World First Opens Its Tech to Confront a Fierce Global Transfer Market

The international transfer business has become a game of spotting and quickly delivering new innovation, and the open development strategies that have worked so well for other types of digital commerce are finding a home at companies such as World First.

Application program interfaces and software development kits have become a staple for online and mobile commerce players, with providers like WePay, Dwolla and Stripe growing quickly by providing the tools for other companies to easily build a payments interface.

"APIs are the most exciting thing that's happening to our business," said Seth Harvey, global head of partnerships for World First. "There's a variety of different platforms in markets like the U.S., Singapore and elsewhere that will be a compelling opportunity to add payments capabilities."

Based in London, with offices in the U.S., Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong, World First specializes in transfers for real estate payments, tuition, or other large transactions—about $24,000 on average—that exceed the typical Western Union or MoneyGram transfer or the average cross border remittance for specialists such as Xoom, which are usually $1,000 or less.

By having a speciality outside of traditional remittances, WorldFirst is avoiding the rush to provide innovation for migrant payroll transfers. "Remittances really aren't our sweet spot," Harvey said. "We're a bit upmarket."

In the world of Western Union alternatives, World First, which launched in 2004 and handled about $10 billion in transactions in 2015, is more experienced than the startups that increasingly dot the globe. This status gives it the ability to build on its platform, rather than design a product from scratch and launch it into an uncertain market.

"There is a trend toward e-commerce in our industry and we're responding to those needs," Harvey said.

Most of its rivals were created over the past couple of years, and are using emerging payments technology to undercut the likes of Western Union and MoneyGram. Outside of the remittance plays, World First faces more direct competition from companies like Flywire, which specializes in international tuition payments and is looking to add other verticals such as travel, medical and real estate payments.

Harvey, who has worked in partnership roles for the Toronto-based transfer company OzForex, joined World First in 2015 to spot new opportunities for the company. WorldFirst has since formed white label partnerships with companies that are expected to go live this year with a variety of business cases. For example, in one collaboration, World First will power the foreign exchange portion of U.S. stock purchases that originate outside of the country.

"The APIs smooth the customer's journey," Harvey said, adding WorldFirst is also planning to enable transfers to China.  

The expansion of Web-accessed business technology has also boosted the use of APIs, according to Tim Sloane, vice president of innovation at Mercator Advisory Group.

"The market for developer websites and APIs is growing significantly as businesses move to a [Software as a Service] model internally," Sloane said. "This transition has created a developer environment that is much more business focused. As a result, business planners and developers are hunting for online services that can access APIs."

Other transfer companies are also using APIs, said Talie Baker, an analyst at Aite Group, noting Regalii, Eartport and PayCommerce are using the model. Another company, Uphold, uses APIs and blockchain technology to record transfers and offers a transparent reserve, Baker said.

"With a traditional bank, there is paperwork showing the funds are there, but in reality the bank is shuffling money around all of the time, it's not really sitting in the bank," Baker said. "Uphold uses an open API technology to allow people to connect to their 'reserve chain' and make money transfers."

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