How David Vélez Constructed The World’s Most Precious Digital Financial institution And Turned A Billionaire

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By Jeff Kauflin, Maria Abreu and Antoine Gara


David Vélez got down to kill off the fats charges and awful service of Brazil’s huge banks. The operation succeeded past his wildest desires: At this time, his no-fee Nubank is essentially the most helpful digital financial institution on the earth, with 35 million prospects—and he’s gunning for extra.


In the summer time of 2012, David Vélez moved to São Paulo with a newly minted Stanford MBA and a plum job as a Sequoia Capital associate. Douglas Leone, the pinnacle of Sequoia, had recruited the then-30-year-old Colombian to stake the enterprise capital powerhouse’s declare in Brazil—a youthful, resource-rich nation of 200 million that had grown 4% a yr for a decade to grow to be the world’s seventh-largest financial system. However on October 1, Leone known as Vélez with dangerous information: After contemplating the uninspired pitches from Brazilian entrepreneurs and listening to that top-ranked College of São Paulo had produced simply 42 laptop science graduates the prior yr, he was pulling the plug. Sequoia’s Brazilian journey was over. 

“It was the day earlier than my birthday and it was a little bit of a shock,” Vélez admits. Nonetheless, he had all the time needed to launch his personal startup and noticed alternative within the very dearth of Brazilian innovators that had turned his VC compatriots off. “You need to place your self on the aspect of the market the place there’s shortage,” Vélez explains. “Within the U.S., there’s an oversupply of excellent entrepreneurs. Any person with my expertise and background is a commodity. In Latin America, there was vital shortage.” 

Earlier than lengthy, he had a goal: Brazil’s huge and—to listen to Brazilians inform it—bulletproof banks. But as Vélez noticed it, the banks, with their notoriously excessive charges, poor service and seeming obliviousness to new expertise, have been sitting geese. They usually have been. Lower than a decade after its founding, Vélez’s São Paulo–primarily based Nubank has 35 million prospects and is valued at $25 billion. Vélez, who’s Nubank’s CEO, retains a 23% stake that Forbes values at $5.2 billion. “What’s taking place in Brazil is nothing in need of an actual revolution. And it’s waking up the incumbent banks, who’ve had the going very easy for a very long time,” says Nigel Morris, the cofounder of Capital One and a Nubank investor. 

“David goes to construct a $100 billion–plus monetary powerhouse in Latin America,” predicts TCV associate Woody Marshall, one other one of many traders who’ve poured a complete of $1.2 billion into Nubank. Among the many billionaire-backed corporations betting on Vélez: Yuri Milner’s DST World, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Chase Coleman’s Tiger World—and sure, Leone and Sequoia. 

Equally spectacular, Vélez constructed his fintech juggernaut whereas beforehand booming Brazil suffered by means of recession, corruption scandals and Covid-19. And he did so regardless of warnings from Brazilians that the banking institution would block him—or worse. “ ‘They’re going to kill you,’ ” Vélez says one good friend instructed him. “ ‘They’re going to kidnap your children.’ ” 

Growing up, Vélez noticed how entrepreneurs persevere by means of adversity. Born in Colombia in 1981 right into a household of small-businessfolk (his father’s 11 siblings are principally entrepreneurs), he watched as his hometown of Medellín was ravaged by drug wars. He remembers leaving a shopping mall together with his household minutes earlier than it was bombed. After an uncle was kidnapped and rescued, the then-9-year-old Vélez, his dad and mom and his two sisters (each now additionally entrepreneurs) moved to Costa Rica. There, Vélez’s dad, who had co-owned a small button manufacturing unit with two brothers in Colombia, constructed a brand new one. 

Vélez attended a neighborhood German-language prep college, graduating as valedictorian and profitable admission to Stanford, the place he majored in engineering and yearned to hitch Silicon Valley’s startup frenzy. However whereas Google had been birthed in Stanford’s dorms, as an undergraduate Vélez couldn’t give you his personal huge thought. So he performed it protected after commencement, taking an funding banking job at Morgan Stanley. Two years later, he joined personal fairness agency Common Atlantic to construct up its investments in Latin America. In 2010 he returned to Stanford for his MBA and, he hoped, to develop the idea for his personal startup and the killer instincts to execute it. However whereas nonetheless a scholar, he was recruited by Leone to develop Sequoia’s Latin American enterprise. When that chance evaporated, Vélez retreated to his dad and mom’ Costa Rican house to plot his assault. 

Vélez is an unlikely murderer. He’s an even-keeled supervisor who, earlier than the pandemic, started conferences with a minute for meditation. In his spare time, he reads fiction. His favourite novel is Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. However he’s additionally a fan of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and he realized in his VC and Stanford days that an entrepreneur can hit it huge through the use of expertise to take out fats, complacent incumbents. “What’s the most important trade in Brazil? Banking. And what’s essentially the most worthwhile? Banking,” he says. 

Again then, 5 banks—Itaú, Bradesco, Santander, Banco do Brasil and Caixa—controlled 80% of the Brazilian market, incomes large income by lending at excessive rates of interest and charging exorbitant charges whereas offering awful customer support. “ ‘Brazilian banks suck. It has all the time been like this and can all the time be like this,’ ” Vélez says one Brazilian good friend instructed him. 

However within the early 2010s Vélez noticed broadband web and smartphones unfold rapidly throughout the large nation. “You had these gigantic alternatives [to disrupt] industries like banking that nobody was actually as a result of no person thought it was attainable.” He provides: “Nubank might by no means have been began by a neighborhood. . . . It required a Silicon Valley investor who has seen this story of the tiny ant going towards the elephant and succeeding. A Latin American investor sees that and says, ‘No means, the elephant goes to crush you.’ ”

Vélez spent months chatting up Brazilian financial institution insiders and learning digi­tal financial institution upstarts like Capital One within the U.S. and ING Direct in Europe. He started to chart his course. Nubank would begin with bank cards after which increase to different companies, utilizing expertise to undercut the massive banks’ charges and beat them on comfort. He returned to Sequoia’s Menlo Park, California, offi­ces, securing $1 million from his mentor Leone and his former VC companions. Argentine enterprise agency Kaszek pitched in one other $1 million. 

Sequoia associate Roelof Botha instructed Vélez that he wanted a cofounder with banking expertise. By way of an acquaintance, Vélez met and recruited Cristina Junqueira, a 30-year-old Brazilian engineer with an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg, who had simply stop her job working Itaú’s largest bank card division. To construct Nubank’s expertise, he recruited because the third cofounder an American he knew from his Sequoia days, Edward Wible, a 30-year-old Princeton laptop science graduate. 

Brazilian banks, with their notoriously excessive charges, poor service and seeming obliviousness to how expertise was rapidly altering shoppers’ expectations, have been sitting geese. 

The trio arrange store in a rented São Paulo home, with Wible residing upstairs. In August 2014, they raised $15 million in Sequence A funding led by Sequoia, with Nigel Morris shopping for in by means of his specialty fintech VC agency, QED. To shut the deal, Vélez took papers to the hospital for Junqueira’s signature—whereas she was in labor along with her first little one. 

The subsequent month, Nubank rolled out its first product: a bank card. Nubank couldn’t begin with financial institution accounts as a result of it confronted a excessive hurdle to getting a financial institution constitution—a Brazilian constitutional provision barring international financial institution possession. Nevertheless it didn’t want a banking license to supply bank cards. Plus, Brazilian bank cards had sky-high rates of interest, then working 200% to 400% a yr, which means prospects would both must repay their playing cards in full every month or pay Nubank a small fortune. Whereas Vélez aimed to earn a living primarily from interchange charges—the 5% of bank card gross sales retailers relax to issuers and the banks—he wasn’t going to be shy about penalizing late payers with curiosity and charges. 

Somewhat than burn scarce money on advertising and marketing, Nubank used the “velvet rope” technique widespread in Silicon Valley—in the beginning you needed to be invited by a good friend to use for its bank card. Fake exclusivity apart, the attraction for Brazilians was apparent: Nubank charged no annual price and dealt with purposes solely by means of its app. Those that certified have been notified inside minutes, and the eye-catching purple bank cards arrived as quickly as two days later. Plus, all the pieces—from credit-line improve requests to invoice paying and fraud experiences—could possibly be carried out by means of the app. 

Against this, nearly all Brazilian banks charged annual charges for even fundamental bank cards—$20 the bottom. And that was simply the beginning; the banks additionally charged month-to-month charges for all the pieces from fraud safety to text-message alerts. In 2019, charges made up practically 40% of Brazilian banks’ income, in contrast with 15% to twenty% for banks in Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Chile, in line with a JP­Morgan evaluation. The massive banks are nonetheless resisting, however Nubank is placing these fats charges beneath large stress. 

Brazil is the nation of the long run and all the time will probably be,’’ the previous noticed goes. That captures each the boom-and-bust nature of its resource-based financial system and a way that its huge potential has repeatedly been squandered. “The truth that all people sees the macroeconomic image and 99% of individuals get scared means it’s a possibility for us to play the contrarian,” Vélez says. “We expect that over a interval of ten or 20 or 30 years, Brazil will discover its means.” 

On the finish of 2014, Brazil slipped right into a deep recession. But simply 12 months later, greater than one million folks had utilized for a spot on the Nubank card’s ready listing. To guard itself from losses, Nubank authorized solely 20% of candidates and gave some ultralow spending limits of $14, elevating that provided that funds have been well timed. And Nubank constantly examined new methods to make use of information to gauge threat—for instance, contemplating not solely an applicant’s personal credit score historical past, however the cost file of the referring buyer. 

In 2016, Nubank hit 1 million accepted bank card prospects—nearly solely by means of phrase of mouth and referrals—and Vélez was able to step on the gasoline. That December, he closed an $80 million funding spherical led by Yuri Milner’s VC agency. To place the sheer measurement of that in context, by PitchBook’s depend, the remainder of Brazilian startups mixed raised simply $340 million in enterprise capital that yr. Vélez used his portion of the stash to rent a whole bunch of tech staff, opening an workplace in Germany to get entry to further expertise. 

Lastly, in Might 2017, after a presidential decree gave it an exemption from international possession guidelines, Nubank obtained a Brazilian banking license. Now it might supply its checking and financial savings accounts—all digital, naturally. Whereas established banks have been then charging as a lot as $10 a month per account—with additional charges for ATM withdrawals and different fundamental companies—Nubank’s accounts have been free, save for a passed-along $1.20 cost to make use of different banks’ ATMs. Inside 5 months, 1.5 million of Nubank’s 4 million bank card prospects had signed up. 

Nubank was rising quick—it booked $523 million in income, with a $78 million loss, in 2019—when the pandemic hit. Then it began rising sooner. Like different fintechs serving shoppers, it benefited mightily from lockdowns and worry, as even older Brazilians took to banking by way of cell phones and the online. In 2020, Nubank’s income practically doubled, to $963 million, whereas losses narrowed to $44 million. 

Not surprisingly, copycat digital banks are cropping up in Brazil, and the old-line banks are investing extra closely in expertise. Some are even launching their very own digital-only companies. In response, Vélez is piling on new options. Final yr, Nubank acquired a pioneering digital investing platform and rolled out a life insurance coverage product, promoting 100,000 insurance policies within the first two months. 

Such diversification is a holy grail for digital banks, however few have carried out it so efficiently. “Nubank is the exception that proves the rule,” says QED’s Morris. Buyer satisfaction stays robust. In a current JPMorgan survey, Nubank’s web promoter rating (a measure of satisfaction) was 86, in contrast with 53 for Itaú and 43 for Bradesco. “With Nubank, they present you what you are able to do, you press a button and it really works,” says Bruno Alves, a 28-year-old buyer from Salvador, a metropolis in northeastern Brazil. 

“Nubank required a Silicon Valley investor who has seen this story of the tiny ant going towards the elephant and succeeding. A Latin American investor sees that and says, ‘No means, the elephant goes to crush you.’ ”

Nubank expanded to Argentina and Mexico in 2019, and into Vélez’s native Colombia final yr. Whereas most conferences are performed in English to accommodate its worldwide employees, Vélez has no plans to compete north of the border. 

Vélez met his spouse, Mariel Reyes Milk, in 2013 at a gathering for worldwide enterprise varieties in a São Paulo bar. They’re a global-village energy couple: She has an American mom and Peruvian father and has lived in Uruguay, the U.S. and the Philippines whereas working for the World Financial institution. Their three younger kids maintain Brazilian citizenship; Vélez himself is a citizen of each Colombia and Costa Rica. “My spouse and I normally say that now we have no nation, no roots,” he joked to a Brazilian journal in 2019. “We’ve got lived in so many locations and are thought-about gringos in all of them.” 

So whereas Vélez doesn’t plan to arrange store in the USA, he’s contemplating taking Nubank public there, principally as “a advertising and marketing occasion.” However he’s in no rush. “We’re within the first second of the primary minute of the primary half of the soccer sport,” the congenial murderer says. “You all the time have to make use of a soccer analogy in Latin America.” 

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