CIO Helps Civil War-Era Company Find Its Digital Future

Western Union has survived dramatic business upheavals before. Can its CIO help this venerable company survive the digital payments revolution?

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Startups Plot to Dethrone Western Union

Plenty of companies, big and small, want to steal Western Union's business using advances in electronic money and digital payments. Some startups are partnering with established players in telecommunications and other industries to reach consumers who usually don't have bank accounts, but who nonetheless pay bills and send money to family and friends. Others are working feverishly alone.

Since 2011, venture capitalists have invested at least $104 million in money-transfer startups, according to researcher CB Insights, which characterizes these 39 deals as attempts at "disrupting Western Union."

"The money-transfer market is ripe for disruption because it's not a very satisfying experience for a customer right now," says Denee Carrington, a senior analyst at Forrester.

For example, senders wait at a customer-service desk, fill out paperwork and then have to wait again while the transaction is processed. Customers also can't usually track their transactions along the way, like they would with a FedEx package, and sometimes receivers don't get the funds, Carrington says. Plus, customers must pay fees and currency exchange rates set by Western Union and MoneyGram, the dominant players.

Smart competitors have examined the customer experience and are trying to capitalize on its faults, she says. Xoom, for example, offers text and email tracking of transactions. The company, which went public a year ago, operates in 30 countries and claims 997,000 active customers.

Here's a sampling of other companies nipping at Western Union's heels in money transfers or bill payments:

  • TransferWise uses peer-to-peer networks to let users send money to each other internationally. The London company, started in 2011 by two Estonian entrepreneurs with experience at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Skype and other tech companies, targets students, expatriates and travelers. But anyone can use it. TransferWise bills itself as a cheaper, faster alternative to banks.
  • Dwolla is a startup that built a proprietary payment network that allows customers to move money from their bank accounts for 25 cents per transaction, or for free on transfers of $10 or less. Customers can use their cellphones, email addresses or accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
  • Barclays Pingit is a mobile money-transfer app launched by the banking giant in 2012. It lets people 16 and older use their cellphones to send money to other users in the U.K. Pingit is instant and free.
  • Several companies, including most of the big banks, are issuing pre-paid or other forms of debit cards to move money internationally. Payoneer does this too, plus offers e-wallets that are localized to various countries. Metabank's AiAdvance prepaid cards, meanwhile, carry the Visa and MasterCard brands.
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