As co-founder and general manager of global money transfer start-up Azimo, you might expect Marta Krupinska to talk up her business like – well, like an ambitious young entrepreneur on the make. So when she says ‘Payments are boring, they are ultimately uninteresting. The more we can remove payments from people’s lives the more exciting it becomes’ she certainly takes me by surprise.
It may sound counterproductive but, she adds, she is only echoing what her customers already think: finance people may think finance is fascinating, but for everyone else it is a means to an end. ‘As someone who doesn’t come from a financial background, I can say this. My customers care that their Mum needs money to fix her fridge, not about how they are going to pay for it.’
Having such a straight-talking boss certainly doesn’t seem to be doing Azimo any harm. Set up in 2012 by Krupinska and her two co-founders (Michael Kent and Ricky Knox) , the business allows international money transfers to be made easily, quickly, and most important of all, cheaply, both online and now via a new smartphone app. It’s raised no less than $46m in funding so far, most recently $15m last year. In 2015 it was valued at a reported $100m.
‘There are 250m migrants around the world, and a billion who send money back’ she says. ‘There’s a reason the UN calls it the Hidden Economy.’
Payments via Azimo’s website can be sent to bank accounts, as mobile phone top-ups or even delivered as cash to specified pick-up points. The average fee amounts to around 2.5% of the transaction value, compared to getting on for 10% charged by some traditional offline providers. ‘We have the largest digital-only payout network in the world’ she says. ‘We can reach 5bn in 190 countries – we are quite proud of that’.
It all started as a direct result of 29 yr old Krupinska’s personal frustration with the way that banks treated economic migrants wanting to send money home. ‘I am originally from Poland and my introduction to remittances [as international money transfers are known in the trade] is very much the economic migrant’s story.
‘Aged 18 I went to Dublin and made 3,000 Euros running around serving drinks on trays. I wanted to send it back to my Mum in Poland but the bank wanted to charge me 300 Euros to do it. That was 10 times my Mum’s monthly salary, I wasn’t going to spend that much. So I bought a cheap Ryanair ticket and stuffed my pockets with the cash instead.’
Later on she went to New York and the same thing happened. 'I needed to send money back, so did all my friends. Mexican, Dominican, Cuban, they were all struggling with the same thing.
It niggled away at her until she met her two co-founders Mike Kent and Ricky Knox in London and Azimo was born. ‘We expect our financial services provides to screw us over’ she says.
The other two are financial services experts with ‘huge experience of the nitty-gritty of remittances’ she says. ‘But my background was in social media – I had built the first social media network in Poland, pre-Facebook.’
Wasn’t it a handicap doing a fintech start up and not knowing anything about the money business? Rather the opposite she says. ‘I knew how important social media was and I had an intuitive knowledge of how it feels to be an economic migrant, of what the customer wants.’
Azimo’s first product was an online version of the offline service that the incumbents had been offering for years, only cheaper. ‘We took the form that Western Union had been using for years and we put it online. Just by virtue of doing that we could cut the cost –Western Union is 150 yr old business with half a million branches and 1.5m people around the world.’
Now the business has it eyes firmly on the smartphone revolution and is rolling out the aforementioned app. It has two USPs – firstly that recipients can request money within the app (so all those Mums don’t have to go on FB or Whats App to tell their overseas offspring that the fridge is broken). Secondly, it massively simplifies international transfers by enabling senders to remit money with only a mobile phone number to identify the recipient rather than complicated bank details.
It has been challenging to set up the various partnerships required to make it happen, admits Krupinska. But it is worth it to make her customers lives easier once again. ‘After five years we know that the biggest hassle for people sending money is knowing the recipient’s details – IBAN codes, sort codes, routing numbers. But we all have our friends' mobile numbers.’
Payments is a pretty crowded space these days, but the things that make Azimo different are the ease with which international remittances can now be made and the size and global footprint of its network, she says. ‘Mobile is growing faster than banking networks. In 2016 there 3.6 billion smartphones globally, by 2020 that’s predicted to have risen to over 6 billion, the growth mostly in Asia and Africa.
The app is being rolled out to 800 million customers initially – 16% of the total network – in the Eurozone, the UK, Poland, the US and Canada. Nigeria and the Philippines will follow soon.
‘There are 7 billion people in the world but only 2 billion of them have bank accounts. The people who really need money transfer don’t have bank accounts.’
So why did such a global business with a Polish co-founder choose to set up shop in London? ‘Because in London you have four things we needed – access to a friendly regulator, access to funding, digital skills and access to the single market.’
Of course Brexit has thrown that last point into severe doubt, as the prospects of retaining unfettered access to the single market are receding rapidly. So would she choose London again today? ‘I am worried for new businesses, the next Martas who might not come to London. If this was 2012 and I was starting again, I might decide to stay in New York or go to Asia. I had a plethora of options back then but I chose to make London my home. It’s fairly obvious that I am very disappointed this [Brexit] happened.’
As for Azimo, it’s going to offset the risk of Brexit by setting up a subsidiary in Ireland. ‘It’s a hassle but we are going to set up a subsidiary in Dublin and passport our services out of Ireland.
‘I am not worried for Azimo. The core economics of our business are strong and the opportunity is amazing. You can make money in a business giving people something they need that is five times better than what anyone else can give them.’
So she might think that payments are boring, but she is certainly pretty enthusiastic about the future for Azimo and expects the same energy from her recruits.
‘If someone comes in for a job here and is not excited by that mindblowing opportunity then I am like. "I don’t think you really get it, maybe you should go somewhere else."'