For a system that moves half a trillion dollars around the globe each year, remittances are remarkably primitive. The person-to-person (and usually relative-to-relative) cross-border transfers require large fees (9% on average, according to the World Bank), phone calls, and time spent waiting in line for both sender and receiver.
It’s a system that Edrizio De La Cruz grew up with. He dropped out of college and worked two jobs fixing airplanes in Queens, cashing his paychecks to wait in line at Western Union and send money to his aunt and grandmother in the Dominican Republic. Cashing a check, waiting in line, using a calling-card to pass on the identifying number so his relatives could go wait in yet another line: It was a routine he became increasingly frustrated with, and that he’s now trying to change with a company called Regalii.
“I just noticed this doesn’t make any sense,” says De La Cruz. “If [my aunt] is using the money for food and medicine and paying her bills, why can’t I just take care of that from here?”
That is, essentially, what Regalii promises to do. The company, which he came up with at Wharton Business School (he did return to college) isn’t setting up dedicated storefronts in the Dominican Republic, the pilot country where it is working. Instead, it made deals directly with utilities, phone companies, and supermarkets so that relatives abroad can pay bills for their families. According to De La Cruz, customers in the U.S. are currently able to pay directly for bills at 400 Dominican Republic locations over the Internet or at one of 200 brick and mortar partners in New York City. These days, De La Cruz uses Regalii to pay for his cousin’s phone and his aunt’s electricity.
“When I built Regalii, it was really built solving my own problem,” says De La Cruz.
An earlier version paid for gift cards at clothing stores and had no transaction fees. The new version costs $3 for each transfer. De La Cruz says that’s still less than anything on the market (Western Union fees start at $5, according to their website. Charging a fee also has helped demonstrate credibility to customers. “What we found is people don’t trust ‘free,’” says De La Cruz. “They see it as a lower-end product.”
So far, De La Cruz says he has 4,000 customers from only five earlier this summer–rapid growth which he credits to an aggressive focus on word-of-mouth buzz in the majority-Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City, where Regalii has its offices.
De La Cruz says he’s just raised $1 million from investors, which will help the company expand into Mexico and eventually, he hopes, to as many as 7,200 retail locations in Latin America.
Ultimately, De La Cruz wants to build a company that impacts millions of families, and not just through its services. “I want to be synonymous with Latino entrepreneurship,” he says. “When you Google ‘Latino entrepreneur,’ I want my picture to come up. And I want a kid in the Bronx, in East L.A. to say, ‘Edrizio did it. I could do it, too.’”