Steve LaBella, 42, is a true homegrown Connecticut entrepreneur. He grew up in and cheap valium Glastonbury schools and went on to graduate from the University of Connecticut/Storrs. After a sales job with the payroll company Paychex, at age 25 he cheap valium QuickPay, a bill-paying service. He sold the company four years later and eventually ran American Payment Systems for its eventual acquirer, Check Free. In there he founded iSend, a Middlebury company that was just named by the Connecticut Technology Council and Marcum Tech Top 40 as the fastest-growing technology company in the state — a whopping 57,000-percent revenue growth over five years.
What was your first entrepreneurial experience?
I grew up in a house where my father owned a big hair salon in Wethersfield. He was a high school graduate and ended up running a successful business for 35-plus years. I did a lot of different things for him — cleaned [the salon] every week; when I was old enough did payroll for him. The first [outside] job I had was the result of wanting a new bike. I went to a farm down the street from my house. I was 13, but I told them I was 15. I worked for a month or two picking peppers and cucumbers and made enough to buy my first bike.
What about watching your father made you decide you wanted to be an entrepreneur and not just work for a big company?
It was obvious to me that the best way to both make a living and enjoy some level of freedom was to own a business. I loved what my father was able to do with very little education. I started looking at how to do things on a bigger scale. So I wasn’t interested in owning a retail location. I was always focused on doing things bigger, that had opportunities to grow.
QuickPay was your first company. What did it do?
It was a walk-in domestic bill-pay service. There are a lot of people we’d call ‘unbanked’ or ‘under-banked’ consumers who, instead of mailing in their payments to utility companies or doing it online, they typically pay in person at different retail locations that are set up to take payments. QuickPay was a means to do that. We created a system that allowed retailers to accept all traditional consumer payments. We [eventually] caught the attention of a competitor who was bigger, and they were interested in some of the technology we had so they bought us.
What gave you the idea that QuickPay was a business you wanted to get into? It’s not your typical tech dream.
It’s not. When I first heard of it I thought the person telling me [about it] was crazy. ‘Who walks in and pays bills in a retail store?’ I didn’t even know it existed at the time. After college, my first job was with PayChecks, which is a national payroll service. I sold to small businesses. What payroll companies do is they move a lot of money electronically. They’ll do direct deposits, tax payments. For whatever reason I always liked that side of the business. I started looking at different ways to take advantage of that, and looking at different payment companies and businesses. I ended up on the phone with a guy from VISA. He suggested there are companies now doing walk-in bill-pay services. I explored it a little bit and without knowing much I realized there might be an opportunity. So I quit my job. I was in the Rhode Island office and I was getting married that year and was going to be moving back to Connecticut anyway, so I decided to do it all — get married, start a business…
What did your new wife say when you told her you were quitting your job?
The wife was No. 2 on the list — it was her parents who were the most worried. Everybody was great about it, but behind the scenes they probably thought I was insane. In hindsight, everybody was pretty happy with how things worked out, but at the time there was a lot of stress. It wasn’t an instant success, so it was a little bit of a struggle for a couple years.
Where did the idea for iSend come from?
So as I ended up at Check Free, which is now owned by Fiserve. They bought Check Free for $4 billion, to give you some scope of how big Check Free was. One of the things I did when I was there was we were looking at different businesses to get into. One of the categories was money transfer — think of Western Union and Moneygram and those types of companies. I ran what was APS, American Payment Systems [which had acquired Quick Pay], then Check Free had bought them. We were looking at money transferring and we found that it was very expensive for customers to send money from one part of the world to another. There are a lot of competitors out there, and there are some challenges with driving costs down, because everyone wants to still make the same amount of money. I realized there was an opportunity, so in 2007 I put together a team and launched iSend.
So you put together a team while the world’s economic system was in collapse?
2008 was a rough year, but we managed to pull through and raise money, and it all worked out in the end.
So what is iSend?
iSend is an international payment company. We give immigrant consumers the ability to pay for things directly back in their home country. First is bill payment: Instead of sending money home to Mom so Mom can pay the bills back home, the sender here can pay for those bills directly — phone, electric, gas, cable, those things.
So you’re hooked up with utility companies in other countries.
Take Mexico. There’s one electric company in all of Mexico, and pretty much one phone company in Mexico. So it’s a little bit easier compared to what you see in the U.S. We work with those companies to fulfill the transactions electronically, and it just makes it faster, easier, less expensive and less risky for the sender to get money home.
How many countries are you operating in?
We just hit our 100th country. We think of our business as originating countries — where people go [emigrate to] to work. So countries like the U.S., Canada the UK, even some Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia. Those are our originating countries. And then departing countries are typically all of Latin American, Caribbean, parts of Asia
So you’ll work with someone in Kuwait to send money back to the Philippines, as well as from the U.S. to somewhere.
Exactly. There are different remittance corridors. The U.S. to all of Latin America is huge — there’s $60-something-billion a year sent from the U.S. to Latin America. Kuwait is a good example; Saudi Arabia is a good example, where people might send back to India, Philippines, and other areas.
That’s a huge market space. At some point you went to seek investors, and they had to say, ‘This is a huge market. How are you guys going to be the ones to seize it as opposed to some major company?’
We did raise a little [capital] early on just to prove the concept, then we went out for a little bit more after a few years. You get that question all the time — it’s typical. And we also got a bunch of nos from investors, and eventually you find one who believes not only in the idea but also the team. That’s what it boils down to — we have a phenomenal team with really deep industry experience across a number of adjacent spaces. So a number of people I worked with at Check Free are on the management team, [and] we have folks who come from money-transfer companies. So it was really the team — a little more than 20 employees today.
Where are you making your money — on the float, or is it a fee for each transaction?
A combination — depends on the type of transaction it is. One of our biggest products is pre-paid mobile payments. Most of the consumers in receiving countries have mobile phones now, but they’re always pre-paid so you don’t get a bill at the end of the month and pay it. One of our popular products is that somebody here in the U.S. can buy airtime for Mom back home. So if you want to call Mom you’re not going to have her pay for that. You’re going to add airtime first to her phone, then you’re can call her. We have relationships with many of the largest wireless companies in the world and they actually pay us to process those transactions; we essentially purchase the air time at a discount.
If the team is the reason for success, what would recruiting tip would you give to someone looking for people to build their company?
No question it’s passion. You have to love what you do, have to love what you’re trying to do, you’ve got to believe in the idea. I’ve talked to plenty of people who thought we were crazy; didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off. I believed in the idea and the team we had, and we were all continue to be very passionate about what we do.
How many transactions did you do last year?
We’re just under a million transactions a month now, so we’re growing. That’s well over double what we were doing last year. So we continue to grow substantially.
Can people pay for a retail product like a computer from here to there?
The last product that we have and the most recent one is we want to sell international gift cards. Think of the concept of walking into a Walgreen’s and you’re able to buy a Gap gift card or a Home Depot gift card. What we want to be able to do is virtually sell gift cards to retailers back home. For example we’d work for a Mexican retailer and the person here in the U.S. can buy the value of a gift card, and Mom can go to that retailer, physically pick up the card and go shopping. If Mom always shops at a particular grocery store chain, instead of sending money and having her do that, you can buy her the gift card.
You’re not necessarily working with a local store but maybe a multinational chain?
There are ways to [work with local retailers] but it gets a little more complicated. But certainly we’d love to work with the larger retailers and get the bigger chains in first and then work our way down.
Would you describe your company as a technology company or a finance company?
We’re viewed as a financial technology company. That’s a traditional category. ‘FinTech’ is shorthand for the category we’re in. There’s not much of financial technology here in Connecticut, so we’re fairly unique.
Software and tech companies are known for a relaxed work atmosphere, but not financial-services companies. Where does iSend fit in? Is there Foosball?
No Foosball, but certainly no neckties, either. I fought wearing ties for many years, so I avoid that as much as possible. We have a very relaxed atmosphere; we’re also very virtual, so a little less than half our employee base is here in Connecticut. They’re all welcome to work out of their home or come into the office. The other half is scattered about in various places.
Do you have to have people in other countries to develop these relationships?
We have a development guy in Egypt, somebody in Mexico, as well as in California and Virginia and Canada. A lot of that is a function of finding the best people, and I don’t necessarily care where you’re based. We can communicate very easily and inexpensively so whether you’re sitting next to me or not isn’t really relevant.
Your company didn’t take government assistance to get going; it was based on your experience and an idea. But as someone who’s been in Connecticut all these years, is there anything you would recommend that state government could do to help business development in the state?
I haven’t put too much thought into this; we’re pretty much heads-down with what we do here. Entrepreneurialism is the lifeblood of the entire nation’s economy, and if there are ways to promote that, and the government can help do that, that’s always key. And there’s probably a way to do that through university and public combinations.
What can you do to maintain your dizzying growth rate?
We have to continue to be hungry and go after the businesses and the markets and continue to grow those. But the great thing is that we haven’t even begun to visit parts of the world where we can see two to three times the volume we’re getting in the U.S. and Canada and some of the North American areas that we’ve been focused on for the first several years. The way we continue to grow is finding the right people that can be out there finding the right relationships and the distribution we need throughout the entire world.
What does your father think about what you accomplished?
He’d probably say he’s amazed.
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