Citi is out of Obopay

Just recieved notice today that the Citi/Obopay “pilot” is over… am I suprised? No, at least not with the service termination. From a Citi perspective, this was a 3+ year pilot without a business owner or business case and only 2,000 cusotmers (this is not a typo.. I’m not missing any 0’s). The original plan was to gain customer insight. Once Citi invested…. the pilot dragged.. as Citi’s participation provided “value” to Obopay. Key learnings for banks:

Nov 2, 2009

See previous post http://tomnoyes.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/nokia-moneyobopay/

Also See post on 11/12 Obopay India – Another Failure?

Just recieved notice today that the Citi/Obopay “pilot” is over… am I suprised? No, at least not with the service termination.  From a Citi perspective, this was a 3+ year pilot without a business owner or business case and only 2,000 cusotmers (this is not a typo.. I’m not missing any 0’s). The original plan was to gain customer insight.  Once Citi invested…. the pilot dragged.. as Citi’s participation provided “value” to Obopay. Key learnings for banks:

  • do this “payments stuff” in your own environment, or manage pilots with a very well defined end date (less then 6 months).
  • Once capital investment is made, heavily involve the supporting Line of business  (note to innovation teams)
  • Set clear metrics for success, and don’t be afraid to pull the plug
  • Ensure customers are aware that service is a  “pilot”. Take a look at this notice below.. move your money out of here in next 2 months. 4 years… not much customer communication on this one.
  • Re: Payments. Banks should think long and hard before they enable the next Visa/MC. Do you really want to outsource payments? (Next week’s paypal conference will lead to some very disruptive stuff.)
  • Fat clients on mobile phones have been a global bust over last 6 years. Sorry Apple (See Apple’s Payment Patent Here).  This fat client failure has extended from mobile payment (Obopay) to mobile banking (see Firethorn is dead). iPhone is potential as a game changer, but Apple (the manufacturer) is trying to create a closed system without banks (Perhaps their brand is strong enough to make everyone ditch their exsting relationships… naa). The best hope for rich applications (FAT CLIENTS) may be NFC, but the MNOs and handset manufacturers are strategically delaying (subject of a future post).

So while the Citi-Obopay service termination is not a suprise, the ability for Obopay to attract new capital (without customers or much due dilligence) is amazing. Carol must be capable of selling sand in the desert. Given my interaction with “some very large” MNO/FSI mbanking heads in US, India, Asia, EMEA, … Obopay’s focus and “success” is much of a mystery (and not much concern). On the positive side they have an excellent marketing/alliance team.

Citi Obopay Service Terminiation

Citi Obopay Fee Schedule

Unbanked: Cash is King

While I was consulting w/ regulators and banks in Malaysia, I asked about the penetration of cards. The response from a lead banker was “Cash is King”. This response is a great summary for the key issues facing MNOs, FSIs and Regulators attempting to improve electronic payment penetration in emerging markets.

Tackling regulatory and consumer issues in emerging markets

While I was consulting w/ regulators and banks in Malaysia, I asked about the penetration of cards. The response from a lead banker was “Cash is King”. This response is a great summary for the key issues facing MNOs, FSIs and Regulators attempting to improve electronic payment penetration in emerging markets. Adoption of new payment mechanisms in developed countries has historically taken 20-30yrs. Emerging markets will surely proceed at a faster pace, but the work to be done is greater given the absence of: regulations, consumer protections, and electronic/physical infrastructure (among both banks and MNOs).

“Cash is King” may be too much of a generalization to extend to all markets, but in Malaysia consumer research indicates there are substantial consumer hurdles for FSIs trying to capture the unbanked population (trust, access points and overall committed to cash chief among them).  For domestic FSIs in SE Asia,  the consumer data shows that  MNOs are better positioned (reputation/brand/service/efficiency) to deliver on the mobile money proposition.  MNO’s position stems from the value that they deliver, with mobile money serving as the principle mechanism to retain access to MNOs services AND move from “informal” communication to money centered “business” communication. MNOs in emerging markets therefore have a unique opportunity to attract consumers to mobile centered “value store”.

Software providers (ISVs) attempting to address the “unbanked” world will face the following challenges:

  1. MNOs are adept at software development. Look at MPESA, GCASH, ZAP, …
  2. Business case separate from MNO is very, very challenging. Payments is a difficult business for banks.. it may be an impossible business separate from either bank or MNO.
  3. No private investment capital. NGO and micro-finance organizations I have spoken with are highly skeptical of technology use for unbanked (even for loan officers). Further, their involvement suppresses margins as government resources are allocated to achieve goals that are not following a profit motive. ISVs will need to make difficult decisions on whether to focus in the “For Profit: of “Not for Profit” areas.
  4. Many willing to listen to your idea, or let you prove out your value.. without much commitment for revenue.

This is not to say that there are no ISV opportunities in emerging markets. Once value is stored in the network businesses will certainly attempt to connect in order to attract and service customers. This is where developed country ISVs have excelled (HK, SG, AU, Korea, Japan, EMEA, …). However, the developed countries had a well established banking infrastructure PRIOR to channels like internet and mobile (with a commensurate evolution in the respective regulatory regime). Within emerging markets the “starting point”  is different (BOTH telecommunications AND banking services are immature) which may result in a different evolutionary path for mobile, banking, payments and regulations. Message to VCs: question your assumptions and adjust your paradigms.

A number of ISVs are attempting to establish a turn key payments system (the mobile money “switch”). However, Banks and MNOs business models are historically centered switching, and hence these established entities are highly motivated to continue control of both the infrastucture and all IP around it (opportunities for ISVs in this space may be limited). Fertile markets for ISVs may tend to be in areas which support either businesses or consumers in mobile commerce. Examples:

  • Hosted service that allows African governments to send pensions to multiple mobile banking plans
  • Text based “comparison” services for consumers,
  • Mobile banking infrastructure (ex: open new account, credit score using social networking data)
  • Mobile “bill pay” services for utilities

Regarding technology use in unbanked… Perhaps “unbanked” is too large of a segment.. perhaps we should separate out sub-groups like  “unphoned”… and consumers that own a phone but are committed to cash only (?traditional unbanked?). Given that some readers of this article may represent NGOs and governments that are focused on use of technology in microfinance, it is important to deliniate segments served by MNOs and MFIs. Perhaps creation of a segment such as “micro finance unphoned” MFU segment is necessary (I would love to see consumer demographic data here). The MFU segment is being successfully served without technology in lending models firmly established (See Grameen model).  Given this “success without technology” NGOs are particularly skeptical of the use of any additional costs (or intermediaries) to serve these consumers. Established (for profit ISVs) vendors will be challenged to create a sustainable low margin business in the MFU space given the influence of NGOs, and subsequent margin compression.

Focusing on “unbanked”, exclusive of the segments above, the entities most capable of tackling the range of issues here are: MNOs, large banks, large retailers, and state agencies. “Trust” is something earned over many years… In emerging markets, I would expect to see very simple services that can have very broad impact, with very little assistance from external vendors for following reasons:

  • Nature of network effects are that you must deliver value to everyone on the network (whether a bank or an MNO). Successful networks must have established physical distribution points.
  • Objective in payments is to establish use and acceptance. Example, receive your pension… now establish a savings account, or send money to your grandson.
  • Simplicity lends itself to better risk management, a key for reinforcing the “integrity” of a new payment system. Solid risk management is even more pronounced in the face of new regulations.
  • CEO visibility with MNOs, Banks and Retailers. Paying a “US Vendor” for anything relating to a payment function is not likely. Citi mobile teams have built tremendous SMS applications in weeks (sorry Silicon Valley).
  • Government Visibility. In addition to CEOs, governments and regulators are highly involved in addressing the needs of their citizens, whether “unbanked” or “unphoned”. Regulators globally are looking to share learnings from Kenya, Philippines, India, … Banks expect between 600M-800M people will gain first time access to financial services over the next 8 years. A tremendous market, that will be served much differently then banks (and retailers/MNOs) have operated in the past.
  • Consumer education…. Simple ( SMS). Side note: Did you know that there is a 20% failure rate on SMS in India? Perhaps this is old data.

Side note… Food for thought.

In this CGAP article, is it really access to “cashless payments” that is the issue? or is it the farmer’s inability to find a market for the goat and safely transfer/store the value? The deaths of the SKS workers are truly unfortunate, but if mobile enables value store, won’t thieves then adapt to this opportunity and force a transfer at knife point? Think of the poor farmer with all of his savings locked in his cell phone, overnight the money disappears. What consumer protections are in place so that he gets access to his funds immediately? Indian regulators are tackling these issues today, issues that the developed world has continued to refine over the last 40 years (for electronic payment).

Challenges for ISVs are many, as MNOs are very adept in software development and any “mobile money” value prop is Asia must be either strongly tied to a bank or MNO. VC is very tight here because compressed margins in payments are further exacerbated by injection of government and NGO money.

Feedback appreciated.

iPhone at POS? PaybySquirrel – updated

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Card swipe on iPhone.

Roberto Garavaglia was nice enough to share this finextra story on linkedin. Is this a consumer play.. or a “merchant play”? Will I see my local ticket scalpers taking credit cards on their iPhone? This start up was certainly “in the black”.  Data we know:

  • Squirrel has a “signature” line in the app
  • Have hardware on the phone
  • Alpha test in NYC
  • Receipt in engadget pic above shows consumer payment (you paid)
  • Mind behind it is Dorsey
  • Top VCs know about it, and seem to think it is a merchant play.
  • Very US centric.. no EMV (Chip and Pin)

There are certainly some conflicting data points. If a consumer play.. this signature will not be valid… and transaction will be treated as a CNP (so why the signature?). If this is a merchant play who would possibly want to act as acquirer (fraud loss)? The merchant use would make most fraud heads loose a little sleep, for they would have a whole new threat vector. Can you imagine the buyers of the merchant use?.. The bank and I will have to worry about every kid in a fast food window and every waitress holding my card swiping on their iPhone (in addition to paying for my dinner). My guess is that squirrel has the technology working.. but haven’t figured out the “banking side”.

Fraud attacks the “weakest link” in payments quickly. Would love to hear from others on the community, but my view is:

  • Interesting as a merchant play…. but acquirers will shy away from originating transaction in either network without solid fraud controls. The merchant owns the loss here by rules of network in a “CNP transaction”. Signature capability will be debated…
  • Squirrel biz model.. questionable as anything but a hardware business. The fraud numbers of leading merchant selling digital goods is astounding. All top merchants have had to develop their own internal specialist teams to handle.  If Apple and PayPal have trouble with teams of 300+ (after 10 years) this will be a challenge for any new “merchant”. As a payment method, squirrel will have to take this on. Having access to the physical card may allow them to try something disruptive like MagTek which reads the randomness (noise) in the card stripe to establish a “unique” card… which has the downside of card registration. Something like this would push squirrel further into a “US centric” model as it appears that they do not support EMV (aka Chip and PIN).  
  • “No go” as a consumer play. Why not just keep my card at the Apple app store? or at PayPal? What is the incremental value that this provides me? Why not just key in my card data.. why add a reader to my sexy iPhone .. .in its sexy case.

Innovation in payments is tough…  if I were going to add something the Steve Job’s product plan for the iPhone what would it be?

  • Global
  • Ubiquitous
  • Unique to every person
  • Globally Accepted for use in Payment and Authentication, by merchants, banks, networks, regulators
  • Low error rate
  • Impossible to clone
  • Difficult to crack

The answer is… (   ). OK so nothing fits my criteria, but any appendage on my iPhone must certainly seek to optimize the goals above. Only item I’ve seen that comes close it IRIS scanning.. now being miniaturized to fit on a chip the size of your thumbnail (below). Just for fun.. I bought “paybyiris.com” domain as I finished this article (today). 

http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/2002/01/07/2002-01-07_credit_card_cloners___1b_sca.html

http://4g-wirelessevolution.tmcnet.com/news/2009/08/19/4331395.htm

Nokia Money/Obopay

Nokia’s selection of Obopay is very curious, given that Obopay is a hosted platform that currently requires online registration.. quite a difficult thing for an “unbanked” customer to do in rural India. We can safely assume that Obopay will invest resources to provide for service and beneficiary registration in a 100% SMS mode (or build a NokiaWallet embedded on the phone), but there are still many holes in the service that are left to be plugged and a big business challenge in incenting remote agents.

Oct 13, 2009

Also See post on 11/12 Obopay India – Another Failure?

Obopay, Nokia Money, MasterCard Money Send…  all are based on the Obopay platform. In the Valley, nothing invokes a quicker smile and shake of the head then discussion of Nokia’s $35M+ investment ($70M in round).  This shake comes from both VCs and payments executives. The banks are running from the service, just as the Nokia and MC are running in.

From a Venture perspective… Nokia overpaid and may have significantly alienated banks. Obopay now has $126M in invested capital, with no “value proposition” (hence less then 20k active customers),  no US success, an average team and very little product.  Estimating a Series E pre-money valuation of $200M, you are left w/ post money of around $270M.. My sources tell me Revenue is less than $5M which results in a post money valuation of 54x revenue for a service from which its major customer Citi is walking away from (MasterCard is TBD).

  1. Series B, 9/06 Qualcomm $7M
  2. Series C, 7/07 AllianceBernstein, Citigroup, Qualcomm, Redpoint Ventures, Societe Generale, Richmond Management $29M
  3. Series D, 4/08 Essar Communications Holdings, AllianceBernstein, Onset Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, Olayan, Citigroup, Societe Generale, Qualcomm Ventures, Promethean, Richmond Management $20M
  4. Series E, 3/09, Nokia, TBD $70M

I must admit to feeling awkward in writing this.. given the names on the list you would assume that there is a sound basis for the investment.. but it seems to be “hedge your bets”  investing at best,  “swarm investing” at worst. The closest way to get to know what is real (and what is not) is to work with the customers. Hence my note.

I’m not saying that they can’t be successful, with the investors and capital listed here they certainly don’t lack a solid BOD. My point is that they have not had success to date in the US, have an average management team, and very little product. Nokia bought a bridge… lets hope it is to somewhere.  The amount of money going in tells me that Obopay believes they can build a mobile “switch” to create a visa like network. Globally,  financial services companies have learned a very important lesson with Visa/MC: never let someone else own the switch. Telcos I’ve worked with also clearly understand the control issue, not just in the US but in EMEA, and AP. Obopay’s most important network partner is MA, the entity which will drive network fees and transaction revenue. This brings up the question: IF Obopay is successful then what is their revenue POTENTIAL? Answer: a CUT of user fees from a SENDER Pays model.
It’s rather hard to compare Obopay to its competitors. Obopay is rich on marketing, alliances and user interface… and light on everything else (risk, operations and payment processing). Alternatively companies like Paypal and Cashedge have deep payment expertise, dedicated risk management teams (30-100) and 24×7 redundant operations.

UNBANKED or UNPHONED?

Nokia interest in “Nokia money” is less to do with the altruistic goal of bringing financial services to the “unbanked”, and more to do with growing “unphoned” subscribers. Take the MPESA success in Kenya. Safaricom/Vodafone have 99% of subscribers on pre-paid plans (aka top ups).

http://www.safaricom.co.ke/index.php?id=655

The challenge in growing subscribers in the third world is giving them a way to pay (top up) their mobile phone.  Nokia’s selection of Obopay is very curious, given that Obopay is a hosted platform that currently requires online registration.. quite a difficult thing for an “unbanked” customer to do in rural India. We can safely assume that Obopay will invest resources to provide for service and beneficiary registration in a 100% SMS mode (or build a NokiaWallet embedded on the phone), but there are still many holes in the service that are left to be plugged and a big business challenge in incenting remote agents.

The general consensus among executives seems to be that the challenge in mobile payments is 10% software,  50% risk and regulatory, and 40% qualitative issues surrounding “consumer adoption”.  Within India, regulators have been very involved in all pilots, setting an absolute Rs 5000 (~$100) limit on all providers in order to ensure that another run away “MPESA type” does not occur without a sound regulatory framework. It should also be noted that Vodafone/Safaricom was in a very unique place to address the “customer adoption” issue as it had 80%+ market share in Kenya. Most other markets have highly competitive and fragmented telecoms, each attempting to drive competing heterogeneous payment services.

M-Banking: Vodafone’s M-Pesa Hits Regulatory Roadblock | MediaNama

http://www.pluggd.in/mobile/obopay-india-to-launch-mobile-payment-service-1020/

Assuming Nokia’s objective is to provide this service to carriers, they will likely bundle discounted packages of low cost hand sets w/ service. The MNOs I have spoken with are NOT buying into Nokia’s vision and in fact are quite irritated that they are attempting to end run them through a direct sale to MNO agents.  Hence, most major MNOs are busy formulating their own strategy, and have a host of options.  If I had to bet… my chips are with the MNOs as people only buy a phone every 2 yrs (in emerging markets), they top up frequently. Nokia Money/Obopay will face competition from:

  • Vodafone. Unit led by Nick Hughes is active in Asia and ME. Repeating the Kenya success
  • Monitise. Provides same SMS services and integrates quickly to bank systems through ATM switch (Bank focused sale)
  • hyperWALLET. Software behind Enstream
  • Fundamo.
  • Sybase. Rock solid software play for Telecos
  • Akos Technology. Software/Service for telecos
  • …etc

Nokia Money and Obopay have a very, very steep hill to climb.

  • Software (No risk engine, Online registration required, hosted model, …etc)
  • People – Few international payments executives in team
  • References – No US success

As a side note… Citi’s trial of the service had terrible adoption. Less then 20k active users (much less). Obopay could argue this is due to poor Citi marketing (for those that argue marketing.. go use the service today).  I also understand that Obopay is telling prospects that Citi is still involved (which is true from a BOD level). I’ve also been told by 2 banks this week that Obopay is not taking any new US banks as its focus has shifted to India (Yes Bank).

Related articles

The Power of Mobile Money..

Economist Article

Telecoms: The power of mobile money | The Economist

 Extending the “network” of financial services into the unbanked is a tremendous challenge. Modern G20 countries have developed significant legal, regulatory, and technology infrastructure over 100 years. Such basic elements as customer identification for KYC, or consumer protections are not in place within many 3rd world countries. Mobile money attempts to leverage the “mobile network” as a financial services network. The telecos (appropriately) are driven to enable mobile money services to provide a way for the “unbanked” to pay their bill. As long as the value stays in the teleco network there are few issues. However, when “cash out” points are established then the same regulatory issues will need to be addressed and decisions made as to whether to “connect” the mobile network to bank networks. 

Anyone familiar with the subject knows that African regulators are particularly sensitive since the success of MPESA. Any success in mobile money that results in value exchange external to the mobile network will be facing the same regulatory requirements that banks do. In short, the “mobile networks” will not be morphing into banking networks without compliance to the same bank regulations which all financial networks face.

In speaking with both the FSI and the Network involved in MPESA, I asked them both separately what assistance they were looking for in Kenya, or if they rolled it out in another African market. Both separately said “someone to own the risk” [e.g. payment risk management]. Providers are thus recognizing that Payment authorization will require a new risk models then what are currently in place within other payment networks such as cards (e.g. HNC’s Falcon). Note that banks have significant dedicated risk teams (20-50 people) focused here.

P2P on Mobile – CashEdge POP Money

Just announced at Finovate today

http://sev.prnewswire.com/banking-financial-services/20090929/PH8333229092009-1.html

I know the folks at CE very well. Fantastic organization.. they excel at both the Sexy front end as well as the messy back end (risk/fraud) of payments. Their new POP Money service is rock solid and could give FSIs a strong contender in competing w/ PayPal in Sending money to any phone number or e-mail address.

CashEdge is a “Bank Friendly” service provider in that all of their services are white labled for banks. Few people know that if you use Wachovia, Citi, or Bank of America today, to transfer money outside of the bank, you are using a CashEdge Service. In 2004 I selected CE (Wachovia) because they provided a higher quality service at a lower price point then what I could build  internally (fully loaded). Many eCommerce teams only focus on the User Interface and top level design when assessing the cost of delivering P2P payments.  However it is risk and fraud management where you will find the true costs of “payments” to the organization. 

This new POP service will allow banks to create a revenue generating service, and take back consumer mindshare from PayPal.  Existing CE customer have a tremendous advantage in enabling this service, particularly given the current resource constraints within bank IT.

Many large banks are just beginning to offer A2A transfers (accounts that I own across FSIs). Wells just made this service available on a pilot in June.. Chase has it, but it is buried deep within the online functionality. There will be a big first mover advantage here, and my informed opinion is that Bank of America will be the the leader… or should I say stay the leader in payments.

Move over PayPal.

BlingNation Review – Updated 11/2

Was on the phone w/ the CEO of Bling Nation recently. The company’s advisory board includes John Reed, a former chairman of Citibank and of the New York Stock Exchange and Jeff Stiefler, a former chairman of Digital Insight and a former president of American Express. I was very impressed with the focused value proposition and team they have put together.
 
Overview
Stick RFID tags on phones, establish NEW RAILS, NEW SWITCH and provide merchants POS terminals. Focus is “on us” payments within community banks.
 
Key items that should give Visa/MC and the big banks pause:
NEW RAILS. They have direct integration w/ core deposit systems (think JackHenry)
NEW SWITCH. They are the switch between DDA and POS, completely new Auth system
REPLACE CASH.
Consumer Adoption. They have 10 community bank pilots going on now. 25% of all DDA volume is going through them within 4 months. John Reed said “if this consumer behavior is true.. it would be the fastest consumer adoption [of a new Payment method] in banking”
Value Prop is FOCUSED.
    Merchant:             Small merchants.. 50% reduction in interchange
    Community Bank: Replace Cash, Interchange revenue, customer retention (loyalty program), minimal
                               IT work for bank. Core deposit system “plug in”, hosted services
    Consumer.           Use your phone as a payment device, get rewards and account status. Keep your money with local banks
 
USABILITY. Instant activation.. get the tag in the mail, call up your bank and give them the number
Board of Advisors. John Reed is a visionary.. how often have you seen his name on anything? These guys will be successful
 
 
Challenges
– Private networks have typically faced regulatory and compliance scrutiny. How advanced are the operating rules and agreements? Think ACH return… 🙂
– Long term consumer adoption.. is it just a flash in the pan.. or could this be an enabler for repacing cash for “community POS” payments (thing barber and soda shop) and move upstream from community to micro payments.. Something like this help small banks take back customers from the big guys?
– Fraud. Fraud doesn’t attack a system until there is sufficient volume to warrant investment.  If Cash replacement focus, then system should be air tight as it will be tough to commit investigative services to $0.50 transactions.