Obopay India – Another Failure?

I read this Journal article today and was very disappointed that marketing spin can now make its way into both academia and the WSJ. Serving the worlds poor and unbanked is something to take very seriously.

November 12, 2009

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125774328035737917.html

I read this Journal article today and was very disappointed that marketing spin can now make its way into both academia and the WSJ. Serving the worlds poor and unbanked is something to take very seriously. One of the few areas where I personally make an impact is: directing investment to opportunities.. My attempt here is to cut through the obfuscation and provide , to those that are investing,  an accurate view of Obopay’s current state, and the challenges that lay ahead for those investing in this space.

It is a slippery slope for Academics (like WSJ Author) to start acting like marketing agents. This article is beyond obfuscation.. “Thanks to Obopay, millions of unbanked people in places like Africa and India are having access to financial services for the first time in their life.” I question whether there are more the 100k active Obopay customers globally. Obopay has no customers without a bank account today (credit/debit/ACH), therefore Obopay did nothing to provide this “access”. For example Obopay’s service requires you to enroll online.. nothing quite suited for the “unbanked”.

India is a fantastic emerging market, but Obopay’s success in this market (or any other) is highly questionable. Here are some factors influencing my view of Obopay.

  • Go on Obopay’s website and take a look at the backgrounds of their 8 top execs.. Very “limited” experience in banking, profile seems to be Bay Area software development, or having worked at a card network.  A Payments company should be attracting talent with that has run a payments business.  I doubt you will see this same exec team next year as the BOD makes some tough decisions based upon the progress of the company. (note that since this post they have updated.. thanks for listening.. )
  • Obopay Press releases.. many alliances and awards.. NO CUSTOMERS.
  • Obopay’s US experience. See http://tomnoyes.wordpress.com/2009/10/30/citi-is-out-of-obopay/
  • Obopay’s invested capital http://tomnoyes.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/nokia-moneyobopay/
  • India has some of the toughest regulators on the planet. Its most recent regulation (HERE) in August of this year prohibits non banks from participating in mobile P2P.
  • In India, similar to the US, Obopay is swimming upstream, where regulations require it to tie its products to a debit/credit card and each bank must authorize. For example, Citi only authorizes “send” not recieve.
  • Go to Obopay’s Indian website http://www.obopay.co.in/why_obopay.html.. you will see  “future” services like top-up and bill pay because they are having to morph their strategy due to reg constraints (above).
  • Try to find “fees” for Obopay in India. You won’t find them separate from Yes bank (which goes to scale of use in India.. few customers, and Obopay can’t sell the service separate from a bank/MTO).
  • Unbanked. Grameen Solutions is a fantastic team serving the worlds poor, but their choice of partner in Obopay is not working out. Some of this “blame” could be shifted to the regulations (mentioned above), but the ecnomics of Obopay are just not working for this team. Take a look at http://www.grameensolutions.com/News-Events/. Perhaps Obopay should morph into an NGO ?

Currently MNOs have the best chance of success serving the unbanked (MNOs will rule in emerging markets). Obopay is currently serving banked customers in India and there are many services that the banks currently offer that compete directly with Obopay. For example, in Citi India Citigold/NRI customers could instantly transfer funds to any Citi customer globally (at no charge).

India’s domestic banks also have similar services. Put yourself in the shoes of an Indian bank customer, why would you want to pay 1.5% + 100RS (estimate) for sending money when you could use cash or wait until you gain access to your computer?

Obopay started out as a “cash replacement play” where the sender pays, a model that has not worked well for them. They are continuing to morph their strategy to find a fit…. Banks and MNOs have several strategic advantages here, and will likely compete aggressively in any area in which Obopay attempts to “Brand” payments (to the detriment of existing products and services).  Cash replacement is a win-win area.. stepping beyond that will be challenging for a company whose top execs have no banking background.

For the unbanked, MNOs will be the industry group most likely to succeed as they are the only business that has developed a business model to sell and support unbanked (MNO/Bank partnerships and new regs).  See MNOs Rule in Emerging Markets

Other great Blogs

http://paymentsviews.com/2009/08/06/a-look-at-obopay/

MNOs as Depository Institutions?

Updated November 10, 2009

Excellent Background Articles:

Success and value breed trust and loyalty. MPESA customer surveys by CGAP point to desire for MPESA to offer interest on balances. The genesis of MPESA’s success is not something that Banks have seen before (in emerging markets):

  • Cash replacement (without their control)
  • Technology
  • Customer segment – Growth from the LOW end of customers that banks normally serves

Deposit taking, and payments are typically a regulated businesses which banks have excelled. However their past success was serving a customer segment that was far different then what MPESA serves today. Can Banks adapt to the new opportunities service the unbanked in emerging markets? Will new Micro Finance Institutions (MFI) emerge as the principle banking entity? Will MNOs seek approval to offer financial services separate from Banks or MFIs?

In Kenya, the explosive growth of MPESA has put both regulators and banks in a very awkward position. It was originally launched as a money transfer business, and has emerged as an effective cash replacement with an annual transaction volume of over 10% of Kenya’s GDP. Consumers have unexpectedly embraced MPESA, and regulations have had a challenging time adapting (or anticipating) the vector in which it has grown. The regulatory challenge now is “connecting” the MPESA network to the “banking” network and evolving the:  regulatory authority, regulations and controls around it.

In 2005, Kenya drafted the Deposit Taking Micro Finance Bill which was past at the end of 2006.

http://www.microfinanceregulationcenter.org/files/25464_file_Kenya.pdf

http://www.microfinanceregulationcenter.org/files/39171_file_Microfinance_Act_2006.pdf

In addition to supporting traditional MFIs, the Act made it possible for non-banks to participate in deposit taking as an MFI (in the future), and now the first “non-bank” MFI has been accepted (just 3 months ago in June 09).

http://www.microfinanceregulationcenter.org/resource_centers/reg_sup/article/57056/

It remains to be seen whether an MFI license will be granted to MPESA, to extend its money transfer license. A more likely route will be for (multiple) MFIs to be approved to source funds from MPESA (MPESA as payment network)

The Philippines may provide the best example for MNO/Bank collaboration in mobile money. GCASH in the Philippines is the mobile money solution from MNO Global in conjunction with Bank of the Phillipines (BPI).

http://www.bpiexpressonline.com/index/find_page.aspx

Last year Global and BPI partnered in the creation of a new microfinance provider:   Pilipinas Savings Bank

http://www.syminvest.com/market/news/microfinance/philippines-ayala-corp-bpi-globe-set-up-rp%E2%80%99s-first-microfinance-bank-to-help-small-business-/2008/10/31/1322

The Philippines was one of the first countries to develop a comprehensive law in support of MFIs. In 2000, Philippine regulators acted in response to the updated General Banking Law which mandated recognition of microfinance as a legitimate banking activity. Regulators developed a unique set of rules and regulations MFIs as the updated Law declared microfinance as a flagship program for poverty alleviation.

http://www.microfinanceregulationcenter.org/resource_centers/reg_sup

Bank as Depository Institution

Before tackling the issue of Deposit taking in Kenya, let’s discuss the issues surrounding existing (non MFI) banks servicing MPESA customers. Having spoken to several of the key parties in Kenya, the business issues surround: who “owns the customer”,  who is assuming the risk (“money transfer” v. bank ) burden for this connection. For purposes of example, let’s take the KYC requirement in Kenya (as in most countries) a customer sighting (by a bank employee) with valid ID. Kenya has had problems with counterfeit IDs

http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/InsidePage.php?id=1144013210&cid=472&

How should regulators proceed? Bank infrastructure in many parts of the country is immature. There are over a million people that would need to go through the KYC process, most of which do not have an identity card (separate from issues in article above). Should regulators relax the KYC burden? Should money transfer agents be allowed to operate under MFI regulation? In my post below, I’ve outlined a few of the regulatory approaches

http://tomnoyes.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/mnosrule/

I would certainly like additional feedback, but my understanding is that regulators are taking a concurrent track: Updating the MFI regulations (originally designed in 2005), updating the “Money Transfer” regulations as covered within the General Banking Act, approving MFIs to source funds from MPESA (services on the MPesa Network) and defining a new regulatory scheme for mobile money which would touch both banking and telecommunications regulations. Vodafone’s regulatory experience here will likely prove to be a tremendous differentiator in future markets, as their ability to field a team capable of partnering with regulators further enhances their creditability.

(A very broad summary of the issues, apologize in advance for the gaps.) From a Bank perspective, concern is justified over MNOs ability to create a liabilities business. Banks should have the right to compete for these deposits, with a level regulatory playing field. From a MNO perspective, banks have not served these customers in the past. For MPESA, the Banks interest in this segment arose after the MNO developed it. The banks should pay for this “customer acquisition” and servicing, and the MNO should be able to offer products and services that support customers.

MNO Deposit taking

There are currently 3 separately regulated parties that are positioning to provide interest bearing accounts: Money Transfer Services, MFIs, and Banks.  Emerging markets have invested significant resources in defining MFI regulations, however these were drafted prior to the success of services like GCASH and MPESA. The CGAP data in Kenya clearly shows customer “interest” (pardon the play) in using MNO services beyond that which a “money transfer agent” is licensed to perform. However accelerating the attractiveness of these money transfer services, by providing interest bearing accounts, may further exacerbate an already challenging regulatory situation. I would expect to see regulators requesting that MNOs open up/partner with traditional banks (as the depository institution) prior to approving MNOs as an MFI, or enabling traditional MFIs to compete. Interoperability between these licensed entities must be addressed. This view flows out of MNO incentives (e.g customer ownership, high fees for cash out) and current agreements with bank(s) with regard to settlement of funds. With that said, I would expect very little success for traditional banks attempting to provide this service, as it does not align to their business model. A model which will likely succeed is MFIs access to “non-traditional” payment services, as both MNOs and MFIs are nimbal and able to adapt quickly here and support their existing business model. See Western Union example below (in India)

http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report_western-union-takes-mfi-route-for-rural-spread_1299994

The challenges that MPESA faces, while challenging, are extremely exciting as it represents the “Phase 2” success of mobile money in emerging markets. Just look at the rate of change in issues facing service in Kenya today, compared with 18 months ago

http://technology.cgap.org/2008/05/28/can-m-pesa-work-for-microfinance-clients/

Mobile Money: MNOs will Rule in Emerging Markets

Payments, banking and regulation may well evolve differently in emerging markets over the next 5 years as new services establish a unique ecosystem that serves 1 Billion consumers never “connected” to the world’s economy.

Updated Dec 15, 2009

Regulators in Africa and India are working actively to ensure consumers (and the global banking system) are protected in the exciting confluence of mobile and finance. Their involvement is completely appropriate given the opportunity to improve the lives of millions of unbanked people around the world. Defining responsibility and the commensurate controls associated with connecting non-traditional (unregulated) networks to highly regulated banks is a herculean effort which may lead emerging markets to remake a “payment system” that is more efficient than that which exists in today’s developed countries. This opportunity for “leap frog” improvements will be driven by the unique path emerging markets are evolving. Key stakeholders will be able to leverage learnings of developed countries, and trials in emerging markets, as they develop infrastructure necessary to support a network that enables both financial services and telecommunications.

Today’s regulatory approach, within these emerging markets, may be best summarized as an “experimental period” with simplified controls. Very early regulations have focused on simplicity by ensuring that the “value” stays within the MNO network, and limiting: balances, ticket size and beneficiaries. By constraining transfer of “value” to well defined  MNO services (ex top-ups) regulators have certainly addressed many risk, AML and audit issues. These early controls have provided time for regulators to review progress and fashion new regulations in which existing regulated entities can comment. This order, with which emerging economies are proceeding, may come as a shock to some in the developed world.

Many believe that this more cautious orderly approach in mobile payment was driven by the unstructured success of MPESA (links below). An estimated 10% of Kenya’s GDP currently passes through this channel.  Governments, banks and MNOs leveraged the learnings of the Kenyan market, first among them is: once a new payment system takes hold, it is hard to change. The alacrity with which MPESA was adopted by Kenyans has caused “a new awareness” among governments and business for both the opportunity to provide access, and the challenges faced in managing it. For regulators, there is a renewed sense urgency for defining the “rules” by which to protect consumers and hold participants accountable. Ex in India below

Vodaphone MPesa in India

Regulatory changes have significantly impacted many investments made to date, with the key example of Reserve Bank of India’s Aug 2009 regulation preventing non-banks from domestic money transfer (destroying Obopay’s P2P plans). Banks have created much friction for the expansion of “pilots” and their capabilities. The banks’ position is that once value is exchanged between network participants, or to another network, that these services compete directly with a regulated “payment system”. So we have a “dance” of 4 parties: Regulators, MNOs, Banks and Consumers. In my discussions, the regulatory approach may be generalized by the following:

A)    Experiment.  Set interim guidelines with expectations that they could be revoked/changed. Communications regulators are driving this approach as they try to assist their stakeholders. MPESA began because of Communication regulatory authorization… not KCB

B)    Review. Require submittal of plans to both communication and banking regulators.

C)    Establish. Legal/Regulatory accountability. Define responsibility and audit guidelines for responsible regulators. For example in Kenya their was very little consumer protections for electronic transactions, the Kenya’s electronic transactions act was just established this year and serves as a model for Africa.

D)    Define Audit responsibility for MNO. May force partnership with regulated bank for clearing and settlement. Set auditing guidelines for MNOs under communications regulations (Monitor/audit payments and transfers).

E)     Constrain. Set limits on MNO services and “value” allowed to accumulate in MNO “wallet”, …etc. Example RS 5000 in India, Prohibit/restrict any bank functions in MNO. ex, No interest bearing accounts.

F)     Isolate. Restrict payments connections external networks. Ex in Africa.. Commercial “beneficiaries/payees” must be approved over a certain volume threshold. (regulatory Instrumentalism). Note: MNOs have addressed this by shifting value to a “regulated” payment (ex. Pre-paid card) and partnerships.

G)    Enforce KYC responsibility for MNOs engaging in payments at Cash in/out points. Example retail partner is responsible for validating identity.

Business Model

It is difficult for established businesses to create effective business models “down market” from their current customer base (see Clayton Christensen – Innovators Dilemma). MNOs may be best positioned to execute, on the mobile money value proposition, given that the “unbanked market” is market that they serve much more effectively today (reputation/brand/service/efficiency), and the fact that “mobile money” is a key to sustaining their growth.  I cannot underestimate this point. For banks serving the unbanked represents a low margin (if not money loosing) value proposition for all of their current products. Similarly, payments are a profit neutral business for banks separate from the lending or commercial services which surround them. Bank product lines are typically not focused on accounts with balances of less the RS 5,000 ($100). In addition, existing Bank systems typically do manage millions of small ticket real time money transfers (think SEPA or Wire) with associated risk, authorization, and AML controls. This “gap” in serving emerging markets is prompting indigenous efforts (ex RBIs: RTGS, National Infrastructure for Mobile Payments, and India Card).

For MNOs in emerging markets, mobile money is aligned to their current business and in fact essential for growth. Allowing “cash in” and “transfer” enables customer usage  through pre-paid plans. For MNO consumers, access to money services provides ADDITIONAL value to their EXISTING MNO relationship (more on this later). MNO success in “mobile money” is assured because the service further enhances the EXISTING MNO business model, a model which the team and infrastructure to: market, sell and service the unbanked is established (and profitable).

The consumer value in mobile money stems from the macro economic transformation that exchange of value provides in moving from “informal” communication to money centered “business” communication. Payments and value may well evolve differently in emerging markets over the next 5 years as payments, telecommunication, regulation and new services establish a unique ecosystem that serves 1 Billion consumers never “connected” to the world’s economy. It is the combination of “network access” and “value access” that provides transformational opportunities to the world’s consumers. This market dynamic leads to transformational “leap frog” opportunities within emerging markets.

MNO Fragmentation

The principle challenge for MNOs to address is in emerging markets is: fragmentation. A large reason Vodafone was successful in Kenya was that they had 80% of share. Fragmentation of consumers in highly competitive mobile markets, combined with conflicting standards, technology and retail partnerships may cause consumer confusion. This chaos is anathema to the “trust” necessary to establish consumer confidence in payments and value storage. For example, in Nigeria can you pay your utility bill on any cell plan? Dominant MNOs will likely race to establish payment networks and partnerships, even in the constrained regulatory environment. Less dominant MNOs will likely look to regulators, standards, interoperability and other mechanisms to level the playing field. It is essential that MNOs get this right the first time, as “trust” is something earned over many years and quickly destroyed.

In emerging markets, MNOs may be best served by attacking “breadth” opportunities first. Very simple services that can have very broad impact, with very little assistance from external vendors may provide better support for immediate growth:

  • 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.
  • Trust.. Serviceability, manageability, and risk management in “simple services”.

For Bankers

As a banker myself, I never admit defeat in attacking a profitable market segment. Given that payments are not particularly attractive for banks (separate from the products and balances that support them), there are several strategic options (Beyond the scope of this post.. but which I would love to discuss). In general banks should maintain engagement with regulators and MNOs, and focus on providing services that protect their network and enable access to consumers. Examples:

  • Switching. Extending payment capabilities in existing accounts and networks. Switching between multiple MNO value stores
  • “Participating” on the mobile network. Micro lending through “supporting role”.
  • Risk Management.
  • Partner w/ large existing customers in their participation. Example, Pension/Payroll to mobile plans, or connecting to MNOs to business (retail lockbox on mobile)
  • Managing compliance. Example: Cash out

For Software Vendors (ISVs)

In emerging markets, I would expect to see rapid evolution constrained only by regulation. Expect to see very simple services that can have very broad impact, and support MNOs existing value. A key distribution point for these services are local agents. For those of you in the US, think of these agents as the local “country store” of 80 years ago, trusted members of the community that frequently extend informal credit. Banks in Kenya are just gained access to agents in distribution of their services in order to compete with Vodafone and ZAP.

Many of the “consumer facing” services will require very little assistance from external vendors until the networks mature and value is transfered beyond the MNO network. Example issues for vendors today:

  • MNOs have very solid SMS development skills. Look at MPESA, ZAP, GCASH.. who developed the software behind them? The MNO.
  • 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.

This is not to say that ISVs have no role, but rather their role will be supportive of facilitating exchange of value… NOT leading with a brand (ex Obopay). Examples:

  • Government  pension distribution across multiple MNOs
  • Business connection to multiple MNOs payments
  • Businesses clearing settlement, AR integration and reporting
  • CRM solutions for customers, automated response
  • Assist MNOs, Banks and Businesses in compliance and reporting.
  • Bank connection to MNO networks. Ex: micro lending… receive your pension… now establish a savings account, or send money to your grandson.
  • ISVs should look at supporting services in connecting business to this new network.

Related articles


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.

Firethorn is dead

October 2009

Ok not yet.. but this is the obituary precursor.

Firethorn Quick View

  • Acquired by Qualcomm for $210 in Nov 2007.
  • Estimated Revenue of $4-8M through MNO fees and bank licenses ($500k-$1M). Qualcomm does not seperate revenue from this unit, nor is it mentioned in filings (http://www.qualcomm.com/investor/index.html). (Mar 2010 update. QCOM did separate earnings, see related post here)
  • Current customers: Wachovia, Regions, SunTrust, Citi Card and now US Bank
  • Wachovia is pulling out of $1M arrangement
  • JPMC is pulling out

When I was at Gartner Group, I sat down with an “anonymous” analyst and he said let’s think of some catchy titles for a new analyst brief. I asked “what is the subject”? He said “let’s decide that after we define the title that everyone wants to read”. It was then that I decided to leave Gartner, realizing it kept more to its journalism roots (as a prior division of McGraw Hill) then I cared to be associated with.

But alas I regress, growing ever more frustrated by MNO and bank attempts to “mobilize” financial services. Firethorn was a mess from the start. Having been at Wachovia (but never party to Firethorn selection) I can tell you that Firethorn’s banks “wanted to do something in mobile”, without much of a business plan behind it. The lack of a business plan is something that not only challenges the Twitters of the world, it also challenges big organizations. In either case a business plan must be addressed or the initiative will atrophy.. such are the vagaries of life… with perhaps the exception of centralized state planning (thank God for capitalism). The cards were stacked against Firethorn:

  1. Firethorn Banks had no “mobile” business plan.. when there is no plan, there is no executive support (because there is no revenue)
  2. Active customers are less then 10k per bank, Firethorn’s $1M price tag was hard for Wachovia to justify. Firethorn is actually paying other (card) banks to use the service..
  3. Fat clients on mobile phones are a failure (more below).
  4. Telecos stopped blocking access to http traffic (bank mobile sites)
  5. Consumers don’t perceive value (browser based access is faster).

BAC, JPM and WFC have solid strategies for mobile in support of their business. Distribution is a key facit of any business and it is never acceptable to create a new channel for sales/service without understanding of how it impacts products, customers and costs to serve. From a Bank CEO perspective, business leadership is required in distribution… don’t let the techies or “internet teams” make distribution decisions absent of business involvement. Firethorn’s current bank customers should have been more thoughtful in their decisions. Giving an MNO “control” over your content is not acceptable. Banks must push strategies that support their ownership of data, control over consumer (including authentication), brand and service experience/cost (quality).

My sources tell me that Wachovia has stopped new enrollments and is sunsetting the app immediately. Existing clients will be notified in next few months. The application never took off w/ Citi Card customers. (Poor US Bank.. they just went live with Firethorn last month).

Firethorn was acquired by Qualcomm for $210 in Nov 2007. Current customers: Wachovia, Regions, SunTrust and now US Bank (blind following the blind). I project Firethorn revenue as $8M from both direct sales to banks and MNO service fees. Revenue growth is challenged by issues above. Expect to see Qualcomm refocus Firethorn in NFC payments space, and align with companies like Vivotech. This is consistent w/ 3Q09 guidance in QCOM investor call

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/firethorn-provides-mobile-banking-application-to-metropcs-2009-10-08

http://www.redherring.com/Home/23154

http://www.netbanker.com/2007/03/wachovia_suntrust_regions_mobile_banking_with_firethorn_cingular.html

Citi Card

(side note) Globally mobile banking fat client apps have been a resounding failure. In my previous life at Citi 6 of 6 fat client initiatives have failed. Take a look at the Citi iPhone app.. guess how many people use it? What do I recommend? Low cost…. with no change in consumer “behavior” or support requirements. In the USA.. Create a slimmed down style sheet(s) that fit the mobile browsers. BAC, Wachovia, and Wells to a terrific job here. Most other markets SMS is the way to go. Simplicity is the key to mobile…. My favorite “mobile banking” vendor outside of US is Monitise .. just reuse your ATM transactions and tie to a service (Overview here)

EMV in US? No Way

Update Sept 2014

Did EMV in the US happen? Well to the surprise of issuers, Visa announced a scheme change in the US in August 2011 (see PR). The big issuers were not consulted about this program prior to rollout, as the dynamics described below in my previous article were occurring. Additionally banks were working on a new scheme that would leapfrog EMV: Tokenization.  The large banks were working on this scheme without the involvement of Visa and MA. If successful, this new token scheme would have bypassed V/MA altogether. I believe one of the reasons for this EMV push by Visa was to reassert its control of the network. Today we see quite a bit of friction remaining here between issuers and networks. See my blog on Chip and Signature for a view on some of the remaining chaos.

The new EMVCo token scheme announced in October 2013, formalized in March 2014 and rolled out first with ApplePay in Sept 2014 is the new “best” scheme on the planet. In this scheme, the networks have taken over the original bank token model. Of course banks can also serve as TSPs, but none of them are currently prepared (as of Sept 2014).


 

Original Oct 2009 A

As I was reading an article concerning “why US Card issuers should move to EMV”, I was struck by the amount of “disconnectedness” on this topic in the industry.

A quick background for those unfamiliar:

  • EMV is a “Chip” that replaces the mag stripe on a credit card http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EMV
  • Rolled out in Europe in 2004 w/ hope that fraud would go down (it actually just shifted to Card not present “CNP” transactions)
  • European issuers are also acquirers. In US these functions have been separated w/ exception of AMEX
  • Europeans banks are complaining that US cards in EMEA markets and EMEA cards in US markets are the weaknesses in their beautiful vision of a “Chip world”. EMEA acquirers are also threatening to stop accepting US (mag stripe) cards.
  • US Adoption of EMV would take 10+ yrs for banks to re-issue cards and for all merchants to replace all terminals that use the mag strip.
  • Issuers in the US don’t collaborate very often because of anti-trust concerns. Rules are set by networks… in which banks are Board members. Big banks like competing through “best practice” in fraud management. Small issuers have trouble in the arms race.

US Issuers are exercising sound judgment in not jumping on the EMV bandwagon, yet many industry pundits (without access to the data) continue to push a POV that we in the US are somehow backward. Just take a look at the UK fraud data, the card losses have grown from 122M GBP in 1997 to 531M GBP in 2007, and 610GBP in 2008. What did the EMV investment “buy” the UK issuers? A detailed look at this fraud data (APACs confidential) shows that fraud adapted to the next weakest point in the card chain: CNP.

The US banks are highly motivated to do the right thing here, but the solution requires coordinated movement by 4+ highly fragmented groups (Issuers, Acquirers, Networks, Merchants).  The US banks do get together to discuss these topics, primarily at the Philadelphia Fed.  The top request from the banks (to their regulators) was to free their hands in working together on fraud and standards without fear of anti-trust reprisals.. A request that took on no owner, as the number of agencies involved were challenged to work between themselves (FTC, OCC, Fed, …)

http://www.philadelphiafed.org/payment-cards-center/publications/update-newsletter/2009/spring/spring09_06.cfm

Independent of the political challenges that the issuers face in the US, EMV is not the initiative to bring them together.

  • Old technology (will not last the 10yrs it will take to roll out in US)
  • Expensive (POS, Card). Costs are not borne equally in network
  • No proof point, fraud did not go down in UK, CNP was not addressed. http://www.computeractive.co.uk/computeractive/news/2238913/apacs-releases-fraud-figures
  • Fraud Shifts to the next weakest point, it is not static
  • Big issuers like to compete on risk management
  • No benefit from “incremental” rollout of any technology (below)
  • “Health” of issuers (below)

The “true” benefits of EMV will not occur until there is 100% adoption at POS (complete elimination of the mag stripe), and all other weaknesses are addressed (primarily CNP). That is the conundrum facing any new technology here:  New Plastic must completely replace the old. In other words there is no “Incremental” fraud savings to an incremental rollout.

Where there is chaos there is opportunity…

With respect to card use at the POS in the US, prospects for NFC in mobile handsets is very exciting. NFC enabled handsets provide great customer convenience and the cost(s) are not borne by the banks. I highly recommend the business whitepaper below for those interested in the subject.

http://www.gsmworld.com/documents/gsma_pbm_wp.pdf

Other Data

NCL losses of Top Issuers for 3Q09

Top 5 issuers have seen their businesses deteriorate substantially, as NCLs moved from ~3% in 2007 to 10-12% currently. 3Q09 Examples (Data is for QUARTER)

  • – Citi.  NCL of $4.2B,
  • – JPMC. NCL 9.41% (ex WaMu) Card Net Income ($700M) for quarter
  • – BAC. NCL $5.47B, 12.9%
  • – CapOne. NCL $2.3B, 10%

 

http://www.javelinstrategy.com/2009/08/06/emv-us-magnetic-stripe-credit-cards-on-brink-of-extinction/

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.