How a high school dropout went on to co-found Open, India's 100th unicorn
In May 2022, the Indian startup ecosystem got its 100th unicorn when Bengaluru-based neobank startup Open raised $50 million in a Series D round from IIFL, along with existing investors Temasek Holdings, Tiger Global Management, and 3one4 Capital.
In this week’s 100X Entrepreneur podcast, Founder and Host Siddhartha Ahluwalia explores Anish Achuthan’s journey–starting from Perinthalmanna, a small town near Calicut, where his father was an engineer and mother worked as a school teacher.
Anish, who grew up aspiring to become a journalist, had his first brush with the internet in Class 7 and went on to build websites. He recalls being deeply inspired by Hotmail creator Sabeer Bhatia’s story.
“I was really inspired by the potential of the internet, especially dotcom, because it was connected to my dream of doing something in the media space,” he says.
In 2001, curiosity got the better of him and Anish ran away from home. He made his way to Trivandrum to start an internet & wireless value-added service provider iFuturz Technologies with Indiafirst.net as a horizontal portal–without completing his Class 11 and 12 studies.
He made ends meet by living in temples and railway stations for the first three years and built his startup with three other co-founders, all college students. Indiafirst was later acquired by a media group.
From that time till he founded, Anish tasted both success and failure. He started a mobile payment platform Cashnxt, which was acquired by Latin American company Prepaid Masters, followed by an NFC-enabled payment platform, Neartivity, which didn’t do well.
He then joined PayU in its early days, worked at OnMobile, and started his own payment gateway Zwitch, which was acquired by Citrus Pay. During his stint at Citrus Pay, Citrus was acquired by PayU and so Anish joined PayU, before finally starting Open in 2017.
Anish noted that business banking and finances tend to be a pain point because most services exist in silos.
“Today, as an entrepreneur, I have to use multiple tools and all of these systems don’t talk to each other today. For example, if I get a settlement from a payment gateway, I still need to check my bank account whether this payment has been made and do a manual reconciliation,” he says.
Open’s three key offerings include an SME business banking platform, an enterprise platform where businesses can launch their own neobank, and Zwitch, which allows other players the infrastructure to build fintech services.
By 2019, Open reached 100,000 SMEs on the platform, processing $2 billion in annualised transactions. This was at a time when there was a lot of talk around whether neobanks could survive in the business-to-business space, considering the cost of customer acquisition was very high.
The unicorn now has 2.3 million small businesses on its platform and processes $30 billion in transactions.
With Anish’s aim to build a global fintech company, he says that more than just being a neobank, the startup is building a complete financial layer on top of banking to bring all your other bank accounts together on one unified platform.
To young and aspiring entrepreneurs, he says the current economic downturn could be a good opportunity.
“I always feel that sometimes the best time to start is when there is a recession, because for the next 12 to 24 months, a lot of larger companies will be heavily focused on revenue generating products instead of venturing into other territories that are just making news,” he says.
To know more, listen to the entire podcast here
02:42 – From a service-oriented family in Kerala to getting inspired by dotcom
06:11 – Meeting his co-founder and life partner
07:49 – Cumulative learnings from previous companies
11:27 – Product offerings by Open for SMEs, banks, and fintech enterprises
13:57 – Key milestones in Open’s journey
15:49 – Current metrics on the platform
16:56 – Long-term plans for Open
19:17 – Moat against other neobanks and traditional banks
23:04 – Product and distribution strategy for the first 100 to 1,000 users
31:46 – Licences and certifications needed for neobanking
33:47 – Challenges while cracking the first banking partner
35:27 – Monetising their services with freemium model
36:55 – Advice to early-stage entrepreneurs