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From start-up to billion-dollar business in 4 years

From start-up to billion-dollar business in 4 years

Jack Zhang, Airwallex CEO and co-founder

An Australian-founded fintech start-up has successfully completed a US$100 million capital raising, valuing the four-year-old business at more than US$1 billion.

Airwallex was founded in Melbourne in 2015, with the aim of providing businesses with an end-to-end solution for transferring funds between countries, including opening international bank accounts.

This latest C series fundraising takes the total amount of funds raised by the business over the last four years to just over US$200 million.

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The funds will be used to expand further into the US as well as the UK, Europe and South-East Asia and for ongoing product development, including for SMEs.

“We started Airwallex because we knew there was a better way to make global payments,” said Jack Zhang, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

“Airwallex is proud to free businesses from many of the traditional barriers that have made international transactions so difficult. Our mission is to build a worldwide, technology-driven financial infrastructure that will help our customers — including marketplaces, online sellers and SMEs — grow their businesses globally.”

Airwallex already has the likes of Mastercard and other global internet brands among its customer base. The company now has offices in eight countries and employs more than 260 people worldwide.

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‘In the world of start-ups, each year is like a dog year’

Opening up on his company’s meteoric rise, and the risks associated with rapid growth, Mr Zhang told My Business that Airwallex’s success has been a determined focus on the core problem they were trying to address, but doing so in a very customer-driven way rather than using preconceived ideas.

“When Max (one of the co-founders) and I sat down in his coffee shop back in 2015, our goal was to find a faster and cheaper way for him to pay his suppliers overseas,” he said.

“Every order placed with an overseas supplier was eating into the business profits. The cost to send money overseas using traditional methods was both expensive and inefficient — money took way too long to get there. We knew there had to be a more efficient, cost-effective way.”

Mr Zhang admitted that it’s never easy to launch a new business, stating that “in the world of start-ups, each year is like a dog year”.

“The pace is so fast, you need to ensure you are hiring not only top talent but the right people,” he said.

“We learnt early on that feedback from our customers was instrumental in our product roadmap. Rather than build and test, we listened to what our customers had to say and then built what they needed.”

Ensuring rapid growth is sustainable

When asked about the steps Airwallex has taken to try and ensure its rapid growth has been sustainable, Mr Zhang pointed to three key elements: recruitment, product and risk.

“For one, hiring the right people from the get-go [has been crucial],” he said.

“We learnt along the way that it takes a certain type of skill set to survive the fast pace of a start-up. Once you have the right people onboard, you need to create a workplace culture that supports innovation and allows your employees to grow.

“Airwallex has grown substantially, from five people (the co-founders) in 2015 to over 260 people across eight offices worldwide in just three years. Making the right hires has been fundamental in our growth success story, and we look forward to taking our learnings to grow even more in 2019. Our hope is to grow the Australian office by 50–100 per cent this year.”

On the point of product, he suggested that having a point of difference, and that this point of difference is of value to customers, is crucial to commercial success.

“Strong marketplace demand has been the key driver of product development,” Mr Zhang said.

“Whilst there are companies in the market that sell similar products, none of them offer an end-to-end solution like we do. We provide greater transparency into the whole global payments and collection value chain, which offers our customers the dual benefit of making savings along the way and growing their businesses without the traditional barriers.”

Mr Zhang also cautioned business leaders from being overly risk-averse.

“Don’t be afraid to take risks. You may not always get it right the first time, but at least you tried,” he said.

“Learn from those mistakes and keep going.”

Advice on raising capital

Having raised more than $200 million in capital across half a dozen fundraisings, Mr Zhang has more experience than most in going to market seeking funds for business growth. And he has these words of advice for other entrepreneurs and business owners seeking to raise money:

“It’s not about how much capital you raise. The funding gives up the opportunity to continue to invest in the vision, the product and the ability to hire the best talent,” he said.

“We want our products to support the growth of small- to medium-sized businesses on a global scale.

“If you can demonstrate you are not another ‘me too’ product, and that you are servicing an unmet need in the market, then you are well on your way to delivering value back to the investor.”

He continued: “Seeking out the right investor can also play a significant role in your success. Securing high-profile investors, with a list of success stories of their own, can assist in building your own brand before you even have a product in [the] market.

“That’s why we’re so thrilled to have DST Global as the primary investor in our latest fundraising round. They have invested in the world’s brightest and best companies, including Facebook, Stripe and Robinhood. It means a lot to Airwallex to sit alongside such esteemed company in DST Global’s portfolio.”

Australian innovation capturing attention worldwide

Despite recent surveys suggesting that Australia has a problem with translating innovative ideas into action, and may be falling behind on the world stage, Mr Zhang suggested that Australian innovation is charging ahead in leaps and bounds.

“Australia is such a multicultural, dynamic and young country that this statement doesn’t ring true,” he said.

“Airwallex founders may not be born in Australia, but we all chose to come to Australia to study and ultimately this is where we set up our business.

“We have two innovation hubs, Melbourne and Shanghai; each hub contributes in different ways to our product innovation. Our Melbourne team is headed up by a Brit and the broader team boasts more than six different nationalities.”

Mr Zhang also said that the Australian government “supports innovation in many ways, including investments in small business and technology”.

“Alongside this, Australia’s education offer[ing] and quality of universities is world-class. Atlassian (also founded by two college friends) and Canva, the only other two unicorns [start-ups valued at more than $1 billion] in Australia, are examples of how innovation in this country continues to grow.

“Four years ago, there weren’t any unicorns in Australia; now we have three. I have no doubt that, by the end of this year, we will see a couple more added to that list.”

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From start-up to billion-dollar business in 4 years
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