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Raphael Chow: Making VAT Refunds Easier, One Receipt At A Time

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Thanks for talking to us. Can we start by asking about who Wevat are, and what you guys provide? 

Wevat is a fintech start-up that helps travellers get a tax refund on shopping more easily with an app.

What does Wevat offer over a regular in-store VAT refund provider? 

Wevat makes what used to be a complicated and error-prone process something simple and easy to complete. 

Using our app, customers no longer need to request a tax refund form at the shop; they simply need to upload their purchase invoices to the app. This means that as long as there’s an invoice, Wevat can get you a refund from any shop – from high-end luxury stores in Paris to the quaintest boutique in Nice.

Our fees are amongst the lowest in the industry. We only take a 20% fee on the VAT, as opposed to the 30% or 40% commonly found using traditional, in-store providers. 

Also, there is normally a minimum spend of €100 per transaction, but Wevat’s aggregation technology reduces this to €100 in total per trip, meaning customers can even claim VAT back on less expensive trinkets and souvenirs that are usually below the spend threshold. 

Finally, we offer many different types of refund methods – including digital wallets – and pay out at market exchange rates to save customers the sting of punchy FX fees. 

Better still, customers can track the progress of their refund in real time using our app.

What’s the story behind Wevat? What was the biggest influence? 

I’m a bit of an accidental entrepreneur actually. 

When I was working as a strategy consultant, friends and family from Hong Kong used to visit me. It was bidding them farewell at the airport that gave me first-hand experience as to how cumbersome the tax refund process was. 

Two hour long queues, very high fees, and often missed refunds due to lost refund forms. The lack of digitisation and the unfair way in which traditional refund companies monopolised this antiquated industry compelled me to leave my job to start Wevat. 

Talk us quickly through the process a customer can use Wevat to get their VAT refunds processed? 

It’s really simple to get a tax refund using our app. 

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Customers upload the invoice they got at the shop, complete an identity check in the app and choose their preferred refund method. 

When they are about to leave the EU, all they need to do is scan the digital refund barcode – generated automatically in the app – at a customs tax refund (‘détaxe’) kiosk. 

The refund may take up to a week, but so far our customers have received their refunds in less than two days – A huge improvement compared to the 6 to 8 weeks for traditional refund companies.

We also understand how complicated the process can be at times, so our super friendly customer support team works round the clock to answer any questions our customers may have.

We saw Wevat successfully lobbied the UK government to become the first B2C tax refund company in the country. Give us a bit of insight into that. 

Soon after starting the company, I realised that the biggest problem with the industry wasn’t just a lack of digitisation, it was the obsolete structures that incentivised refund companies to charge higher fees so that they could give a kickback to retailers. 

Worse still, there was no other way for customers to get a VAT refund other than to use whichever refund company the shop had chosen.

I felt so infuriated and indignant for the customer – something had to be done.

We devised a B2C model to rival the traditional retailer-based model with some of the most experienced tax advisors in the UK. Following that, we worked with a lobbying firm, meeting with MPs and directors at HMRC, which ultimately led to our model being adopted in June 2018, just three and a half months after we began lobbying!

This was huge – it meant customers could now choose whichever refund company they wanted to use and not be locked into high fees anymore.

And you’ve been able to raise over £3.5m for the company?

Yes! Our very first round of funding was led by Seedcamp, investor in Revolut and Wise (formerly Transferwise).

We are also delighted to count some top tier VC funds amongst our investors, including Entrée capital, firstminute Capital and Sweet Capital. 

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To extend the expertise and reach of our company, we also took on experienced angel investors such as Andy Phillipps (CEO and Co-founder of Active Hotels, which eventually became booking.com).

What does someone need to do to be eligible to sign up and start using Wevat?

To be eligible for a VAT refund in France, you need to be a non-EU resident, over the age of 16, and not be a student or intern who has stayed in France for more than 6 months. Aside from this, it’s also important to highlight that tourist VAT refunds apply primarily to shopping – so think of things like clothes, watches, jewellery, electronics and wine. 

It doesn’t work on services that are consumed in the country, like hotel bills or restaurant bills.

What’s the working environment like at Wevat? We imagine there can’t be too many days the same?

Every day is an adventure! 

Currently, a lot of our work is focused on optimising the user experience by distilling customer insights and translating them into meaningful actions that the product and marketing teams can take on.

A lot has changed since the pandemic, since we made the decision to become a fully remote company. 

This has meant we’ve built up really good processes for documentation and having remote fun, such as a bi-weekly “fika”, where the team gets together to do something social– we’ve done everything from play games like Uno and Songlio to sharing special moments or memories with each other. This all fosters a closer, more collegiate working environment that’s based on mutual trust, understanding and appreciation.

The London crew gets together at the office once a week, and, as the pandemic gradually starts getting under control, we’re in the process of re-introducing quarterly gatherings for the entire company and annual retreats again.

How important has having a multilingual team been during Wevat’s lifespan? 

Extremely important. Indeed, multilingualism to me has only been a subset of cultural diversity. 

Being a travel-oriented fintech startup that has served users from over 88 countries, it is of paramount importance that we’re able to understand our users’ needs and communicate to them in way they like, in the language they prefer. 

Being a small team of 10, we have 8 different ethnicities / nationalities, and asking about each others’ cultural traditions alone provides an infinite pool of great lunchtime conversations.

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I might even venture as far as to say that our ability to recruit like-minded people across cultural and language barriers has so far been our biggest secret to success.

What do you think the future holds for VAT refunding?

I think many changes are at play to reshape the industry, especially in Europe.

Macro changes that will increase the market size of the industry continue – such as the rising middle class in China, and also the UK exiting the EU, which adds millions of travelling Britons to the pool of eligible customers every year. However, the pandemic has also driven a lot of offline, bricks-and-mortar retail in Europe to crossborder e-commerce too.

As a startup, we are paying a close eye to all kinds of opportunities, because our believe is that VAT refunds naturally lends itself to many adjacent possibilities.

What would you say has been the biggest success story for Wevat so far? 

In a metrics driven world where we always focus on user or revenue growth as the sole measure of success, I’m tempted to give two examples which depart from the norm. 

There are two success stories, one external and one internal. 

Our biggest external success story has been what we discussed above – effectuating policy change in what seemed to be an antiquated, immutable industry. It was quite amazing that we managed it in such a short period of time, too! 

Our biggest internal success story has been pulling through as one team during the pandemic. It was an exceptionally difficult period for us, the UK government also abolished tax refunds. Yet, our team members lived up to one of the most important Wevat values we’d crafted together – team unity – demonstrating what it really means to “win as one Wevat”. 

That we pulled through as an intact team, with strong financials, and are now operating in France as a fully licensed VAT refund operator, is something I regard as a major miracle, and I couldn’t be more grateful to my team for their loyalty and commitment.

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