Matt Oppenheimer of Remitly: “Perseverance”

Remitly is on a mission to transform the lives of millions of immigrants and their families with the most trusted and innovative financial services products. Remitly’s vision is one of financial inclusion for immigrants by ensuring they have fair access to financial services, and a faster, easier, more transparent and cost-effective way to send money […]

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Remitly is on a mission to transform the lives of millions of immigrants and their families with the most trusted and innovative financial services products. Remitly’s vision is one of financial inclusion for immigrants by ensuring they have fair access to financial services, and a faster, easier, more transparent and cost-effective way to send money internationally.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Oppenheimer, co-founder and CEO of Remitly.

The inspiration behind Remitly came when Matt was working for Barclays in Kenya and saw how difficult it was to send and receive money overseas. He began working on the problem immediately as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Highway 12 Ventures in Idaho and launched the company from Techstars in Seattle. Matt holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 in the Pacific Northwest and has been recognized as a Puget Sound Business Journal 40 Under 40 honoree for his work with Remitly.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to live in Kenya, working as Head of Mobile Banking for Barclays Bank. There, I realized how reliant families in Kenya were on money sent from loved ones working abroad. I also saw that the process of sending money between countries was painful, expensive and inconvenient. That up-close look at remittances was an eye-opener, and I became convinced there was a better way. That was the first spark of the idea that ultimately became Remitly. With my co-founders, I formed the company in 2011 to disrupt the financial services and traditional remittance industries, and make a difference for immigrant communities around the world.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Remitly is on a mission to transform the lives of millions of immigrants and their families with the most trusted and innovative financial services products. Remitly’s vision is one of financial inclusion for immigrants by ensuring they have fair access to financial services, and a faster, easier, more transparent and cost-effective way to send money internationally.

We differ from others in the industry in our mission in a number of ways.

Every year, immigrants lose tens of billions of dollars to excessive, obscure remittance fees, which are taken in a way that marginalizes their financial control. Our remittance services are transparent, and we provide both free and flexible pricing options that significantly undercut the starting fees of traditional remittance providers.

Remitly will always put the customer first. Our entire suite of offerings are developed across the key pillars of financial inclusion for all, increasing adoption of and access to digital financial services products and resolving the multi-billion dollar gaps in the current options available to immigrants and people in developing countries.

We’re also a digital-first solution, backed by a powerful platform that leverages machine learning and data science for a seamless, safe and trusted customer experience.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In our very early days, we started out by trying to build the first “search engine for remittances,” to help bring more price transparency to the industry. It turns out that this is not the best model to transform remittances, so we pivoted to become the actual money transmitter. Instead of just bringing transparency, we now do that and offer a trustworthy, affordable, easy-to-use solution for remittances. I also made some funny mistakes early on posting jobs with titles that didn’t actually fit what we were looking for, like when we posted a spec for a CTO, when we really needed a technical co-founder.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Mark Solon of Highway 12 Ventures and TechStars Ventures has made a huge impact. I first met him when I was in high school and I shadowed him at work. Later, I interned at Highway 12 Ventures during college and eventually became an entrepreneur-in-residence there.

Mark has been a great mentor along the way. He encouraged me to take the road less traveled and take the opportunity to work in Kenya when I was debating multiple jobs within Barclays. He advised me to start Remitly when I was in Kenya and offered invaluable early-stage startup advice. I applied to TechStars upon his suggestion, which became a major part of Remitly’s successful start.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

From Remitly’s standpoint, disruption is positive when it breaks down barriers that reinforce unfair, inequitable systems. Financial services is one of those systems. While many big banks may argue that their businesses have “withstood the test of time,” I believe it has only done so for a select group of customers. The traditional financial system’s models have disproportionately taken economic power away from immigrant communities. It is this dynamic, and dynamics like this in other industries, that beg for disruption.

A downside to disruption is when companies try to disrupt the wrong things. For example, in fintech, we want to disrupt the issues above. But we need to do so without disrupting the important aspects that are working in financial services. The critical security, fraud and compliance systems currently in place are crucial for every financial services provider, and shouldn’t be thrown out or overhauled.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Perseverance. Like any startup, Remitly has faced many pivots, obstacles and challenges, especially in the early days. Perseverance is the key, and perhaps the most important differentiator, between startups that succeed or fail.

Customers. Business all comes down to customers. I live and breathe this and so does Remitly. From our very first customer, Earl Golla, to our 3 millionth customer, every decision comes back to what’s best for the people we serve.

Vision. It’s important to have a clear vision so the team knows where a company is headed, and the impact they can make on getting there.

To add a fourth, empathy is also an important guiding principle. Having empathy for everyone around you makes it easier to learn about customers, team members, and investors, so you can always be working on becoming a better partner.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Remitly’s strategy is wholly focused on customer centricity. We live out our commitment to customers by engaging with them to understand their needs and adjusting our products to directly impact the challenges they face. This focused work has led to the elimination of forms, codes, agents, extra time and fees typical of traditional, century-old money transfer and banking processes.

We are constantly optimizing our product, business and value proposition to reduce cost and friction for our customers, including leveraging advanced machine learning to speed up verification and transfer processes. Because of these efforts, most of our customers have a positive experience, save money and convert into repeat and referral business.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

For Remitly, transforming remittances was only the beginning. We continue to improve our remittance product and expand our robust disbursement network to give our customers optionality and peace of mind. Earlier this year, we launched our Passbook offering, a digital, modern banking service that eliminates the barriers that cause many immigrants in the U.S. to remain unbanked and underbanked. We have additional offerings on the horizon, all of which will be designed to meet the unique needs of immigrants.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

The Masters of Scale podcast episode with Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky. He shares some powerful insights and examples, specifically that he pursued “marketing channels that don’t scale,” early on, with the intention of not acquiring customers, but rather learning from them. We followed this advice, and early on, rented a booth in a mall in front of a remittance center. We knew this wouldn’t make a huge impact on growing our customer base, but it was a perfect way to learn from customers and leverage their feedback to iterate on our product.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It will all work out.” These are my grandmother’s words of wisdom, and they are so important to my family that my dad actually used them as the title of his book about my grandmother. For a startup, which will inevitably face big highs and lows, it’s a crucial reminder and a way to stay on track during the low moments.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe equity and financial inclusion are the biggest issues of our lifetime. I also openly oppose government policies that harm the hard-working immigrants who contribute to the success of our communities and economy and advocate for policies that strengthen immigrant communities. I’ll continue to be a voice for change on these issues and bring all that I can to support these movements. I hope my humble contributions can inspire others with privilege to fight for change as well.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on Twitter [email protected]_oppy, and our company is @remitly. We also post customer stories, culture and finance news on our blog

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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