Matt Oppenheimer, Remitly — Founder Q&A

Threshold Ventures
Threshold Ventures
Published in
6 min readMay 24, 2017

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I wanted to start my own company and make an impact. But I was looking for the right kind of problem where I could leverage technology to solve a big world problem.

As a fifth-generation Idahoan, Remitly Co-Founder Matt Oppenheimer is just the latest family member to scratch an entrepreneurial itch passed down by his pioneer forebears who came to Boise in the 1800s.

“They were entrepreneurs,” Oppenheimer said. “They built companies and developed a lot of the buildings in downtown Boise.”

During the state’s gold rush era, for example, Oppenheimer’s great, great, great grandfather started a mercantile company and grocery store. Today, his father and uncle still jointly run Oppenheimer Companies, a national food processing, sales, marketing, and distribution organization started by his grandfather.

“Entrepreneurship has always been in the back of my mind,” he said, adding that he was taught at an early age to try and pursue a path that would also enable him to have a meaningful impact on the world.

That was the kind of thinking which ultimately led him to the idea to start Remitly, a company that last year let people use their mobile phones to send about $6 billion internationally. For many migrants, this provides a lifeline to friends and family in their home countries, where remittances are the primary source of income.

Q: How did you like growing up in Boise?
It was great. My mom was an artist who got her master’s degree in counseling, so she combined art with therapy as a way to help people process things. My dad was a CEO. I went to Boise High School, where my grandmother and a bunch of my other relatives went. I was also the student body president.

Q: What interested you growing up?
A lot of things, but for me, my high school years were more about the entrepreneurial experience and getting a sense of how to make an impact on the community.

Q: For example?
I created a non-profit organization when I saw that people under the age of 18 couldn’t engage in lobbying on issues that impacted them. We had one student from every high school in the state who would come for a national lobbying day to meet with their legislators. We had governors and former governors involved. It was totally bipartisan. I probably should have gone to school a little more than I did because I was running that on the side.

I also saw that a lot of my friends didn’t have a safe place to just be together. That didn’t seem sane to me so I started organizing parties at my house with my parents there, or my grandmother, if my parents were out of town. These were drug and alcohol-free, no-charge parties that gave people a safe space to come. We had more than 500 people at some of the bigger parties. We hired security guards to make sure that folks didn’t do drugs or alcohol at the party and it became a cool social space. I’m really grateful that my parents let me do that.

Q: How did your worldview take shape?
I traveled a bunch with my parents and that was definitely formative — I went to China and Japan when I was 6 or 7, for instance, and that gave me a global perspective.

Also, my parents instilled this idea that it was important to pursue things that are going to have a positive impact in the world, and that it’s important to have an empowering view of what’s possible. This sense of ‘Is there a way to fix it?’ as opposed to ‘Let’s internalize 50 reasons why something can’t work.’

Q: After graduating from Harvard Business School, what were your plans?
A: I wanted to start my own company and make an impact. But I was looking for the right kind of problem where I could leverage technology to solve a big world problem.

Q: What was it about technology that appealed to you?
The great thing about tech — and it’s also the reason that you can make such a positive impact on the world — is that it’s enormously scalable.

Q: Where did the idea for Remitly come from?
I was working at Barclay’s Bank, first in London and then later in Nairobi, Kenya, where I launched the company’s internet banking system. That’s when I really found a pain point that I thought I could solve with technology.

Q: What was the problem you saw that needed solving?
Poverty in a lot of countries is just staggering. For instance, the contrast between the US standard of living and what it’s like in a slum in Nairobi is just stark. I struggled with that at a deep level. I saw that remittances had a huge impact on peoples’ lives — and it was sustainable.

But I also saw that sending money internationally was painful. The process was antiquated, slow, and expensive. That, combined with the fact that everybody was using mobile phones, gave me the idea to start a business in the space.

Q: How did you cope with critics saying the idea wouldn’t work?
I would proactively reach out and ask people why they thought this was a dumb idea. I knew the pain point I wanted to solve and did not pretend that I had the perfect solution. When you know what problem you want to solve, it’s liberating to say, ‘I want to find out why my proposed solution to the problem is wrong.’ I learned a lot from that experience. I think that kind of “test and learn” mentality enabled me to iterate the idea quickly. In fact, I still ask people today how I can do things better because that’s what the journey is all about. It’s about improvement and raising the bar.

Q: What’s been most satisfying in choosing the entrepreneurial route?
The impact that we’re having on people’s lives. It might sound cliché, but I get notes from customers almost every day thanking me for building this business. That is the most gratifying thing.

Q: What’s next for Remitly?
The cool thing is we’re now sending over $6 billion a year, which is an amazingly large amount when you consider that the average size [per transaction] is a few hundred bucks. There’s a huge amount of room for continued growth. I think about how we can quickly and efficiently bring the product to the 200 million migrants around the globe, many of whom send money home. There’s a pretty clear path to doing that — we just have to do it well.

Q: Is there a favorite quote you try to live by?
It’s something my grandmother used to say, “It will all work out.” I think there’s a component of that line which applies to entrepreneurship and just life in general.

Q: What’s your favorite book?
My favorite quote and the title of my favorite book are one and the same. Before my grandmother passed away, my father interviewed her about her life. When she was in high school, she had polio and doctors put her into a full-body cast. Later on, she served in World War II with the Red Cross in Europe. She had an amazing life. My father chose her favorite saying — It will all work out — as the title of the book he wrote about her.

Q: What individual do you most admire?
There are lots of people I admire, but I’m going to point to Josh Hug, my co-founder. The business just wouldn’t exist as it does today without his partnership and everything that he’s taught me as we build Remitly.

Q: Biggest (so far) unrealized dream.
One day I really would like to do a marathon in Antarctica.

Originally published on May 24, 2017 — revised on July 13, 2020

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