Co-founder of FX juggernaut Airwallex Lucy Liu shares some insights on founding and growing the business, and why LEGO and a coffee machine hold special resonance with her.
• Name: Lucy Liu
• Business name: Airwallex
• Industry: Fintech
• Number of employees: 260+ globally
• Operating since: 2015
What was your first paid job?
My first full-time job after university was working as an investment consultant for China International Capital Corporation (CICC), helping clients and corporates to structure their portfolios and investments. I’ve almost always worked in finance.
What made you get into your current business?
I took a career break around 2015 and went travelling with my husband around Europe. Every time we entered a new country and had to change to a new currency, we felt we were getting ripped off by the exchange rate.
At the same time, my two friends from university, Jack Zhang and Max Li (fellow Airwallex co-founders), were experiencing similar frustrations running a coffee shop in Melbourne. Every time they imported goods from overseas, they were stung with high transaction fees.
Jack and Max came up with the idea for Airwallex and pitched it to me when I came back from my travels, and I quickly jumped on board.
What has been your biggest triumph in business?
For me, setting up a business that was able to attract huge talent and win big clients so early on, when Airwallex was a small start-up, was a huge accomplishment. It laid the foundations for the success and growth that we’ve achieved to date as an international unicorn.
Conversely, what has been your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
Not appointing an HR manager for the first two years in business. Recruitment in the early days took up a huge chunk of our time, that could have been spent elsewhere if we had a better system to field the best candidates.
Not only that — having the right team and talent in place is critical to success, in terms of recruitment, performance management, company culture etc. It’s a specialist skill and having experts on board to help us with this has been invaluable.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
A start-up is like running a marathon without a defined end. The first step is all about survival.
If you could change one thing to make life easier as a business owner, what would it be and why?
As president, I get pulled into all sorts of business decisions, from the very big to the very small. All business decisions are important, but if there was a magic wand that freed me from any admin or logistics so I could dedicate my time exclusively to growing and advancing the business, that would be amazing!
Who do you look up to in business and why?
My dad has always been an inspiration of mine. He was an entrepreneur, too, so I definitely get this spirit from him! I learnt a lot from him about perseverance and integrity.
What do you do to get away from work?
I’ve always loved travelling and have lived in many cities across the world, including Melbourne, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Auckland. My work takes me overseas a lot and I always try to fit in some sightseeing, so I’m not just spending my time in taxis and conference rooms.
What is the best thing you have ever spent money on in your business (and why)?
The thing that first comes to mind is our coffee machine! The office breakout space has always been somewhere that people connect, take a break from work and get to know each other.
Our team is fast-growing and it’s always great to get to meet a new face in the kitchen over a cup of coffee.
Name a little-known fact about yourself.
I’m a huge LEGO fan and am obsessed with building things. I helped the Airwallex founding team build our first-ever PC from scratch. Xijing (fellow co-founder and Airwallex CTO) was super impressed!
What is the funniest experience or encounter you have had in business?
I wouldn’t say it was funny — more like awkward — but I was pretty young (25) when we first started the business and people would often double-take when they saw my business card said “co-founder”!
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.