Take Control of Your Finances Across Countries, Currencies and Banks [Interview]

Money makes people go insane. Especially if they have five different bank accounts in two or three different countries and have no idea how to keep track of their finances.

These were the thoughts that crossed Irakli Agladze’s mind when he realized that he had to juggle a dozen different mobile applications, one for each bank where he had an account, if he wanted to get information about his balances.

How ridiculous. Why hasn’t someone made an app that can handle every single bank account that a person has at once?

As someone who has been moving from one country to another all his life, from Russia to the UK, Irakli understood just how much easier it would be to keep track of his money if such an app existed. So he made one.

Together with his co-founder, Denis Moskalets and their two-person tech team, they built an app that gives you access to all your financial data – not just your banks accounts, but everything from loyalty programmes to Bitcoins – in one location. Combine is a financial assistant aimed at Millenials – expats and digital nomads who just can’t stay in one place for too long and have assets in several different countries. They’ve been up and running for a few weeks, and now, they’re just waiting for their users to tell them what countries, banks and features to include next. And they’re doing all of this from right here in Barcelona!

In our interview, we asked Irakli about what brings them to Barcelona from Moscow, how they want to spend the first funds they received, and what it’s like to be CEO of a rapidly growing fintech startup.

From Moscow to NY to BCN

How did you end up in Barcelona?

Irakli Agladze - Combine App - Take Control of Your Finances - Barcelona Fintech Startup 02In the beginning, our idea was to release Combine as a white label mobile application in either Europe or the US. We actually pitched it to Startupbootcamp New York first, in March 2016. They told us that our idea had good potential, but in the US, we would need a lot of capital to be able to do business with local banks, especially if we wanted to work as a B2B. Plus, the process would be really slow: closing a deal with just one bank could take up to an entire year!

So, they suggested that we try our luck in Europe. Because of new regulations widely known as PSD2, banks in Europe are obligated to provide third-party applications like ours access to their customers’ accounts.

We realized that the conditions here are playing right into our hands. So we pitched our idea to Startupbootcamp Barcelona, did the three-month acceleration programme, and my co-founder and I have been here ever since.

“We started out with five countries and now we’re waiting for our users to tell us what should be our next move.”

So how is it going with the banks?

Right now, we’re not talking to banks directly. We wouldn’t have the capacity to do it. We’re working with a provider called Yodlee, and they’re the ones getting all the information from the banks that we need.

I hear you just closed your first round of funding. €200K from angel investors, right?

Yes, so we have the resources to start scaling. Our plan is to cover more and more countries in Europe, and eventually go worldwide. We are now covering major banks in the Netherlands, UK, Spain, France, and Ireland. But, since our users are requesting that we cover very different banks in very different countries, our next release is going to contain some additions that may seem random, like banks in India, New Zealand and Canada. We just want to try it out, and see how it goes. We started out with five countries where Yodlee has a strong presence, and now we’re waiting for our users to tell us what should be our next move.

What Do Users Want?

Which country do you get the most requests for?

Thanks to our Russian background, we have a lot of requests for Russian banks. But there are different regulations there. If you want to work with any kind of personal data in Russia, it needs to stay in Russia. Your servers have to be there. So, unfortunately, Russia will have to wait. The next most requested country is the US, so we’re going to work on that as well.

What is something that you really need to be working on right now?

What we need to focus on right now is user acquisition, because our next investors are going to want to see us get more users. I’m flying to Moscow this week to work on a strategy with the help of our investors, who have a very good understanding of how paid acquisition works. When we started advertising the app on Facebook, we were very skeptical about it. We decided to give it a try anyway, and the numbers were way beyond our expectations! So for now, this is the main road for us in terms of user acquisition. Then, our next focus will be making users stay. But right now, it seems like we’ve got that covered with our new features.

Is it just us being absolutely sure that a specific feature is needed, or are the users telling us that it is?

How do you come up with the new features?

We’re trying to figure out what is most important for our users. We want to add features that are not connected to banks accounts, but still have something to do with money. Stuff that you don’t even consider financial sources, but you can still pay with them.

For example: lots of people have several different loyalty cards, for various stores or airlines, that are supposed to help you save money. But more often than not, people forget about them completely, and since most of them have an expiration date, they just go to waste! We want to help our users keep track of these loyalty programmes and the ‘points’ they’ve earned, so we’re working on adding that to the app.

Also, there’s an entire world of gamers who have money stored on their virtual accounts, on Steam or PlayStation Store, or elsewhere. They might want to be able to check their balance without having to actually open the game. That’s also something that we’re working on. We’ve already introduced cryptocurrencies: we have Bitcoin and Ethereum wallets, and soon, you’ll also be able to exchange them within the app. That’s the next big thing on our roadmap.

Sounds like you really are listening to your users.

If we thought that we knew better, it would just be us guessing.

A lot of startups fall into that trap. When you are so passionate about something, it’s easy to get a bit too excited about something that you shouldn’t be getting excited about at all.

Irakli Agladze - Combine App - Take Control of Your Finances - Barcelona Fintech Startup

Yes, and I always worry about that. Because it’s very hard to tell where that fine line is. Is it just us being absolutely sure that a specific feature is needed, or are the users telling us that it is?

Are we really getting that specific response from users, or am I just trying to reassure myself?

“What we want is to be the app that people use to control their finances. The only one that they have on their phone.”

The Dreams of a Startup CEO

Personally for you, what’s the hardest thing about being a CEO?

Right now, the hardest thing is imagining what’s going to happen when our team starts to grow and we’ll be, let’s say, a hundred people. That’s the part that I’m really scared of. I see a lot of companies that are growing and losing their philosophy. When you have that many people, you need to start focusing on the big things instead of the small things. I’m a control freak, so I like to be involved in everything. I need to learn to trust other people to do things for me. And that’s the hardest part for me. It’s a good thing to worry about though.

And there is always this fear of failure, that our competitors will just kick us out of the business. But right now, I’d rather think about the next steps and where we are right now than speculating about where we’ll be in five years. Because I have no idea. What I have is more of a dream than a plan. Of course, what we want is to be the app that people use to control their finances. The only one that they have on their phone. Ideally, people wouldn’t need any other apps for banks or for trading… they would just use ours for everything.

Do you have plans of starting to hire?

We will probably hire people towards the end of the year. We have a big meeting coming up with our investors in Moscow, and we’ll discuss the hiring strategy. We’re thinking about building the Android version – it would be a very obvious move, but we’re not sure about it yet. We still have to decide if it’s a priority, or whether we want to start doing something on the backend side of the app. Maybe the cryptocurrency part is more important.

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