Providing small-to-medium companies with big business cross-border service: Jonathan Quin, CEO, WorldFirst interview

Jonathan Quin is the CEO of WorldFirst, an international payments company that puts the customer at the core of every transaction. What began in 2004 as an idea from the basement of a house in South London has grown into six international offices and 600 staff. PaymentEye sat down with Jonathan to discuss the growth of the business and the future of FX trading.

Tell us about your business background and the history of WorldFirst.

My partner Nick Robertson and I co-founded WorldFirst in 2004. We used to work together at Citibank. I had founded a couple of small start-ups before, but WorldFirst was the first business I consciously resigned and left banking for.

Nick and I bootstrapped the business, which was quite common back then. We saved up instead of raising any money, and funded all the growth with our profit. We’ve grown pretty steadily since; our average annual growth rates were at 50% and we’ve been steadily growing the business.

We started off in the UK with just the two of us, and now we’re about 650 people in the UK, US, Hong Kong and Singapore, Sydney and Amsterdam. There’s three parts to our business; we look after e-commerce businesses exporting and selling around the world, and we’re collecting money for them and repatriating to them. This is a significant market that is growing. A recent report we published with CEBR (Centre for Economics & Business Research) highlighted how such businesses in the UK alone are contributing £11bn to UK exports by selling on marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy.

And then we have the importers, who are usually in the west and paying suppliers around the world. Our third client group are retail consumer clients, who are living, working, travelling and investing internationally. We’re about 90% B2B.

What sparked the birth of WorldFirst?

We previously worked at Citibank looking after massive companies such as General Electric and they were getting great rates. In contrast, we noticed that small-to-medium businesses were getting terrible rates and no service, and it was also the same with individuals.

Our idea was to create the product, service and pricing that the bigger companies got and offer it to the smaller companies.

How does WorldFirst stay innovative?

We have always tried to align with the current market and stay innovative. It’s important to work out on what your USP is and what you are going to do, and in an increasingly competitive market, figure out how to do it better and cheaper.

As we’ve grown, we’ve seen different opportunities that have enabled us to be innovative. The most recent example was our decision to enter the ecommerce merchant space.

I think we’re probably the leader in that space now or certainly close. We’ve created new products and try to innovate each year, and create a product set for our client groups.

Tell us about your recently launched World Account

The World Account is about offering our service to a much larger group of people, and can be used to collect money from various marketplaces.

The World account enables our customers to collect money and pay out. We’re giving businesses a global account system which is often a challenge for smaller businesses.

For example, if you’re a merchant based in Hong Kong and need a US dollar account, you may not be able to open one without a driving license and address verification for a US bank. With a world account, users can register for global accounts around the world for free. If you are a UK company with business in the US, you may want your customer to pay you in pounds. If the customer can’t, then this puts a strain on the payments process.

And similarly, businesses can move money between accounts, which happens instantly and at a much lower rate. We find that customers much prefer to pay in their local currency. This is partly because it’s quicker and it gives them a lot more capability.

This is really the first evolution of the world account, about the double bank capability.

Will small businesses benefit the most from the World Accounts?

I think small-to-medium businesses will. Until businesses are at a million-pound scale, a lot of them won’t embark on that kind of functionality – they are going to rely on the customer having paying them internationally – or going to their local bank.

Where do you see the UK fintech sector heading in the next few years?

I think it will continue to be a very hot topic. There’s an underlying trend that people are happy to circumnavigate the traditional banks. In 20 years people will be nervous about not leaving their traditional bank, they would expect everything to be available digitally.

People will expect not to go to the bank for services, so traditional banks absolutely have to be innovative to remain relevant. I think they are probably going to regain control by using the attachment people have to their banks. I think fintechs will provide enhanced services and act as layer on top of the traditional infrastructure for banks.

Fintechs will challenge all the areas that are inefficient or expensive. The downside is that we do need to keep challenging and keep innovating and make sure we don’t become the incumbent that someone else then will come and disrupt.

What’s the best and worst business advice that you’ve been given?

We were once told that there is nothing as expensive as cheap advice. In the early years, we got some cheap advice, and it was very expensive.

Nowadays, the advice I would give is to look after the customer and the business will come. Trust that if you are solving a problem for someone, and if you look after them well, the business will follow.

What is your career highlight?  

It’s extremely exciting that we have created a business that is doing about $15bn of business and we’ve done that without having to rely on external funding.

We’ve done this in a sustainable way, and I genuinely think that we are making the process of international trade easier. Businesses can’t operate without a business account. I believe we have enabled a lot of merchants to do more business and have helped them expand internationally.

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