Ian Dillon and Katherine Budd were university mates before cofounding NOW Money, a fintech platform that delivers banking services to the UAE’s unbanked population, in 2015. Those earning 5,000 Emirati Dirhams (US$ 1,360) or less do not qualify for a bank account, which means 70 percent of the UAE’s population remains unbanked,according to the company's statistics. The country’s 4.5 million low-income migrant workers fall into this criteria.
Taking directive from the challenger banks of UK and Europe, Dillon and Budd saw an opportunity in the Middle East market for making banking more customer friendly, using tech to serve customers better and cutting the costs of providing banking.
“We learned a similar business model could be even more advantageous to this region,” Dillon said.
NOW Money helps low-income workers access banking and remittance service by providing them with access to an account, debit card, and remittance directly from the NOW Money app and service center.
The company recently closed $1.5 million in bridge funding with investments from US-based Accion Venture Lab and Newid Capital along with local VCs like Myrisoph Capital. They are also among the first entrants to regulatory sandboxes, which provide safe spaces for fintech payment services at the Central Bank of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Global Market. After winning the Gulf regional final of Chivas The Venture, the NOW team is off to the accelerator week’s competition at Oxford University while planning the platform’s expansion to the GCC.
Ian Dillon spoke to Wamda about building NOW Money, navigating the country’s legislative framework, and how he hoped “others are encouraged to embrace technology to solve social issues by seeing that it is possible in the region.”
Speak to the community you want to serve and keep an open mind. You can’t always go through the corporate structure. We would directly speak to them and sometimes we needed to go through their supervisor. But the only way to learn about the community’s needs is to get your shoes on and go speak to them. We spent a lot of time on the road going down to construction sites, taxi ranks, retail stores, and hotels to ask the workers what they want. We are not a part of the target market and come from a different background, thus we have to be able to think different, and be open to different ways of people thinking.
Tap into the existing skills of your target market. Dubai’s migrant workers come from countries like India and Pakistan where they have been using financial services like Paytm and EasyPay for years. They are very familiar with managing money from their mobile and for a lot them, it’s a step back to run everything with cash.
Be prepared to give repeated explanations. The low income migrant workers' target market was not something people were particularly familiar with. Neither was the technology we used or the regulatory landscape we fell into. There’s also a limited understanding of the fintech industry in the region. For investors especially, we first explained how a fintech company worked, discussed the licensing process, talked about the target market and then helped them get to know NOW Money specifically from there.
Start with new technology. Not having legacy technology is helpful in making the platform secure. We also hired a very experienced tech team who’s launched this sort of product before. Both moves helped us build the tech thoroughly and stay away of mistakes which could lead to security breaches.
If there isn’t an obvious route, doesn’t mean you can’t get there. We were one of the first fintech startups in the region and had to find our own route through all the regulations. The investment landscape had not yet been formed. As startups were new to the region, there wasn’t much support. Take advantage of the current support systems like the regulatory sandboxes, lawyer consulting firms, and startups with networks. You’ll have a better chance of making it through.
Solve a clear problem and build a legitimate network. Everything else you’ll get around, but if you are not solving a real problem, your product is never going to be adopted by your target market. Understand the problem and spend a lot of time with your target market. Building a solid network shows your ability to do things. If you find a way to potential partners or investors through people you know, you are in good stead before you even have the main conversation.
Fintech’s opportunity is enormous. Companies need the support of the banking sector and the funding landscape can be improved. There are opportunities to secure angel funding from private individuals, but there’s a big lack of early stage capital. The lack of investment firms makes the few firms that do venture capital in the region tend to follow each other a bit.