Amaana is a company that has developed an open payment platform for everyday users in emerging markets. They have been in a somewhat private beta test for the past 1 year or so, and they recently told us that they are now venture funded, phasing out of Beta and hiring a slew of backend engineers for cool positions.
While other players in this market focus largely on a mobile (SMS-based) transaction system, Amaana has created a platform with which people can pay other people via the Web, SMS or Email. What’s more, their system is linked directly to the U.S. banking networks so it could be the fastest way of transferring money from the US to Pakistan.
If Ammana is able to launch commercially soon, they could pioneer a new set of internet-based applications, could enable and support micro-business in ways that the traditional banking infrastructure cannot reach, and could even be the foundation for P2P lending services in the future (such as Zopa in the UK).
We got the chance to interview Fahd Bangash, CEO of Amaana about the history of their company, what they’ve learnt in their entrepreneurship experience and the excitement of moving forward out of beta. Read on for this exclusive interview :
1- Can you describe the breadth of what Amaana does? Is it a mobile payment system for consumers? Is it a financial transaction system for banks? Is it a VAS for telecos?
FB: amaana is an alternate payment platform for emerging markets like Pakistan where most people are unbanked or uncreditworthy. Going straight to the functionaliy that basically means that we have to be able to process micro payments over SMS for consumers. Banks, telcos, utilities, merchants, and businesses all line up once you’ve rolled out a usable solution for the end user. We are not a solution for a particular entity or industry, we are an open platform that assumes all liability for payments running over it and we connect all transacting parties.
1B- How does this work? I set up an account and…
FB: Typically you’ll hop on to amaana when your friend sends you money over it. You can authenticate your cell phone and get started in a couple minutes through a short SMS conversation or an easy Web registration process. In addition to a required cell phone number that you verify, you can also add an email address to your amaana to get email plus text notifications for all activity on your account. The first thing you can do with your amaana is buy or send airtime over SMS, to anyone on any carrier in Pakistan. Our Beta proved that prepaid airtime over SMS is the coolest thing on the planet for most of us in this country. By the way, you get a little reward when you sign up yourself or when you bring on a friend by sending out a payment to a new user. That way you have something to play with when you first come on.
2- When did you start on this project (i.e. leave everything and work on this fulltime) ? H ow many people do you have in the company? How many cities do you operate from (is your major presence in lahore or khi?)
FB: Our engineers starting working out of Lahore in early 2004. I managed the operation mostly from California for the first 3 years for cash flow and networking. I moved in full time in mid 2006 to get the Beta out. We are 6 full time and 2 part time people right now, but we’ll be some multiple of that in the next few months inshaAllah. We’ll keep our development center in Lahore because tech talent is here, but we’ll probably keep our operations front end in Karachi because the industry is mostly there.
3- Recently other players in the market have also launched similar automatic payment systems. How does Amaana set itself apart?
FB: There is a line up of mobile banking products out there, all offered as solutions to someone. amaana is the only open mobile payment platform in this country if not the region. We’re solving the payment problem for everybody through a very usable user interface. You probably can’t use anything out there at this time, and if you could, it’s not very usable. We’re coming in with a bigger picture.
3B- For your customers (which I assume are consumers?) how can we all benefit? Would this help the little guys pay for services ( e.g. if I wanted to pay bloggers or designers for work?)
FB: We’ve made it very easy for you to send and receive payments over SMS and email. We also have a Web checkout feature up right now that you can copy and paste from the Tools page on our Web site and start taking in payments over the Web. We’re probably the only locally oriented company that is integrated into the US banking network – I withdraw money from my US bank account to my US amaana and send it to my PK amaana. Interestingly enough, our product is more sophisticated in the US than it is in Pakistan. We’re not going beyond Beta in the US in the near term, but know that we are working on connecting everybody here in real time to the outside world so stay tuned. For now we’re focusing on getting it right in Pakistan.
4- Over the past year, your company has been performing beta-testing of your system. How has the response been for your application? What type of growth rate are you seeing in terms of (a) user adoption (b) vendor adoption?
FB: Beta went great. Got 10K registrations in 2 months… a year ago. Then I got busy with my twins earlier this year and we went out to raise go to market money. We’re mostly done with that and we’re growing and hiring now to go beyond Beta. The only kind of growth you need in electronic consumer models is exponential growth, but I can’t share figures here. We don’t make forward looking statements anyway, instead we prefer that you track our progress and decide for yourself. In a way that is also a reaction to the perception based market we have in this country – too much talk too little done. So hopefully we’ll do it differently. Vendors join in for the consumers. For now we’re vending airtime ourselves and we expect vendors to start coming in for the audience that we’ll get together for them through our basic payment offering. We’re working on some partnerships right now in the banking and telecom sectors.
5- Customers may feel a little uncertain about letting Amaana manage their money since it is not a bank in itself. How would you make them more comfortable regarding the security and reliability of your services?
FB: We’re highly regulated. Consumers will trust us because our product works really well, trusted brands will connect to us, and our regulatrors will tell you we’re trustworthy. There is no shortcut to glory in creating a trust network, but we’ve taken the first steps towards it and we are uber excited about our prospects.
6- If I have an Amaana account, will consumers like me just be able to walk into some shop one day and pay over the counter using my cellphone? (in other words, are you planning to make vendor partnerships with retail stores or just keep this an online version)?
FB: The Web hasn’t really arrived here yet so we really have to make it easy for merchants and consumers to use amaana in the retail setting. We’re working on bringing amaana to a store near you.
7- What has been the biggest lesson learnt over the beta period?
FB: People love SMS. I love this country.
8- So what’s next for you guys. You are announcing that you are coming out of beta and expanding your team?
FB: We’re not announcing anything, but we are phasing out of Beta and getting the right people on board to help us disrupt this market.
9- I read some of the job positions for which you’re hiring and they sound very cool. Can you explain more?
FB: Sure, if you want to phrase it like that. We’re not a ‘software house’. We’re a Silicon Valley style tech startup solving local problems at the mass consumer level, and we’re looking for people who understand what that means. I don’t think we’ll ever be too many people, but I am pretty sure we’re going to be an interesting collection of them. This country and this region is bursting with potential, and we’re looking to meet minds who appreciate that and have a vision for all of us. We also think that many people leave or do not return because our service companies do not compensate well enough in intellect, cash, or equity. We will do what we need to do to retain and attract top talent here. God help us all.
10- If I like that type of work you’ve mentioned at your Jobs Area, but dont feel that I know all of those things yet, can I still apply — will there be a training program I will go through?
FB: We’re looking for cool people who have either done it already or have it in them to get it done right. Orientation yes, training no – we will enable our people to tell us what to do, because they’ll be that good at what they do. For reasons of common sense we only hire people who are smarter than us. Please apply if you are getting tired of your well paying job for a strange reason.
11- What type of culture do you encourage in your office?
FB: We treat our workspace like our escape from the rest of the world. We are not as fancy and corporate as many companies out there but we like to feel at home while at work.
12- For anyone who joins your firm today — what would you tell them about the future of Amaana. Why is it a good, secure place to work and build a career?
FB: I can say at this time is that we are venture funded, our Beta went really well, we have great advisors here and abroad, and we are in the process of solidifying partnerships in the banking and telecom sector. However, for us it all boils down to good code, or at least that is our preference. Thus, this is your opportunity to actually get done what we’ve all been talking about forever, in the way we work, what we produce, and where we want our market to go. We are a crazy startup with high level of madness on board, so come in with your energy and your ideals and work to change your world. Failure is not an option anyway.
13- When will consumers start to hear about Amaana’s products?
FB: Soon. The only thing certain about ventures is uncertainty. We think on our feet and we rely on our instincts, and it is typically what we are delivering and not when we are delivering that matters.
14- Any words of advice for other product companies w.r.t lessons you have learnt in the process of launching your product?
FB: I learnt all about startups in the Silicon Valley but did my own out of Pakistan with a local offering. Doing a startup elsewhere is like a running a marathon for a winning position. Doing it here is like running a marathon while you’re breathing through a straw, just so you can finish the race. In Pakistan, the odds are so great and the stakes are so high… it is mostly about survival. You’ll succeed if you can survive this place, where the entrepreneur is not a hero, where tech is not cool. They say pirates died early because there were too many ways a pirtate could die. It is easy to fail early in Pakistan because there are too many ways for entrepreneurs to fail here. Confucious said: Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising when we fall. I go by a rule: iterate often, fail early – build often, release early. There is a lot to be said on the art of the start, but through experience, and Jeff Bezos reflected my thought when asked about this, it’s all about patience. All that stuff you have to worry about, and it is all about patience…