Entrepreneurs set themselves testing targets – it’s what they do. From hotel owners to jewellery makers, they must strike out alone or with a small team and forge something special. Doing so requires a deliberate dash – naked at first – into a painful daily hailstorm of challenges. It’s a tough calling by nature, and there are as many different dreams burning holes in founders’ pillowcases each night as there are stars in the sky. But of all the entrepreneurial goals, there can be few more demanding than the one Dima Kats set himself in 2016.
Targeting the Titans
Six years ago, Clear Junction’s CEO and his then team of five set out to build a fintech focused on cross-border payments. Tricky enough, but that’s not the half of it, because London-based Dima chose to target an achingly exclusive set of clients: global financial institutions. We’re not talking about building software to let Steve wire cash to Doris in South Africa; we mean creating tech to empower PayPal, Western Union or Santander to move billions around the world and challenge Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Citi active in this space. So, one man and his tiny team set out to tunnel their way into the granite fortress of global finance.
Inspirationally, they achieved their goal. Clear Junction now provides trusted correspondent accounts to global banks and payment companies. Clients include several hundred financial institutions and staff headcount has grown to more than 100 across three European offices, with HQ in Central London. Unsurprisingly, growth has been rapid and is set to continue.
“We are proud of what we’ve achieved,” says Dima. “We’re a fintech start-up that’s now relied on by some of the world’s largest and most advanced financial institutions. We feel accomplished.”
No beer mat
But how has Clear Junction done it? When starting out, many entrepreneurs just jump onto Google, scribble a few ideas down on a beer mat and get cracking. Dima’s journey was less beer mat, more supercomputer because – who knew? – financial institutions have rather exacting requirements.
So the challenges of building and running Clear Junction were – are – massive. Dima boasts a dual major in computer science and economics from Tel Aviv University and 25 years of fintech experience. He’s worked in product management and business development at fintech companies such as Borderfree, Cambridge Mercantile and Payoneer. But the banks wouldn’t care if he was Batman in computer geek form – he still had to win their trust. And there’s nothing more suspicious or cautious than a bank – we hear it’s their ‘thing’.
Give ’em what they want
Dima says: “From the beginning, we realised that – funnily enough – financial institutions are some of the world’s most underbanked businesses. That’s why we decided to focus on this niche. And that’s what makes us really unusual. We don’t deal directly with consumers or corporates. All our clients are institutions.”
So, how did he get those hard-to-please banks onside? Dima answers with two words: “Compliance and security. They are at the heart of our business. We had to build a robust infrastructure and methodology before we could start trading and it took a year to get our Financial Conduct Authority licence. Our growth results from that groundwork, which the whole team completed.”
Another reason Dima has won banks’ trust – and his team’s, for that matter – is because he is a man of gravitas. Chatting to him, you do not doubt that he leads a company that plans for every scenario and leaves absolutely nothing to chance. And, of course, that’s how it has to be when your clients control the world’s flow of capital.
0% margin for error
Clear Junction’s founder says: “For us, there is only one way to succeed: do things in precisely the right way and make zero mistakes. You simply can’t make errors with compliance or client security; doing so would break the company and breach our regulatory responsibilities.”
That’s pressure, so how does he handle it? He replies: “I’ve started sleeping better in the past couple of years, but I couldn’t sleep well at first.”
He continues: “But in the past three months, I haven’t been able to sleep for different reasons – there is a war going on just 2,000 miles away. We’re in London, it’s sunny outside, yet just a three-hour flight from here, people are being murdered.”
Dima’s sobering comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provide a timely reminder that business challenges – however stressful they may appear – should be kept in perspective. And, of course, maintaining perspective is one of the most effective ways to deal with stress.
And Clear Junction’s CEO has another reason to worry about Russia’s invasion. He says: “Most of our IT team are Ukrainian, so we are emotionally involved. In fact, that team was in Ukraine until a year and a half ago, when we relocated them to Poland as part of our risk-management strategy. We didn’t predict the war, but we saw risks.”
Dima’s ability to predict and nullify risks of all kinds has played a large part in Clear Junction’s tremendous rise. But what else does the founder put his success down to? He says: “Our consistent focus is important. We started this business to serve payment service providers. That’s still our aim, and it will be in the future. We won’t go in any other direction.”
He also regards his choice of London as Clear Junction’s base as vital to the company’s rise: “I chose London because of the regulator, the FCA. I’ve experienced financial regulators in other countries, but the FCA is probably the most advanced – the most reasonable and most business-oriented. It’s not a rose garden – the regulator is not here to make my life easy – but it was a conscious decision to come to London and I have no regrets.”
London has no regrets, either. This trailblazing start-up recorded revenue of £1.5m two years ago but £30.7m today – precisely the kind of turbocharged fintech that Britain’s capital wants to attract and retain – a company rocketing towards unicorn status.
Unicorn with bootstraps
However, Dima says: “There’s never been any ambition to be recognized as a unicorn. That said, we haven’t been labelled a unicorn because we’ve never received any external investment. We’ve bootstrapped this business and never been through any formal valuation process. And we don’t need any external investment at this stage. We’re very positive, optimistic, well-funded and have several hundred paying clients. What else do we want?”
Indeed. And those words hammer home just how much Dima Kats and his team have achieved. To create a profitable fintech with no external investment and build up a client list of global financial institutions – all within six years – almost beggars belief. Yet Clear Junction has managed it with a smoothness that belies its age and size. In fact, it’s a company that already seems as sturdy and institutional as the banks it serves.
An inspirational No. 1
We started this article by saying that entrepreneurs, by nature, set themselves testing targets. Dima’s target was more challenging than most, yet he got there using the same methods that work for all founders: relentless pursuit, enacted strategically and intelligently, combined with laser-guided focus and, of course, a little luck. On this last ingredient, Clear Junction’s founder says: “There are so many extremely smart, well-disciplined and hardworking people out there who just don’t have enough luck. We did the right things, did them well, and we had the luck to help us.”
Modesty is another ingredient that helps propel founders to the top – in this case, to the summit of the FEBE Growth 100 2022. Clear Junction is a worthy and inspirational No. 1, so many congratulations to Dima and the team.