Charles Dowd: ‘We plan to make Plynk a verb in every language’

16 Jun 2017

Charles Dowd, CEO and co-founder, Plynk. Image: Brendan Moran

Having secured one of Ireland’s largest ever Series A rounds, entrepreneur Charles Dowd is not short on ambition.

It was only two months ago that we featured peer-to-peer payments player Plynk as a Start-up of the Week. It was the kind of company that people kept bringing up in conversation and we decided it would be a perfect fit for our Fintech Week.

So, you can understand our surprise when the company last week made headlines for raising €25m in what has to be one of the largest Series A rounds in Irish tech industry history. The investment was funded by a mysterious new vehicle, possibly created just for the investment, called Swiss Privée Ltd.

‘This journey is 1pc finished’

It came on the heels of Plynk raising €750,000 last October from Enterprise Ireland, NDRC and Delta Partners.

“I think if you go back to our original deck in a presentation we gave at NDRC last year, we said this is what we wanted to raise – €25m – I’ve been very deliberate,” said CEO of Plynk, Charles Dowd.

Plynk was established in 2015 in Dublin. It allows people to send money via message to a single contact or in-group chats, instantly and with no fees.

Once a Plynk account is created, users receive a dedicated IBAN and virtual Mastercard for online payments. In the future, the company wants to integrate Apple and Android Pay.

The founder’s journey

Dowd will be speaking at the forthcoming Startup Grind in Dublin supported by Bank of Ireland, which will be held next Thursday (22 June) at 6.30pm at the NDRC.

His account of the origins of Plynk are quite interesting. Dowd met his co-founder Clive Foley following a conversation with Delta Partners, where he learned that there was a guy at NDRC planning a similar payments platform.

‘SMS is dead, its obituary has been written. Facebook now owns the top four communications platforms in the world’

“I met with Clive and we instantly had good chemistry and a shared passion and vision, and we created Plynk on the back of that. Delta ended up being the lead investor and wrote the term sheet.”

While most people may know Dowd from his time at Facebook, despite his youthful looks, he actually ran the gauntlet of the ups and downs of tech over the last two to three decades.

In the 1980s, he worked at IBM before switching to start-ups in the 1990s. He was previously vice-president of R&D at Point Information Systems, an Irish company that Dowd claims “invented CRM”. The company was acquired in 2002 by S1.

“We basically saw the potential to combine sales, marketing and care within a single app. It seems so obvious now but it wasn’t then. Prior to the arrival of Salesforce, Tom Siebel was on the scene and he was a deadly foe of Oracle and Larry Ellison until Oracle acquired the company. Either way, Siebel beat us to death in the CRM market at the time. We learned a lot from them.”

After Point was sold, Dowd joined B2B marketplace player Marrakech, where he ran the engineering team.

“It was a proper rocket ship and raised a lot of money, but it was a victim of the time. There was the dot-com bust but that was swiftly followed by 9/11 and was pretty much wiped out. The landscape had utterly changed.”

Dowd believes that the geopolitical seismic plates, with Trump at the helm in the US and Brexit looming, are also pretty big existential threats for the tech industry.

“After Marrakech, I took an interest in financial tech and I worked on a remittance project for a microfinance player, and I learned a lot about banking in that process, especially all about stored value and prepaid cards.

“At the time, there were no mobile devices like smartphones or broadband, but I kept plugging away and I went around building a social loyalty business.”

It was while presenting at a conference on social loyalty that Facebook took notice of Dowd and offered him a job, opening up a whole new world.

“To move from trying to do stuff at scale and struggling with very little resources to jumping into a highly scaled environment was a big change.”

Stealth and scale

Charles Dowd: ‘We plan to make Plynk a verb in every language’

From left: Plynk founders Clive Foley and Charles Dowd. Image: Brendan Moran

Describing his time at Facebook as the equivalent of “two MBAs in one”, Dowd said the key takeaway was how the social media giant approached projects and the development of apps with a focus on the “intentionality” and motivation people have towards using them.

This ethos has pretty much informed how he and Foley have approached the creation of Plynk.

“Plynk is a social payment product that allows friends to exchange money with context and history, either remotely or face to face. Our objective is to create a giant network that lets people pay each other instantly. We issue bank accounts in the payment network using IBANs like any other bank account. You also get a card like Mastercard and you can use Plynk money right away.”

Dowd explained that the system works seamlessly with Android Pay and that the Apple Pay service will be live in the autumn.

“The premise is, you can transfer money to anybody anywhere that Mastercard, Android Pay or Apple Pay is accepted. So, in the middle of the night, you can pay for an Uber or MyTaxi with money a friend has just sent you, for example.”

I ask Dowd if he feels that Apple’s recent launch of person-to-person payments at WWDC could threaten the Plynk model. “I see it as a validation.

“It proves that there is a consumer need for this. The Apple service only works on iMessage and iPhone; the difference is, Plynk is multi-platform.”

He has a point – Apple accounts for less than 20pc of smartphones on the planet, with the remainder being Android.

He returns to the intentionality lesson that was core to his time at Facebook. “The first thing you must ask yourself is: what is it you expect to do when you open this app? This is something Facebook struggled with [in] its various apps and got right. For us, it’s all about the money. We will host conversations about money, one-to-one between people, brands and businesses.

“For example, one way it could work is to allow a group of flatmates to share one Netflix account and pitch in. A Netflix bot can ask you for the money when you are required to stump up. There are so many different use cases and so much to do that is untapped out there.

“We are focused on one-to-one payments or group payments where people collaborate.”

Ultimately, Dowd believes that people can learn a lot from how Facebook has approached app creation. “In a way, Facebook Messenger does everything now. SMS is dead, its obituary has been written. Facebook now owns the top four communications platforms in the world.

“What is it that people want to share in those environments? Money is important, but for Facebook, it is not its core focus. But for us at Plynk, that is our core focus. Intentionality is king; what it is you want to do when you use an app. Money is very important to social relationships, it keeps and makes friendships. Without being crude about it, money is stuff that matters.”

Dowd’s ambition for Plynk is to make it a global product.

“We plan to make Plynk a verb in every language. It’s as simple as that. Whenever people need to send money, Plynk will be the verb.

“The €25m investment is really about us focusing on the UK and Europe. We have validated the product, shown the traction and we have raised the funding we need. Our next stops will be Spain and Portugal and across the rest of Europe.”

Dowd believes that Irish start-ups have the right stuff to become global players. It’s really a matter of perspective, he explains.

“Modern start-ups are independent of geography and we really should approach them in that way. There is a great market here in Europe that is not being tapped by anybody. Ireland is a great place to start because I can get access to the languages, the resources, the technical talent. I can build a business here because I can scale here.”

Currently employing 12 people at new offices on Camden Street in Dublin, the journey to the destination that Dowd has in mind has been 25 years in the making.

“We are two years down the road on this leg of the journey and we used our seed round from last year to validate what Plynk can do. We have committed to the numbers and we have told our investors what we intend to build. When you deliver, people tend to sit up and take notice and we have been very clear on what we need to do next.”

Dowd channels the “this journey is 1pc finished” internal motto at Facebook as a guide. “We are only on the beginning of a journey and scale is where we are going. We have an investor who can see what we want to do and who will help us become a verb in every language.

“It is great to have somebody behind you that believes in you, that will provide the capital that allows us to deliver on that vision,” Dowd concludes.

“To reach the scale we want, we now need to find the right talent, because only the best teams win.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years