Forget ping-pong tables. Here’s why TransferWise invested in saunas for employees

Take a look inside the saunas of TransferWise, one of Europe’s fastest growing startups.

Adam Rang
Adam Rang
Oct 22 · 9 min read

TransferWise is one of the world’s fastest growing and widely respected financial technology companies. Their cross-border money transfer service now helps 6 million customers move €4 billion every month, while their new borderless accounts are replacing traditional bank accounts.

That’s despite — or possibly because — of their employees’ enthusiasm for taking off their clothes.

Transparency is one of the main pillars of TransferWise. They show a clear upfront fee and always use the real mid-market exchange rate, so you always get a fair deal, no matter in which direction you are transferring money.

In contrast, banks not only charge higher fees but also hidden fees — such as by using false exchange rates that are less favourable in both directions and allow the banks to skim extra profit of each transaction, often without the customer ever noticing.

That’s why TransferWise employees (known as ‘Wisers’) have been taking off their clothes around the world as part of their #nothingtohide campaign to highlight the importance of transparency.

If that wasn’t enough clothes-free activities, TransferWise have also invested in saunas for their employees at the offices in both London and Tallinn, as a nod to the company’s Estonian heritage.

“Saunas are a huge part of the Estonian culture,” explains Marta from the Office Team at TransferWise. “TransferWise was founded by two Estonians so it was natural for us to build a sauna in our office too. For the employees, our office saunas are a way to bond, socialise and relax together. They’re also a fun icebreaker when showing our office to newbies and visitors.”

These saunas aren’t just novelty perks though. They’re an integral part of the culture of TransferWise.

“Wisers use saunas often!” Rachel from the People Development Team at TransferWise explained to us. “Not everyone wants to go to the pub on Friday, so TransferWise provides a place for the employees to relax after work. The offices have something for everyone: people stay for board games, drinks, xbox and sauna. There are also roof terraces in both Tallinn and London offices to cool down after sauna.”

In fact, the saunas get used so regularly that routine fire alarm tests can result in some employees having to evacuate the building wearing nothing but towels.

The saunas of TransferWise

For the first time — as a world exclusive to our Estonian Saunas blog — we can now reveal what those saunas look like inside TransferWise.

TransferWise now has offices around the world, but their new home in Tallinn is the largest. Their seven story building was constructed for them in 2015 and includes a luxurious electric sauna on the top floor that can fit 12 to 15 people.

In Estonian, this hot room is known as the leiliruum because the ‘sauna’ is about more than just getting sweaty and actually includes the experience around it too, such as socialising in the eesruum (sauna pre-room) and cooling down outside.

At their Tallinn sauna, the window of the leiliruum looks out onto the roof terrace, which is where Wisers can cool down during their sauna sessions while enjoying near 360 degree views over Tallinn. There’s a grill out there too.

There’s also a games room, which does include the obligatory startup ping-pong table!

There are a couple of weekly sauna sessions here that anyone can join. The company has a jogging club called RunWise, which returns to the sauna after a lunchtime jog around the neighbourhood and there’s s also a weekly community sauna evening. Employees can also book the sauna for their own team events, which happens about once or twice per week.

On the opposite side of Europe, TransferWise managed to fit a very small sauna into their very first London office, but wanted to go bigger and better when the company expanded to a new London office in 2016.

“We knew we wanted to invest in a good one when we moved offices,” explains Rachel, although that led to an ‘interesting conversation’ because most Brits are only familiar with saunas inside gyms and spas. “When we were building our new office, the landlords were quite surprised about our request to build a sauna in the office”.

Their new London leiliruum is designed for up to eight people, although they’ve managed to squeeze up to 13 inside.

The heart of the sauna is a state-of-the-art electric DROP stove, which is made in Estonia by HUUM.

While many sauna stoves today use a lot of metal and look quite industrial, the concept for DROP was first designed by students at the Estonian Academy of Arts who understood that the stones should be the central design focus for producing the best leil (sauna steam).

As in Tallinn, TransferWise’s London sauna is also used regularly, both for team events and for the weekly lunchtime RunWise club.

In addition, the rapid expansion of the London team (from 60 to over 300 people in the last four years) has meant the sauna has often been used as a meeting room too! Throughout Estonian history, the sauna has always been a multifunctional space for everything from storing animals to smoking their meat, as well as an additional living space. In fact, Estonians would traditionally build their sauna before their main home. So it’s perfectly normal for TransferWise to use the sauna as an extra meeting room before building more meeting rooms!

There’s just one slight problem. The lights and heating in this sauna are designed to be switched on together so Wisers must decide between meeting in a dark room or a rapidly warming one.

Well, that’s one effective way to keep meetings short and focused.

TransferWise’s Estonian heritage

TransferWise was born in the UK and Estonia, but has a very international workforce that reflects the cross-border lives of their customers. Their love of sauna is rooted in their Estonian heritage, although this is just one part of how they celebrate their multicultural identity. TransferWise also hosts regular CultureWise events during lunch where employees are invited to give an introduction to their own culture to educate their colleagues.

The story of TransferWise started in 2010 with two Estonian friends living in London. Back then, the only way to send money across borders involved high bank fees so they came up with an ingenious workaround.

Taavet Hinrikus (on the left above) worked for an Estonian startup so was getting paid from there in euros, while Kristo Käärmann (on the right) got paid in pounds but had a mortgage back in Estonia. Instead of them both sending money between the UK and Estonia in opposite directions, they simply paid each other’s bills and calculated the difference. No money actually moved across borders so the bank fees were eliminated.

By the way, that little Estonian startup that Taavet joined (as the first employee) was called Skype. As you probably know, it did rather well. The success of Skype injected a huge amount of skill, ambition and capital into Estonia, which had a ripple effect across the economy and led to the creation of new startups. For Taavet and Kristo, that meant they could take their ingenious workaround and scale it up as a solution that benefits more people. TransferWise was born.

To the customer, TransferWise is moving their money across borders with friendly user design and without bank fees. Behind the scenes though, no money is technically moving countries. Instead, TransferWise is running Taavet and Kristo’s smart workaround on a global scale with smart technology and pools of money in each country being redistributed between their six million customers.

Their idea was a game-changer for the banking industry and their new borderless accounts — which enable people to have one banking account that can receive money in multiple countries and currencies as if they had a local bank account — are just as revolutionary.

We like to think the saunas had a part to play in their success. They help team members bond and understand each other better, as well as achieve the right work-life balance that is essential for building the most productive, creative and motivated teams — which clearly exists at TransferWise.

Many other Estonian companies also have saunas, including Skype (on the left below) and Pipedrive (on the right), a company that is also one of the ‘children of Skype’. As you can see, they also use an Estonian HUUM stove. There’s even a hilarious sauna scene in “Ükssarvik” / “Chasing Unicorns”, the new movie about Estonia’s startup scene. (By the way, we donated to the movie’s production, which is why we are hosting a special cinema and sauna for it this Thursday in Tallinn).

Thank you to all the Wisers who contributed to this story, especially Kristi Rebane in the press office who went well out of her way to help us and also fellow sauna fan Mark Schnieder who gave us more insight while helping us stack wood at our own sauna in Tallinn.

[One of our readers asked why the New York office doesn’t yet have a sauna. Well, maybe that’s something that can be fixed in future as the company grows. For now though, they can use Red Hot Sauna, an Estonian sauna in a converted New York fire truck if they want a pop-up sauna evening there.]

About our Estonian Saunas blog

Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.

We don’t just love TransferWise because they share our love of saunas. TransferWise has also been essential for growing our own borderless business and living borderless lives.

We used TransferWise to move money into Estonia to invest in our first saunas here, including our smoke sauna Rangi Saun and our Airbnb accommodation Tondi saun (which happens to be very close to the TransferWise office).

We also now export HUUM sauna stoves to the UK at EstonianSaunas.co.uk (and will soon be opening our global store at EstonianSaunas.com). For that, customers are able to pay in their own currency through our TransferWise Borderless account or can use the TransferWise money transfer service if they prefer.

One of our next big projects is our book about 100 Estonian saunas, which will definitely feature both of the TransferWise saunas.

You can follow our adventures exploring and exporting Estonian saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories. Finally, you can also email us at tere@estoniansaunas.com.

Sign up to TransferWise

You can sign up to TransferWise (which we personally recommend) using our affiliate code here and that will help finance more content of our content about Estonian saunas.

Estonian Saunas

We explore and export Estonian saunas.

Adam Rang

Written by

Adam Rang

Explorer & exporter of Estonian saunas. Previously Chief Evangelist at Estonia’s e-Residency programme.

Estonian Saunas

We explore and export Estonian saunas.

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