An Interview with TransferGuru Founder Omid Pakseresht – Part One – The Road to TransferGuru
Jan. 12, 2016
As part of our drive to build trust between our staff and you, the users, we sat TransferGuru founder Omid Pakseresht down for an interview about founding the company, how he got where he is and what the future is for Fintech.
Meet the Founder – Early Days
“It’s one of the most significant things that’s happened in recent history, or, you know, history.”
Omid, today you are a successful fintech start-up founder and part of a really interesting project; but before that you were a young guy who left his finance job for an unknown future. So let’s start there. Can you tell me a bit about your background and what got you here?
I grew up in Iran, in a little town. Not a very small town, actually, just outside Tehran, with my parents and two brothers. Then I moved to Norwich when I was 16, by myself, so I was in a flat for six months, just watching TV and learning English – which was the best way possible.
You learnt English watching TV?
Yeah! There was a lot of ‘Friends’, there was ‘Home and Away’. ‘Scrubs’! That was a big one. Mostly ‘Friends’.
What about your family?
My parents were planning to retire in the UK, but they hadn’t made the move themselves, yet. It was a big shock to the system, I lost 16 years of work building a social circle. And you come here and you don’t know anyone.
Did you keep in contact?
I tried for about six months, but the place that I lived in had really early broadband, and it was absolutely terrible. I used to spend hours on the phone trying to troubleshoot. It just never happened. That was really suffocating. Without internet you can’t speak to people back home – and already, all of my social circles had formed online as well. Those were the days of Yahoo messenger, and MSN messenger. So I lost people in my proximity, but also there was six months in the UK that I lost a digital life too. And that really, you know, living by yourself not knowing anyone – that was a bit of a strange experience.
So you could say that it started quite early – your experience of the break when you move to another country, and how useful online services could be at making that easier?
Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing, right? Electricity, the telegram, the telephone came in – they made a huge impact. But nothing has ever had the power that the web has had, which is to connect so many people together like that. It just opens up endless possibilities – it’s one of the most significant things that’s happened in recent history, or, you know, history. You’re doing global trade. You have digital currencies. You have things that – you’ve got a gazillion global micro-finance initiatives, all because people have mobiles now. And, you know, that is unbelievably powerful, all within the space of 15 years. At my age, you sort of grew up feeling that happening, gradually. Who’s to say what’s going to happen in the next 15.
But I was pretty digital from the start, even in Iran. We had dial-up for a good four or five years before I left – me and my friends used to play FIFA 2001 together on the computer via LAN connections.
LAN was brilliant.
It was great. The family used to get very pissed off, obviously, with the phone bill. And then when they picked up the phone, the game would break. And it would be, like, 2-1 down, 90th minute, then crash… ‘Oh my god.’
And now your Xbox comes pre-connected-
-Yeah! I’ve lived through all of that 15 years, and I’ve grown up through that. And that’s been really exciting.
Would you hazard a guess as to the next 15 years?
Haha – I’m currently trying very hard to guess what could happen in the next two years. Once I’ve covered that, I will start thinking about the rest.
“I ended up missing business studies every week to work on this small business…I got an E”
You started out running a market stall in Norwich – How much of that younger guy who ran that market stall do you carry around with you today?
The hustle days. That’s a long story, maybe I should just tell the story, and then we can talk about how that stayed with me. So my family moved here, and my parents retired here, I was expected to go to university when I finished my A levels. The idea was that I wouldn’t pay international student fees because we were due to get citizenship before University started. Then there was a big immigration re-think, and the Government changed some rules, and suddenly that one-year gap year turned into three years. That was very frustrating.
When I took the first gap year, I thought I would be okay by next year. But then the rules changed. I thought it would be okay the year after.
So that really put me at a weird place in life at the age of 18 – I’d been doing a bit of this and that, I worked for a guy at a market stall. I remember we had to go set up the whole thing at 5.30 in the morning. We sold biker clothing and hip-hop clothing. A strange mix.
So it would be like getting up at 5, leaving 5.30, you’d be setting up by 6 for 8 o’clock when people start coming. And it’s – I mean, it’s tough. It’s not what I was used to, exactly, but I still enjoyed doing it. I was earning a little bit of money, and doing my A Levels at the same time.
I ended up missing business studies every week to work on this small business. They told me to do the exam anyway, but they didn’t tell me about the material you were supposed to reference. I got an E.
Haha, and now you’re a start-up founder? What happened then?
Well my parents were really insistent that I go to university, I’d been offered a place at Imperial, so they still tried to pay the international fees. But it would’ve absolutely broken them. So instead they invested £5000 for me to go and start something in the meantime. I’d always planned to go to university at the end of it, so you know, I was not planning to build a unicorn before going to uni. It was just something to keep me busy for a couple of years. The company was called ‘Giftie Limited’.
Haha it was a terrible name. I didn’t allow myself to choose the name for TransferGuru. So I learned my mistake there. Yeah, I mean I guess anything could be a gift, right? Haha … no?
We didn’t really do much to do with gifts anyway!
It was basically e-commerce, I did everything. E-commerce with a small shop front. And I got hold of a converted container, and used to go round the markets every week. I learnt a lot.
Like a shipping crate?
Yeah, like a shipping container. It turned into a shop, you could just pack it away and go and come back next week, and your shop was waiting.
It was really fun. By the end I’d had an offer from Oxford – I just packed away the business, sold all the stock, was ready to go. And then there was another year to wait! I ended up doing a music course, to pass the year.
So there was a real series of frustrations. Firstly, moving to a new country and learning the language. Then again with getting into university, negotiating the market scene in Norwich. Do you think you’re more equipped to do what you’re doing now because of them?
It made me very wary of what could go wrong so easily.
But these were problems handed down by Government, by authorities, that as an immigrant you didn’t have the ability to adapt to as easily?
No, you can’t. And it’s a problem. But it ties back to why I love the web so much, because you can just connect to anything. You can get help.
So at that time, did you embrace the potential of the internet as a way to get round these frustrations?
The core was there. I had been very reliant on it, so I really felt it when it was taken away after the move. Try to live without Internet for six months now – people struggle!
Haha – I relied on free wi-fi for a long time
This was 10 years ago. There was no free wi-fi anywhere!
So when you were running this market stall, were you dreaming of running another business eventually?
At that age, If someone really pushed me to say something I would say I wanted to be manager. My dad was a manager for a very long time – and a lot of people that worked with him really respected him. I looked up to that.
Was it an ego thing at that stage?
I wouldn’t say it was an ego thing.
It’s very common for a young man to want to be in charge.
Haha I’m talking about when I was 10. So that’s all I ever said as a kid, whereas my brother would want to sell chewing gum, and then the next day he would want to be a lorry driver. He would change his mind every day. They’re not connected!
So did you look up to your dad a lot when you were younger?
When I was a kid, yeah.
And your older brothers as well?
Yeah. In different ways. But yeah, definitely. And I still do, I have to say.
But you had to leave them to go to university – when you finally did – and study Maths. Why Maths specifically? Could it have been any STEM subject, or did you have that special affinity for Maths?
I went to school in Iran at the age of 10, a school that you had to take loads of exams to get in to, and you had to start specialising in maths and physics at the age of 11. So the maths came easy – they start prepping you for Olympiads really early. Then when I came to Norwich I interviewed to finish off the GCSEs with everyone else, and they were just said ‘No, don’t worry, come back for A Levels’. Then they called me a week later and said, ‘You should do Further Maths as well’. So it wasn’t a big decision for me to do Maths, it just happened and it’s quite useful now. I mean, it’s given me ways of thinking that I didn’t really have before. That’s great, but I wouldn’t want to do a PhD in it!
We’ll put part two up tomorrow – Omid talks about the state of the fintech scene, how he got into start-ups and the future of finance.