Avia Collinder, Business Writer
Claudja Williams, a former business analyst, has pioneered an online financial website that allows Jamaicans to shop for the best interest rates and bank fees from one central point.
RateBee is an interactive site which allows users to comparison shop for the best rates suited to their pockets.
Williams, the chief strategic director for RateBee, says the most popular searches are for auto loans, mortgages and foreign exchange rates from users including Jamaicans in the diaspora.
Williams, a former project manager and business analyst at National Commercial Bank Jamaica in treasury operations, started the site - rate-bee.com - having observed that most Jamaicans are not aware of and do not have a good understanding of the financial products available locally.
"Of the products they do know - savings accounts, fixed deposits, loans - they were not generally aware of how these products compared among financial institutions," said Williams.
"That is, they were not aware of which institutions offered the best rates and the lowest fees nor were they aware of the various institutions which carried the products they were seeking."
As a result, she said, most consumers tend to either take financial products from their traditional bank or credit union or take up a product offered to them by the first institution they come in contact with, but which is usually not the best offer available.
RateBee was launched on June 1, 2012. Users can now search for and compare local financial products including forex rates, auto loans, mortgages, home equity loans, personal loans, savings accounts, fixed deposits/Certificates of Deposit, and repurchase agreements or repos.
Search results display all institutions offering the specific product, associated interest rates, estimated bank fees, the estimated monthly loan payment or estimated interest to be earned.
No charges are currently attached to the service, neither for the users of the site, nor the institutions whose information is featured.
Williams says RateBee's income comes from Google AdSense - a third party advertising entity which posts ads automatically on the site depending on the level of traffic and other agreed criteria.
"As the traffic grows so does income. Right now we are doing just under 2,000 hits monthly. We are targeting 6,000," Williams told Sunday Business.
Williams who owns 80 per cent of the venture - the other 20 per cent is held by three unnamed partners - says RateBee expects to cover its costs and start reaping profit from the site after a year.
She is currently the sole employee, with IT services outsourced.
"Business partners assist with word-of-mouth marketing. Since the business is purely web based there is no need for significant holdings of fixed assets. IT needs are currently outsourced and other than our proprietary database the business operates on open source software. This helps to keep our operating costs low," she said.
Williams will soon be inviting freelance guest bloggers with a background in finance who are seeking a way to gain experience in investment banking, journalism, and financial analysis.
"Our primary aim is to provide information to the Jamaican banking and investing public including the diaspora. We believe that this kind of service will contribute significantly to the efficient growth and development of the local financial markets as well as help to lower the cost of financial products to consumers," she told Sunday Business.
The analyst notes that, financial institutions, "contrary to their public assertions tend to force consumers to indulge in products they often don't understand or need - usually to benefit the institutions profitability and at the expense of the consumers' financial stability.
There is insufficient effort on the part of local financial institutions to offer genuine financial advice to their patrons or to truly assess holistic financial the needs of the customer before selling them a product, she says.
"RateBee exists to help consumers to improve their financial intelligence in order to make better and more informed financial decisions. We want to help consumers to protect their interest and to use the knowledge they gain to build their wealth over the long term. We want to put the power of banking into the hands of the consumer and we want them to know they have it," said Williams.
Most of the site's visitors are from Jamaica, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
According to Williams, her target market includes all banking Jamaicans with regular Internet access.
"More specifically, our target market would be professionals between the ages of 25 to 50. We estimate our target market to be between 350,000 and two million including Jamaicans in the diaspora," she said.
Traffic to the site is likely to grow exponentially given current restrictions on disposable income and market conditions, she rationalised.
"Given the current economic recession, volatile FX rates and reduced interest rates, and the recent price wars among financial institutions is good for a business like RateBee since consumers will tend to be more cautious before taking out a loan or making long-term investments," Williams said.
"In this environment consumers will be keen to shop for a bargain before getting a loan."
New projects for 2013 include the possible addition of new searches for credit card rates and fees and more investment products, including equities, unit trusts, and bonds.
"We are on track to expand our search engine to include credit cards as well as to expand our blogs," she said.
"We also want to become a richer source of information for financial and investment advice as well as a resource for researching local and regional investment products."
RateBee, through its blogs, also plans to offer financial product and company reviews "because we know that the decision to purchase financial product is not and should be only dependent on price, other factors such as customer service, product terms and conditions and longevity of the company are also important," the analyst said.
The more immediate and biggest challenge has been trying to market the product on a limited budget.
"We have to be very creative with our budget, and ensure that every dollar we spend results in a visit to our site. Our ability to sell ads is directly related to the quality of our site content and traffic - in other words, the better the products and services we offer to the consumer, the more opportunity we have to sell advertising spaces," Williams said.