We recently interviewed a TransferWise representative. But we wouldn’t call it a regular interview. It was a real acquaintance full of discoveries with one of the coolest companies in Europe.
So right now you will find out a lot about how to create a great project, how to attract investments from Richard Branson and how to get a first customer just 15 minutes after launching the platform. Let’s get started!
We spoke to Balazs Barna, Head of Tech at TransferWise, Europe.
Tell us, please, what is TransferWise?
TransferWise is a global technology company that’s building the best way to move money around the world. Whether you’re sending money to another country, spending money abroad, or making and receiving international business payments, TransferWise is on a mission to make your life easier and save you money.
More than 5 million people and businesses have stopped using banks, PayPal and traditional providers because
TransferWise is cheaper, faster, easier and completely transparent.
Big corporates and banks use the TransferWise technology too.
It’s an entirely new cross-border payment network that will one-day power money without borders for everyone, everywhere.
What do I need to do, being in Ukraine, to start using your service?
To start using TransferWise, go to www.transferwise.com and click on Sign up. Once your account is set up, you can start using our services, get local bank details in minutes, and spend, send and receive money internationally. We’re constantly working on improving our service for our customers, including in Ukraine. We recently made transfers to Ukraine instant! You can read all about it here.
How is your project monetized?
When transferring money, customers pay a small conversion fee, usually a percentage of the amount plus a small fixed fee. TransferWise always uses the real mid-market exchange rate – the one you see on Google or Reuters – and shows its fees upfront. With low transparent fees, TransferWise is up to 8 times cheaper than banks and other service providers.
How and when did you make up your mind to create such a project?
TransferWise started when our founders, Taavet and Kristo, realised how much money it cost to transfer money between the UK and Estonia.
- Taavet was based in London but paid in euros;
- Kristo worked in London but paid a mortgage in Estonia in euros.
They each needed what the other had so they figured out a fair way to exchange money between themselves, using the mid-market rate – without the mark-up rate and fees charged by the bank. They saved thousands of pounds and realised there were millions of people across the world who could do the same.
This is how TransferWise was born, and today, over 5 million people use our services.
What is your professional background, and how did your knowledge and experience come in handy in this project?
I am responsible for building the tech behind our product. Before I joined the company, I was an engineer at a big corporate. You learn the ropes, but you get very little responsibility. At TransferWise, I was amazed by the amount of autonomy you get and the responsibility that comes with it.
If you see something that could be improved, you’re encouraged to make it better, take initiative and make sure that our customers benefit from that change. It’s incredibly empowering.
How did you start? What experts were involved in the project at the beginning?
TransferWise was launched in 2011 and in addition to the founders, Taavet and Kristo, the initial team was only a few people. The early team mainly consisted of engineers, operations specialists and analysts.
But since TransferWise has always put its customers at the heart of every decision, customer support was crucial from day one.
From the beginning, we created a product people liked using so much that they told their friends about it. Even today, word of mouth still accounts for 80% of our user growth. We’ve been growing at speed over the past few years: we have over 1,600 people in 12 global offices, who help us process over £4 billion every month, saving customers over £1 billion in bank fees every year.
What about startup financing? Where did you get investments? What were the difficulties you faced while getting the money? Tell us about this procedure.
After an initial small capital injection, TransferWise announced in 2012 a seed investment round of $1.3 million by investors such as IA Ventures, Index and Max Levchin of PayPal. TransferWise created a product that solved a real customer problem. Transferring money abroad was expensive and inconvenient. Investors believed in our mission to make finance fairer and bring transparency to a famously opaque sector.
How did you manage to attract investments from Richard Branson?
Sir Richard Branson explains why he invested in us here. Have a read!
How did you get your first customers?
TransferWise got its first customer just 15 minutes after launching the platform with a TechCrunch blog post.
By the end of the day, dozens of people had been using the service. Since we started, word of mouth has been the main driver of our growth – people using TransferWise love the service and recommend it to their friends and family.
What was the biggest obstacle on your way and how did you overcome it?
The main challenge is overcoming the apathy most of us have when it comes to changing our own behaviour. Many people aren’t satisfied with their bank’s service but either don’t know where else to look or think it will be too much hassle to change providers. It gets even harder when banks hide the bulk of the cost from their customers, so most people are completely unaware that they are getting a bad deal. We are trying to change that.
What were your greatest successes, and what did they depend on?
We’re solving a real problem – our customers are spending billions in hidden fees and we have made it our mission to put a halt to that. We tell our users exactly what it costs and how long it will take to send money from one country to another (in many cases, that’s instant!). The result is a product that people like so much that they’re willing to invite their friends to use it.
The thing we are most proud of is the fact that we save our customers £1 billion in bank fees every year.
But the real key to success for TransferWise is the people we hire.
We look for the brightest and best and empower them to make their own decisions as part of an autonomous team.
They are closest to our customers, so they decide what problems to solve first. The solutions our teams are working on impact millions of people every day. We’re collectively pioneering new ways of moving money around the world and that’s a big responsibility, but autonomous teams help us to scale and work towards our mission.
It would be interesting for our readers to find out about how technical founders succeed in the non-technical aspects of startups: accounting, marketing, sales, finance. How do you manage these points?
We hire incredibly smart people and give them the tools to tackle the problems that will help our customers the most. These teams operate as startups within a startup and we empower them to contribute to our mission (making money move around the world, cheaply, quickly, conveniently and transparently) in a positive way.
I know that your company doubled in size last year. Do you create a company strategy? Who are involved in this process?
Everyone in the company is driven by our mission and is constantly striving to achieve that and challenge the status quo. As we’re expanding, we have dedicated teams who look after every aspect of our growth, making sure we scale sustainably.
Why do you think so many startups fail?
You need to solve a real customer problem and offer a new service or a product that is ten times better. When you’re solving a real problem, it’s easy to define a KPI to track the progress of solving that problem. And you need to understand your customers.
At TransferWise, we are true believers in listening to our customers. Our borderless account is a great example of that. We started off with a money transfer service, but our customers were telling us that they wanted to receive money as well as send it. So we created the borderless account, so people can now receive money in over 45 currencies, have their own local bank details and manage their money across borders in a straightforward way.
How has the Fintech industry changed in the last decade and where is it headed?
The fintech industry has changed a lot in the last decade. Today, almost all financial services are available online and on apps. There are more challenger banks that offer convenient financial solutions. More traditional banks understand where the financial industry is going and are making sure to keep up with the trend.
TransferWise has partnered up with several banks, like Monzo in the UK, N26 in Germany, bunq in the Netherlands and LHV in Estonia, offering these banks’ clients convenient international transfers with low upfront fees.
TransferWise will soon launch a similar partnership with the second-largest banking group in France, BPCE, opening its services to BPCE’s 15 million retail customers.
We’re happy to see that the financial world is taking a step to more transparency, that will lead to better overall experience for consumers. That is completely in line with our mission to set a new, transparent global standard for the industry.
How the UK government support technology startups? What more they can – or should – to do in this direction?
The UK has taken an open minded and innovative approach to (fin)tech. For example, last year TransferWise became the first non-bank to directly integrate into the UK’s payment infrastructure after a change in policy by the Bank of England. That is a great step towards levelling the playing field and will ultimately benefit startups everywhere. We’d love to see this type of approach replicated everywhere.
There is a popular question nowadays connected to mental health crisis in entrepreneurship. Does it familiar to you? How do you tackle it?
At TransferWise, our employees’ wellbeing is very important to us. In addition to office perks like free breakfast, team lunches, massage chairs, saunas and on-site gyms, people also have the freedom of working remotely and can relocate between our global offices. After 4 years at TransferWise, employees get a 6-week paid sabbatical to take a break and reflect on what they want to do next. Once a year, the whole TransferWise team gets together to spend time having fun and doing team activities, so we can continue to work towards our mission together.
What is the most valuable business advice you’ve ever received?
Our CEO, Kristo, once said that the best business advice anyone has ever given him is that
Nothing amazing ever happens in your comfort zone.
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