Co-founder of Rooser, Joel Watt CA, on the companies' aim to eliminate waste from the international fishing industry
Fed up with the waste in an industry where one fish out of three is discarded uneaten, Joel Watt CA founded a tech platform where buyers and sellers could find each other more easily. He tells Ryan Herman how he conquered his fears to overhaul the trade and build a business with no ego
A fish bought in a supermarket can take up to two weeks to get from catch to shopping basket. A journey in which it has changed hands around seven times. If that surprises you, then consider that for every two fish that make it to a dinner plate, another one never reaches the end of the supply chain, but is simply thrown away because the sellers are unable to find a buyer in time.
“Every part of the food chain is in a mess. Meat, fish vegetables…” says Joel Watt CA, co-founder of Rooser, an online platform designed to tackle that extraordinary degree of waste in the fishing industry. “The world’s population is growing and there’s more demand for protein. But it’s not about producing more, we just need to find ways to reduce all this waste. And I’m focusing on fish because that’s what I know.”
Indeed, Rooser was born out of Watt’s first-hand experience of the dysfunctional way in which the fishing industry works. In 2011, having gained his CA qualification and taken a year off to go travelling – albeit including two stints working for PwC in Australia – he returned home to Fraserburgh with the aim of starting a fish factory, called Jack Taylor, with his cousin.
“I remember my first time going to the markets and buying three boxes of ling,” he says. “I was physically shaking because I had this natural shyness that I’d fought against since I was a child. The first time I do anything new, I’m petrified. But you can’t beat that sort of experience, and it taught me how to work with people. We had no board of directors so we experimented. We made a lot of mistakes, but we learnt the industry inside out. I worked 16 hours a day and slept on the roof of the factory. I was filleting fish, then selling it on the phone, while Mark [Stephen, his partner] was going to the markets. But we scaled the business up to over 50 people and £10m in turnover.”
Watt adds: “This business is all about survival. You’re trading a commodity that’s got no central price point and is perishable. There are two options when it comes to trading fish – you can sell what you haven’t yet bought or buy what you haven’t yet sold [to somebody else].
“We’d end up buying stuff we hadn’t sold, then try to sell it to another buyer as quickly as we could. There were 40,000 potential customers in Europe; we only had the resource to deal with 40–60. All the while the value of your fish is decreasing.
“We lived this every day. But the way I view life is everything is paradoxical. It was a nightmare, but also a great challenge. Eventually, I thought there must be a tech solution out there to make this process more efficient, to connect more businesses within that supply chain. I realised maybe this is what I should focus on, where I can add value – and that it should be available to everyone.”
Watt drew inspiration from his time at PwC. “They had invested in custom software,” he says. “So my default was that I also need custom software to run my business better.” He hired Thomas Quiroga, a developer who could help turn Watt’s idea into a reality. Using the platform Quiroga (now the company’s Chief Technology Officer) built, Rooser was formed in 2019, becoming the first large-scale seafood marketplace that enables businesses to sell their fish faster, not only to existing customers, but also by connecting those businesses to a far wider pool of potential buyers.
“By the time we built the platform, and people could see it in operation in our factory, other factories started saying, ‘That looks quite cool, can I use it?’ And that’s always a great sign,” he says.
According to Watt, the platform will eventually bring together 140,000 businesses across Europe, which previously had no central way of communicating with each other, to trade 35,000 different products – 250 varieties of fish, in all their different shapes and sizes. This should see fish travel much faster through that supply chain, significantly reducing waste. As a result, the idea of “fresh fish” that is actually two weeks old will, hopefully, become a thing of the past.
Rooser makes its money by taking a 3% commission on all transactions. Its ultimate ambition is to become a global platform. The company is the product of everything Watt had learned about the fishing industry, coupled with the knowledge he gained earning his CA with ICAS and as an employee with PwC.
“I enjoyed every minute with ICAS, even the exams!” he laughs. “One thing that still stands out for me was the lecturers. They were teaching difficult stuff, but there was this great level of interaction. One of the guys used to be at RBS, and he would tell us stories about when it collapsed. To me, that was a fantastic learning environment.
“I was very fortunate and ended up joining PwC, which was one of the biggest breaks I’ve had in life. The investment they put into you is ridiculous – I never appreciated that until some years later. Between the practical side, the real-world experience and those exams, which are pretty tough, they raise your level of knowledge. Whether it’s finance, tax or financial reporting, you get this underlying understanding of how the mechanics of a business work.”
Once the first version of Rooser’s platform had been built, Watt brought in Nicolas Desormeaux as the Chief Commercial Officer and co-founder. Desormeaux had previously worked for E.Leclerc and Metro supermarkets in Europe, which immediately gave the business more clout and credibility. “Then we went out to raise some money,” Watt recalls. “The first round of funding is a nightmare. At first, you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, but you quickly learn the mechanics.”
It helped that one of Rooser’s first backers was a particularly well-known ICAS alumnus, John Thomson CA, CEO of DC Thomson, publishers of the Beano among others. “The first thing we talked about was being a CA! And I’d grown up reading the Beano, so that was pretty cool,” he says.
In April 2022, another round of funding secured $23m (£20.5m) investment and attracted a lot of column inches, with analysts marking out Rooser as a company to watch, in part because of the talent it attracts.
As Watt explains: “We’re a software business, so we have very little infrastructure, we don’t even buy office space. We have a bunch of laptops and a bunch of people. So, instead, we focus on attracting the best talent that’s available. One of the reasons we get very good people to come and work with us is because, while every business says ‘we’re doing good for the environment’, with Rooser the results are tangible. We can see where the waste is, we can see the improvement that we’re having. And people want to have that sort of impact with their career.”
The need for heavy operational and commercial hitters led Watt to recruit veterans of tech successes such as GoCardless, eToro and Stitch Fix, including co-CEO Erez Mathan (“Erez was a part of building two unicorns – that’s one hell of a CV!”). “Also, everyone’s a shareholder [at Rooser],” Watt adds. “And that’s really important because it means their efforts translate into something.”
This being the fishing industry, and Rooser being a European trading platform, surely Brexit must come into the equation somewhere? “We’ve supported a number of smaller businesses, who would have lost their ability to export,” he explains. “And we do that in both directions, for the people in the UK struggling to get goods out and people in Europe struggling to get goods in. We made some adjustments to our software, so they could enter the goods, and then all that paperwork gets created automatically.”
Even with all the investment pouring in and the positive press about Rooser, Watt comes across as grounded. “We need to be hyper-focused as a business,” he concludes. “It’s really easy to try and chase everything, but I think what defines a good company is one that’s very focused and target-orientated. But you also need to be open to learning. One of the rules we have in the business is no egos. We want smart people who know a lot, but they’re willing to say hey, ‘I don’t know everything.’”
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