Alex Coates is the managing director of Currency UK, a financial institution which helps SMEs and individuals transact abroad by helping them achieve better exchange rates and simplifying international payments. Appearing on The Leaders Council Podcast, Coates introduced us to how his business works, lifted the lid on his journey from joining the business as a start-up to becoming managing director, and why budding entrepreneurs should start their business with a sales-first mentality rather than becoming embroiled in operations.
Sending money abroad as a business or as an individual can be daunting and at times, even stressful. Established in 2000, Currency UK was a business formed to address that very issue: helping firms and people move their money overseas safely and easily, with zero transfer fees to reduce risk and save money.
Sitting down with host, Scott Challinor, and elaborating on the running of the business and its purpose, Coates explained: “Our business is split into two groups of customers: the first is the SME market which is comprised of businesses that are typically importing or exporting a good or a service. So, it's very common for businesses to buy products from China, for example, which will then be retailed in the UK. These importers will often be paying for those almost always in US dollars, so we support these businesses by converting their sterling into US dollars to then pay the Chinese business. Basically, they get a better exchange rate and very low payment costs as a result.
“Secondly, we have the private client side of things which is normally to do with any international property purchase of some kind. For example, there might be a British retiree looking to purchase a property in Spain in euros and they will need to convert their sterling. We’ll help them save probably triples of thousands of pounds from that FX conversion and send the funds out to the business in Spain. We also help a lot of expats generally, so there may be British civil engineers working out on big projects in the Middle East getting paid in local currency such as the Saudi riyal, and we’ll help them convert that into sterling to bring back to the UK.
“We operate mainly over the phone and via an online system, with our 20-strong customer support team primarily based out of one office here in London.”
Although the company had been formed upon the turn of the century, Coates first joined Currency UK four years later after completing his university studies. Armed with a degree in Economics and Spanish, Coates was recruited as the company’s new director of operations. He would go on to occupy that position for 16-and-a-half successful years, before ascending the corporate ladder to become managing director at the beginning of 2021.
However, Coates did not go into the business with a desire to lead. On the contrary, he told of how he first came into the business with a fresh and more entrepreneurial mindset simply to grow the firm and make it successful.
Coates said: “I was the first person to join the business and I was thinking more entrepreneurially when I joined. I was fresh out of university, and I wanted to get into a business that was going to grow. Obviously, leadership is one of the skillsets required to be successful in doing that. But I didn't necessarily focus on that from the start, it was only when the business started to grow through a lot of effort from myself and we were hiring staff and other things that leadership became a skill that I needed.”
Despite this, Coates has become accustomed to the challenge of leading the company in the two roles that he has held, and it is an opportunity that he has taken in his stride and continues to relish to this day.
“I would say that leading is actually one of the more enjoyable aspects of the job, particularly when we consider things like looking after employee wellbeing for example. I’ve really enjoyed that side of things. But on the whole, I didn’t necessarily view leadership as something I wanted to do initially, but it has turned out to be something I really enjoy.”
Based upon his own experience coming into a start-up and overseeing growth over many years, Coates used his platform on the podcast to share his mentality of starting out with a sales-first mentality, rather than building the infrastructure, product and operational side of the business first.
Coates explained: “You have to remember that pretty much any organisation is a sales organisation. That doesn’t mean that it must be financially motivated because you may be selling your idea or values through a charity or a non-profit, but for me you should really enter business with a mindset that you’re always selling. You always need to present your brand, your values and what you stand for in a really consistent way right from day one. Establishing that aspect of your business before all of the other operational considerations is the most important thing.
“There is an old adage going around that says the first thing a business needs is a customer. Going into business with that mentality you should ask yourself questions like ‘where can we get customers from?’ first. Think about what you need to do there before anything else. That’s probably my biggest piece of advice to anyone wanting to go into business. Once that is established, everything else including your product can come in to support it.”
In Coates’ view, many start-up businesses that neglect to commence their whole operation with that sales-first mentality and do not commit to extensive market research are those that tend to encounter difficulties early on in their lifespan.
“I think very often, new businesses are guilty of overcomplicating things by building the product ideas, the infrastructure and so on, without thinking about the customers first and without that selling mentality. Then when it comes down to operating and monetising the whole thing, they struggle because that basic focus on sales wasn’t there to begin with. Focus more on sales from day one and less about the operation, that can come later.”
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