WeSwap: The journey to the starting-line

Last Tuesday was a big day for WeSwap: our investors, team and early Alpha users had been swapping currency and enjoying their cards for some time, but on Tuesday we officially invited the wider world to sign up and join us. There’s still a lot to be done – the experience we’re launching today will continuously evolve – but as of Tuesday we are live to our first customers, and that’s a huge milestone for us.

A lot of people ask us where the WeSwap idea came from and how we got to this point. As we open WeSwap’s doors it seems appropriate to have a wistful look back at the journey so far. We apologise if this feels a little self-indulgent, but we are tremendously proud of the product that we have built and the team that has built it. And who knows, perhaps it will offer some insights to anyone considering building a financial start-up of their own.

Simon Sacerdoti & Jared Jesner (Founders, WeSwap.com)

Jared started out working as a City trader at large investment banks for five years, before moving on to work at the oil company Shell on the management of payment-related IT projects. Simon is a Chartered Accountant with nearly twenty years’ experience advising entrepreneurial businesses on corporate finance (including a number of tech businesses).

The WeSwap journey began in Jared’s trading days, with the realisation that what we pay for travel money bears very little resemblance to the actual exchange rate traded in the currency markets. So long as chains of companies were in the business of sitting between the travellers who were ultimately spending the money, this couldn’t change. The idea for a person to person travel money exchange was born; travellers could provide each other with the currency that they needed at the actual exchange rate. But how would this work in practice? How would people actually swap their money with each other? It isn’t practical to insist that they meet up, and the postal systems are not secure enough. How to achieve this safely and securely?

The answer to these questions came during Jared’s time working at Shell, from his exposure to the world of payments. At that time, prepaid cards were emerging as a new payment product, and they seemed like an ideal delivery mechanism for the exchange. This was the epiphany moment, in early 2010.

Simon was, at the time, in the process of setting up a corporate finance boutique with some colleagues from a previous firm, and was looking for opportunities to put his experience advising successful entrepreneurs into practice, alongside his corporate finance.  A mutual friend introduced us to each other (thanks Justin!) and very quickly we both realised the synergy between our skills and experiences.  The partnership was forged.  WeSwap pretty quickly took over both of our lives and ultimately became our sole activity.

We met a few times a week in various coffee houses near the Shell offices on London’s Southbank to discuss the idea and turn it into a business. Our core values in doing so were unspoken but remarkably closely aligned.  We wanted to build a business that gives great value for money and treats its customers fairly and transparently. Wherever possible, we wouldn’t charge people for doing things that they shouldn’t expect to pay for, and where we did have to charge for these things, we would be up front about it. We would prioritise the customer experience, and think of everything from the customer’s perspective above all else (although this was later tempered slightly to rank legal and regulatory compliance just as highly).

Little did we realise that trying to deliver a complex financial product through an awesome, customer centric website would mean that our business would end up soaking up all of the pain points inherent in the international banking system in order to deliver a smooth experience to our customers. Each time we learned something about the financial and banking system that didn’t foster a great experience, we would groan and then set about figuring out how to make it better for the customer. On a couple of occasions we have had to compromise a little but, by and large, we are pretty happy with the way it’s turned out.

Along the way, we came up with the name WeSwap, and we assembled our team and the core group of partners necessary to implement WeSwap. There are stories behind how we found each of them, which are not for now (although buy one of us a drink and we’ll spill the beans!).  But overall it’s felt like serendipity. We sought out, stumbled across or were introduced to a great set of people and businesses who are established, respected and solid, yet entrepreneurial and innovative. More than once, we heard “What a great idea. Much too risky for us though”, but the ones we chose were those who had a can-do attitude and were prepared to think laterally about how to achieve what we were trying to do. The process of building the product hasn’t been easy, but their support and innovation has been critical throughout.

When building our team we decided that we wouldn’t just look for people with loads of direct experience: we were building something new and wanted fresh thinking, uninfluenced by years of experience of the established norm. We now have a mix of experience, creativity and just sheer intellect; a great combination that’s really working well for us.

And we’ve raised a sizeable sum of money from some amazing people who have demonstrated belief in the idea, the pair of us and our team. With some, we have had a single phone call leading to investment, and with others we have worked closely over a number of months and got amazing feedback and value out of the experience as well as their investment.

Some snippets of some of the odd things that have happened to us over the time we have been building WeSwap:

Jared has moved his family internationally, and back again

Simon has had two children (not including WeSwap!)

We turned down approaches from three, separate, well established industry players to buy WeSwap, well before it was built

We pulled out of a potential funding deal because of the Arab Spring

It’s been a hell of a ride, but we’re only at the starting line.  Now the real journey begins – come join us!

   

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