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Startups

Harvard alum plots disruption of Asia's money-changers

Singapore's YouTrip says it has cash reserves to endure pandemic

SINGAPORE -- Singapore's You Technologies Group says strong cross-border e-commerce sales have kept its multi-currency digital wallet YouTrip popular with consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pitched mainly at international travelers, YouTrip allows users to buy foreign currencies without having to pay expensive commissions charged by banks and money-changers.

Launched in 2016, YouTrip also allows consumers to buy goods listed in foreign denominations and avoid the exchange charges added to most credit card transactions.

"During this period, we are dedicated to helping our users save on foreign currency transactions online, even if they aren't physically traveling," You Technologies CEO Caecilia Chu told the Nikkei Asian Review.

You Technologies said it was encouraged by strong sales figures for April, with China's e-commerce juggernauts helping to drive the trend toward increased shopping online. Chinese shopping website Taobao saw a 111% jump in transaction volumes in March, You Technologies said, while Alibaba's registered a 41% uptick.

As countries move to reopen borders, Chu said she expects the recovery of travel and tourism to help drive YouTrip's expansion across Southeast Asia, where she hopes to wean consumers off costly money-changers whose hidden charges drive up the cost of traveling abroad.

"You don't know whether you will be charged very expensive fees, you don't know the forex rates that you're paying, and that causes a lot of worries in people's heads," said Chu, a Harvard Business School graduate who left her job overseeing regional growth investments in the consumer and technology sectors for Citibank to co-found You Technologies.

YouTrip allows users to load funds onto the platform and convert into a range of foreign currencies at wholesale exchange rates that Chu promises are "competitive."

Typically, people who use credit cards to buy an item listed in a foreign currency would be charged at least 3% extra by the bank their card is tied to, which is a cost YouTrip does not impose on consumers, she said.

With prior stints at Chinese online wealth management platform Lufax and Beijing-based payments firm QF Pay, Chu is familiar with many of hurdles facing consumers wanting to complete cross-border transactions.

After starting out in Singapore, where YouTrip has attracted 500,000 downloads, the app was launched in Thailand last year in a partnership with Kasikornbank.

Touting its no-extra-fees promise, which would empower the bank's 11.6 million online customers to shop in over 150 currencies, the company hopes to attract over 400,000 users within the first year.

With more than 60% of YouTrip users ages 24-39, and more than 10 million transactions so far recorded on the app, You Technologies has also partnered with payments giant Mastercard on a special payments card that allows consumers to buy goods and services in foreign currencies without incurring additional fees.

Chu said she wants to see YouTrip expand into Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines within the next two years.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic decimating the travel and tourism industry so far this year, Chu said she believed the current downturn was temporary, with the sector poised to bounce back.

"For people, having been trapped at home for so long, you know, they will be so eager to actually get out, so I actually expect a lot of pent-up demand," Chu said, adding that she expected signs of a recovery in the travel and tourism sector to emerge in the second half of this year.

And while the company has tightened its belt in recent months -- including pay cuts for senior management and a 50% cut in marketing expenses -- Chu said You Technologies was "well-capitalized" after raising $30 million to ride out the storm.

"As an overall company we are not yet profitable," Chu said. "But I would say we have always been aiming for sustainable and profitable growth in the long term."

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