Fintech marvel Airwallex helps businesses operate without borders

Business is global. It has been for some time. There’s really no getting around that at this point. That we increasingly do business online is a key driver of that global expansion. But foreign currency exchange hadn’t kept up with the speed of business. If you weren’t already a large international corporation, this problem kept you from branching out. The founders of Airwallex experienced that firsthand when a couple of them invested in a Melbourne coffee shop. Rather than getting frustrated and throwing their hands up, they created the forex fintech they were missing. They weren’t the only ones missing it, as evidenced by the fact that Airwallex reached certified unicorn status within three years of its 2015 launch. Things have only grown from there, as Airwallex closed a record Series D funding round at US$200 million in 2020, its biggest year yet.

Crossing Borders

International payments were already expensive, time-consuming, and confusing. Then COVID-19 brought the most volatile time for foreign currency markets since 2008. “During times of uncertainty and unpredictability, it’s imperative that the end users of foreign exchange, including businesses, regularly assess currency fluctuations to manage their foreign exchange risk and minimise any negative business impacts,” Airwallex president and co-founder Lucy Liu told VENTURE.

Businesses made major structural shifts such as relocating supply chains over a matter of months in 2020, changes that would have taken years or decades before. Those slow to adopt ecommerce have had to scramble to get onboard or risk going under. Airwallex has been there for them, serving as a one-stop shop for cross-border payments, collections, and forex for SMEs. It’s also proved a valuable API for larger businesses needing customisation.

“As an infrastructure-first company, we have built our proprietary technology from the ground up, ensuring that our tech platform is fast, relevant and agile,” Liu said. “This means having the ability to scale quickly to support our customers’ growing needs. In the last 12 months, we’ve added more products to our suite than ever before in response to growing customer demand.”

Thanks to Airwallex and other startups, people are more familiar with fintech and more likely to use digital banking than they were in 2015. Nearly three quarters of consumers use digital personal banking, according to a McKinsey survey, and the rising comfort level is making its way into business banking.

“As a result, fintechs will play an integral part of economic growth and recovery post-2020. In the way that everything is now stored in the cloud, I predict fintech is the new cloud; working in partnership with big banks and organisations to improve outdated financial processes and add new capabilities to customer offerings,” Liu said.

Right Place, Right Time

Last March, Airwallex partnered with global small business accounting platform Xero to help businesses reconcile domestic and international payments. Customers asked for it, so Airwallex made it happen.

“The Xero integration enables SMEs to view a daily update of their transactions through their existing Xero bank feeds. Plugging into the existing solutions that businesses already use is a key priority for us; businesses now operate with an increasingly integrated arsenal of software, and we are here to make sure Airwallex fits into that,” Liu said.

The month prior, Airwallex announced a collaboration with Visa on a Borderless Card, a multi-currency virtual debit card that enables Airwallex account holders to pay suppliers in seconds, creating greater efficiencies and improved financial oversight for business operators.

These moves positioned Airwallex to be an invaluable resource for globally minded businesses when the world got turned upside-down. The customer base grew 50% from Q2 to Q3 alone in 2020, and net revenue increased 100%.

“The hard work that we’ve put in to date meant we were ready to support businesses looking to survive by taking advantage of the global economy—particularly through alleviating the pressures, hassles and cost of international banking needs,” Liu said.

As circumstances changed, the company kept on innovating. With most employees working remotely, Airwallex developed virtual employee cards. With a secure login, the cards can be created in minutes. Managers can set spending limits and track transactions in real time whilst their teams are empowered to make purchasing decisions quickly.

The Next 5 Years

Airwallex now has more than 500 employees across 12 offices worldwide. It operates in more than 130 countries and more than 50 currencies. Not bad for the first five years. Liu and co-founders Jack Zhang, Max Li, and Xijing Dai learned a lot in that time. They discovered that whilst their initial forex software fit a need in the market, they couldn’t stop there. The management team had to constantly be in touch with customers to learn what their other needs were.

Doing that facilitated the rapid growth that turned Airwallex into Australia’s third billion-dollar tech startup, after Atlassian and Canva. Such a fast pace meant Airwallex needed to recruit on a large scale.

“We didn’t have a dedicated HR team for some time, so my co-founders and I were heavily involved in hiring,” Liu said. “What we soon learnt is it simply isn’t practical for senior leaders to devote the time and energy needed to secure top talent. Setting up a dedicated recruitment team has seen the quality of our employees increase exponentially.”

With a rock-solid foundation and many lessons learned, Airwallex will continue to seek out customers’ pain points and create innovative products to empower businesses of all sizes to grow without borders, and by doing so, contribute to the growth of the global economy.

“We aim to become the financial cloud for businesses in the new digital economy. To deliver on this ambition, we will continue to accelerate our trademark execution velocity in product-innovation, infrastructure, and geographical expansion, all the while ensuring we continue to deliver outstanding customer experience,” Liu said.

If you’re looking to expand your business globally, we suggest you hop on this unicorn’s back.