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Western Union is the latest established financial services firm to take aim at startups in the fast-growing financial technology (fintech) market with the expansion of its EDGE platform, which aims to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do business abroad.

Speaking at London Fintech Week, Kerry Agiasotis, president at Western Union Business Solutions, the global business-to-business payments arm of the financial services firm, highlighted the challenges SMEs face when taking their business international, and how it EDGE payments platform can help solve them.

"Small businesses generally are without the resources to navigate new markets," said Agiasotis.

"We have invested in building out software tools to address those pinch points, from providing cash management capabilities, somewhere a business can upload payables or receivables in one place and get a real-time view of the impact of that on their business."

Western Union EDGE

Western Union hopes that its EDGE platform can help simplify the operational complexity and issues that comes with doing business abroad.

The web-based platform is optimised for mobile devices, and allows businesses to see a dashboard with a growing series of capabilities. This includes tools for cash management, a foreign currency cash management tool that allows invoices to be uploaded, as well as details on payable and receivables in foreign currency.

The platform also has business intelligence features, so businesses can track cash and gain insight into how they are trading.

EDGE is priced on a ‘pay what you use’ basis, which should prove attractive to smaller businesses.

The main challenge will be in convincing companies to change their working practices to another system.

"You have to get a business to change a habit and that is the biggest impediment. Most businesses don't even think of this, they see it as a necessary impediment to doing business overseas," Agiasotis said.

Another impediment is shifting the payment from their incumbent system, which tends to be a bank.

This could lead to significant time savings. Agiasotis claims: "We have some great research which shows that, on average, businesses can spend up to a day a week on all of the overheads associated with doing overseas business, so whether it is payments, reconciling receivables, managing foreign currency exposures, accounting."

Read next: Western Union deploys Cloudera Hadoop tools for transactional data analytics

Agiasotis didn't provide details of the technology behind EDGE. What we do know is that it was built in-house with the help of third party development firms, especially around non-core competencies within Western Union like collaboration, content management and workflow management.

"We are keeping a lid on a lot of the components, we just want to get it out there and get businesses using it and over time we may divulge more, but at the moment we are using it as a bit of a competitive advantage."

The platform runs on the public cloud, but Agiasotis won't say which.

Fintech rivals

Western Union and its fellow incumbent in the foreign exchange and money transfer market Travelex are both responding to the threat of fintech startups, which have been building user-friendly products far faster than the larger, legacy companies could.

Paresh Davdra is the CEO and co-founder of RationalFX, an established fintech startup with its own cheaper money transfer app for personal and business use called Xendpay.

He argues that the agility of fintech startups offers an advantage over more established firms.

"My opinion is that those companies [Western Union and Travelex] are very large. They are almost like banks, so they suffer from the same sort of problems,” he told Computerworld UK.

“They aren't agile, they can't make the quicker decisions, they can't try things out quickly because they have to pass through many hoops before getting anything off the ground."

However, Western Union’s EDGE platform and Travelex’s consumer-facing products such as Supercard and a soon-to-be-announced money transfer app, show that they are starting to take on the fintech startups at their own game. What they lack in speed they make up for in resources.

With EDGE, Western Union is starting to leverage its massive regional payment network in 51 currencies, meaning businesses on the platform can transact in minutes.

"A local financial infrastructure allows us to connect into local clearing systems and move money in ways few businesses can,” said Agiasotis.

“This is something we have been doing in the retail space for some time and now we're opening it up for businesses."

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