*This partner content was produced by the Financial Times on behalf of Citi Commercial Bank
For any SME (small and medium enterprises), scaling up and growing internationally is a prospect that is exciting and daunting in equal measure. From navigating that growth through economic headwinds to securing extra investment for logistics, marketing, infrastructure and staff, it’s a challenge that can be immensely rewarding, as long as the right framework is in place.
For San Francisco-headquartered mobile payment processing company Boku, rapid growth brought with it a new focus on collaboration with specialist partners. In 2009, backed by venture capital, the company embarked on a mission to create a seamless global payment mechanism that would transform the way people transact.
Boku allows consumers to charge digital goods and services to a range of local payment methods, including mobile phone bills and digital wallets. Its success has seen companies such as Apple, Spotify, Microsoft and Netflix come on board as customers and, since users need no credit card to pay with Boku it has also been hailed as a boon to people who remain unbanked, of whom there are 1.4bn globally.
As the firm moved into new markets, requirements became more demanding and complex. “At the beginning, in most of the places we were collecting money, we could rely on the telecommunication companies to get it to us relatively straightforwardly. As time went on, though, we scaled up, became a public company, supported new products like mobile wallets, and it was clear we needed to upgrade our banking partner”, says Boku CEO Jon Prideaux
Regulatory challenges can cost time and money
The challenge for Boku was that its customers needed to accept payments through a variety of different means, such as WeChat Pay, Alipay and India’s United Payments Interface (UPI). However, these local mobile-first systems tend to only operate in one country, adding to banking and regulatory complexity.
“In Indonesia, for example, if you want to accept payments from Indonesians, then realistically you have to cover four separate mobile wallets, all of which are different and incompatible,” says Prideaux. “That's a heavy lift for our customers – so the seamless settlement position is an important part of what we do.”
As the regulatory hurdles increased for Boku – from anti-money laundering and Know Your Customer (KYC) rules to differing ways in which the movement of funds must be handled in every country (Boku currently has 93 bank accounts in 27 countries) – Prideaux started a relationship with Citi Commercial Bank to help Boku with financing support and tools to help navigate local banking challenges.
Citi's longstanding presence in various countries proved to be a significant advantage for Boku. With over a century of operations in some of the countries Boku was involved in, Citi's integration into domestic clearing and payment networks allowed Boku to operate as if it were a local company. This seamless connectivity not only reduced operational barriers but also provided Boku with access to local insights and market intelligence, enabling it to tailor their offerings and better serve its global customer base.
Thierry Jenar, Global Industry Head for Digital, Tech & Comms at Citi Commercial Bank, has been the bank’s lead for the Boku partnership since it launched in 2020. He points out that Boku’s rapid expansion – and the banking challenges that come with it – creates a situation that will be familiar to many SMEs. “Companies tend to focus on banking locally as they expand internationally, because it's a little bit easier to set up,” he says. “However, while that can be expedient at first, it ends up creating problems down the road, especially as you grow, because you don't have a consolidated banking strategy and platform. Who wants to deal with, say, 15 banks around the world when you can deal with one?”
With Citi on board, Boku was now able to make payments in over 100 countries as if it were operating locally and thus, benefiting from the local clearing networks. It is SMEs such as Boku that Jenar feels represent a great fit for Citi Commercial Bank. The ‘sweet spot’ for him and his team is on young companies with high growth and international trajectory. “Boku was the perfect client,” he says. “Relatively small, but with room to grow, through acquisitions. It was also already public with access to capital markets and had organic growth. We knew we could help them not just from a banking standpoint but also with advisory services. It was a relationship that made sense for both sides.”
Jenar points out that there’s a positive association to partnering with an established global player like Citi, too.
As Boku once again embarks on a new wave of sustained fast expansion, it’s clear that forging strong partnerships and capitalising on the expertise of global financial institutions can be a key differentiator in achieving sustainable growth and success.
All opinions expressed by the participants in this article are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Citi Commercial Bank