20 December 2021
Ugne Buraciene, CEO OF PAYABL, discusses the reasons behind the FIRM’S NEW NAME AND how the emergence of payment processors has unchained e-commerce, while pointing to online marketplaces as the future of the industry.
By Adonis Adoni | Photo by TASPHO
I arrive late – not the fashionable kind – for my interview with Ugne Buraciene, the CEO of payabl, a payment processor with a decade’s presence in Cyprus that has recently undergone a massive rebrand. The firm’s Limassol office (there are two more in Larnaca and Frankfurt respectively) buzzes with life: balloons bearing the new corporate logo – leftovers from the rebranding festivities – still float around the entrance, people looking as if they have a million things on their mind are pacing up and down the corridor and, to my dismay, the photoshoot is already underway. The silver lining is that I have time to catch my breath before we move into a conference room. The sun-drenched and ever-changing Limassol skyline stretches outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. It has been a while since I’ve had the chance to take in Limassol from above.
“It looks like London, right?” Buraciene asks, as she takes a seat at the conference table. It does indeed, though I am not entirely sure whether this a good thing or not.
Buraciene strikes a commanding figure. She has a straight-to-the point way of speaking, which might have been induced by the strenuous task of squeezing a wide-ranging interview into a 30-minute time slot due to my regrettable tardiness and her busy schedule – in my defence, being stuck for a considerable time behind a 40-year old truck belching thick black smoke was neither helpful nor pleasant!
Ugne Buraciene started in the business in London 14 years ago at Compass Plus, a company building banking software. “I actually didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she says sincerely. “I was in really deep water.” Back then, ambitious e-commerce entrepreneurs wishing to process their online payments had to knock on a bank’s door, open a merchant account, and then setup a gateway to bridge the two. This took time; those who didn’t run out of steam, had to pay fee after fee. Banks had become the gatekeepers to an industry that was fast outpacing the capabilities of their old technologies. The Internet needed a far better way to handle money. “For these massive organisations,” she says, “building something that was technologically driven, was almost impossible.” There was, of course, PayPal. While designed with the explicit purpose to make online payments simple, the startup’s backend technology was not built outright to support the e-commerce infrastructure. And, certain policies did not bode well with e-shops – once turnover hit a certain level, PayPal, as a means to cover financial risk, automatically put businesses on a 90-day rolling reserve, meaning that a percentage of the business revenue was locked up for up to three months. There were also a couple of payment gateways around (Authorize.net was founded in 1996), but they were too slow and expensive for e-commerce business to use them as an effective tool. It was not until 2010, when the Collisson brothers wrote seven lines of code that would become the core technology of the payment processing startup Stripe, that the e-commerce beast was unchained.
Back in the conference room, Buraciene, who appears much more comfortable facing a voice recorder rather than a camera, explains that she is driven to understand the nature of things – an asset for anyone who is venturing into their first CEO role. Having survived in the deep, she left Compass Plus and pivoted in various roles in the nascent payment processing industry. A year and some change ago, she was headhunted by payabl, which was then known as Powercash21. “I really didn’t know much about the company,” she says, and I’m caught a bit off guard by her directness. “The industry didn’t really consider them as competitors.”
Powercash21 had been founded in Cyprus in 2010 by a small group of German industry experts, and operated as a boutique acquirer, working within a closed loop of connections and never really out in the open. Finding online information (at least from reputable sources) about the company’s origins was impossible. When I brought the question to the table (and through subsequent e-mails), the message seemed to be to leave the past in the past. “We’re now showing our face more and we’re making sure that everyone knows we are here; we are not just servicing a set of clients; we have ambitious plans and we want to grow,” she says. This appears to be one of the reasons behind the company’s new face. Buraciene also agrees that the name Powercash21 left people with the wrong impression. “Indeed, we’re not a cash-run company; we are actually a payments-driven company. You can pay in any way. That’s why we are now payabl.”
Traditional banks have slowly started to catch up with the fact that a US$45 billion market had slipped through their fingers. In 2020, Santander launched its own payment processing solution with PagoNxt and, in 2021, acquired parts of the now defunct Wirecard to build the backbone of its merchant platform in Europe. Buraciene is not convinced that banks present a challenge. “I think they’re too late,” she says. “The actual ecosystem for payments is already quite complicated.”
Getting into this business is clearly not easy. It’s not only about developing cutting-edge technologies and onboarding e-commerce businesses, which are most likely integrated into various online platforms (WooCommerce, Wix and the like), or making the necessary connections to card schemes and the myriad alternative payment companies (a quite astonishing complexity exists behind a simple click). Perhaps the most important part is building relationships with e-commerce businesses and growing along with them; banks might have already missed this train. For payabl, operating as a rather small acquirer translated into having a personal relationship with clients. “We have had a very low turnover of clients over the years,” she explains. “We take good care of each individual merchant, which is important because we have been working with larger size clients, unlike Stripe, which has the technological capability to work with very small merchants. We are not there yet, but with the advancement of our inbuilt technology, we should be able to offer something similar.”
Statistics show that, in 2021, 47% of digital purchases worldwide were made via online marketplace platforms and, by 2023, marketplaces are expected to reach an estimated US$3.4 trillion in sales. The concept of a one-stop online shopping mall is not new: Amazon and eBay, which currently stand as the most visited marketplaces in the world, have been around for almost three decades. With payment processors as the backbone, e-commerce has boomed to spawn a plethora of digital marketplaces in recent years. Cyprus is no exception; Foody, Fetch, Svelta, Bolt and Wolt have created a competitive landscape. The number of people flocking to the online versions of the mall’s concrete jungle suggests an increase in the supply side of the chain. More online stores means more complex payments needs, including the ability to split payments, complex payout calculations and set up, local acquiring, alternative payment methods support (payabl has direct integrations with 100+ multiple alternative payment methods, including PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Klarna and Trustly), perhaps even competitive FX rates. For Buraciene, this is where the future lies. payabl is developing a new generation processor of tailored services to target marketplaces, allowing an online business of any size to add services fast – opening corporate accounts, fast and fully automated online onboarding, immediate settlement payments, full financial transparency with inbuilt reporting for reconciliation for any type of merchant, generating fraud reports, etc. – all accessible through a simple-to-navigate dashboard, with a clear fee structure. “For me,” Buraciene says, “next generation is really about enabling the client to have transparency in what they are getting, and the system has to be built in a way that it doesn’t take you half a year to do something for the client.”
I glance at the time. It is 12:25pm; only five minutes left on the clock. We skim through the potential present for payment processors in Cyprus by the growing number of gamemakers and end the conversation with the addition of cryptocurrencies – a simple add on – as an alternative payment method. Leaving payabl’s office and lamenting the amount of noon traffic in Limassol, I catch myself wondering in amazement about the intricacies behind a simple click. This might not sound like a big deal at first glance but consider, for example, how Foody has expanded in recent years in Cyprus: would local restaurants and supermarkets have turned to e-commerce during the pandemic if money couldn’t be moved seamlessly behind the scenes? Not to mention that companies like Uber have redefined entire industries, owing their dominance to payment processors. That’s not a bad place to be for an industry that is largely unseen by the majority of consumers.