An Interview with PromisePay

Melbourne-based company PromisePay is one of SixThirty’s newest class of companies, offering a secure online platform for escrow payments. Andrew McIntosh and Darren McMurtie spoke with T-REx about their product, the transition to St. Louis, and BBQ — among other things. PromisePay rolled out testing of their platform last week.

A big part of PromisePay is security, I noticed. Is that something you’d noticed there was a [particular] need for—the sort of security you offer for these escrow payments online?

Darren: I just think any time you manage people’s money, security is going to be the biggest thing. You have to make sure people’s money just doesn’t disappear, that no one can hack in and do any nasty stuff. I guess our business, as escrow, is in a way security—it’s locking money away so that people can’t do anything to it.

Is it the code, then, that makes PromisePay unique? How did you develop a special product for this problem?

Andrew: Payment in financial institutions has evolved over the years with the dominance of online transactions, and people are now trusting more online.  That’s what PromisePay evolved from—we’ve got instant payments out there, we’ve got lots of people with businesses making money online. And escrow is the next logical step for higher-risk or service-based transactions.

D: Or very large transactions.

A: Yeah, large transactions—[customers] put trust into our system and we manage security from a technical and code perspective, but we’re also giving the buyer and seller more control. So it’s not so much doing anything technically different with our code, but our methodology around it—how people interact with payments online. That concept adds value more than any sort of unique algorithm or code.

So have you guys gone live yet?

D: We’re testing next week. We actually had built a product which was very consumer-based, and we sort of pivoted when we arrived here. We changed the idea, so it became this thing that integrated into bigger marketplaces and online platforms…that way we can capture a larger market base faster, but also we can get a lot closer to building something that consumers want and need.

You said that this change came after the move? Is that why you moved?

D: Well, it’d been in our mind for a while—it was staring us right in the face, because we had these two things we were trying to build, and we sort of realized, well, why are we trying to build two? We’re only going to make one that’s really good, and we need to make a choice about which one that’s going to be. So the one that we knew we could do well is the product that we’re making now—and that was solidified by arriving here and meeting with Jim McKelvey from Square. We just had a word to him and put it on the table and said, “this is what we’ve got,” and he said, go with that.

A: Part of building the right product is the journey that we take to get to where we are now. So just like any startup, you’ve got a problem and a solution you want to provide, it’s just how you do it, what medium do you actually use? That’s part of our journey to get here.

Pruning away all the extraneous ideas, that kind of thing.

D: Yeah, just do it until you get there—wherever ‘there’ actually is.

Rolling out next week is going to be pretty exciting!

D: Well yeah—we’re putting the final polish on everything this week, and then we’re going to hand over everything we’ve got and test with our customer, which is awesome. So they can help try and break it, and then we can try and fix it.

A: The first product, we built something that we knew was a problem and we had a solution for. This time, there’s a problem and we have a solution for it, but on top of that we also have customers who are waiting for us to deliver the product.

D: Creates sort of a feedback loop straightaway, which is really cool.

So what drove the move to St. Louis?

D: It was SixThirty. Dan Fogarty actually got in touch with us—we had our profile on Angel List—and he said, “You guys should really apply.” We’d heard of it, but we looked into it and thought that it’d be perfect for us—you know, we’re financial tech. So we applied and went through a whole bunch of interviews, got to the last bit, and here we are.

You two personally, though—was [coming to St. Louis] a personal choice? Some of your founders are still in Melbourne, right?

D: Up until here, three of us were in Melbourne, and I was in Thailand. I’ve been there for four years. So we were already split before we got here. And then we got here, and it was all four of us together—and now one’s gone back to work with customers full-time, just to be around them as the testing happens.

So your customers are largely in Australia?

D: In Melbourne, yeah, because we’d already started the sales process before we came here.

A: Part of the reason we’re here is because there’s a checklist we’ve got to get through while we’re in the US, and then eventually we’re going to launch a US office. And that checklist involves getting the banks on board in the US—we’ve done that in Australia—and we need to talk to the right people for investment, and start to learn about the US market a little bit, to put some feelers out there and ask if what we’re doing is valuable in the US as well as Australia. It is challenging, but with the limited number of people we have, we still had to be in two places at once.

D: Every night, we can have a chat—and it actually works quite well, because we work all day, and then we tag, and then they work all night…and before we arrived we were already doing separate stuff.

You mentioned talking to the banks here—what’s that process like? To approach them with this, do you have to go through all sorts of regulatory weirdness?

D: Yeah, one if the big draws of the SixThirty program is that you get connections in financial tech. Part of coming here is to become a part of that network. So we’re in chats with important people, setting up accounts, merchant facilities—just getting with the banks, and talking to them—that’s all in the network. Which is important, because with our product, it’s the banks that hold the money. But it’s slow. I mean, we want to move at a breakneck speed, but they have just layers of people, and processes out to here—so we’re just trying to keep it moving and not have it stop still.

How have you guys enjoyed St. Louis? The startup scene and downtown?

A: The States in general is very different from Australia—there’s a lot more startup appreciation here, which is great. And it’s just a different place, it’s a bigger place. St. Louis is a good town, with some really great people, awesome, friendly people. It’s a huge town, but it’s also a weird one in that it’s fairly quiet.

D: We live downtown, and sometimes it feels like a ghost town and sometimes it feels really busy. You kind of have to find little pockets of cool stuff going on.

A: It’s definitely got a personality, which is cool.

D: Friendly people. And it doesn’t hurt to have an Australian accent—everyone’s always asking where you’re from, starting a conversation. But yeah, you’ll be walking around and you won’t see anyone, and then all of a sudden you’ll hear something and there’s just a ton of people around the corner.

And you say, “I guess I’m going there!” Yeah, that’s very true. Well, what have you been doing in your down time?

D: Well, we’ve been doing a lot of working…But we try and see stuff, we try to see a suburb every weekend. So we’ve been to the Loop, we’ve been to Central West End, we went to Forest Park, give ourselves little excursions. But really we’ve just been working.

A: We haven’t been to the same place twice yet. There’s plenty to do.

D: We’ve actually got a thing at the moment where we’re not letting ourselves eat at the same place twice.

That’s a great idea—there are so many good restaurants around here.

D: Yeah, we’ve probably eaten at like 20 places around here in, what, two weeks? No, that’s ridiculous—probably—well, we’ve done a lot of them. Cooking? Nah.

So what are the favorites so far?

D: I would say Rooster for lunch.

A: I can’t say what my favorite place is.

D: We went to Bogart’s in Soulard. Which—you can’t do that every day. You would die. You would have a heart attack.

You already have to roll yourself out of there—I always have to take a second just to digest.

D: It’s actually one of those things where—I think it was a Wednesday?—and we all went for lunch and then came back and just sort of sat there, staring at screens, none of us typing or clicking—just blank.

Well, so beyond barbecue—what are the next steps for you guys? Testing next week, launching, and then what?

D: Getting customers. We’ve  got four close ones, and a part one, back in Australia, and that’s important because it makes it real. And then investment—to get those customers on board properly and then grow, we need to get some bigger funding. And we need to get our banking stuff set up. Once we get that, we’re good to go. And then actually, myself and Andrew are moving to the States. We don’t know where yet, but moving to the States to be a permanent presence.

A: So this is kind of a test run.

D: So far, so good. We’re testing out St. Louis, if it’s livable. I’ve got a family so I’m finding out if it’s a good place for them. So when I go back [to Thailand] the plan is to get the visa.

Have you traveled around the States at all?

D: I’ve done a little bit. I’ve done the five big cities kind of thing—Chicago, New York, LA, Miami, Hawaii.

A: I haven’t. The plans are to check out the States, but it’s good not to be able to do it, because it means we’re really busy. We know that we need to be here long-term, so I’ll make plans to do that in the future. The biggest hurdle is still getting enough funding for a year, to be sustained for a year, and then to get a few more people on board to build a team up, and then it’s as Darren said, it becomes real. And once it becomes real then it’ll organically grow, and develop into a mature business. Once we’re there and the cogs are rolling, then we can all sit back a little more—

D: No sitting back.

A: Well, no sitting back. Sitting back in [your desk chair], and then getting back to work.