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Thanks to technology, one of the most fertile areas for startup growth is overseas expansion.

Almost every interview and story featured on TechBlast and our sister publication BusinessCloud features a reference to a company’s plans for global growth – whether in process, imminent or planned for further down the line.

It seems a given. “Internationalising is one of the most significant steps a small business can take. It provides new customers, new suppliers and talent, and – most importantly – growth,” says James Bell, head of Wise Business. “You would think this is something banks would want to help.”


Wise, rebranded earlier this year from Transferwise, is an international money transfer platform founded in London in 2011 by Estonian businessmen Kristo Käärmann and Taavet Hinrikus.

It recently asked YouGov to poll more than 4,800 SMEs on their plans for global expansion – and found that almost a third (30%) of those in Britain had been put off by the cost and complexity associated with managing international payments. 

It says the ‘broken’ international banking system is still based on traditional banks, with 81% of UK startups operating abroad – what it terms ‘micro-nationals’ – using bank transfers or card payments for international payments.


“It’s about time banks stepped up. There’s no reason for the system to be this broken,” says Bell. “Lots of banks claim to help small businesses, but the reality is different. Dig into the services they’re given, and it’s unsurprising that SMEs’ frustration is so high. 

“Small businesses flourish when they look abroad, yet most are held back from ever doing so by an international banking system that works against them and provides them with services that are slow, expensive and painful.

“And, throughout, there’s pain – for instance, SMBs are often expected to open local bank accounts when they enter a market, on top of all the other paperwork they face.

“Small- and medium-sized businesses deserve better. They should have the opportunity to become a micro-multinational, without a broken system getting in the way.”

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Wise found that barely a third (35%) of the UK’s SMEs can be called micro-multinationals, with only the US (34%) and the insular Japan (15%) scoring worse.

Adam Rang, founder of Estonian Saunas, explains a specific problem it faced. “At our lowest moment last New Year, we had £10,000 of sauna stoves stuck at the closed French border, and no clarity about the new rules that would impact those orders and all future ones. Following that, all of our couriers said they could no longer deliver for us. 

“We had to urgently restructure our business to survive. This included setting up a UK subsidiary and developing deeper relations with local British sauna builders.

“The legacy banking sector, and I’d include PayPal in that, just doesn’t get our challenges. It’s not just that their fees are higher, they’re also confusing and lack transparency, while their processes are too burdensome. 

“We couldn’t even travel to the UK to set up a local bank, yet many providers expected us to do so. Small businesses deserve better.”