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TransferWise CEO: Robin Hood meets fintech

Kristo Kaarmann

London-based TransferWise built its business with a mission to disrupt finance. Putting the fees added on by banks back into the pockets of consumers.

TransferWise, the company founded in London in 2011, is now worth more than $1.1bn, having raised $26 million in a May 2016 funding round.

The company works by avoiding fees associated with foreign exchange transfers, making them less expensive. It’s mission is to take the hidden margins added on to foreign exchange transfers and return them back to its rightful owners. Namely you and I.

Hot Topics caught up with its CEO Kristo Käärmann.

What’s been the most surprising thing about running a unicorn/ tech business?

The most amazing thing for me is how we have managed to build such a great team. Having 400 people working on one single thing with a single mission still amazes me.

How have you had to develop yourself as a leader to build a global company, and run a team of 400 people?

I don’t want to take any credit for this. A very important part of my job is hiring, so finding people and convincing them to join our mission. When we have a really high bar on hiring, the people that come in tend to be pretty independent. They figure out the best way to help our mission.

There seems to be a culture in tech that entrepreneurs should be completely consumed by their business, and always switched on. And yet, it would appear that there are some health issues around that. How do you ensure you maintain a balance in your life?

You definitely need balance. It’s usually so interesting and exciting, it’s very easy to become consumed by building a product or taking it out to market. But of course we are limited to our physical body and our physical brain that’s driving our thoughts, so of course, you need to go out and exercise, get out go out for a run, do whatever it is that your sport is. Just don’t forget your body.

What has been your biggest learning from some of the star investors that you’ve been working with like Andreessen Horowitz and Peter Thiel. What has been the takeaway?

All of them aren’t just smart but have seen a lot in their time. They are special, or at least I like to think so. Because they have seen two worlds. The world where they were entrepreneurs and building companies. And then from the other side of watching, observing and supporting how other people are building companies.

They can very powerfully merge those two together and help support us. We are on the same journey that they have done themselves, and also seen many other people do as well.

What does success look like for TransferWise?

Banks usually take around $300 bn a year from their customers, for moving their money around the world in foreign exchange transfers. And they do it, without telling us. They put this hidden margin into the exchange rate. Our mission is to eradicate this. There’s no reason why banks should take this, it should be going back to consumers and small businesses. So the way we measure success, is based on how much money are we putting back into people’s pockets. How much of the bank fees have we taken back. This stands at around €1 million every single day.