PingPong serves up opportunities for its customers
PingPong joined the Luxembourg financial ecosystem in September 2017, being the first Chinese FinTech to set up a European subsidiary in the country. What are the driving forces behind the company and its cross-border payments market? We caught up with Ning Wang, Chief Business Officer at PingPong to find out…
The smart looking table tennis in the middle of the office is a fun nod to history, welcoming friendly matches. Ning Wang tells us about the layers of meaning behind the name gracing the wall. PingPong prides itself on staying nimble (to make an impact), meaningful (echoes of the famous match which led to the thawing of Sino-American relations under Nixon in the early 1970s) and global (the sport originated in Victorian England where it became a popular after-dinner parlour game, and was later adopted by Chairman Mao as a national sport in the 1950s). As the payments company looks to the future, it values the role of communication to break down barriers and seeks what it describes as true global citizens to match and champion its upcoming challenges in e-commerce. Game on.
Congratulations on being added to the list of the world’s fastest growing FinTechs… Tell us about your background and role at PingPong.
I’ve always been in the payments industry, but sort of ‘bumped into’ it. After getting my MBA in the US, I joined PayPal and spent five and a half years there across multiple roles. It was growing fast and was able to accommodate me through different roles, from providing financial analysis for the senior management team, to being given the opportunity to oversee high growth markets and then to help scale them to become independent and local.
During my last role at PayPal, I was sent to Shanghai to be the Head of Finance for the PayPal China operations and spent my last two years there. It was a great experience. I then very quickly joined Alipay, and became the first employee in the US tasked with building up its operations in the States for two and a half years.
My know-how of opening a new market and building partnerships put me in good stead to build PingPong. It’s helpful to have experienced large foreign enterprises which had struggled somehow to do business in China and also a Chinese giant trying to expand overseas. I was also lucky that the timing was right to start and grow the business with my partners; and we’ve been going since February 2016.
What has been your experience of the Luxembourg market and the broader regulatory environment?
I was familiar with it before I physically got here – even before PayPal Europe existed – which I think is testament to how consistently Luxembourg has been working to attract global FinTech players. My first exposure to it was when I was analytical support for senior management at PayPal. They were deciding which country to land in in Europe, and which licence to get. Eventually they decided upon a banking licence in Luxembourg in 2010. Some colleagues that I knew back then got sent over here, and one of them is still here. After that first wave, Alipay decided to get a licence as well, while I was a part of the US team. In a similar pattern some of my co-workers were sent over here and which helped me to stay connected and receive updates.
PingPong is effectively my third touchpoint with Luxembourg, and also happened to be the first time I came here physically, hence it’s a mixture of new and the familiar for me. During my career I sometimes find that while I am experiencing something new, there are recognisable connection points and overlaps. You could say that the connection to Luxembourg was pre-destined in a way.
In terms of getting our licence, and if we take out preparation time, it took around 7 months from end to end. We drew up the final application package in January 2017 and received approval in August 2017. We realised that we were faster than average, even during the traditional European holiday month of August and were happy with the speed of the timeline.
We read that PingPong has the intention to establish an R&D centre for Europe, why are you doing this?
This has always been in our plan and the timing is right. As the first FinTech from China to get a European licence in Luxembourg, we believe in the future of the European market and that having a local R&D centre is the best way to serve a local market. Our first wave of activity was to set up a presence over here to get the licence, and the second wave is to hire many local people (defined as people with local market knowledge, rather than those identified by their passport or nationality); i.e. in sales and marketing, product and technology. Luxembourg has a smooth support system to encourage R&D, including intellectual property regime, etc.
The R&D team will work on implementing new services depending on the needs of our customers and to ensure further optimisation of our costs and operations. Since we are now 420 people around the world, we never hesitate to fund an investment to get a local office despite the fact that in financial services you can also do this with partners remotely. However, putting a foot in the door, starting to talk to partners, and particularly the regulators, helps us to prove ourselves over time and offer stability.
What other activities do you have in the pipeline?
On the business side we are foremost a payment company, but we are different from other payment companies in the way that we do not think that the payment service per se will give us the edge, so we do everything we can to ensure our customers become successful. Our customers are 100% in the ecommerce space and 100% in the cross-border space, which is why there are a lot of opportunities we can pinpoint and address. Firstly, we provide data-driven advertising facilitation for our merchants. There are China-based merchants whom are spending money on Facebook and Google to advertise but yet are not that knowledgeable about local consumer trends. Although they can pick the tags and the demographics, it’s not as efficient as someone who really knows the area. Those people don’t exist on this side of the world. We are able to help them to aggregate some of the performance data from others and feed it back. Sometimes we hire consultants to look at the data to give us feedback on how to improve efficiency and we provide it for free.
In Europe, VAT collection for cross-border transactions is a big thing. We work really closely with regulators to make sure our customers are compliant. We also built an end-to-end white label solution for our merchants. It’s a free service and takes up a lot of resource, but we believe that is the right thing to invest in because it solves a pain point for our customers. Although there is no immediate fee related to that, we believe that over time we will prove our worth and strengthen the relationship. Here in Luxembourg we have also partnered with a local Luxembourgish bank and are sponsoring local events and participating fairly actively in the community.
Talking about your plans to build and scale, what’s the vision?
PingPong is an innovative payment facilitator for China-based eCommerce sellers. Our mission is to empower our customers to sell anywhere in the world with a simple and streamlined experience to grow their businesses.
The bigger vision is that we believe the world is hyper-connected but also hyper-local. Payments could be one of those rare business scenarios which can be both – because we can facilitate and serve local people who have their own payments habits in their local currency and also benefit from cross border opportunity with our product.
2019 is now about scaling the team. We ended 2018 with about 11 people, only a year after opening our operations in Luxembourg, and now we are almost double that. There are three international individuals relocating from the UK soon: with UK, Dutch and Taiwanese backgrounds. That’s very representative of our pan-European reach and search for talent.
Have you already recruited a team? What digital profile are your seeking?
We invest in our growth and rely on local referrals or by word of mouth. We seek out creative energy, perseverance when it comes to problem-solving, and to finding a sense of accomplishment from within themselves. We welcome talent that is curious by nature, fearless, and results-driven. We want people that hold themselves to the highest ethical standards and who try to overcommunicate. We look for people who love a challenge, dislike repetitive jobs and have aspirations which fit our growth goals. We then incentivise and encourage them to use their global outlook to take the company to the next stage of growth.
Are you attracting interest from other Chinese FinTechs?
Yes. Although we have taken a nimble approach, it takes co-ordination. A slew of newer and smaller FinTechs are willing to venture into Luxembourg, some are either potential competitors or collaborators, but some of them are unable to match our advantage. Either way we are happy with that because we truly believe in the strength and rigour of the regulation here. Our way of looking at the market is that you invest first and after the tipping point you can start reaping the rewards.
We know digital transformation is a top priority for the Luxembourgish financial centre… as a Chinese entity, do you see Luxembourg as pushing the digital agenda?
I can see very visible e‑ort and very visible result. They need to play on the global scene to make that visible to the world. Coming from my benchmark, of being Chinese and having also been around the world, there are some drawbacks in terms of the depth of the market. But despite the market not being that big, the infrastructure is in place to test out new things. It is a solid platform from which to achieve global scale; and with that kind of foresight into digitisation I think that there should be great case studies. We want to be one of those, but we are in the making. We’ll see.
LEO Mag June 2019, Luxembourg for Finance, Christina Clark.
Photo © Mike Zenari