World First co-founder Jonathan Quin on his eight-year-old exchange empire
Since starting out in his basement in 2004 – there is photographic evidence if you keep reading – WorldFirst co-founder Jonathan Quin has built up quite a FinTech goliath.
To date, his online foreign exchange company has transacted more than £13bn globally. In the last two weeks alone World First has exchanged more than £200m. I know because I have watched the company’s trade calculator, displayed smack dab in the middle of the website, whizz past from below £12bn to above £13bn. It has become a bit of an obsession – albeit a relatively daunting one.
And the numbers certainly appear to be having their desired effect; the business community seems in awe of the London-based firm.
Last month, World First was listed as among Europe’s top 50 FinTech firms, but at this point that award just joins a long line of equally impressive achievements. In the last few years, Quin and co-founder Nick Robinson have walked away with a UK National Business Award, been part of the highly coveted Investec Hot 100 and also made an appearance on the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100.
It comes as no surprise then that Quin is late for our interview. Former city bankers, turn award-winning entrepreneurs, don’t always have all that much time for us lowly journalists. But as I prepare to swallow the same old line about an emergency in Singapore, Quin’s apology gives me a shock.
It appears he has not been brokering a billion-dollar deal in Asia, or fluffing his corporate ego by calling his customers muppets. Instead, he has been busy ferrying forgotten school supplies to his young daughter. He’s now rushed and flustered, but he just didn’t have the heart to see her get into trouble.
And it is with that disarming introduction that one begins to see what kind of company World First really is.
While managing to amass all their various trophies, they have also been named among the best places to work in the UK’s 2010 and 2011 Best Companies Guides.
“We thought that it was easier to hire nice people and to teach them trading than to hire traders and try and teach them to be nice,” says Quin.
Quin boasts that this approach has helped the firm keep the highest retention rates in the industry, even as the London base has taken on some 150 employees, flanked by smaller offices in America and Asia.
“We try to create a positive atmosphere so there are always post-work Friday drinks, regular parties and free breakfasts every day,” says Quin.
Oh and while World Firsters are “expected to work hard, they are banned from working late.”
“I don’t think that crazy hours help the team or the business and I think it’s bad for our staff so we are pretty strict about this,” says Quin.
Seriously, the PR guys handling the whole Anthony Jenkins “nice guy” of banking strategy should sit down and have a tête-à-tête with this guy – it’s like talking to the Mother Teresa of finance.
Indeed, World First owe their awe inspiring transformation into a FinTech wonder kid to a quasi-charitable act, maybe even the great Mother Teresa would have shied away from.
The truth is that neither Quin or his co-founder and fellow city FX banker turn entrepreneur Nick Robinson were tech guys. When they started out, they began with a simple idea that by grouping together transactions from smaller and medium-sized clients – and taking a smaller cut for themselves – they could offer up better exchange rates to their customers and make some money along the way. Even saints have to eat after all.
There were no computer algorithms, no tech whizz programmes and certainly no apps – at least not until a heavy metal-loving student walked into their office in search of a sales job.
“We had a lucky break as we hired a Cambridge maths intern in our first summer. He applied for a sales job and turned up in black tracksuit trousers and a black Megadeath T-Shirt and could barely look us in the eyes,” says Quin.
Most people would not have let him through the door, but the World First founders felt sorry the rocker had come all the way. They sat down with him long enough to realise that, while shooting for a sales role might have been as unlikely as Eric Pickles winning the Miss Universe competition, the young grad could code.
And like that – eureka! By the end of the summer, World First had the backbone of the trading system they still use today. The 16 developers they have consequently hired have only elaborated and perfected the original structure, which is now the company’s pride and joy – alongside their free morning croissants.
It is these systems that allow World First to keep that transaction clock ticking twenty-four hours a day. It is all compliance checked and done automatically and can trade globally.
The system’s speed also means that World First holds the mantle for the world’s fastest currency exchange. The Guinness World Record team ultimately could not endorse the trade, as it involved more than one process, but Quin insists that the seven minute UK to Germany transfer was the fastest that anyone has ever done it. “It normally takes days,” he says.
But while the systems may be difficult, the concept is shockingly simple.
“While working at the bank we saw how massive companies were getting amazing rates and service from the banks but we kept seeing that smaller businesses were not getting very good rates and not very much for their service,” says Quin. “We thought there was an opportunity to try and plug that gap.”
Foreign exchange lending works on a three tier system. There is the interbank lending rate, where the banks deal with each other in large amounts and tiny margins, then the business rate, then the rate given to us poor sods.
While rates differ widely from transaction to transaction depending on whether it is a private or a corporate client and on how much is being exchanging to give transaction averages, World First insist they are always extremely competitive.
“If you want to send £10,000 to France, with a high street bank you will be about 3% away from the interbank lending rate. So on £10,000 that’s £300,” says Quin.
“We knew that we could get the good rate because we do a lot of business. Last year we transacted around £4.7bn so we get that interbank rate that big institutions get but add a smaller amount to that – it really is as simple as that.”
It is so simple in fact that World First is by no means a lone player in the game. The competition is stiff and growing. But the company thinks it has an edge – regulation. That’s right, World First love regulation.
“We used to worry about regulation but funnily enough now we think it is good,” says Quin. “We worry that smaller competitors could go bust or something – so we want there to be solid regulations to try and prevent that from happening.
“We don’t want to see the industry get tarnished by people doing something silly, by breaching some compliance rule or going bust. Perhaps I am being selfish but it does act as a barrier to entry,” he adds.
The sceptic inside me wants to cry foul at this point – things are rarely as good as they appear – but the stats suggest otherwise. An impressive 99% of customers are “willing to recommend” the service, while a staggering 99.6% say they would use it again.
Indeed, the consistent g
rowth figures suggest this isn’t an elaborate dupe.
World First last year opened a base in Washington, and are building up their Hong Kong and Singapore offices too. They also run a 20-man operation in Australia and expect to expand their UK team further to include more bilingual traders and staff.
“We have always thought long term, even from the very beginning,” says Quin. “We like this magic number of 26% annual growth, which means that every three years you double in size. That is always our target.”
Shame then that the ex-banker shows so little respect for his target – the company’s average growth rate over the last six years has actually been closer to 36%.
So what next? Sell big and buy a private island? Or maybe do a Zuckerberg and try and enter politics?
Sadly, while both options would have made for a great little literally conclusion, neither is quite Quin’s style. He loves his company and his staff too much to go anywhere, he says.
“I have always wanted to start a business so I went into the City with the plan of getting out by the time I was 30,” says Quin. “That is what I did and this is where I want to be. I’m excited to have built the company and to want to keep building it.”
And if current projections are right, build it he will – to almost £6bn in transactions this year, and more than £7.5bn in 2014. Just imagine that transaction ticker clocking all that…
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