Interview with Lucy Liu, co-founder of Hongkong-based fintech unicorn Airwallex

The Interview

In this interview, we talk to an international entrepreneur, of which we try to bring you approx. 30% of our content. This time we have the pleasure to interview a member of “Forbes Asia 30 Under 30” Lucy Yueting Liu (https://www.linkedin.com/in/awxlucy/), co-founder of Hongkong-based fintech unicorn Airwallex (https://www.airwallex.com/). Airwallex is simplifying international payments for companies.

 

Valuation is the result of what you did well. It is not really a milestone itself. Valuation means nothing if there is no growth” Lucy Liu, Co-Founder fintech unicorn Airwallex

Context

During the interview, Joe and Lucy talk about her past as an investment consultant and intern at banks. She jumped pretty young into the startup world. The idea of Airwallex is to offer a cheaper better and more convenient alternative to SWIFT, which was invented in the 70s (see details below).

“The average time a CEO of a startup stays as CEO is 3 years.  Many people cannot grow in a way that helps their business” Lucy Liu, Co-Founder fintech unicorn Airwallex

 

Affiliated Links

Bretton Woods,
Global Perspectives on the Bretton Woods Conference and the Post-War World Order (The World of the Roosevelts) https://amzn.to/2WSalRC
The Bretton Woods Agreements: Together with Scholarly Commentaries and Essential Historical Documents (Basic Documents in World Politics) https://amzn.to/2Nrj8ag
More books here: https://amzn.to/2JZO7YE
FX Trading Books
The Art of Currency Trading: A Professional’s Guide to the Foreign Exchange Market https://amzn.to/2PVAAoR
A Foreign Exchange Primer https://amzn.to/2WTEq3l
Audible
Or listen to interesting audio books on Audible. You get the first month free https://www.amazon.de/dp/B00NTQ6K7E?tag=startupradi0e-21

 

Further Links

During the interview, Lucy and Joe touch on different topics. Learn more here:

Link Video all New Zealand Rugby team “All Blacks” and their Māori war dance Hakka https://youtu.be/I3gbneDt-S4

FX or forex spreads https://www.investopedia.com/articles/forex/090914/understanding-spread-retail-currency-exchange-rates.asp

A short explanation video what SWIFT is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxaa9GDIOE4 or here on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_for_Worldwide_Interbank_Financial_Telecommunication

Single euro payments area (SEPA): https://ec.europa.eu/info/business-economy-euro/banking-and-finance/consumer-finance-and-payments/payment-services/single-euro-payments-area-sepa_en

Non-convertible currencies: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/nonconvertiblecurrency.asp

The Intern https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2106015/ trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU3Xban0Y6A

Transcript

Intro:                     Welcome to Startuprad.IO, your podcast and YouTube blog covering the German startup scene. With news, interviews, and live events.

 

Joe:                        Hello and welcome everybody, this is Joe from Startuprad.IO your startup podcast and YouTube blog from Germany. Right now, I do have the great pleasure to have Lucy here with me. She is one of the co-founders of a unicorn based in Asia, and I do have the pleasure to have her here.

Because right now by accident she’s in my time zone, and she’s one of the third of people I like to bring you because they’re interesting and they’re not from Germany. Because if there’s something that’s really global, it’s financial markets and the startup world and Lucy, you’re actively both. Hello, welcome.

 

Lucy L.:                 Hi, thank you very much; it’s pleasure to speak with you.

 

Joe:                        The pleasure is all mine. I’ve been stalking you a little bit on LinkedIn. So basically, I know you’ve been in banking; you’ve been in investment consulting. And what is all the stuff you did before? Because you told me your mainland Chinese and you’ve entered university in Australia. Can you tell us just a little bit who Lucy is, what she likes to do, and how you ended up in your first few jobs before founding the startup?

 

Lucy L.:                 Yes, absolutely. So I was born in the northern part of China, and my family moved to New Zealand when I was in probably middle school, and then I did my university degree at Melbourne University. And after that, yes, I think just being financial services banking for my first few jobs before I co-founded Aero Airwallex.

Initially, it was summer internships at Chinese banks, and then I got a trainee program with sparkless based in Hong Kong. And then, after that, during my master’s degree, I also worked as an investment consultant. But I quickly jumped into the startup world when I was only since 25 years old. So fairly young at that time, but I’ve been enjoying the life since then.

 

Joe:                        I see admittedly, and you don’t look older than 25, but I’m just the guy. Having noticed you lived in New Zealand, are you a big rugby fan?

 

Lucy L.:                 Yes, I am All Blacks all the way.

 

Joe:                        For everybody who doesn’t know, that’s the New Zealand rugby team. For such a small country, they’re really good, and they do make this haka at the beginning, and they dress in all black, the national team that’s why they’re called All Blacks. That is enough detours for now, and let’s get a little bit into Airwallex how you started it and where you got the idea from. Can you bring us a little bit on your train of thought towards Airwallex?

 

Lucy L.:                 Okay, so basically Airwallex is a payments platform service of businesses that want to expand globally. I think to give a bit of background, [Inaudible 00:03:42.05] payments are slow, expensive, and complex, and you know this sort of technology was invented in the 1970s. And for the past decade or so, the payment innovation has always been around the consumer.

So remittance, peer-to-peer transfers, and not enough on a business side. And our two co-founders Jack and Mark back in 2015 experienced it firsthand, because they were running a cafe in Melbourne and they had to import a lot of products such as coffee cups, paper wraps from china and using the cross-border payment back then, it was very hard. And they were transferring. I think $15,000 to China. Whether while you rest a union or buy a local bank in Australia, ended up costing about $700 in fees and FX Express.

And that’s I guess where the initial idea of Airwallex came from because we want you to improve the inefficiencies by offering a cheaper, easier and more scalable alternative to the Swift payments and also what the banks were offering.

 

Joe:                        Oh, let’s take a little bit detour on clover Capital Markets FX trading and Swift. So basically, Swift is like I would say an intra bank messenger system, as you said. It was invented very early on just with the simple idea of money could not move between all the banks that tossed across the club. So basically it was one consultancy setting up like a messenger system between the banks, and basically, the idea is there are a lot of different message texts.

They’re empty whatever, and basically, you can tell a lot to another bank via this secure system. But basically, a lot of banks till the early 2000s received the message. Okay, the money will be coming, and they did not do anything until the money really arrived. So it’s a little bit counterintuitive through what the system was originally thought, but it was the first attempt to do really fast money transfers because before that, it was really slow. And compared to like that old, well how you guys are actually working, and how would a client use you, for example, how would a small cafe in Melbourne use your service.

 

Lucy L.:                 So put it quite like straightforward and transparently; what we do is we build our own local payment networks. If you think about Europe, you have SAPA, and UK has fast payments, I was saying most of the developed countries, and developing countries have relatively efficient local payment network. And the way that works is that we build into these local settlement systems, and connecting directly and tapping into the local networks allows us to become an alternative to what was slow, and removing all the intermediary banks in between.

So for I think from the front end, the customers don’t actually realize how the money arrived from one point to another. But on the back end, basically what happens is, instead of going through all of the different bags in between, the money goes from one bank to another directly because we have that direct connection. And we are able to find the most efficient route, because we’ve built all of this into our algorithm, and all of these things are decided by our system, how money goes from once one country to another.

 

Joe:                        We also may add, especially in the case of China, but also for other currencies. Currency is not freely convertible; that means you cannot just go out and say I got five million in euros to pay, just change it into renminbi, and everything will be fine. Can you talk a little bit about that, how you’re dealing with that?

 

Lucy L.:                 Yes, sure. I think a lot of businesses and individuals don’t realize how difficult it is to do foreign exchange until they actually have exposure to that currency. If you think about euro to U.S. GBP to euros, it’s all quite look like liquidity is there, and there are no restrictions between the exchange. But when you are trading, going into countries like China and also Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, any of those currencies that don’t have any offshore liquidity, so it means that you can’t exchange into that currency outside of that country.

And then it becomes very difficult, and a lot of times you don’t realize that the money is not being transferred until one or two months later and the banks come back, and the money bounces back. So what happens is that we’ve worked with regional banks in those regions, and set up the local relationships with the regulators. And with these banks were authorized to exchange into those currencies, and ensures that the money arrives and there is full support and full transparency along the way.

 

Joe:                        Talking about offshore. So basically, when you trade like U.S. dollar in the U.S., it’s called onshore, and everything else is just offshore, and in a lot of countries, it’s very hard to get. For example, the currency of Tanzania somewhere abroad because it’s not very liquid, not many banks have it at hand, so that can be really troublesome to actually get your hands just on the currency to be able to pay it. And I would be interested you hinted at basically you always have like one bank you’re working with, and you transfer it directly in between those banks and they then use the local like transfer area.

For example, in Europe, there’s a single European payment area called SEPA, and basically, in between, the European banks can transfer money very fast. But if you then go like outside to Africa, to Asia, to South America, to North America, it again gets troublesome to do that, right?

 

Lucy L.:                 Yes, absolutely. So I think they are two parts to that, one like you mentioned, the currency itself may be restricted, and it may be very difficult to get hands-on. And another part is the like cross-border system itself is thought as efficient as within a certain region or within a certain country. So the way we work is that we work with actually multiple banks, not just one, because you can’t bet all your life on one partner. Also, I think certain banks are good at different things, and even global banks like JP Morgan’s, Daniel Charter, Deutsche Bank, they don’t have the network into every single country.

So, as a result, we are sort of in a way forced to work with multiple banks, and some of the banks that we’ve worked with only have a strong presence within one country. For example, in China, we work with ICDC or some of the third-party payment providers, etc. So we replicate that process in most of the countries that we support, but that said we don’t necessarily need like a banking partner in every single country. We do support 130 countries, and some of that is actually via Swift, just because the demand is not as high, but because we know exactly the route that money is taking, even via swift is quite efficient.

 

Joe:                        I see. And my thoughts are now, so basically what are you guys doing differently then, for example, a Bank in Melbourne would you to transfer the money? Could you talk a little bit about that? What makes your Airwallex unique?

 

Lucy L.:                 So I think what makes Airwallex unique is that we are in a way customized to help the business scale. So whether it’s to make batch payments across the border is to try different currencies simultaneously or to allow the businesses to access to institutional types of financial products. And in a way like the bags are very segmented in their services, so when you walk into a bank [Inaudible 00:13:28.26] anywhere else, you automatically get labeled. So whether you’re an individual customer, you’re a business customer, corporate customer, the institutional customer. There are service that multinational companies get from the bank; it’s very different to what a small business or a cafe gets.

And I think at Airwallex we don’t really distinguish that, we do have like clear solutions for the more technology, technical companies. But the level of support, the access to our product is not different for smaller customers or bigger customers. And I think any day of the day; we’re all about doing things at scale. So whether you need to make thousands of transactions at once, or you need to pay to 50 countries at the same time, you’re able to do that quite fast and instantaneously through our solutions. And we’re all about end-to-end, so we help customers with collecting money in different countries, paying to different countries.

And if you do that with a bank, what I let you do is like do all of these steps separately, you can’t do it all at once. You have one product for collection; you have one product for FX and one product for payout. And I think that is not how businesses operate these days, especially internet companies in a digital age they want to do things at scale and quickly and transparently, and yes I think that’s what makes Airwallex very different.

 

Joe:                        I have been smiling when I’ve been listening to you because all those different services they’re usually conducted by different teams within different banks, and they all have their own P&L, and everybody wants to get most out of it, and it totally makes sense to like combine this.

Talking a little bit about the startup and your role in it, because you’re the co-founder of a unicorn which is quite special. And I would be interested in telling a little bit the story of the startup, important steps and would be very curious at the moment you realize oh; I’m a co-founder of a unicorn. What did you feel differently?

 

Lucy L.:                 I think going back to the beginning, there was only five of us in a very small room. I always say I admire the first person who joined us because it’s not easy to ditch your like stable job and a bigger company to join a startup. So I wouldn’t have done that actually if another founder and I was working regularly, and I have this opportunity, it would take me a lot more time and courage. And I think over time, your role as a co-founder evolves and changes. Early days we basically just did everything from writing the codes, well my co-founder wrote the codes we did fundraising ourselves; we did marketing ourselves, finance, legal everything.

And as the team grew, you obviously bring in people with different experiences who are experts in the different fields that we require. And your role as the co-founder then becomes a people manager; you become more strategic. You look at things at a larger scale, at a higher level instead of focusing on the details of operations and focusing on the details of execution. And in terms of the label unicorn, I don’t think it sounds nice, but I would say valuation is something that happens as a result of what you did well in the company; it’s not really any milestone itself. I mean, valuation means nothing if there is no like growth within the business.

Yes, actually, I spent the last few days in Lisbon at Web Summit, and people are always saying unicorns and like founders of unicorns or things like that. But realistically it didn’t really feel very different, the moment we got the money or the moment we didn’t get money. Yes, but I think what changes how I guess you develop as a co-founder of the business itself. Because I always share like a very interesting stat that I heard from my friends in Silicon Valley.

Is that the average time that a CEO of a start-up that stays as the CEO is three years. And although a lot of people aren’t able to develop themselves in a way that is good for the business in the long term, or you grew fast enough with the business. And I think that’s something that’s very challenging, but also quite interesting as a co-founder.

 

Joe:                        That really sounds like a great journey. Can you tell us a few tweaks, a few books, a few inspirations you had to like accompany you on your journey there?

 

Lucy L.:                 I think as we grew like over the past three years, we were able to become more exposed to other founders. Founders of unicorns or listed companies, or people who have been there, done that. And a lot of inspirations and I guess lessons we learned were by just simply talking to these people, and you build that network of support, you have that commonality between different founders.

And I think being able to meet and just discuss or even what’s up about it really helps. Because then you’re not really alone or you feel stuck, and someone is there to help you. And like even now like I meet founders of smaller startups, and I’m always happy to share with them as well because I know how difficult it is.

 

Joe:                        I see. Just one more goofball question at the end of our very interesting interview. If you could describe your life either as a movie or as a book title or a combination of both, what would it be and why?

 

Lucy L.:                 The funny thing is like when people watched the intern, the American comedy with Anne Hathaway, and they always think of me because I’m like a female founder, and I have a daughter now. And people would joke about it, and I’m kind of a workaholic, and I have a husband and children at the same time. But it’s cool to see that like it’s not just me, it’s actually quite stereotype of female founders.

I don’t tend to like putting the gender label on founders just because I feel like men or not, like a female or not, people are people, and they shouldn’t really make a difference. But it does kind of make a difference as a mom now that I have a daughter. So that was very interesting, and I enjoyed the movie a lot and yes and people look at me, and I think of that as well.

 

Joe:                        Admittedly, I became a dad just a few months ago, and every time I see my small boy, it kind of helps me to kind of abstract forget the rest of the world and just being with him in this moment. And that happened quite a lot because it’s like a very small vacation.

 

Lucy L.:                 Yes, exactly. I think people talk about work/life balance a little bit too much, and there’s a new phrase now called work-life integration. And it feels very much like that for me because I don’t really tend to distinguish between work and life or life, life.

But you find a way to make it work, and it’s always so enjoyable being a founder and being a mom. I always joke about my daughter being my second startup, and my startup being my first grown child as well, and it does feel like that sometimes. Yes, so it’s very interesting and exciting at the same time.

 

Joe:                        Well, very interesting insights. The only thing left for me to say is thank you very much, and I hope to see you again sometime.

 

Lucy L.:                 Yes, thank you very much.

 

Outro:                   That’s all, folks. Find more news, streams, events, and interviews at www.Startuprad.IO; remember sharing is caring.