Entrepreneur Interviews: Brett Meyers, CEO, CurrencyFair

As a part of a series with a focus on entrepreneurs, Forbes writer Dan Simon sat down with Brett Meyers the founder and CEO of CurrencyFair. His peer to peer foreign exchange company allows you to exchange currency and send funds to bank accounts worldwide while avoiding international bank charges.

Brett: CurrencyFair was formed by a group of expats. The idea came about when my partners and I realized how expensive it was to transfer money internationally. Instead of using the banks for international transfers, we’d exchange between ourselves, I’d pay say pounds into my friend’s bank account, and he’d pay dollars into mine. We then formed an international online marketplace where currency could be transferred through local banks, avoiding their big commission charges on the exchange rate as well as the transfer fees. We let people choose their own rates; you can see all the orders on the market, you can choose to take up the offers that are there already, or offer up your own money at your own rate. This cancels out most of the bank’s international transfer fees, making it 90% cheaper than using the traditional method.

Dan: You mentioned you had partners, were they your partners from inception?

Brett: Yes, I originally had this idea over 10 years ago. I felt the banks were taking unnecessarily large commissions on cross-border FX transfers, usually 3% or so but sometimes as much as 6%! By 2007 I thought we should really do something about this because no one else had done it and it was an obvious idea. I put a white paper together and I sent it to a few of my friends.

Dan: Where were you working at the time?
Brett: I was in Ireland at that stage. I had worked at JPMorgan from 2003-2006 and just moved to a mini startup, consisting of myself and one of my current co-founders, in the particular area of structured finance, reporting and compliance testing, something that we thought could be done better by an independent rather than a bank. We approached a well-respected independent trustee company called Law Debenture within which we formed our own department. We were doing well and then the financial markets started to fall apart. It was a time when people’s faith in banks was shaky and I said to my friend, we might want to start looking at this currency thing, this might be the time.

Dan: How much courage did you need to go out on your own?

Brett: Well obviously it’s a risk but actually I think in many ways my partners had to be braver. I have a lot of confidence in myself and no dependents. So I knew if I failed I would be OK in the end. One of my partners though has four kids and so I think him coming on board with me required a lot of courage. For me if this had failed I’d known I’d be able to do something else and I didn’t have to support anyone. In some ways for me it was simple; I think it’s more courageous for those people who have a lot more on the line.

Dan: What did it take for you to move from employee to entrepreneur? What was the moment that you jumped?

Brett: We sat down with Enterprise Ireland quite early and just rattled off the basics of what we were going to do. They saw something in the concept straight away, and put us immediately on their High Potential Start-up program and gave us a mentor who we sat with for a few sessions. Looking back, we originally had the notion that we could set this up in our spare time and we could quit our jobs when it was ready to launch. We didn’t realize the level of commitment this would take. This mentor said to us, “Look I think you’ve got something here that can work, but you have to have at least one or two of you full time on this right now or it’s not going to happen.” Without that advice it really may never have happened.

Dan: So this mentor was obviously very important?
Brett: Yes, when I think back to then I realize how little we knew. I think that’s why startups tend to happen in communities, because of the value of having other people around who have done it before who can mentor you. Otherwise we’re all just bright people trying to tackle the same issues from scratch over and over.

Dan: There are some entrepreneurs who become entrepreneurs because they are very misanthropic, you seem to want to take people along for the ride.

Brett: Even to this day when we hire people, everyone working here feels that they are in some way owners of the business. I think that’s hugely important. So if this does work, and it’s going pretty well so far, I want everyone who has been part of it to get something out of all the hard work they’ve put in.

Dan: Could you have done it better on your own?

Brett: I think we needed all of us there because I didn’t have all the skills required. Perhaps in some cases I could have brought in different people, rather than friends.

Dan: Would you do that partner thing differently looking back

Brett: I think building a start-up with friends has challenges as well as benefits. There can be a tendency to do things a bit loosely, not define roles and responsibilities clearly enough and this can be a problem when you start to scale. At that point you need to get the right structure in place and bring other people on board, and I think we’ve done that now.

Dan: Do you have any thoughts about when is the right time to start? Do you just push this idea out there or are you more nervous it will get stolen?
Brett: I’m not really that protective of the idea because it’s pretty simple. I’m sure that loads of other people have had this peer to peer idea for international transfers, and in fact we’ve even heard from current customers that used to do it themselves informally just like we used to! What I’m proud of is that we’ve actually managed to take this simple idea and get it off the ground, to the point where it’s a viable and valuable business that people really like using. In the end it’s all about the execution not the idea. I think we were lucky in some ways that we had both the technical knowledge as well as many years’ banking experience on the team, so we knew how to plug in to the existing system and just do it better. There are a lot of regulatory, banking and security issues around fintech innovation, you are dealing with people’s money after all, and we were well placed to handle that.

Dan: What advice would you give your pre-entrepreneurial self if you could?

Brett: I spent a lot of years in different jobs, both tech and finance, some where I learned a lot, others where I learned less. In retrospect, I’d have started my entrepreneurial career earlier. If I could go back to my early twenties, I’d tell myself to just take the leap instead of waiting.

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