Working at Wave is an extremely effective way to improve the world
My favorite thing about working at Wave is knowing that what we’re building makes a massive, tangible improvement to the lives of millions of people. This matters to me for a few reasons:
- It pushes me to do my best work. When I know that what I’m working on is going to be useful to lots of people, it makes it easy to focus on what’s important, and to stay determined when things aren’t going well.
- It means we’re all in this together. I know my coworkers have the same ultimate goal as me—to help our users—and if we disagree, it’s only about the best path to get there. That makes it easy and fun to work with anyone on our team, no matter their background.
- Most importantly, it’s what I want to do with my life. It’s really personally meaningful to see how happy our users are and know that I had a small part in creating that!
When I joined Wave, I was shocked by what a difference it made to my happiness and effectiveness to ship something to users and immediately see it make a meaningful difference for them. I think that’s by far the biggest reason anyone should want to join Wave, and I mention this a lot in hiring conversations.
But if you’re not from one of the countries we serve, it can be a bit hard to understand exactly why our work has such a big impact. It’s just an app that moves some numbers up and down! Why are our users dressing up as penguins and writing poetry about marrying us?1
Here’s an explanation.
Most people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have a bank account, because the nearest branch is too far away or they can’t afford the fees. Instead, when they can’t use cash, they use mobile money—digital wallets, usually built by telecoms, carrying a balance that you can send to other users. To fund a mobile money wallet, you deposit cash at an agent—a local business that uses their spare cash on hand to serve mobile money customers. You can then send that balance to another user who can withdraw it at their own nearby agent.
Unfortunately, in most countries, mobile money still sucks. The “winning” system ends up being the one run by the dominant telecom, because telecoms control the USSD technology that first-generation mobile money systems were built on. These telecoms aren’t customer-focused, and it shows. Their apps are hard to use; their agents are unreliable; their customer support is unhelpful; and they charge enormous fees. In short, they treat mobile money as just another way to profit from their oligopoly.
At Wave, we think mobile money has the potential to be more than that—to become the economic infrastructure for a continent. So we’re building a product that’s good enough to live up to that potential. Our smartphone app is simple enough for anyone to use, our agents always have enough cash, and if you call support they’ll solve your problem while you’re on the phone.2 Most importantly, we charge as little as we can manage.
This lets us serve our millions of users better than existing players. And that means we have a huge impact on their lives, in a few key ways:
When Wave launched in Senegal, our average transfer would have cost 3-5x more if done via the largest existing mobile money system.3 Multiplied by our millions of monthly active users, that comes out to a savings of over $200 million every year, directly in our customers’ pockets, for them to spend on school fees, feeding their family, or whatever else is important to them.
That’s not a small amount—in fact, it’s around 1% of Senegal’s GDP. Few things are more awesome than being able to measure your success in terms of noticeably increasing an entire country’s GDP.
(Of course, we don’t plan to stop at one out of 54.)
I probably shouldn’t explain exactly how we achieve such low prices in a public blog post, but I can say that (1) they’re the result of putting an incredible amount of work into operational efficiency, and (2) they still allow us to make enough money to support a sustainable business. If you want to learn more, you’ll just have to come work here!
A less-obvious, but equally important, benefit of Wave is that our customers get access to their money much faster.
My biggest Wave “aha” moment was when someone told me the story of Modou,4 a fish trader they’d talked to who had just switched to Wave from a competing mobile money system. Modou’s business was to buy fish from fishermen in Joal and sell them to a wholesaler in Dakar. The fish would travel to Dakar on a truck and the wholesaler would send the payment back via mobile money. Modou wanted to withdraw the money immediately to buy his next batch of fish, but his local agent would often take hours or days to come up with the cash. So he’d have to wait until the next morning, two days after his previous batch.
When he tried Wave, Modou found that his local Wave agent always had enough cash to withdraw immediately. As a result, he could withdraw the funds the evening of the first day, and start buying fish after 24 hours instead of 48.
In other words, switching to Wave allowed Modou to immediately double his business.
I found this story jaw-dropping. I’d realized it was more convenient when money transfers were truly instant, but I hadn’t internalized just what a huge difference it can make.
To make sure our agents always have enough cash to serve users, we’ve had to build an enormous amount of logistical infrastructure. But the payoff—that our users trust their cash will always be there when they need it—is worth the effort!
The impact we’re having today is already exciting, but what’s even more exciting is what we can build on top of it.
We’ve now reached critical mass in Senegal, where most adults use Wave every month to send money or pay their bills. That makes it possible for us to work on the next step of our mission: building a better way to do any type of economic transaction on Wave. Our users still have lots of other problems with poor financial infrastructure:
- People can’t save or invest their money except through an expensive, inconvenient bank account.
- Companies pay their employees’ salaries in cash, which requires expensive middlemen who sometimes skim some off the top.
- People can’t buy things online because they don’t have a credit card.
- It’s expensive or even impossible to get a loan, because it’s hard for underwriters to know anything about your ability to repay.
And that’s just a small sample. Now that we’ve built a strong person-to-person transfer network, we’re in a uniquely great position to add new products that help our users with all their other financial problems.
In the longer term, though, our biggest impact of all will be what we enable others to do.
A puzzle: why are most of the most successful African startups fintech companies? What prevents companies from succeeding in other areas?
Part of the answer is that if you’re not collecting payments yourself, there’s no one else to do it for you. Building a delivery company? Better take cash on delivery. Financed solar panels? You’ll be sending a collection agent to every town on the map. Software as a service? I’m not actually sure how that one would work. All these businesses can’t exist right now in much of Sub-Saharan Africa because they depend on financial infrastructure that doesn’t exist yet.
Just like Stripe has found that easier online payments increases the GDP of the internet, we expect accessible financial infrastructure to dramatically increase the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa by making new types of businesses possible. I’m incredibly excited to learn what these are!
Your potential impact
So the biggest ways we expect to have impact haven’t happened yet. The exciting thing about that is that it means there’s an opportunity to have a huge personal impact by helping us build them. The people we’re hiring today will be responsible for critical parts of our mission:
- launching new countries
- building ways to use Wave for new kinds of payments
- integrating bill payments used by millions of people
- scaling our massive on-the-ground logistics operations
- and too many others to list!
If you’re excited about working on any of these, check out our job openings and let’s talk!
These really happened (both multiple times, in fact!) but unfortunately I don’t have permission to share the photos/poems :( ↩︎
I was surprised to discover that this isn’t the norm—apparently it’s common for other customer support teams to take hours or days after a call to resolve issues. ↩︎
Our competitors have since lowered their prices to try to compete better with us, but they still can’t match ours. ↩︎
This is a fictionalized, schematic mash-up of several user stories, to avoid sharing our users' personal information. ↩︎