

Fluent launched in 2014 and has raised $875,000 in seed funding. UMB Bank in Kansas City, Mo., Thomson Reuters and venture firms Draper Associates, 500 Startups and SixThirty participated in the round. It currently has nine employees working across St. Louis, San Mateo, Calif., and Lexington, Ky.

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