How the Biggest Fintechs Got to Where They Are Today

Finance Tips

Fintech giants aren’t born overnight. They require years of blood, sweat, and tears from their founders to incubate an idea and turn it into a reality. The biggest fintech companies of this decade began as big ideas; a better way to transact across borders, easier commerce for mobile and digital payments, and simpler digital banking for consumers and businesses.

These giant fintechs all started from founders' ideas and grew into some of the most important financial innovations of our lifetime.
These giant fintechs all started from founders’ ideas and grew into some of the most important financial innovations of our lifetime.

Let’s look at some of the most reputable and well-known fintech companies of this decade and how they got to where they are today.

PayPal

Let’s kick off with perhaps the most recognizable name in this article: PayPal. This fintech company began as the brainchild of the now-infamous billionaire Peter Thiel. But before it was known as PayPal, the company was called Confinity and didn’t even handle payments. Instead, the company attempted to create security software, but ultimately failed in its attempts. So, like any great entrepreneur, Thiel and his team changed course, and in 1999, they pivoted to digital payments.

That same year, PayPal merged with another fintech company, X.com, led by none other than Elon Musk. Musk was entirely behind the vision of PayPal and directed his company to focus solely on internet banking and related projects. In the end, Musk replaced Thiel as CEO, and PayPal took its initial public offering to the market in 2002, raising $61 million in the process.

It might feel as if PayPal has been around forever, but it's not as old as you might think.
It might feel as if PayPal has been around forever, but it’s not as old as you might think.

It wasn’t long before eBay scooped up the company for $1.5 billion. Over the next several years, PayPal expanded its product offerings to include a credit card, merchant security services, fraud analytics, and much more.

But in 2014, eBay decided to let go of PayPal and allow it to, once again, become its own publicly-traded company. From there, the company made many more acquisitions to add to its portfolio, including payment processor iZettle ($2.2 billion) and Honey ($4 billion).

Today, PayPal is a universally recognized brand with over 26,500 employees and processes $220 billion in payments each year.

Klarna

This Swedish fintech company is currently valued at $45.6 billion. But its beginnings were much humbler. Its founding team began at an entrepreneurship contest at the Stockholm School of Economics in 2005. The idea behind Klarna was to allow consumers and businesses to transact online in a streamlined process, while also maintaining a high level of security. Ironically enough, the competition judges did not appreciate the idea, and Klarna flopped in the competition.

But this didn’t stop the team from taking their idea and forging ahead. With a small amount of seed money from an angel investor, Klarna slowly started to scale its business by offering its technology in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Finland, and Norway. By 2010, the company expanded and was recognized by big-name venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital, which invested in the company. Still, by 2011, Klarna’s revenue was minuscule compared to its peers at only $54 million.

However, this didn’t stop investors from seeing the company’s future potential, and in 2011 a $155 million investment round was completed to beef up Klarna and its product offerings. This allowed the company to expand throughout Europe and grow its customer base. Fast-forward to 2018, and Klarna captured 60 million users and 90,000 online merchants.

Two more funding rounds—one in 2019 for $460 million and one in 2020 led by Ant Financial—pushed Klarna even further into the spotlight. The company now even offers its customers’ bank accounts in select localities. At last check, Klarna raised another $639 million in mid-2021, taking its total valuation to a whopping $45.6 billion.

Robinhood

Robinhood paved the way for millions of individual investors to have access to financial markets
Robinhood paved the way for millions of individual investors to have access to financial markets.

Both Vladimir Tenev and Baiju Bhatt saw how financial institutions were using their leverage to take advantage of retail investors and wanted to build a platform that could allow anyone to trade on financial markets. In 2013 the team used their experience in building high-frequency trading platforms to develop Robinhood, a low-cost digital broker.

The app quickly grew among millennial investors, who appreciated its low cost and ease of use. After a few years of tweaking and perfecting its platform, Robinhood saw its valuation skyrocket when it raised money in 2017, collecting $110 million in capital at a $1.3 billion valuation. This was quickly followed by a $363 million fundraising round at a $5.6 billion valuation just one year later.

The company continued to climb in value, reaching $8.3 billion in 2020 when Sequoia Capital came in to lead another round of funding. But in 2021, the company ran into issues. Robinhood was fined $57 million when US regulators determined the company misled customers in their messages and had outages on its platform, leading to investor funds loss.

This setback was major, but it didn’t derail the company altogether. Instead, Robinhood forged ahead and, in 2021, went public on the Nasdaq exchange. Today, Robinhood has more than 31 million users trading stocks, cryptocurrencies, and other assets on its digital platform.

Wise (Formerly known as TransferWise)

Peer-to-peer financial services have become an essential part of the fintech revolution in the past decade, and Wise has led the charge in peer-to-peer payments. Unlike other companies on this list, Wise started strong out of the gate. Led by Skype’s first employee, Taavet Hinrikus, the company processed €10 million in its initial operations, an unimaginable number for most fintech startups in their first year.

Because Wise allowed users to send and receive money directly with one another, it cut the transaction cost for money transfer up to 83% compared to traditional banks. This caught the media’s attention, which crowned TransferWise as one of the most innovative startups for many years. Accolades for TransferWise over its early years include:

  • 2012 – East London’s 20 hottest tech startups
  • 2012 – Wired UK startups to watch
  • 2012 – Startups.co.uk top-100 UK startups
  • 2015 – CNBC Disruptor 50
  • 2015 – World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer

Big banks began to fear Wise and its peer-to-peer model. Many banks believed they would lose significant portions of their revenue from money transfers because of this technology. They were right. Wise continued to grow, and by 2017 more than £1 billion was being transferred using the company’s services monthly.

Just six years after its inception, Wise attained profitability, no small feat for a company with such massive growth. Then, in 2021, the former TransferWise rebranded itself to Wise as it sought to expand its products outside of money transfer and into other financial services. Today, Wise trades on the London Stock Exchange and is valued at $11 billion.

From one idea to generational products

These fintech companies might be on different paths, but they all started at the same place: a vision and a drive to remake the financial services industry. That’s the beauty of fintech; it puts the power back into the hands of consumers and businesses and takes it away from big banks. From immediate successes like Wise to stumbling out of the gate companies like Klarna: no two companies are similar. But we can all learn a thing or two from these fintech success stories.