Tech Startup Plants Roots in Washington Heights' Dominican Community
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Juan Maldonado isn't your typical startup founder.
The Bronx resident doesn't fight tech companies for space in Midtown, Long Island City or DUMBO. Instead, Maldonado operates out of a cramped apartment on West 168th Street in Washington Heights and, rather than spending his time in code or pitching to investors, walks through the streets handing out fliers to neighborhood residents.
That's because Maldonado's company, Regalii, targets an atypical startup audience: Dominican immigrants living in Washington Heights. The year-old startup aims to simplify the process of sending money back to the Dominican Republic by enabling family members to pay for their relative's food and utility bills.
The company's name is a play on regalo, the Spanish word for gift.
"That's what we're trying to do," Maldonado said, "introduce mobile gifting to Latin America."
The site's founders all have family in Latin America: Maldonado has relatives in Colombia while co-founders Inigo Rumayor and Edrizio De La Cruz have relatives in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, respectively.
Maldonado said that the idea for the site grew from their own personal frustrations.
"We've all experienced the pain of trying to send money back home and there's never been anything to ease the process," Maldonado, 33, said. "With our platform they're able to circumvent the process because they're basically paying their family member's utilities directly."
In theory, the idea is simple: a customer can pay their family's electric bill, for example, just by logging onto Regalii's website and entering in their phone number and the account number. The company has partnered with dozens of grocery and utility chains in the Dominican Republic, meaning that most bills can be paid using the system.
In practice, however, the Regalii team has found that, among other challenges, immigrants are hesitant to pay their bills using an unproven electronic service.
"A lot of people need to touch and feel things, especially immigrants," Maldonado said. "They work so hard for their money. They need to see a person and they need to know that this product is real."
That's when the team packed up their belongings from the previous co-working space in Midtown and moved uptown in May. In addition to talking to prospective clients in person, they've since struck deals with several local wire transfer businesses.
So instead of being forced to use a website, customers can instead walk into a participating store and be guided through the service.
Five stores in Washington Heights are Regalii-authorized merchants, although Maldonado hopes to ink deals with chains in the Bronx soon.
JLM Wireless Corp, located at 1221 St. Nicholas Ave, was one of the first merchants. JLM owner Jose Mosoco said he was first approached by the company about a year ago and was immediately sold on the idea.
"It makes it so easy to send money back," Mosoco said.
Mosoco said most customers are unaware of the service, but those who have tried it have fallen in love with it.
"It's a great idea," Mosoco said. "I think it's going to be big."
Since making the move, Maldonado said the company has picked up 15 customers; the goal is to draw more than 200 by the fall.
To do so, the team has been hitting the streets, making appearances at community board meetings and handing out fliers to pedestrians on the street. And the company is even suspending the $3 transaction fee during the month of June.
While the customer base is small now, the company plans to ultimately expand services to the rest of Latin America.
"This is another way for people to support their families back home and really control their finances across borders," Maldonado said. "It's something that really hasn't been done."