273: The Making of a Fintech Unicorn, with Airwallex Founder Jack Zhang

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By Nathan Chan. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.
How Jack Zhang and the Airwallex team built a billion-dollar company in just three years. By the time he was 30, Jack Zhang had already launched more than 10 businesses, with interests ranging from coffee to real estate.

While many of them were successful, Zhang never got to the point where he left his full-time job.

“I just tried to do different things to see if I could achieve something or feel happy about what I was doing,” he says, “but I hadn’t really found anything I was passionate about.”

He certainly wasn’t afraid of the hard work and long hours that came from starting and sustaining businesses, saying that “work was never a torture.” Despite all that time and effort he invested in each startup, he ultimately felt that none of these businesses ever amounted to much more than a new way to make some extra money. Nothing ever became a greater purpose.

With a passion for technology and a love for writing code, Zhang longed to do something within the tech sphere that would have a real impact. Like so many serial entrepreneurs, he finally found a business he was passionate about by looking at his own personal pain points.

Zhang would become the co-founder and CEO of financial tech company Airwallex, which eliminates foreign transaction fees in an increasingly globalized world. In doing so, he’s created a company that, in just three years, entered the $1 billion club.

While the creation of a fabled “unicorn” company was far more nitty-gritty and far less magical than one might imagine, he still owes a little bit of his success to that almighty and mystical force: luck.

The Magic of the Perfect Team

The idea for Airwallex came from the difficulties Zhang and one of the co-founders ran into while running import businesses between Asia and Australia. Sending international payments through a payment service provider (such as PayPal) not only slowed the process but piled on an unpleasant foreign transaction fee.

So, with his background in tech and foreign exchange trading, Zhang and friend decided to tackle the problem themselves. They soon invited three other friends on board as co-founders, forming the Airwallex quintet: Jack Zhang, Jacob Dai, Ki-Lok Wong, Lucy Yueting Liu, and Max Li.

With $1 million invested between Zhang and his first co-founder, along with an additional $2 million from outside investors, they began creating the first version of their product, geared toward the SME (small-to-medium-sized enterprise) market.

“ believed in the team we had at the time, and believed in the company’s vision, and believed we were solving something quite important in the global scale,” Zhang says.

And as the business grew, so did the team. But Zhang says that as they hired new people, they presented an intentional hurdle to ensure that new additions were passionate about their vision. Every new hire was required to take a pay cut to work at Airwallex.

Zhang says that, for ambitious, passionate, top-tier talent, the money isn’t the deciding factor in where they choose to work. He believes they pay far more attention to whether the work aligns with their passions and if the scope of the work presents an exciting challenge. And these were the kinds of people Zhang wanted to hire.

“I still think that the people willing to take a massive pay cut to join you are the most fundamental people who really believe in the vision,” he says. Even with that condition, Airwallex was able to scale from 80 to 320 employees in just 12 months.

While hiring was going well and the business continued to grow, because the creation of Airwallex cost so much, they flew through the initial $3 million investment and needed another round of financing to go to market. Turns out, building an expansive, global financial network isn’t easy.

Hard Work and a Little Luck

“My personal experience is full of luck, really,” Zhang says, “but also we put an incredible amount of effort into the business in the first 12 months. Me and my co-founders slept in the office every day.”

They put in long days, but that gave them a familiarity with the product that only comes from an all-in, hands-on approach. And the challenges didn’t stop Zhang and the rest of the Airwallex crew. It only made their belief in the product grow.

“When you talk to investors, they can feel your genuine passion,” he says. “That honesty—that genuine transparency—about how you want to solve , and you can describe it in detail.”

Investors ended up putting in another $13 million raised, but they were still only able to cover further development of the product. So they decided to begin pursuing other opportunities that could bring in revenue, rather than focusing solely on the SME market. They created a suite of APIs (application program interfaces) that would appeal to much larger corporations, positioning themselves as more of an infrastructure company. But they were still living on borrowed time.

Zhang says that, for the first two-and-a-half years, they didn’t bring in any revenue, with only three to six months of survival guaranteed at any given time.

And that’s where Lady Luck collided with crazy hard work, and the first signs of the unicorn-to-be showed its face.

“We just went from almost no transactions to processing billions of transactions a month,” Zhang says.

While long hours and business savvy played a major role in his company’s success, Zhang is also quick to credit forces beyond his control. He says plain ’ol luck is one of the reasons that his business took off, which perhaps accounts for Airwallex’s good timing and sudden influx of users.

Gazing Into the Future

Because Zhang and the rest of the Airwallex team focused on building a strong foundation and infrastructure, they were able to attract high-profile clients like MasterCard, and retain them when they came on board.

These important connections then put Zhang in the room with other top executives who were excited to try out Airwallex in their own businesses. And as the infrastructure grew through these strategic investments, it only added value to the business.

Today, Airwallex has built connectivity with more than 50 banks across the world, is equipped for international banking through accounts unhindered by borders, and grants access to competitive exchange rates and international payments, with more features on the horizon.

Zhang says he is always looking at least five years out, planning for the future of the company. He also invests time in learning from others who have been in his shoes by attending conferences and interviewing other CEOs.

“I spend a lot of time interviewing people to learn from people,” he says. “Whether they are good or bad, there are things I can learn.”

After three years of explosive growth, and now with the added pressure of leading a billion-dollar company, Zhang isn’t ready to slow down.

With his “get shit done and grow” mentality, he plans to continue taking Airwallex to new heights.

“Not everyone can do it. You have to sacrifice a lot of things," Zhang says. “Are you willing to sacrifice your house, your time with family, everything to do that? If the answer is yes, then maybe you are born to be an entrepreneur.”

To learn more about Airwallex, check out airwallex.com.

Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo

Key Takeaways
  • Why Zhang didn’t leave his full-time job, even after launching 10 side businesses
  • The problem Zhang encountered that inspired the idea for fintech company Airwallex
  • Why every new Airwallex hire was required to take a pay cut
  • How a pinch of luck and tons of hard work eventually paid off
  • What Zhang believes inspired investors to put another $13 million into Airwallex
  • From no revenue at all to showing signs of unicorn status
  • How Airwallex started to attract high-profile customers like MasterCard
  • The journey to securing a $1 billion valuation in three years
  • Why Zhang believes in planning at least five years out

279 episodes