Wise Australia: The story of Wise and Its Rising Popularity in Australia
Wise, formerly known as TransferWise, Wise has become not just a worldwide solution for cross-border payments, but a model startup in how to scale a fintech firm. Already being a billion-dollar company in its short lifespan so far, Wise has taken Australia – and the world – by storm.
This isn’t to say it’s been an easy ride. The public were sceptical at first with letting a non-bank handle their money. With no deposit insurance by the FCS, Wise has been working hard to be seen as a trustworthy daily driver for payments and transfers.
Origins of Wise
Wise has a very relatable and humanised origin story. In London, two Estonian friends, Taavet Hinrikus (who happens to be Skype’s first-ever employee) and Kristo Käärmann, shared a frustration when dealing with currency conversion. Taavet was receiving his salary in Euros, but was living in London. Kristo, who was also living in London, wanted to send his GBP salary back home to Estonia and pay his mortgage, which was denominated in Euros.
At this time in 2011, both were having to lose 3-5% in the cross-border transfers. Frustrated by the wiring fees and poor exchange rates, they directly brokered their own deal with one another, swapping Taavet’s Euros for Kristo’s Pounds at the perfect mid-market rate.
But really, they didn’t exchange anything, as Taavet just deposited his Euros into Kristo’s European bank account, whilst Kristo deposited his Pounds into Taavet’s British bank account.
This informal yet perfectly efficient arrangement led them to the idea of creating a fintech solution that avoids bank transfer fees, and instead keeps money in domestic accounts. This treasury-style system would mean that they handle cross-border transfers internally by having accounts around the world, without having to actually cross the border via SWIFT.
Wise’s Unique Selling Proposition
This peer-to-peer and treasury-style way of handling currency was revolutionary in the context of how the public (and businesses) were used to exchanging money. So far, it was mostly expensive wires, currency exchange shops, and Western Union that were the norm.
Wise didn’t just offer cheaper transfers, but much faster and convenient ones too. Being against the status quo at the time, they took a tech company approach to building their app. It became extremely easy for customers to use, and the benefits of the financial infrastructure carried over to the tech infrastructure – it was possible to have, in one app, an AUD, Euro, GBP, and USD account, among many others.
How much does Wise cost?
Usually, users pay a price for convenience. Wise’s more efficient processes, though, meant transfers were both faster and cheaper. Setting up an overseas virtual account takes seconds (a feature that came a little later), and the standard currency margin (the amount lost in an exchange) was only around 0.5% for major currency pairs. The cherry on top was to make this low margin pricing structure fully transparent, which was another win over the banks.
Wise’s Growth and Evolution
Wise quickly grew attention due to all of its unique selling points. It’s also important to remember that Wise predates its main competitor, Revolut, by 4 years, affording it a first-mover advantage.
By 2017, Wise was easily moving over a billion dollars around each month for its 1 million-strong customer base. Wise is currently valued at around $5 billion after its 2021 IPO saw it rocket to $11 billion.
Besides being floated on the stock market, Wise’s addition of introducing multi-currency accounts was also a major milestone in their success. Now, it wasn’t just a platform for transfers, but a place for small businesses to store currencies efficiently, allowing them to make exchanges or transfers as and when it was preferable.
Success didn’t come as easy as it may sound, as there was a lot of marketing effort from Wise to get in the public eye and build trust. Whilst their marketing efforts were at times dubious and saw backlash, they built trust in four key ways:
Offering a digital experience superior to traditional alternatives
An easy way to pull in new customers is to have an inviting platform. Wise did this by focusing on a very slick app experience that was a stark contrast to the sluggish online banking options, who were reluctant to spearhead the smartphone user experience. Immediately, this put Wise in a good light and helped with marketing.
Acknowledging and addressing the trust issue
Wise didn’t avoid the topic of trust or that it wasn’t a licensed bank, they instead tackled this issue head on. By being very vocal, particularly through their blogging platform, Wise pursued credentials and financial regulators’ approval around the world.
Engaging with the media for transparency and credibility
Wise was also media savvy, knowing what gets attention. They used the media to help highlight how transparent they are as a company, with an ongoing dialogue through interviews, blogging insights, and social media usage. There is also a “Wise in the news” section on the website, which links to news articles that they have been featured in.
Encouraging user reviews and leveraging positive feedback
Wise never shied away from feedback. This is, in part, due to their confidence in building a successful technology platform. These technical issues can be resolved, and they wanted to hear about them early on.
Wise in Australia
Knowing that Australia was an important market, particularly for a London-based company with a lot of European ties, Wise began its operations here in 2015.
Last year, Wise Australia Pty became the first non-banking entity to create an exchange settlement account with the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). This is a testament to Wise’s credibility, as it can now connect to the real-time payments system, which means fiercer competition with the local banks. You may think this is redundant for a company that uses P2P or treasury techniques, but Wise only does this sometimes, and still completes SWIFT transfers when it suits. Now, they can bypass banks for all Australian transfers.
This is rare for regulators to invite a non-bank so closely into its central financial system, affording it the same powers as banks have when it comes to moving money around. This means Wise now has more options, which will make things even cheaper for customers.
Wise Australia’s Cost Savings
Wise has brought a lot of cost savings to Australians, as wire fees in Australia can be steep along with traditional currency exchanges. A simple vacation to New Zealand or Bali becomes much simpler — no need to exchange cash, simply take the Wise borderless spending card and use it as you would back home. The fees are minimal, and it would only exchange what you need as and when you spend. Or, use the ATM overseas for cash like a local does.
For Australian businesses, in particular international marketplace sellers, they could now avoid PayPal’s excruciatingly high seller and conversion fees. These proprietary exchanges would often take over 3% as a margin, meaning that a $200,000 revenue business would lose ~$6,000 revenue a year.
Virtual accounts would become a normal way to receive sales revenue into, and these can mean European buyers pay into the seller’s European virtual account. This money could be used to pay European suppliers or to exchange at a preferential time, perhaps holding onto the Euros in order to perform a larger bulk transfer at a competing currency broker.
However, there is still some room for improvement. Migrants in Australia still cannot use cash remittance services to send money back home in a cheap way. And, for the backpackers and business travellers, Wise has barely scratched the surface of travel rewards like airport lounge access and travel insurance – two things that Revolut is big on.
Wise money transfer Australia have stuck to their M.O. where transfers remain simple and cheap, much like Taavet and Kristo’s first ever deal. It is that spirit that has got Wise this far, into a global fintech powerhouse and a certified unicorn.
Wise.com Australia was a chapter that began early on into their story, has been arguably the first to really kickstart a backlash against our reliance on complacent and lacklustre banking services.