A labour of love: Building a fintech startup to help users save
1. In 2018, I applied to a fintech incubator at IIM Ahmedabad with an idea whose purpose was (and still is) to mobilise and protect savings from 90-95 percent of Indian households. I wasn’t selected. But what discouraged me more was this: one of the important people associated with that programme asked me, why I was not thinking about adding silver, crude and other commodities. Or at least ETFs and mutual funds to my proposed app?
2. Later, a mentor with decades of experience in banking and finance told me that lending is an easier product to sell. Why am I choosing saving? It is the most difficult of all, not only in terms of selling but also in terms of margins and viability.
3. A professor of business strategy told me that I should first raise at least $5 million. According to him, there was no point in going live with the product without the money.
4. Then, there was this founder of a fintech company, who had raised Series a A round, at idea stage. He told me, “Be prepared to go to jail.” His reasoning was straightforward. The market segment I am choosing was not the top 5 percent or 10 percent of the population but the remaining 90 percent. They will not be comfortable with 100 percent online self-service and digital only payments. I would have to depend on offline channel partners, who may misuse people’s trust and money, for which I will most likely end up in jail.
5. A senior official who had retired from a regulatory agency asked me, “How will you build trust? How will you ensure security and transparency?
6. I had talked to some leading members in the jewellery industry, hoping that they would be willing to be my channel partner. After many rounds of discussion, they declined to move forward, and they were very candid about the reason. I wasn’t backed by any “big” names.
7. Very early on, the HR head of a large conglomerate told me that my product will be very interesting for their employees, but they can’t buy from a startup. To be fair to him, at that time, we did not have any relationships with banks and brokers like we do have now.
8. I have spoken to many experienced digital marketing agencies (and experts) who work for the financial sector clients. As I moved my objective from app installs, user registrations and active users, to paying customers and monthly subscribers, their cost estimate for customer acquisition went up correspondingly. From Rs 10, Rs 100 and Rs 500, to Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 respectively. Even that is not guaranteed. So, they tell me, I can’t sustain a business earning Rs 250 per year from a customer and spend Rs 2,000 on acquisition. Even if I find investors to back me up, I will have to keep going back to them. It will not be sustainable.
9. Many investors whom I spoke to, thought that the gross margin we earn (even at scale) was too low for anyone to be interested in.
10. A brand consultant from Kolkata asked me, “Swiggy and Zomato make 30-40 percent on delivering food. Why do you want to waste your life selling a saving product to make 1 percent”?
11. When we first built our MVP (minimum viable product) in 2019 and successfully integrated it with a payment gateway, the PG company declined to move us from UAT (user acceptance testing) to Live server with a curt email and without assigning any reasons.
12. The first bank account I opened was with a private bank. They too worked with us on API (application programming interface) integration, and when it was time for us to go live, they came back and said no, again without any valid reason.
13. The second bank I talked to wanted a FD of Rs 15 lakh to onboard us as their customer.
14. One of our primary back-end requirements is to buy 999 purity physical gold and store it securely. To ensure transparency and security for our customers, I had decided right up-front, that we will rely only on the SEBI approved MCX exchange for both purchase and storage.
I had approached many MCX brokers, small, medium and big, who all said they were busy supporting customers engaged in margin trading and hedging for hundreds and thousands of crores across commodities.
They weren’t interested in supporting us, not only because of our low initial volumes, but because we don’t just hedge, we actually buy. We need physical gold delivery at the MCX warehouse with a GST Bill for every purchase, which entailed a significant amount of coordination and back-office work for the broker.
Today we are at Version 2.1 of our product, with paying customers both in B2C (100 percent online self service) and B2B (corporate products). We have built successful relationships with Ventura Securities (MCX Broker), Cashfree (PG), HDFC Bank (banker) and ICICI Bank (UPI integration). We are in the process of doing a deeper integration with Equitas Bank (rupee saving accounts).
We are still persistent with this belief that the only way to build a sustainable business and a trusted brand in the “savings” space is to find ways and means to acquire customers at zero cost.
Without depending on advertisements, cash backs and discounts. The 1 percent we earn; we would like to invest it back in customer service. And build more products and options that make saving easier. Any investor money we raise, should go towards building a world class team.
Between our MVP in 2019 and Ver 2.1 in 2021, there is no change in our underlying product, founding team, revenue model or brand purpose. But we have successfully crossed so many of the hurdles, rejections and discouragement thrown at us.
So, looking back, I am asking myself, what made the difference?
I think it is simple. I knock on 10, 100, N doors, N number of times, until one opens. I even knock on walls, hoping for a hidden door..
But that brings up a much deeper question? Why am I persistent about this business? Why not something else? Something that is easier? That will scale faster. Honestly, I don’t know.
For any human being, conviction of purpose is neither an emotion nor a thought, the source of which is still a mystery.
Whenever there is a conflict between our doubting mind and a deeper conviction, something happens that re-enforces our conviction and quietens our mind.
Recently I did a financial literacy talk “Saving vs Investment – What is the difference?” - to the young employees of a software company. Within an hour, I got WhatsApp feedback from their HR that it was profound and insightful, and everyone found it very useful.
More than that, she had attached a “Vadivelu meme” (Vadivelu memes are famous in Tamilnadu – Vadivelu being a popular comedy actor). One of the employees who attended the talk, had custom created the meme and shared it in their internal slack channel.
Maybe one of these days, you will find me at a traffic signal holding a placard that says “Save First. Spend the Rest”. Didn’t Greta Thunberg start as a lone person sitting outside her school?
I recall this poem that I wrote many years ago (in a different context, but very relevant now). It is extracted from my poetry book “Breeze” published by Writers Workshop Kolkata. I dedicate this poem to all the entrepreneurs out there, who are trying to make a difference to the world.
Oh Lord, I asked
Why are you hitting me every day?
The Lord said
I am breaking some walls
Break my walls my Lord, by all means
But why are you hitting me on my head?
The Lord said
I tried breaking their walls with my hammer
It did not work.
So, I am chipping it off, little by little.
Before I could ask again,
The Lord said
Bear with me
You are my chisel.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)