A Very Large Ambition

Founding
With Airwallex I found something that I’m really passionate about and enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis. I get a lot of satisfaction from creating a business that can scale very quickly around the world. Every day we’re building something bigger, seeing new things, and solving larger issues. The motivation for the founders is not money. From day one we were always thinking about what we can achieve, rather than how much money we can make. People want different things in their life. I’m motivated a lot more by a sense of achievement in what I’m creating. The changes and the impact I’m seeing this business have on the world present a unique opportunity – not many people get to do what we are doing, and I find that very exciting.

A lot of what we’re doing now, I didn’t know how to do when we started. In a startup company the founder’s ability to adapt to changes and take on new learnings is key.

Building a global business is quite tricky, so I’m lucky that I’ve previously worked in multiple jurisdictions – London, Hong Kong, China and Australia. I was born in China and have spent the last eighteen years in the Western world. I understand both, but it’s still a learning process. A lot of what we’re doing now, I didn’t know how to do when we started. In a startup company the founder’s ability to adapt to changes and take on new learnings is key. Founders need to keep growing as the company grows and bring in external expertise and appoint strong senior management to help when it’s growing fast. That’s something many founders fail to do and that’s one of the key reasons a lot of startups fail or stay in their original shape. They don’t grow exponentially; they remain as regional or local businesses.

The first big hurdle for global growth is funding, but once you get the initial funding it’s actually a very small part of a startup’s success. It really comes down to the team and execution and how we can make it happen. When we’re building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), we test how viable it really is and whether we can actually push it out to the market. At Airwallex it took about twelve months to find our product/market fit, which is normally the most difficult thing for a startup. For us that doesn’t just mean fitting into a small vertical, it means a product that maps into a huge market that we can scale globally. I guess we got quite lucky to find that within a relatively short period of time. Once we’d demonstrated to our investors that we had a solid team, a great idea, a great product, and that we were ready to grow we sought more funding to scale the business in multiple new markets.

Problems and Solutions
Traditionally there have been a lot of issues with cross border payments – if you’re sending money from one country to another, there are multiple intermediary banks taking charges and reducing efficiency. The process is slow, expensive and lacks transparency. We’re trying to take the intermediary, correspondent banks out of the process and integrate directly into the local payment schemes using a set of API’s that we’ve developed. We guarantee the delivery speed and the amount to be delivered and have built our product with a dedication to transparency at its core. When you transfer money overseas, you want to transfer it at a high speed and a low-cost. If you’re sending $1,000, you want $1,000 to be delivered, that’s the overall idea of Airwallex.

…we’re not just doing this in one country, we’re doing this in every single country that our customers want to send money to, over 100 countries worldwide.

We started with something small by providing a simple FX service. Now that we’ve dug into it more and we have a better understanding of the problems faced in our industry, we’ve moved on to building a global payment network that can facilitate cross border transactions regardless of payment type, whether it’s peer-to-peer, business-to-consumer or business-to-business. We’ve continued to build an API layer to bring online many of the traditional offline payment and banking products, allowing consumers to access the network from anywhere.

The jurisdictions that we work in have very complicated markets. Many of the countries in Asia Pacific are capital controlled and in the past have been very tricky markets to tackle. To give you some perspective, unlike Australia where all the banks are in the same domestic payment network, there are more than 130 banks in Indonesia that belong to four different networks. If you want to terminate payments in all 130 banks you have to connect to all four switches. They’re like clubs where every club has 30-40 banks and you have to join each of the clubs, figure out how the FX works, negotiate the exchange rate with a local partner, create transparency and then package a great service for your clients. This is just one example of a complicated market to navigate. But we’re not just doing this in one country, we’re doing this in every single country that our customers want to send money to, over 100 countries worldwide. We’ve built a team that understands the regulations and local requirements and have been able to navigate those markets very quickly.

How We Work
I find it useful to spend time at the frontline myself. I engage all our large clients personally and understand what their problems are and how we can help them, not just now but in the future. This helps give me a sense of how well we can service them and also highlights any gaps in our offering. If there are gaps, we take that information back to the product managers and make sure that we fill them fast. When we find a gap we’re very concentrated as a company, but we also recognise that we can’t do everything all at once. We aim to solve the common issues and do this really well and then we keep going. This requires a great product team that understands our priorities very precisely. Being in the field gives me the assurance that what we think are the priorities, really are the priorities.

When solving problems we treat our people as adults and give them trust and confidence that they can do the job well. In the early days people were afraid of making mistakes, which we identified as a problem. Now we have an environment where our people are empowered to challenge norms and find innovative solutions, and where we can all learn and improve from our mistakes.

I spend much of my time thinking about what’s beyond 2018, what we’re going to do in 2019 and 2020 and planning for that from multiple perspectives: fundraising, hiring, product development. Recruitment is a big part of it. I think about what type of people we need to bring on board to build a healthy company culture, the skills required and where they will be located.

Ambition
Our ambition is very large. We’re re-imagining the global payments industry and building a worldwide digital payment network and as we’re doing it, the world of foreign exchange is evolving; moving away from being just bank account to bank account. Airwallex is tasked with connecting all the digital endpoints around the world, enabling bank accounts, digital wallets, virtual accounts, cards, and tokens to operate and interact seamlessly with one another. In our opinion, this is the network the world needs, and we are dedicated to delivering it. Rebuilding and reinvigorating the global payment network to facilitate all those transactions – that’s a very large ambition.

At the beginning of the business we were trying to solve a specific problem for a specific industry, but at the stage we are now, we can’t do that anymore.

Our ambition has grown as we’ve started to solve larger issues, kept communicating with each other across the company and kept exploring within our industry to give ourselves a growing perception about how the world works and what can be done. At the beginning of the business we were trying to solve a specific problem for a specific industry, but at the stage we are now, we can’t do that anymore. We need to look at different verticals, identify common issues and try to scale that vertical really, really fast. To do that requires a problem-solving skill set and an exploration mindset, but equally as important, it requires persistence, dedication and overcoming the fear of failure.

We’re at a stage as a company where we’re facing multiple paths where people might suggest one path or another to get us short term profit. I have had to reject all those things and restate the vision that will elevate Airwallex as a leader in this market and allow us to continue to overcome the challenges posed by traditional FX processes. We have to really believe in that. There are some that challenge our mission or don’t believe we can achieve what we are setting out to achieve, but I have complete confidence that we can. I don’t have any doubts about it.

Jack Zhang is the co-founder and CEO of Airwallex