In an age where an entrepreneur can set up operations anywhere in the world, thanks to remote working and business-friendly regulations, many traditional banks are struggling to keep pace with their needs.
International banking transfers can be painfully slow for businesses that want to make real-time payments to suppliers and other stakeholders.
Even the simple act of opening a bank account requires customers to jump through several hoops, in some countries.
Ivan Zhiznevsky, co-founder and chief executive of payments platform 3S Money, learnt that the hard way when he started a business in the Netherlands in 2016.
“I got all the paperwork done on a newly incorporated company from a public notary and on the same day, I went to sort out a bank account,” he says.
After filling out a form to open an account, he was informed by the manager that the lender only dealt with Dutch citizens. The bank in question was ING, one of the world’s largest financial institutions.
“And then the same story repeats at other banks and overall, it took me four months to get a bank account for a company set up in the Netherlands and run by a foreign national,” Mr Zhiznevsky says.
“This is one of the barriers that prevents people from trading cross-border and prevents them from offering their fantastic services to customers overseas.”
His experience led Mr Zhiznevsky to start 3S Money in 2018, along with Eugene Dugaev and Andrei Dikouchine.
“I found out that many people had similar problems, especially those who want to start something in a new country,” says Mr Zhiznevsky.
3S Money is a subscription-based cross border payments platform that allows transactions in more than 190 countries.
“We are plugged into many different local payment systems that allows our payments to travel in real time almost instantly, where a traditional bank can only access the local domestic payment system.”
The company’s “modular” IT approach enables it to use different types of technology from several providers and integrate them on one platform, he says.
“This allows us to easily replace these technologies with newer or more sophisticated options as they become available in the market.”
The company also gives its customers access to more than 65 currencies, including all African currencies.
“A local bank can normally can give you up to 10 major currencies, but quite often now our customers have cross-border businesses [and] they are dealing with more than one country,” says Mr Zhiznevsky.
The heavy reliance on correspondent banking for cross-border payments is expensive, the International Monetary Fund's deputy managing director Bo Li said late last year.
“Banks rely on accounts in other banks in other jurisdictions to move money across borders and make payments on their clients’ behalf. Smaller banks, in turn, use larger banks to do this,” he said.
“This is expensive. Customers may pay large spreads on the exchange rate. Fees compound as many intermediaries each get a cut. And competition in these services is actually decreasing: the number of correspondent banks globally has fallen by about a quarter over the last decade.”
However, new ways to access digital financial services have made payment systems very efficient, inexpensive and more inclusive, he said.
Real-time cross-border payments can save businesses a significant amount of money annually by reducing transaction costs and increasing efficiency.
The use of digital payments and real-time cross-border payments can generate cost savings of up to $80 billion a year for businesses globally by 2030, according to a McKinsey report.
3S Money, which has grown from a single co-working desk in London to a team of more than 200 employees spread across six locations around the globe, has customers in industries ranging from software to commodity trading.
One of the company’s clients is Pangaia, a UK-based sustainable fashion brand that has been worn by celebrities such as Bella Hadid and Justin Bieber.
“They came to us because they had quite a few shareholders coming from different countries. They have Americans, English, Swiss [and] other nationals and no bank wanted to accommodate that complicated set-up,” says Mr Zhiznevsky.
Pangaia, which sells its products on online marketplaces in the US and Europe, has to distribute payments to its clothing design team in Portugal, as well as to its supplier in India and to various agencies that advertise its brand in both the American and Asian markets.
“It’s all international,” he says.
3S Money, which has its Middle East headquarters in Dubai, raised £3 million ($3.7 million) in a series B funding round in April 2021. The company raised £1.5 million in 2020.
Among the company’s investors are Dubai-based Visor International and TMT Investments, which also owns a stake in Bolt, the ride-hailing and food delivery app.
“3S Money combines an excellent innovative product for cross-border merchants with a professional and ambitious team,” Artyom Inutin, co-founder of TMT Investments, said earlier.
The company plans to raise funds to prepare for a potential initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange within the next two years, Mr Zhiznevsky says.
“We were purely operating using the proceeds from sales. We reached break-even in 2020 [and] Covid helped a lot,” he says.
3S Money’s revenue in 2021 soared 400 per cent as the pandemic accelerated the shift to digital payments.
Top-line growth has since “slowed down” but the company is supporting client payments worth $300 million every month, Mr Zhiznevsky says.
3S Money opened an office in the Dubai International Financial Centre in January and expects the emirate to be its “main point” of growth for the next 12 months to 24 months.
“We are really looking forward to be represented here and we’ll explore more opportunities that Dubai provides,” he says.
This year, the total value of transactions in the digital payments segment is expected to hit $28.74 billion in the UAE and $106.30 billion in the GCC, according to Statista.
Globally, digital payments are expected to grow to $8.26 trillion by 2024, from $4.4 trillion in 2020.
The role of FinTechs could also receive a further boost in light of the recent banking crisis.
The collapse of US lender Silicon Valley Bank last month triggered a turbulent period that stoked fears of a global banking crisis similar to when Washington Mutual collapsed in 2008.
In the days after SVB's collapse, mid-size lenders Signature and Silvergate Bank both failed and shares tumbled at other regional banks.
Contagion fears also spread to Europe, where Switzerland's Credit Suisse was acquired by rival UBS in a deal engineered by Swiss government authorities.
“Failures of banks and financial institutions will continue to happen because it's the nature of any economy or any sector,” says Mr Zhiznevsky.
“Looking at the industry as a whole, we'll see more and more specialisation and segmentation and that's where plenty of different FinTechs can come in to fix very specific problems for their customers.”
Q&A with Ivan Zhiznevsky, co-founder of 3S Money
What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?
I have a dream that one day I can launch a start-up that would deal with affordable art, so that every single person on this planet can have beautiful things. Artsy is a great example of a marketplace, but they are more focused on famous galleries and artists. I would rather disrupt and democratise this space.
What is your next big dream to make happen?
To reduce my screen time. Currently, it is at roughly eight hours per day and I'm really looking forward to bringing it down. I even started using a platform that enables access to a few apps that I use on a daily basis, but it is not helping.
What new skills have you picked up in the process of launching your company?
Who is your role model?
I do affirmations every day. I am trying to be my own role model.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I think the boring answer is that I would just want to keep doing what I'm enjoying. My fellow co-founder Eugene once told me that he wished we stopped hiring more people and stopped growing, so that we could continue having fun as a small team. Now I understand what he was talking about.