[ASK TBM] What Should You Know About Importing?

Enzo Marfal, co-founder and CEO of freight forwarding company Angkat PH, shares his insights and experiences on starting an importation business.

Starting an importation business can be a daunting and complicated experience. The Business Manual asked Enzo Marfal, co-founder and CEO of Angkat PH, for insights on how to do it right.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the total imported goods recorded for April 2024 amounted to $10.98 billion (approximately PHP 643.13 billion), an increase of 12.6% import value year over year. The importing of goods can be a very lucrative business. However, some find importation to be an intimidating business, especially because of the logistics, finance, and politics involved.  

To get a better understanding of how to start an importation business and what entrepreneurs should know about it, The Business Manual spoke to Enzo Marfal, the co-founder and CEO of freight forwarding business Angkat PH

How did you go about starting Angkat PH?

Very interesting story! I actually first started importing back in 2016. Having decided that the corporate world was not for me, I initially started a small business built around iPhone cases! Through this, I had my fair share of ups and downs, but more importantly this was my first entry point into the world of customs and importing. 

Some would call this a “tuition fee” [for] coming into entrepreneurship without prior experience. This really opened my eyes to the plight of importers and entrepreneurs like myself who wanted to start a business through importing. Fast forward to 2018, I was deep in the logistics world with a new start-up I started with my friends – doing intra-island mass production logistics. This was what made me fall in love with logistics.

All was well and good… until the pandemic hit. Everything stopped and I had to shut down all my businesses. This was a purging for me and a complete reset. All the businesses I built and all I had saved dwindled to zero. I had to resort to selling the pandemic necessities. All came crashing to the ground, but one thing remained, I was still in love with logistics.  

I still had friends who were importing through me. The Lord planted a seed in my heart and luckily, fortunately, with the pandemic, e-commerce prospered. So I reached out to one of my college best friends back then, who also happened to be my customer at the time. I [told him] let’s start an importing business, and the rest is history. I took up my masters in Logistics and Supply Chain to really learn more about logistics and here we are now, four years later, I’m still in love with logistics and process improvement!

Why did you choose to focus on importing? What gap in the market were you able to spot that you want to fill with your business?

We really wanted to help and empower everyday people, budding entrepreneurs and small businesses. We understood the value of bringing value to the individual that would not only propel them forward but also uplift their communities, similarly to how it elevated my livelihood, my employees’ livelihoods and their families’, thereby causing a ripple effect that knows no limits. I feel honored to be able to do this for myself and the community at large.

With the pandemic came also the boom of e-commerce back in 2020. We saw a huge opportunity — many people wanted to sell online, but didn’t know where to get their supplies to be able to sell and take advantage of this booming market. Many turned to Alibaba and utilized their easy-to-use platform. Our importing experience was primed and so was the market. Demand was growing and the need to have suppliers created a tremendous opportunity.

What misconceptions about starting and running an importation business do you want to clarify? 

That it’s hard and complicated! Well actually, it is, but it is also rewarding. I always tell my team that we are in the business of serving and helping people. That what we’re doing is not just for us but for every customer and generations of families that we are able to uplift and help with our business. People think that Logistics and Importing is about processes, documentations, and KPIs [key performance indicators]. 

Well, yes it is; you have to have very concrete processes and systems in [place] as well as a solid risk management plan in place. The hardest part for us was really tailor-fitting our services to a wide variety of clients and making it easy for our customers to digest and understand how we can be an asset to their business’ success. Knowledge gaps and presumptions about importing were actually our biggest hurdle. We strived to make our client base understand that there is a global market that is readily available, and with our help, we can make it uncomplicated and easy for them.

How did you go about establishing relationships with clients/suppliers? What important lessons have you learned from your experience?

In our field, we are small fish in a big pond competing with big, large-scale corporate competitors. It’s so easy to be drowned out by the competition. We were battling with wider offerings, lower prices, and even better value-added services.

One thing that I always mention in my town hall meetings: business is relational, not transactional. It’s so critical to build relationships with your customers, you cannot be a robot. You have to invest in them for them to also invest in you. So we make sure we also take extra steps. We assign you a dedicated account manager that also serves as your logistics person as well as a sourcing person. We are happy to invest in our customers. We believe that when they grow and scale, we also grow and scale.

Importing products into the country entails dealing with government agencies. For aspiring entrepreneurs who want to enter the same business, what concrete tips and advice can you give in terms of dealing with the government?  

Do it right! I cannot stress this enough. Do it right the first time so you won’t have to deal with it another time. Always be diligent — from filing your business registration with BIR to tax filings. Include the taxes as costs that you have to incur as part of your OPEX [operating expenses].  

Add in tax planning and budgeting as part of your regular business review. It is harder and some say it is more difficult but it is really the only way to accomplish this seamlessly. You will have a hard time growing and scaling if you have skeletons in your closet. Don’t take the easy shortcuts, do your part and do it right.

What business opportunities are available currently in the importing industry that you think aspiring entrepreneurs should capitalize on? 

I get really excited whenever I’m asked this question. The opportunities are endless! My friends and clients began their entrepreneurship journey [and] eventually grew into large-scale businesses. They created and labeled their own brands, even contractors. From trading, supplying and even contracting because of Angkat! 

My clients would offer to seek out certain products not readily available here and then source [them] outside of the country to be sold to individuals or to companies locally. If there’s a product you want to make or brand as your own, it’s just at the tip of your fingertips with the power of the Internet. 

The e-commerce and online selling infrastructure are already laid out and the market is very receptive. It’s all about connecting the dots, discovering a need that is not met, and carving your niche in the market. An accommodating global market, [a] receptive consumer base, and a reliable shipping partner becomes fruit waiting to be picked by anybody who wants to get it.

What other concrete tips and advice can you give aspiring entrepreneurs who are keen to dip their toes into the importation business? 

Always plan. Plan for when it goes right and plan for when it goes wrong. Having a risk management plan in place and some leeway whenever things don’t go right prepares you for when things don’t go according to plan. You have to be flexible and ready to pivot as needed. It will save you a lot of stress in the long run. 

In the world of logistics, there are a lot of factors that affect transit time – from manufacturing timelines, customs clearance and even last mile deliveries. You have to consider the whole entire supply chain when you start importing. Plan for the inevitable, plan for failure, and plan for success. Understand the meaning of minimum order quantities, incoterms, minimum stock level, stock reorder points, and the whole glossary of terms in logistics. It will make your whole life so much easier.

Lastly, if there’s any advice I would like to impart, don’t just do it for the money or for yourself. Do it for something bigger. Don’t just label a product and start a business. Identify an unmet need in the market [and] then create a solution. We are merely stewards of this world. Aim to create value. Create culture. Create change.

Enzo Marfal is the co-founder and CEO of freight forwarding business Angkat PH. He began importing back in 2016, having established a small business involving iPhone cases. Since then, he went on to dive deeper into the logistics industry.

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