Just over a decade ago, SurePay started life as a network of walk-in centres in Barbados. Today the 35-biller strong e-billing platform is now positioning to offer a hosted online service for banks in the region looking to add consolidated EBPP (electronic bill presentment and payment) to their value-added internet banking services.
Michael Armstrong, CEO Illuminat:
‘When we conceptualized this project, back in 2002, we recognized that people have certain things they must do – they need to buy food and they need to pay bills!
We are not in food business but we are most certainly in the technology business, so we saw a good opportunity to offer a much needed convenience service. Other than those people who could write cheques and mail them, too many people in this country were wasting time queuing up to pay utility bills. Furthermore, they could only pay bills from Monday – Friday and it had to be during regulated hours, normally between 9:00 am – 3:00 pm, so they had to take time off work. It was very frustrating for all the individuals involved and harmful to national productivity.
So we sought a single solution that would remove all those problems, that didn’t require lots of staff and, above all, was free for the consumer.
We devised a system whereby consumers could pay all of their bills in a single trip to an easily accessible location like the supermarket, shopping mall or any other high traffic commercial area. This represented a quantum leap in convenience for consumers who previously had to make the journey to each biller’s office to pay their telephone, electricity and other bills.
The concept, design and development of SurePay were all done here at our Illuminat office in Barbados, taking about 18 months from start to finish. We built the application around the core of an online payment engine developed by Fiserv, formerly Checkfree Corporation, of the USA. Illuminat sent people overseas to learn about it, we planned how we could best use it and adapted it to suit our own specific needs, which were very different to their online capacity.
The business model we came up with was we charge the biller and the biller pays us for giving their customer a more convenient opportunity to pay their bills, Monday to Sunday, outside of normal working hours. This is clearly much better for the consumer and it is equally good for the billers because it increases their cash flow, cuts down on the number of consumer services they have to terminate for non-payment at end of month and eliminates the long lines of disgruntled people they had to deal with every day, which in turn removes the need for extra staff to accept the payments. An excellent example of how big an advantage this was for the billers is that after we launched SurePay in Barbados, Cable and Wireless, for example, was able to reduce the number of their payment locations.
The system also works extremely well for the retail outlets that we signed up to serve as SurePay locations. We pay them a percentage of our income from the billers to help them offset the cost of setting up and staffing the location, we provide SurePay uniforms and signage, and they get a much increased flow of traffic through their stores from which they benefit.
That was how SurePay was originally conceptualized and the model hasn’t changed since. It has proven to be a big success because it is a win-win for all three parties impacted – biller, retailer and consumer.
Then, in 2010, SurePay went online. As an alternative to lining up to pay bills, we gave consumers the option of logging into the SurePay website from their own computer, anywhere and any time. This gave them even greater visibility, flexibility and control over their finances. And for our billers, adding the online option meant an even speedier payment cycle with unlimited exposure to a much broader client base. SurePay Online currently operates by debiting customer accounts but I expect us to be offering credit card payments in the very near future.
By 2011, with the walk-in centres thriving and the online service still growing in both Barbados and Trinidad, we decided that our next step should be to expand into the other islands in the region. However, we were in no position to provide on-the ground operations ourselves, so the obvious solution was to franchise. We packaged the methodology and the technology, plus the legal contracts, advertising campaigns and so on, and we offered an initial 5-year franchise contract to suitable partners.
We first launched the new franchise model in 2011 in the British Virgin Islands, then St Lucia and Guyana the following year. Right now we are in discussions with a number of companies who are interested in taking the franchise to all the countries of the Eastern Caribbean, the Bahamas, Bermuda and there is interest in the Dominican Republic. Future plans also include expansion into Jamaica, the rest of the wider Caribbean and Latin America.
SurePay is a good example of high-end technology being used to provide a solution not just for consumers with a high-end capacity but even those without it. That is why it has been particularly successful in our region, because we still have a vast majority of our population who do not use online banking or payments.
SurePay has grown into a strong brand and I expect that our network will continue to grow throughout the coming years. It is good for Barbados that we can export our products and services into the Caribbean region and beyond. Barbados has a lot to offer, and particularly so with ICT skills, so we just have to find the right way to package our knowledge and expertise and deliver it successfully.
We are currently exploring possibilities with our partner to introduce SurePay to the wider world. Discussions are only at a preliminary stage and still require a lot more consideration and negotiation but, if that goes ahead, it will really pick up our product and move it globally.’