November 12, 2009
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
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