Kristo Käärman and Taavet Hinrikus, the co-founders of TransferWise, came up with the idea for their peer-to-peer service in 2007, when they began trading money with each other to avoid bank fees. Hinrikus, then the director of strategy at Skype, was being paid in euros, but needed to convert those to pounds. Meanwhile, Käärman needed to convert his pounds to euros to pay off his Estonian student loans. So they simply swapped, sending the funds directly into the other person's account.
While banks typically charge fees between 3 and 6 percent above the exchange rate on money transfers, TransferWise charges a flat fee of 0.5 percent in the U.K. (or 0.7 percent in the U.S.) It moves money around by matching up a sum with another account in the destination of choice, so money is rarely actually moving.
Earlier this week, TransferWise announced that it raised $26 million in funding from Scottish asset manager Baillie Gifford, bringing its total capital raised to $117 million (and the company valuation to $1.1 billion). Baillie Gifford joins existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Peter Thiel's Valar Ventures, and Richard Branson.
The London-based company plans to use the capital to continue its global expansion. TransferWise currently offers 600 currency routes, and will introduce 150 more in 2016. Just last month, it launched in Canada, and plans to launch in Brazil, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand in the near future.
Mexico is another new, key market for the business, accounting for some $25 billion in annual money transfers, Käärman estimates. Though, it's worth pointing out, the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has said that he would halt money transfers from Mexican immigrants in the U.S. in order to fund a border wall.
"Mexico is totally dependent on the United States as a release valve for its own poverty," Trump wrote in a two-page memo to The Washington Post.
In an interview with Inc., Käärman explained that small businesses in the U.S. stand to benefit the most from what TransferWise has to offer, because they're racking up unnecessary bank fees when importing and exporting goods, say, antiques, furniture, wine, or bicycles, or when paying freelance workers abroad.
"We have a lot of translation companies using TransferWise, because they have translators in almost every country in the world. They're not paying huge amounts, but they make a lot of them, maybe 50 transfers a week," Käärman says. "What the banks charge is a wire fee [about $35,] plus then the hidden fee. So the cost of making a payment for one person could be higher than the person's salary."
The company says that about 40 percent of its U.S. transfers in the last year have been made by small businesses. Starting this week, TransferWise is making a push to divert U.K. startups away from high street lenders, offering rates that are seven times cheaper than their current providers. Hinrikus has said that the small business market could, ultimately, overtake the consumer one.
"The amount of money that small businesses spend on transfers is bigger than consumers, so it's an even bigger opportunity," Hinrikus told The Telegraph. "Banks have traditionally made it very hard to understand how much small businesses are paying and for what. They are being taken advantage of."
Overall, the company says users are moving more than $730 million every month on the platform. TransferWise is still working to become licensed in each of the 50 U.S. states. Though it's not yet profitable -- in fact, the company reported a loss of $16.7 million on revenue of $13.8 million in the fiscal year from March, 2015 -- the founders say they aren't concerned. "We can invest in growth. If we wanted to, we could have been profitable a year ago, easily," Käärman said.