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Meet the startup that will let you pay your co-workers on Slack

Current, backed by the Expa startup incubator, wants to integrate with other messaging apps, too.

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Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

In the grand vision Stuart Sopp has mapped out, his startup will one day become “the first digitally-native global bank.” For now, it’s starting simply as a money-transfer service for Slack, the workplace messaging service.

On Tuesday, Sopp is launching Current, a company backed by the startup incubator Expa, that gives Slack users the ability to pay their co-workers without leaving the messaging app. Current eventually wants to integrate its money-transfer service into other popular messaging services and social media apps, too, with the goal of allowing a new generation of consumers to “transact where you interact,” as the startup’s tag line puts it.

“We are going to come to you,” Sopp said of the startup’s approach to powering payments within popular communication apps. “And bring customer service as well.”

Yet for now Current is entering a crowded market where there is no shortage of choices for moving money digitally, and for free, within the U.S.

Venmo, the popular money-transfer service owned by PayPal, processed $1 billion of payments in January alone. PayPal’s core PayPal Wallet still does well, too. There’s also Square Cash and bank-owned money-transfer products such as Chase Pay, while Apple has considered making its own peer-to-peer payment product, too.

So what is Sopp, a 16-year veteran of trading on Wall Street, thinking entering such a crowded field? He argues that young people will eventually prefer using a single service that lets them move money within various messaging and social apps — whether to a friend or as payment to a business — rather than simply within a payments app. It’s an interesting idea, but one that hasn’t been proven out up till now.

And Current is starting with Slack because it has an open API — that is, a set of software programming tools that helps developers integrate outside services with Slack — and more than two million daily active users, many of whom are young, early adopters of new technologies who are used to socializing with their co-workers.

“These are people you are spending time with, hanging out with,” said Eric Friedman, Expa’s executive in residence and Current’s temporary chief operating officer. “You shouldn’t have to go into yet another app” to pay them back, is how he is trying to sell the service. It will be a tough sell for people who already are regular users of an existing payments app.

Expa partner Naveen Selvadurai, the Foursquare co-founder, has also been working regularly on Current as its chief product officer. Both he and Friedman will eventually step back from their day-to-day roles at the startup after Current gets off the ground and recruits replacements.

 Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp
Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp

To make a payment on Slack, Current users connect their bank account and Slack account with the Current app, and then have to move some money from their bank account into their Current account. Current users currently can’t use debit cards to fund their accounts, but Sopp said that capability will come eventually.

Let’s say you owe $10 for lunch to your co-worker Suzie, whose Slack handle is @Suzie. You would type “/Current pay @Suzie $10” into a Slack private message or into Current’s dedicated Slack group — called a channel — to initiate the payment. If you can’t remember the order of commands, you can ask questions of the Current bot on Slack, which spits out automated responses. If those answers don’t suffice, ringing a bell emoji summons a human customer service rep to chat with live.

When your payment attempt is initiated, Suzie will get a message on Slack notifying her and directing her and to sign up with Current to retrieve the funds. After that, she will get an email and/or text message every time she sends money or someone requests it, as well as every time she logs in to use the Current app. Unlike Venmo, Current is launching with so-called two-factor authentication as the default security structure.

Current also allows people to evenly split a payment with all members of a Slack channel, by entering in a command such as “/Current share $10.” A randomly selected GIF — sometimes Kanye, sometimes a cat — appears to signal the payment.

Current payment service on slack

But the service is going to need more than these cute bells and whistles to fulfill its vision of being “the API for money.” On the back end, it’ll eventually need to acquire money-transmitter licenses in most U.S. states so it can cut a direct deal with a bank to store customer funds. For now, it is working with payments service Dwolla to store Current customer funds in accounts at partner financial institutions like Veridian Credit Union and Compass Bank.

Current will also need to deliver on the promise of integrating its money-transfer service into other communication apps, whether Facebook Messenger, Twitter or Kik. The startup won’t confirm which platform it hopes to work with next, but said it is anxious to get updates on Facebook Messenger from next week’s Facebook F8 developer conference.

There’s also no guarantee that Current will get the go-ahead from other platforms it wants to work with, nor the buy-in from consumers who are accustomed to using dedicated payments apps for those specific needs.

Sopp, for his part, is so confident in this vision that he’s already talking about what Current can become after it integrates with a bunch more platforms: A digital “bank” that connects its customers with other online financial services companies like alternative lenders and automated wealth managers. That’s also where he says Current will generate its revenue, since the money-transfer product is free, at least for now.

“It’s a bank in a different sense,” he said of his long-term vision for Current. “To me, the branch network is broken. The new branch network … is to go where people are.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dwolla holds money-transmitter licenses; it does not.

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