Fintech unicorn TransferWise reaches profitability, planning ‘new financial services’

BY Steve O’Hear for

What’s more mythical than a unicorn? A unicorn that is profitable. Six years after launch, TransferWise, the London-headquartered international money transfer startup, which was most recently valued at a reported $1.1 billion, has announced that it has finally reached profitability this calendar year and is “cash-generating”.

Breaking this down a little, the company says it’s currently seeing £8 million per month in revenue, which extrapolates to a £100 million revenue run-rate, and is growing 150 per cent year-on-year and expecting to do the same this year. It also says over £1 billion is being moved every month, saving its customers what it claims to be over £1.5 million per day in foreign exchange fees.

For reference, the most recent regulatory filing for the tax year ending March 2016, shows that TransferWise generated around £27.8 million in revenue and made a pre-tax loss of £17.4 million. It is yet to file its accounts for the year ending March 2017, but based on today’s break-even announcement, we’d expect any pre-tax losses to be considerably smaller.

Meanwhile, the startup has raised around $117 million in total (which is roughly £91 million at today’s exchange rate). Top tier backers include Andreessen Horowitz, Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures, Sir Richard Branson, and most recently Baillie Gifford.

“To have hit break-even just six years on from launch shows how strong the foundations of our business are,” says TransferWise co-founder and CEO Taavet Hinrikus in a statement. “This is just the starting point. With the unique platform we’ve built, we’re looking forward to creating a new kind of financial services for the future.”

With that said, let me speculate on what products I think the company could quite easily move into, should it choose to do so. Friend-to-friend or P2P payments within the same country, along the lines of Paypal’s Venmo or Barclays Pingit, doesn’t seem a stretch, given that TransferWise already has much of that infrastructure already in place. It also seems odd that the company doesn’t offer its own debit card with low cost currency exchange when spending abroad, for example.

Were TransferWise to do the latter, that would see it go up against Revolut, and a ton of other much more recent fintech startups that utilise MasterCard’s low exchange rate, including all-your-cards-in-one app Curve, of which Hinrikus himself is an investor.

What the TransferWise founder would say, however, is that having built a strong and trusted brand and now with a 1 million plus customer base, the company is in a great position to help its customers solve further problems adjacent to (or perhaps around the edges of) what it already offers. And it’s true, the startup has, right from the get go, spent a lot of time and money on building the TransferWise brand and what is undoubtedly a great product.

Given that you could argue that currency exchange is becoming a commodity, because of much-increased competition, I asked Hinrikus what was more important to TransferWise’s success over the last six years, its brand or product? “A billion dollar question,” he replied, before pausing for thought and choosing his words in a carefully considered manner, as he is wont to do. “A product actually builds your brand. It’s hard to have a great product which does not end up standing on its own two feet as a brand”.

To that end, I’m told TransferWise now claims 10 per cent of the international money transfer market in the U.K., a market still dominated by the major four banks who account for about 80 per cent by some estimates. Or, put over simply, the company is now the size of half a bank in international money transfer terms, something that hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed by those incumbent banks.

“If you look around there are a lot of other fintech companies but they are often selling their own product through a bank,” adds Hinrikus. “In the fintech space, I believe we will only see a couple of new global brands being built, and I’m pretty sure we are going to be one of them”.

Lastly, here’s a bit of fun. The TransferWise founder recently tweeted a copy of his first ever pitch email to TechCrunch, more than six years ago, which resulted in the fintech unicorn’s first wave of coverage and revenue. The 700 person-strong and now profitable company has come a long way since then.