March 18, 2022
[00:00:11] Prit: Good afternoon and welcome to Talking Edge, the podcast about the companies that revolutionize the financial services sector from within. I’m your host, Pritesh Ruparel, CEO of ALT21. Talking Edge is a spinoff from our previous podcast, which some of you may have listened to, Talking Hedge, where we focus primarily on conversations towards hedging and topics like that. We’ve now moved on as we have as business to a much broader topic, interviewing the founders and leaders of companies that are democratizing financial services, making them available for any business or individual. We want to listen to their stories from the early beginnings to the successful company that they are becoming, and show their edge, if you will.
For our first episode, I’m very lucky to be joined by Alex Mifsud, co-founder and CEO of Weavr. For those of you that don’t know, Weavr as an online platform that creates, integrates, deploys and runs digital payment flows backed by some of the leading institutions of the world. I’ve just been hearing from Alex the incredible story that they’ve had over the last year growing their team significantly. Alex has been a serial payments entrepreneur over the last 15 years. His first business entry point, he launched Visa’s first virtual prepaid card program back in 2003, which made the Sunday Times Tech Track 100. Before Weavr he also founded Ixaris Technologies, an innovator in global B2B payment with a multinational client.
Alex is passionate about dissemination of technology. His non-profit work includes co-founding the Malta Internet Foundation, and much more recently the London Blockchain Foundation. Alex, welcome. Let’s get started. Alex, what’s the backstory of Weavr? What was the inspiration for you in building the business, given this is your third one that you’ve done in the last couple of decades?
[00:02:11] Alex: Yes, one business leads nicely to the next one. When you’re building a business you’ve got to focus, because otherwise you can’t make anything sensible happen. Then you’ve got these great ideas, which you can’t really do in that business, and they sometimes they linger these ideas and they become the genesis for the next business.
I think it was a bit more dramatic than that in the case of Weavr. My previous business, Ixaris, which I sold last year and I’m no longer involved in that, but it’s still a business that’s going very strong in really serving mostly the world of the travel industry, but when we were at Ixaris we were building these payment solutions for multinationals. We have customers like AXA, programs for Stella Artois, and we had a global distribution with Amadeus in the travel sector. We were building these solutions.
What found was that every time we had to almost build it from scratch because everyone looked at something slightly different. They wanted something that worked with their brand or maybe the pricing was different and the flows were slightly different. We never quite got it right. We got the payment stuff right, but what we never got right is that the brand experience that the customer really wanted, that wasn’t our forte. We’re hardcore transaction engineers and what do we know about branding? We thought the best way to do this is to create like a DIY payment Solutions toolkit, and rather than do it every time ourselves we would basically give the toolkit to those big brands to do it for themselves. They do it better than we can, and we will handle the payment side of things. That’s easy to say. It’s much harder to do. Payments is a very highly regulated activity. To be able to give tools to people who don’t really understand financial services, understand fraud, understand money laundering, is quite a difficult thing to do.
We decided if we are going to do this, we have to start building tech that is designed specifically to make it possible for relatively unsophisticated, relatively untrusted third parties to build their own payment solutions, but to do it in a way that guarantees safety for the financial institutions and for the end customer ultimately.
Anyway, we got this great idea. We were really lucky to get a grant from the EU Horizon 2020 Fund, which funds the tech project. This was a 4 million euro project that we found thanks to this grant, and we built it. By the time we built it, the Ixaris business had pivoted much more to focus on the travel sector, which is what it is today under new ownership. We had this quandry, what do we do with this? We’ve built this deck, we’ve changed the strategy in the meantime, what now? We decided to spin that off. I stepped down as CEO of Ixaris, and I spun off together with the colleagues at Ixaris into a new business. That business eventually became called Weavr.
[00:05:31] Prit: When you hear someone like yourself talking about early foundings to now working with those tier one names that you mention, I always find early beginnings when I talk to people and they’re starting, they always have that question, how are we going to get in front of these names? You’ve done it, you’ve gone from a founding team to pitching some amazing clients that I’m sure that you have longstanding relationships with. How does that happen? Having a great team, great sales, is it a culture that you build, what is it?
[00:06:01] Alex: I think the first thing is to realize that companies, big and small, have pain points. They have things they want to do, but they don’t quite know how to do them, or the way to do them sounds really complex and full of risk. If you realize that, you take what you’ve built, you really understand how it delivers value, and you connect with companies that ought to be thinking about the value you can bring to them and that have a very collaborative conversation.
In a way that’s been always my sales formula. Don’t try and do your pitch, this repetitive sales pitch to anybody. You do it in the basis that you earn the right to have the conversation first by acknowledging the opportunity for them, the pain point they might be looking at, and then listening. From what you listen, you have to translate that back into how you might be able to help them. You have to be honest when you can’t help them. That’s how you build trust, how you build rapport. That works for companies, small and large. You can have this conversation with an entrepreneur who’s just starting out and they will look you in the eye and decide whether to trust you or not. You can do the same thing with a CEO of a multinational, that would, again, look you in the eye, and decide, is this worth taking a punt on? Is it worth getting my team to have a good look at this company? It’s not a very different formula. I think getting the initial access is a bit harder for larger companies because they have so many filters, but if you’re clear enough and if you’re persistent enough, you will get there.
[00:07:45] Prit: You said it really well, understanding the pain points and building trust. I think people underestimate that when they actually build. They think the pain points themselves without asking, and they almost don’t take time to build trust, because sometimes you have to say, we can’t do that. That actually is the most honest and refreshing conversation for a bigger company to hear that and just say, we trust them more now because they’ve managed our expectations well. I think it’s a really good way of saying it.
You and I spoke, but what are the main challenges or growing pains when you started to be successful? You told me how much growth you’ve had, even in the last year alone it’s a huge amount to take on. It’d be great for those listing to hear that from you.
[00:08:31] Alex: It’s related to what we were saying earlier about the pain points. I think the biggest challenge any start-up has is in communicating what the solution is, and really what the problem it is solving. In fact, if we go back to that problem, the world moved on since we created that toolkit and we realized that there’s a much bigger opportunity than just the DIY toolkit for payments I was talking about.
The big insight is that financial services, not just payments, financial services generally, we never buy financial services for their own sake. We don’t collect loans. We do them because we want to achieve something else. We want to get educated or we want to own a house or we want to go on a great holiday. At the same time, in another neck of the woods, there are all these digital businesses that are helping us do exactly those same things, helping us find the house, helping us find the right course or even help us get educated, or go on a great holiday. These two worlds should come together and should give us much more value than they would independent; make life more convenient, make it easier for us to choose the right financial services in context. But it’s really hard to do it in practice because the culture is completely different. The culture of digital is you do something, you throw it out there, you see if it works. In the world of financial services, you don’t throw stuff out there. You have to be very careful about making sure you have the right permissions to do it. That you look at all the possible adverse effects, fraud, money laundering, and you design and measure it so as to prevent them. Getting these two worlds to work together is extremely hard.
We realized, although we started with tech for having a DIY payment toolkit, the problem that really exists out there is much more around getting these two worlds to fit together. They have a real nasty gap between them that makes it difficult for them to work together.
The biggest challenge we’ve had, the first is realizing it ourselves, that that’s where the real value is. But the second one is trying to communicate that in a way that makes sense to the audience. The audience in this case is a digital business. Maybe to give an example, a creator platform that’s monetizing its tech by helping creators organize their work. Then thinking about how do you transform the economics of that business by adding financial services for creators in that platform?
Being able to relate the relevance of financial services, embedded finance, into very different situations, and being able to quantify how much value it would bring. We find that with software companies you can 2x, even 5x your revenues if you fit the right financial services to a software application. But getting that across and showing the proof points that you’re not just telling a great story, I think’s been the biggest lesson for us as we have gone through this journey.
[00:11:43] Prit: Would you say that’s how we democratized embedded finance, in trying to bring those two worlds together and it’s been exceptionally good at that?
[00:11:53] Alex: That’s certainly one angle. But if you go micro at the individual level, from the start we focused on a very specific persona, if you like, or personality, which we call the innovator. That innovator can be a single entrepreneur. Haven’t raised money yet, but has a fantastic vision lots of energy to change the world. It can be a product manager in a very large corporate. It can be a CEO of a large company that really wants to find something that would change the game in the industry. Or an engineer looking to solve a specific problem. They’re all innovators in their own right. Change is always down to individual. Change is down to individuals who get something and they want to find a way to make it happen.
For us, this democratization of the finance landscape is very much finding and collaborating and ultimately enabling those individuals to make the change that they want to make. That’s the secret formula. Get in the minds, get the trust of the people who change the world, and then you’re part of changing the world.
[00:13:05] Prit: I love it. How do you think Weavr is particularly good at changing those? You’re saying there’s market preferences that people have, or even how has the market changed since Weavr’s been changing things?
[00:13:18] Alex: Yes, very fast. This is a fast-moving sector. It really started to be talked about in earnest in 2021. You look at Google trends for views of the word embedded finance, and it’s always nothing. Then 2021, it starts to grow exponentially. The world is changing regardless of Weavr. But perhaps the influence that we’ve had was that we laser focus on this gap.
The state of the embedded finance is something called banking as a service. We’ve taken in a way a controversial position, that we think banking as a service is not a great model for doing embedded finance, because it leaves too much of that gap to chance. I think regulators are catching up with this. They’re looking very closely at the banking as a service model in the US, in Europe, in the UK, and asking the question, hang on a moment, who’s really responsible here? Hang on a moment, do we really know what’s going on on top of the banking as service players?
What we set out to do is fill that gap. We’ve pioneered something which we call plug and play finance. The service we provide isn’t just the ability to open an account for example, or issue a card, but we are providing all of the things around it that make it safe to do so. How you onboard a customer, how you do a risk assessment, how do you provide oversight of the use of that account or that card? That isn’t an addon. That has to be an interesting intrinsic part of the solution that’s delivered. That’s why we call it plug and play finance, because if we are able to take care of 90% of those responsibilities, then for the innovator, they don’t have to take them on themselves. The solution is both safer and much easier to actually adopt.
We’ve called that way of delivering these embedded financial solutions plug and play finance, because it really speaks to the simplicity with which the innovator can adopt them as part of their digital applications.
[00:15:22] Prit: That’s brilliant. That’s a really nice way looking at things. What’s next as you see it? People are looking out there and they see the tightening of economic conditions. How do you think the market will change for you guys in the coming years? Because it’s definitely shifted quicker than a lot of people expected in the last 12 months.
[00:15:45] Alex: The economic weather has darkened, and we’d be all naive not to acknowledge that. Markets go up and down, sometimes they’ll go up and down sharply. But the reality is that anything of value ultimately will shine through those dark clouds. It might not go do so in a linear, straight line way. I think embedded finance is exactly that. It packs so much value as a concept of bringing financial services and digital businesses together. We are just at the start of the strength, so anything we’ve seen now is very still very clunky, it has lots of iterations needed to evolve. This will go to this famous Gardner hype curve, until it becomes mainstream and boring, and we’re a long way from that point.
Markets are driven by trends and fashions, but ultimately what we see as the value of embedded fine is that it offers cheaper distribution for financial services, lower cost of customer acquisition. It offers much greater utility to the end customers, to this joined up solutions approach. It offers the potential for lower risk. Now, that sounds counterintuitive, but because there’s much richer context, if you’re getting a loan because you’re buying a car, the context that you’re buying a car actually adds much more information to the lender than if you’re just getting a loan for whatever. The fact that it has a much bigger context should ultimately provide lower risk for financial institutions.
The value story doesn’t depend on the economic cycle. It’s there. We’re very confident that beyond the ups and downs of the market, this sector will become truly worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
[00:17:39] Prit: I guess that’s what we’re all looking for, is to build great, sustainable businesses. That’s great to hear. What do you think the future holds for Weavr? It’d be great to hear about new markets or areas that you guys are thinking about.
[00:17:54] Alex: We’re focused on a very well-defined mission, which is to enable financial services to be integrated into any digital application where it creates value for the customer ultimately. Now, that’s not going to happen at the flick of a switch. We will roll this out with other financial partners where it makes sense, we’ll get licenses where it makes sense for us to get licenses, we’ll even license our technology to banks to enable them to do this part of the mission, if you like. The future has many different paths we can take to realize this mission.
Our immediate priorities, the first thing is we want to deepen our solution in the UK and Europe. That means adding more financial services; adding lending, adding international transfers and foreign exchange, a whole range of rich financial services that make our tools more valuable to digital businesses in the UK and Europe, which is our immediate market. The next piece is we’ve just been setting things up in Singapore, so investing in that, making that work, adapting the product to the environment in Singapore and beyond. Asia Pacific is the other immediate priority for us.
Finally, I mentioned licensing our technology. We’ve just started to do the first deals of licensing our tech to financial institutions. We think this is going to be a real magnifier for us to be able to enable other financial institutions to offer embedded finance to their own customers, and to do it in a way which we think is safer than the traditional banking as a service model. That’s exciting. More at the aspiration and edge of what we’re doing, this last piece around licensing our technology, but it’s certainly something we’re very active in at the moment.
[00:19:47] Prit: That’s really good to hear that. You are obviously optimistic, there’s lots of opportunities for companies like Weberz and beyond out there, so it’s great to see that. Hope you don’t mind, Alex, quite a few questions have come in. I’m just going to select two or three if that’s alright. The first one is, how did you narrow down your target audience, as it’s dangerous to go after too many different segments? I like the language you used there around a very specific mission. People are asking about, how do you narrow down personas in identifying innovators? How do you work out who’s the mover and shaker you want to work with?
[00:20:22] Alex: Well I made that mistake so many times, the next shiny thing that comes along. It’s proving hard to be with these customers. This China thing comes along, let’s pivot to the next group of customers. Guess what? They are not to be just as hard. I think it’s hard to make a call. At some point you have to say something doesn’t work and you have to pivot. But I think the main point is to keep asking yourself, what is getting in the way? Is it something fundamental that you don’t really have value for these people? Or is it that the value to be unloaded needs to solve a number of problems? Often that’s what happens. By really discipling yourself to focus, you’re forced to solve those problems.
I have this conversation all the time with my board. You really want to go after the customer segment, you’ve got all these problems. What about these? Look at what your competitors are doing. I really try hard to be disciplined not to jump from one thing to another, but to consistently try to understand, get insights from every single failure, and try to use it to create ultimately a straight path to that value. I think that is what builds ultimately really competitive advantage. Those insights into all the objections, all the challenges, to be able to deliver value to that target customer segment, when you’ve done it well enough, then move on to another segment you can diversify your business. But if you keep flipping from one to the other, you’re going to bear so much capital and you’ve no guarantee you’re ever going to get anywhere.
[00:21:58] Prit: I think that’s really good. They often say good FinTechs are defined by what they choose not to do. I think that’s a good way of looking at. I’ve got another question here around fundraising. What would be your advice to those CEO, founders out there in the market now as they start to put together in a very different environment, what their panel investors are? You’ve gone through a very large raise with a very credible panel of investors, it’d be great to hear your thoughts on that.
[00:22:25] Alex: I think the answer will differ depending on the stage you’re at. If you’re a really early stage business, I think the game is in a way not dissimilar in the sense that there are always investors who want to build their pipeline, they’re willing to connect with entrepreneurs, and backing the entrepreneur and the idea. I think there’s not much difference you would do than you would have done 12 months ago, except the fill pair is tighter, probably.
I think the usual things will apply. Are you addressing a big or very rapidly growing market? Do you have the expertise to do it? Do you have some special source that will help you fend off competition? Can you monetize it, can you find a way of monetizing what you’ve got? If you are at a later stage and you’ve already answered those questions, and now you’ve got to provide evidence, I think the bar for evidence has got higher in the sense that, okay, it’s great some people are using your service, but what does it cost to acquire a customer? How many customers are happy with your service? What’s the long-term economics at scale of your service? All these different questions will be applied to a business that’s already operating that wouldn’t be applied to an earlier stage business. I think the most important piece is to continue talking to investors and really understanding, what are their criteria? What are the levers that they are looking for, to be convinced enough to back your business at whatever stage it is? That will vary from investor to investor. That will vary from an economic environment to another. But the best way to sell something is to listen to your customers.
Now, when you’re fundraising, that’s what you’re doing. You’re selling an investment to investors who are on the lookout to find great deals that are going to make them successful, make you successful along with that.
[00:24:24] Prit: I’ve got one more question I think we’ll have time for. As a serial entrepreneur, what are your top tips for growing a team and keeping them incentivized on the journey and mission through these key years that you are going through now and you have done before?
[00:24:39] Alex: Well, you make lots of mistakes along the way. Building a team is probably one of the hardest things because human beings are all different. We’d like to shape conceptually what team we want, then reality brings all these different personalities. They should bring all these personalities. If you build a team of clones, you’re really going to reduce the chances of success for your business, because you’ll be thinking in the same way, you’ll be making the same mistakes. You wanna build out a team of different personalities, different backgrounds.
But ultimately, what you really want is that the team is a team. It’s not just great CVs on the org chart. You want people who can genuinely work together and can communicate together. Going beyond the CV and thinking about how that interaction happens, how that fit happens, is also really, I think, important in building a really effective team.
[00:25:42] Prit: That’s some great advice. I’m sure the viewers would’ve taken a lot from it. Alex, it’s been a pleasure having you on Talking Edge this afternoon. Thanks a lot for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our audience today before we sign off?
[00:25:55] Alex: If you haven’t looked at embedded finance, this is something has to be on the top of your list, because it is really going to change the world. Shoot me a note if you want to talk about embedded finance anytime.
[00:26:12] Prit: Great. That’s really kind of you. Our next talking edge will be in two weeks time. We’ll be joined by the CEO of another innovative company, Kane, a gentleman called Paul. The recording from today’s session will be available the next coming days, so stay tuned and follow our social channels. Until then, enjoy the rest of your week. Thanks a lot, Alex, once again for joining us today.
[00:26:32] Alex: Thanks for having me.