When Jacob Claflin graduated from the University of Chicago in the mid-nineties, he convinced his parents to let him spend the summer travelling around Europe. After spending three months and virtually all of his money in the region, Claflin reached a crossroads: he could either look for a job where he was, or return to the States. He decided to stay. “This part of the world was really transforming at a pace I didn’t think was possible, [returning] seemed like going backwards in time in a way,” he said.
On this week’s podcast, Claflin tells us how his impromptu stay in Europe led to a career in the payments industry and the foundation of Cambrist, an Irish fintech start-up focused on optimising foreign transactions and cross border payments for banks that is backed by Irish financial services giant Fexco.
When Claflin first hit the European employment market, he landed a job at Euronet, a Hungarian-based electronic payment services company founded by two Americans operating throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
“I got lucky, they took a risk, they hired this guy off the street in Warsaw to join this growing business, that became my entry point into the payments industry,” he said. “This one decision ended up being the career I have now.”
Over the course of a decade, Claflin climbed the Euronet ladder, eventually achieving the title of vice president, a role which saw him return to the US.
“I got a bit of reverse shock after living in Central and Eastern Europe for a good part of my life and then going back to middle America. It didn’t transition well, and I decided at one point that I want to go back to Europe, but I wanted to go back with a different company.”
Claflin did just that. In 2008 he joined American prepaid-travel-card company Rev Worldwide to launch its European operations. His first order of business was choosing where to station the company’s European headquarters.
“We plotted our strategy, where were we gonna do this from, would we go to London, would we go to Amsterdam, but honestly, Dublin just fit,” he said.
Dublin became Claflin’s home base for four years while running Rev Worldwide’s European operations until he decided it was time to branch off from the corporate world.
“I was kinda tired of being somebody else’s employee. I had been on enough of a journey that said, you know what, I think I could do this, and the rest is history,” he said.
Claflin launched Cambrist in 2016, designed to streamline the foreign transactions and currency exchange process, a sector of the payments industry he noticed flaws in through his frequent travel in Eastern Europe.
“My whole career, I was traveling constantly, I was travelling to all these places and being in the world of payments, I know just enough to know when something is not quite right,” he said.
He became bothered by how difficult and unclear it was to track his expenditure across different currencies.
“It drove me crazy, that lack of transparency, that lack of control, I felt like I was being abused,” he said.
He had learned enough from his experience elsewhere in the payments industry to know how to instill change.
“If I thought that it was going to be this difficult, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
“I have a wallet with a bunch of plastic, I don’t need another piece of plastic, I want the piece of plastic that I have today to be better,” he said.
Along with two other co-founders that Claflin pulled from other areas of the payments industry, Claflin created software that optimised the currency exchange and foreign transaction service that he could then sell to banks as a service.
“I wanted to take credit and debit cards out of the 1950s, and through force of will bring them into the modern age and connect them through our technology.”
Claflin and his team self funded the company for the first 12 months while searching for their first client. Once they successfully proved their concept with Perfect Card, a small Irish cross border travel card company, Cambrist looked to raise funds and expand.
The team was brewing with confidence, Claflin said, but were humbled when the company struggled to build a body of clients in the early days.
“If I thought that it was going to be this difficult, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “Entrepreneurial optimism keeps you a little bit blinded.”
Cambrist landed several angel investors in 2017, along with investment from Enterprise Ireland, which helped them stay afloat.
The company tread water for a couple of years without securing many major clients until 2019, when the success of Revolut led to an increased demand from banks for an optimised foreign transaction system, which Cambrist took full advantage of.
Claflin said the company onboarded 6 or 7 new employees and several new clients since, despite seeing dipped revenue caused by stunted pandemic travel rates, which have improved in the last quarter.
The company’s revenue tripled in the last two quarters, with Camrist’s current roster including 15 clients, primarily banks, across 12 countries.
Claflin now has plans to launch into five more countries in the next six months and said he expects revenue to triple again by the end of the year.
He is excited about his company’s place in the future of fintech, saying the payments industry, in general, is antiquated, which he saw himself working on the corporate side of the industry for over a decade, so the opportunity for growth through modernising is high.
“We’re growing so much that my focus right now is really just to make sure that the team that we have has got a strong foundation so that we don’t stretch ourselves too thin,” he said.
“There’s not an end to this, it’s just a constant evolution.”
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