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Jakub Zakrzewski: “There is a great pool of engineers in Central and Eastern Europe”

In late October 2019, Revolut officially launched operations in Singapore, the first country outside of Europe. CEEC met up with Jakub Zakrzewski, Head of Growth, APAC (and from Poland) to discuss the journey, the challenges, and talent it took to get so far, as well as how Revolut plans to conquer Southeast Asia.

CEEC: Jakub, for those who are not too much in the area of fintech and payments, please tell us, in a nutshell; what is Revolut?

Jakub Zakrzewski: Revolut is a multi-currency account that is linked to a debit card which allows people to spend money internationally, for free, at the interbank exchange rate (which is the rate you can see in the market without any mark-ups).
It allows you to send money internationally, also for free, between Revolut users around the world. The transaction is instant. Furthermore, with Revolut you can also withdraw cash from any ATM around the world where VISA is accepted, for free, up to a certain limit.

The mission that Revolut had and why it started operating was allowing people to move money globally, instantly and for free. This was the mission since the beginning when Revolut started in 2015 and since then it has evolved (especially in Europe) into a day-to-day account and a day-to-day card because people just love the experience. In many countries such as Bulgaria, Poland, etc. the banking experience was not so good. Banks’ apps experience was pretty clunky, the pricing was never transparent, so this is where Revolut came in, offering a better experience and better pricing to clients. That’s why slowly and steadily we have built this reputation and able to be a daily card for many users in Europe. We have now launched in Singapore, first official country to launch outside of Europe.

CEEC: That’s right, congratulations. You just launched in Singapore, what can we expect and what are the benefits for users? Why should someone sign up with Revolut?

Jakub Zakrzewski: The corporate position of Revolut in Singapore is going to be similar. It will remain a multi-currency account that you will be able to hold 28 difference currencies with (in one account) that is linked with VISA debit card. This allows you to save a lot of money on the hidden fees that you would have paid if you used another bank account and is useful especially when travelling. This is the main USP (unique selling point) that we have. But slowly and steadily, we are trying to build out a localised product as much as possible, to fit the needs of Singaporeans. It’s not only a multi-currency card, it is also the international transfers to the countries that are around in the region, that are going to be for free. Also there is a loyalty and rewards program that we are trying to roll out and many other features (some of them we already have in Europe), such as commission free stock trading, cryptocurrencies, etc. or business accounts and many more that we have not seen in Europe but as a part of our localisation strategy for Revolut Singapore. These solutions are going are going to solve problems for people in Singapore.

One thing that the Revolut team in Singapore has in the back of our heads is that we’ve seen in Singapore companies such as Uber, coming out from the Western world and coming to Asia and failing because they were not able to localise the product. They were not able to have the products teams sitting in these countries to make tweaks and adjustments that are required for these countries. Eventually they did not manage to win over the region. You can see companies like Grab took over and this is the key experience that we take from Uber’s market entry into APAC and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes.

As you can see, we’re growing teams in Singapore to make sure we are making the best decisions when it comes to the product here and we can make them fast. That is why we are hiring local leadership and local product teams in order to fuel this growth.

CEEC: How was setting up in Singapore different to Europe? What were the challenges but also the advantages here?

JZ: Whenever we entered new countries in Europe, for example Bulgaria, we did not have to have a separate license. We could operate in countries within the European Union with the licence that we had from the UK regulator. When it comes to Singapore, here setting up in a country, on the other side of the world, required us to obtain different licences from the local regulator. This was the main thing that took us some time. This requires also having different teams on the ground, different to what we have in Europe. For example, in countries like Poland and Bulgaria, the typical team that we would set up on the ground would be very commercially focused teams, consisting of a PR Manager, Business Development Manager, Growth Manager and you can see the target of these teams is to grow the user base as fast as possible.

Whereas in countries such as Singapore, what we must do is not only have the growth teams on the ground but also the operations team on the ground; compliance, legal, etc. because it is a whole different animal on its own. As compared to Europe where you can operate within every single country, within European Union, just by having the UK licence.

This experience felt a lot like building a new Revolut, within Revolut because of having to set up the whole team of people from different departments.

CEEC: You mentioned you are rapidly growing the team here. Do you face challenges in recruiting in Singapore and what are they?

JZ: Actually, the second biggest challenge for us was hiring. It took us a lot of time to hire the right people for the right positions in Singapore. Until now we have hired 25 people, including Chief Risk Officer, Chief Compliance Officer – senior local leadership. Hopefully we will have a local CEO as well soon. Although we are here now, the process was long. It was long because we feel like there is great talent in Singapore, but people would rather stick to conservative careers such as investment banking and consulting. People still want to have big brand names on their resumes, instead of going the riskier way which is joining a fast-growing company which is prestigious but is not as well established, especially in Singapore, as the big banks or consulting firms. So, it was a matter for us to manage expectations but also to convince them why they should choose us and join us.

On the other hand, it was a matter of finding the right people that are very smart, that are very hungry and are very driven, and that would like to build something. It takes different people to maintain, tweak and optimise vs. people that actually have to build a lot of things from the ground up. So, having the right combination of them being able to do the job and convincing them that this is the best way for them to grow their careers vs. going and working for a bank was something that took us time. However, given the success that Revolut has in Europe, it is becoming easier and easier. We’re already becoming a recognisable brand in Singapore, especially within the expat communities because we’ve helped them solve a specific problem. If you’re an expat coming from another country to Singapore, you can set up Revolut in 2 minutes and you can already start using it as a daily card, without the need to go to a bank branch and wait for days for the whole process to finalise.

Our target is to show local people In Singapore that we are offering a better way to manage people’s finances. This is also why we want to localise the product and hire local people to achieve this.

CEEC: Coming from a country from Central and Eastern Europe (you are from Poland), what would you say are the advantages and expertise of tech talent and/ or the solutions from this region? How can this be useful to Singapore?

JZ: Having the opportunity to live and study in various places in Europe and outside of Europe, what I definitely think is that the expertise that the people in Central and Easter Europe (CEE) have developed in IT is very high compared to other countries. We are seen as a world leader in countries that have the best computer scientists, data scientists, etc.

This is something more and more global companies are leveraging on and establishing their regional headquarters for Europe in countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

Revolut has a 500 people support centre in Krakow, Poland. We’ve already opened a support centre also in Bulgaria and we’re planning to double down on the headcount that we have in these places. In Krakow we are also hiring developers, so it is a combination of people in support, compliance and IT. If you can get a high quality of engineers at a fraction of cost of what you would have to pay in the US or London, this is something that brings a lot of big companies to the CEE region. I think this trend will continue because the level of education Is very high. For example, in Poland we have 80% of millennials that have attended a university. The computer science programs are very popular, and people are generally interested in pursuing these careers. So, I think Poland may become a regional hub for global engineering talents and this is something that Singapore can also leverage on. Having in mind the population limits in Singapore and the need for all industries to have great tech talent, they need to get developers from outside. This can be beneficial for both sides. There is a great pool of engineers in Central and Eastern Europe and great opportunity for people from that region also to go out and test themselves in a different environment, in an established, but growing economy of Singapore.

CEEC: Lastly, what is the transformation you would like to see in payments in the next 2-3 years and what role will Revolut play in helping to achieve this?

JZ: From our perspective, Revolut is leading is a completely different experience when it comes to financial services, with a completely different business model.

We don’t need to operate on a quarter by quarter basis like banks, who’s only aim is to think about different creative ways to make more money out of each client. For us it is much more important to be transparent and focused more on developing the best product out there. I think this was the short-term strategy. The long-term strategy is to compound this and go into more countries in the region and globally. As well as bringing more and more things under one application. People should not have 5 different apps for different financial products. They want to have someone who is going to give them the best experience at the best price, so they don’t need to think and do the research every single time they need financial services. This is the direction in which Revolut is heading. That’s why we have commission free stock trading in Europe. We’re going to announce soon a kid’s app that will allow parents to give cards to their children and many more things that are already on the roadmap in order to fit the product to the lifestyle of our users. This is a very big shift in contrast to banks as they have not been innovating enough. The experience was terrible, and the pricing was only going up. Then You have a player like Revolut that comes in and reshapes the whole industry.

Global expansion is a big priority, bringing more products under the Revolut app, enhancing the offering that we have, knowing that the aim for us is to build that global network that then allows people to move money instantly and for free. The ultimate goal is building this financial network around the world.