Working on a cruise ship seems like the Eloise at the Plaza version of an adult’s dream, right? See the world, with unlimited entertainment and food on-board, and get paid while you do it.
The reality is quite different. While cruise lines do offer employees free room, board and food, the gig isn’t cushy. Crew members often are on-ship for 6-8 months at a time, working long hours each day. A large portion of the 400,000 cruise crew members worldwide are from developing countries and seeking to make a better living than they could back home, often to support families left behind.
But once they receive that paycheck, they face a new question: how to get it off the ship? In a truly global industry, cruises historically often paid in cash — in whatever currency they happened to transact in — and crew members may not get the opportunity to get that exchanged or transferred into a bank for months.
The irony of having everything paid for while on board is that this much-needed money can sit useless, stored in lockers or even under beds, while those at home wait to receive it.
Atlanta-based fintech startup Brightwell has gone deep into the space to understand what these workers really need. The company, which spun out from a Midwest-based bank over a decade ago, initially offered prepaid card products that facilitated cash transactions for unbanked individuals in general. Five years ago they moved into payroll, largely for industries with quick worker turnover.
“From there, it was a small jump between people on land… to where we got lucky enough to find our way to ships,” says Larry Hipp, Brightwell’s COO.
Brightwell not only began offering products to cruise workers, but really went all in to understand them. That’s what attracted Hipp, formerly a technology leader at digital agency 352 Inc., to the company in 2016 — the potential for their products to disrupt a completely tech-nascent financial space.
“When we talk about why we do what we do… I can’t wrap my head around what it would be like to literally be on this ship to make life better for my family at home,” Hipp says. Initially hired as CTO, he spent a good deal of time in his first few years focusing on the tangible user experience of their product, making it as seamless and user-friendly as possible for their target market.
The Brightwell experience starts with a card, which functions just like a debit card connected to the user’s Brightwell account and into which cruise lines deposit employees’ paychecks. The money in your Brightwell account can then be transferred to another bank, across country borders to friends and family back at home, or to cash.
Given the difficulty accessing computers once on board a ship, users can check their balance and conduct all other financial transactions directly through Brightwell’s mobile app.
Brightwell has their own built-in incentive to make the product as user-friendly as possible — the company generates revenue only when currency is converted or transferred. In other words, this can’t be an app that goes unopened.
And it isn’t — in the years that Hipp has been with the company, he tells Hypepotamus that Brightwell’s ARR has gone from $10 million to $40 million and they have hit profitability. They have issued 360,000 cards on over 200 ships to 150,000 crew members.
Their clients include the giants of the cruise industry, names like Carnival, Norwegian and Crystal. To handle demand, they’re growing quickly, with plans to swell their headcount from the current 65 to about 100 employees by end of 2019.
While presenting at the Venture Atlanta investor conference, Hipp shared additional impressive statistics: the company is the clear market leader, used by 60 percent of worldwide cruise employees. They presented at Venture Atlanta not because they needed capital, but to identify strategic partners that could help them take even more market share.
Hipp attributes their dominance to that laser focus on the user, plus a dedicated effort to staying abreast of the constantly-changing regulatory environment surrounding this industry. Brightwell really knows its industry.
Despite that success, Hipp does foresee eventually expanding beyond the cruise market. Though ship crews face particular challenges with money transfers, workers in many industries experience similar issues.
“I want to bring this product to every international worker on the planet,” says Hipp.
Photos provided by Brightwell