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Re-thinking the Financial Industry

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Re-thinking the Financial Industry 1

Hassan Abdalla speaks with Global Banking and Finance Review on the occasion of winning Best Investment Bank in Egypt 2017.

Hassan Abdalla

Hassan Abdalla

“Finance” has been a core discipline in your life, as a student who studied finance in the late 70s, to a seasoned Professor of Finance since the 90s and a practitioner with a whole career spanning over 3 decades in the financial industry, how do you see the state of the industry back and then?

If I may reflect back and examine the financial industry across the last 3 decades, I think most financiers in my generation would agree that the industry is changing from focusing mainly on the return on equity to focusing on both qualitative and quantitative dimensions beyond numbers. To say the least, you can hardly sustain the same level of growth if you continue with the same business models or the “banking as usual” mode.

We have a dilemma that textbook finance does not comprehensively address real world challenges. Concurrently our real world day-to-day practices do not accommodate the constantly evolving pressures and trends. We have been taught to measure the return on equity and target profit, the single bottom line. Now we are requested to target the triple bottom line. So yes, the financial industry in terms of theory and practice is outdated.

In your opinion, what are the contributing factors that led to this situation? Could the financial crisis be the reason behind this situation?

As a finance veteran, it has always come as a surprise how financial markets never fail to have a crisis almost every decade. Black Mondays, Black Tuesdays, Latin American Debt Crisis, South East Asia crisis, and Saving & Thrifty crisis…etc. It is an industry plagued with crises.

The 2008 financial crisis is a shattering moment that has shaken the foundations of mainstream banking. Notwithstanding the fact that it destabilized the industry to the core, it is more of a symptom of the industry’s falloff rather than a root cause. It is more of an alarming sign urging the financial industry to pause and reconsider its assumptions and its relationship to the whole ecosystem.

What is more compelling is the rise of major developments known as “Megatrends” that are bound to change business fundamentals. Thus apart from the 2008 global financial crisis, the industry has ever since been encountering serious developments that are constantly putting pressures.

For example, the concept of “Sustainability” – a rising trend – has gained traction and is urging governments all over the world to pursue inclusive growth or sustainable development. What is this telling the financial industry?  It is testifying that the grand design was originally not made with the poor and the environment in mind. Suddenly, there is social and environmental risk on the rise urging the revision of mainstream risk management. Banks are in need to run re-evaluation of all types of risks and update them to avoid future crises since the banking risks are no longer the traditional ones we used to know including credit risk, market risk and operational risk.

Sustainability is also telling us that we have to develop new business models to address financial inclusion, funding of SMEs and entrepreneurs as well clean energy, waste recycling and energy efficiency. All this requires conceiving new systems, structures, policies and capacity building techniques.

Shadow banking is another case in point. Informal economies are a tantalizing development. The fact that formal economies failed to accommodate low-income disenfranchised segments left a big amount of wealth outside the financial system. How to get it inside remains to be rethought.

Technology is another megatrend; from “big data” that impact product design to Fintech to Crypto Currencies, these are all rising modalities that urge prompt revision within the industry. IT fraud and electronic crimes remain to be added to the operational risk of banks.

Also topping the list is facing evolving international regulatory and compliance requirements including new risk management techniques and capital adequacy requirements in addition to tighter banking supervision. Compliance cost, data reporting, and necessary IT infrastructure are becoming additional costly mandates. Basle III will add further capital and supervision requirements that will put pressures on banks’ profitability and trigger the risk –return trade- offs.

Banks cannot sustain their profitability unless they undergo a fundamental revision. Every new development is testifying that it is no longer “Banking as Usual”. Many financiers acknowledge this but still few act upon it.

It is important to note that the new trends are destabilizing but not necessarily threatening; if well understood and preempted they could well lead to the revival of the industry and with it create a new round of balanced growth. It is time to take a step back and rethink.

What type of rethinking is necessary if “finance” is to evolve? Which opportunities and challenges does finance bring?

The rethinking is towards bonding with the whole ecosystem not just shareholders; towards creating value rather than only making profit. The nub is to rethink the role of the financial industry in the economy and the society at large. Agile financial institutions can take advantage of the transition, but it is not easy to adapt and evolve. The main issue is how to create value in non-monetary terms and how would this be reflected on banks’ financials. An issue we need to address to enable the transformation.

Egypt has recently been witnessing remarkable economic growth, tell us about its highlights

GDP growth rate reached around 5% in the current fiscal year 2017/18 compared to 4.2% and 3.5% in 2016/2017 and 2015/16 respectively. Also, inflation is taking a downward spiral since its peak in July 2017 reaching 33%, it recorded 17% in January 2018 and is poised to go lower. Foreign exchange reserves hit a record high of USD 42.5BN in February 2018 exceeding the figure recorded before January 2011, and is now covering 8 months of imports. Tourism receipts remarkably surged by 256% in Q1 2017/18 to record USD 2.7BN up from USD 0.8BN a year earlier. In addition, according to the Ministry of Planning (MoP), the construction sector, manufacturing and the extractions sectors grew by 10.7%, 10% and 14% in Q2 2017/18 respectively.

In your view, what are the main drivers of economic growth right now in Egypt?

Current economic growth in Egypt is the function of taking bold and effective reform and regulatory measures on several parallel tracks in a timely manner. This is happening despite the presence of massive challenges. Here, it is important to raise the resilience of the Egyptian economy and its capacity to reboot, when decisions are made right.

Egypt’s successful reform program has played a critical role in stabilizing the economy through liberalization of the exchange rate regime and fiscal consolidation measures, which assertively restored the competitiveness of the economy and encouraged private sector activity, projecting higher investments and job creation in the medium and long term.

Equally important, the Central Bank of Egypt’s (CBE) exchange rate reform has proven to be a “turning point for the economy,” increasing macroeconomic stability and removing most currency restrictions that were earlier replaced to end a chronic dollar shortage that earlier crippled the economy and intimidated investors. Credit rating agencies have applauded the measures and have upgraded the financial outlook to “positive”.

In parallel, the GoE has already commenced a structured approach to overhaul the investment climate believing that a dynamic and strong private sector is an essential prerequisite for growth transformations. The modernized regulatory framework is working its way to alleviate the key bottlenecks that impeded the growth in a relatively short time and create a level playing field for all investors, enhanced competition, greater trade integration, and complete removal of trade barriers along with improved access to finance and land. The government successfully introduced several legislative and regulatory reforms such as the introduction of VAT, Civil Service Law, in addition to investments, and industrial licensing, all of which are likely to boost investment in the approaching period. Recently, the parliament has approved Egypt’s first Bankruptcy Law, the latest in structural developments in the GoE business legal framework and is part of the overall reform efforts to facilitate a healthy business environment for foreign and domestic investors, as well as, local small and medium enterprises as the process of unwinding insolvent companies becomes easier.

In addition, the amendments made to the Capital Markets Law introduce new financial instruments including Sukuks, protect rights of minority shareholders, and lower securities registration fees to encourage SMEs. Broadly speaking, macroeconomic stabilization provides a solid basis for broadening the scope of structural reforms to attract investments, raise the growth potential, and create employment opportunities.

How does the Egyptian government determination to proceed with huge infrastructure projects and huge budget commitments fit in the growth scenario?

Parallel to these structural reforms, economic growth is propelled by ambitious and unconventional Mega Infrastructure Projects that are being implemented with a high degree of dynamism. It is remarkable that these mega-projects run across the whole of Egypt – rather than being Cairo centric- and well leverage its geopolitics and natural resource richness. Some view this as burdensome and should not be addressed at this point of time because they are not Egypt’s priority. In my opinion, they represent the structural base for further sustained inclusive economic growth on the medium and long term. These mega projects will significantly boost job creation.

As a case in point, the headline act for 2018 will be the opening of the Zohr gas field that will help to place Egypt in the league of world’s major energy producers. Also, plans are underway to construct the largest Solar Park in the world in the city of Benban in Upper Egypt. This project will help Egypt tap into its massive potential for solar energy and scale back its use of expensive—and polluting—fossil fuels. The Suez Canal development project aims towards upgrading the infrastructural and industrial capabilities of cities like Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, Ain Sokhna, and Al Tor City in Sinai.

The GoE’s strategy extends to develop the country’s impoverished south along the Red Sea coastline. Golden Triangle is a continuation of a plan that goes further south to cities like Marsa Alam, Safaga, and Qoseir. As the government tries to revive its tourism sector, the cities south of Ain Sokhna all the way down to Marsa Alam can become major tourist destinations. As a new economic zone, envisaging USD 18BN in investments, with the first phase accounting for USD 5.5BN, three-quarters of it private. Infrastructure and utilities projects have been charted out, including a logistics hub to be built behind Safaga Port.

Lately, an agreement was signed between Dubai Ports Worldwide and the Suez Canal Authority to launch the first phase of a marine terminal in Ain Sokna over an area of 30KM which will integrate with Jebel Ali free zone.

Although ambitious and successful, these measures remain within the mainstream. Do you detect any evolution or progressive strides in the Egyptian financial industry over the past period?

Absolutely. Parallel to these impactful structural and regulatory reforms, the financial industry has been experiencing a subtle but a deeply founded overhaul. There is a growing tendency to bring the industry closer to its ecosystem, being more responsive to the needs of the masses, and more focused on inclusive growth and the sustainable development of the country. The financial industry has witnessed a series of regulations that urge the banks to address Financial Inclusion. In my opinion, this counts as a second reform. The first successful round of banking reform (2004-2010) that addressed non-performing loans, consolidated the sector and ensured a competent and solid financial sector that well weathered the global financial crisis and 2 revolutions erupting within couple of years 2011/2013. Now the Egyptian financial industry is experiencing a well-spelled evolution that is felt across several fronts.

The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) – with the support of the Egyptian government- has ushered a national commitment towards Financial Inclusion. Egypt’s current socio-economic challenges urge addressing SMEs to rebuild and reinforce this vital base. SMEs account for around 80% of GDP and 75% of employment. Today, the number of MSMEs in Egypt exceed 7M with a credit gap of USD 10BN. Currently financial institutions are urged to provide loans to small and medium businesses; new regulations mandate all banks in Egypt to give out 20% of their total loans to SMEs, with 5% interest rate.

In tandem, Egypt has been committed to become a Cashless Society. Regulations have been made in 2016 to launch the mobile payment system, another milestone towards the evolution of the financial industry in Egypt bringing it closer to the populace. Expanding mobile payments will be instrumental in advancing financial inclusion. Mobiles are widely spread in Egypt with a penetration rate 103%, one of the highest in the world. Having a mobile payment platform will revolutionize the industry and further deepen its role in achieving inclusive growth. This national determination has found expression in the establishment of the National Payment Council personally presided by the Egyptian President.

The dynamic evolution of the financial industry in Egypt is one of high pace.  It is challenging banks to cope and revise policies and practices. But it is definitely healthy.

How Does AAIB fit in this dynamic landscape?

There is a seamless fit. AAIB’s distinction lies in its dual feature; a legacy of solid corporate and investment banking tradition that spans over half a century coupled with a progressive and innovative drive. AAIB has a record of accomplishments as an industry trendsetter. Along this spectrum, we have been committed to meaningful and impactful business to help create value to all stakeholders. The bank’s human resources are agile, proactive, and well trained to read the future and move ahead. The current economic dynamism in Egypt certainly avails a precious opportunity for the bank to sustain its growth and contribute to the economic growth of both Egypt and the region.

In what ways does AAIB’s investment banking expertise assist international businesses interested in investing in Egypt? What are AAIB’s plans for continued growth, investment and further strengthening the foundations of the bank?

AAIB has solid credentials as an investment and corporate bank leveraging a comprehensive financial platform to support its international clients with integrated solutions. The bank has both commercial and investment arms and is fully equipped to act as a trusted advisor providing complex solutions that sharply address our clients’ specific needs and challenges. We guide clients to grow in the right direction.

Another advantage is leveraging a financial group providing consolidated investment and financial services including asset management, brokerage, leasing and mortgage finance. Along with our strong regional presence, we are right on track maintaining our distinction and realizing our vision to become the gateway of international business into the region.

There is much AAIB can do to build on current economic growth especially that we already have a strong client base in emerging Gulf markets including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.

There are huge prospects for our business progress especially that Egypt expects private investments to take the chief role in driving economic growth this year. Private investments are projected to contribute 60% of economic growth in the current fiscal year, compared to 48% last year. FDIs are also projected to respond positively as well by increasing significantly over the medium term due to the higher certainty and clarity regarding the foreign exchange policy paired with the new Investment Law and the CBE’s decision to lower interest rates. FDI inflows reached $8.7BN during the 2016- 2017 fiscal year, up 26% when compared to the $6.9BN in the previous fiscal year.

How is AAIB helping support SME’s and their growth?

The bank has been a forerunner in developing its business to attend social and environmental dimensions. Despite our tradition focus on large corporates, AAIB has been agile in expanding its client base, moving to the Middle Market segment for loan portfolio diversification and the base for creating new revenue streams and uncontested segments.

Moreover, the bank will be further downscaling by tapping the bottom of the economic pyramid. AAIB aims to serve the micro entrepreneurs segment through a dedicated Micro Finance subsidiary, Sandah, in partnership with excellent partners- KfW GmbH and Sanad Fund respectively. Effectively speaking, Sandah will start operations this April 2018. Sandah is planning to leverage on its wide branch capillarity, advanced digital capabilities, and its human resources, which are trained to address the growing needs of its diverse client base.

AAIB has its fingerprint in boosting Egypt’s economy especially in Energy sector and Renewables. The bank has succeeded in financing the World largest Solar Park in Egypt in its first stage in Benban city in Aswan.

How has technology and the move to cashless society transaction impacted the way you do business?

With increased adoption of digital channels, the role of the branch is undergoing a change from a transaction-based entity to customer advisory one, which will significantly curb operational overheads.

As we speak, AAIB is currently upgrading its Core Banking System and replacing its legacy systems to drive agility and efficiency to its clientele. Forward looking, the adoption of financial technology applications (Fintech) and Mobile Banking will allow customers to transfer money without the need to go to channels.

Which unique products and services were created as a direct response to the needs and desires of the clients?

AAIB has a reputation among its clients of its proven ability to innovate and customize products. The bank boosts distinguished calibers who are well groomed to provide tailor- made solutions customized to our clients’ needs across different sectors. Our corporate portfolio services include mergers and acquisitions, advising on equity placements, feasibility studies, valuations, escrow arrangements, agency services and raising finance through syndicated loan market. In addition, AAIB has a leading role in the debt capital market products such as securitization bonds and corporate bonds that assist in promoting various instruments and diversifying the Egyptian market’s sources of finance.

But I always say product distinction does not last as they get replicated easily. The true distinction materializes at the relationship level and this is very proprietary and cannot be replicated easy.

Still our edge lies in the “powerful synergies” that are inherent in the bank’s lines of business, locally and regionally as a Financial Group and corporate legacy of distinguished performance and international exposure for over 50 years. Moreover, the Gulf region provides a solid geographical base for expanding in investment services, especially that AAIB is the first private sector bank to establish presence in the Gulf region (Dubai, Abu Dhabi) in the early 1970s. AAIB is a true partner to its clients. We never let go during times of uncertainty.

AAIB is known for its strong commitment to Sustainable Finance. Can you tell us more about it?

AAIB has been a forerunner in rethinking finance. We have realized the inherent connection between economic growth and social, environmental and governance concerns early on since 2003. The starting point was our commitment to achieve growth, so we started a decade ago but it is a tedious process.

Ever since, we have been committed to advance sustainable finance in Egypt and the region. We have constantly been endeavoring to ensure that our business integrate the ESG into its operations. This entailed several measures to revise our business to include environmental and social dimensions. AAIB has been the first in Egypt to join the UN Global Compact in 2005 and the Equator Principles in 2009 to become the first bank to introduce social and environmental risk management in its credit operations. The bank also joined the UNEP FI in 2017. We have also been a forerunner in issuing our Sustainability Report based on the GRI guidelines.

We are also committed to become a driving force to create an industry move on both the regional and global level towards enacting sustainable finance. Our ambition goes beyond the bank to advance an industry movement within the Egyptian banking sector and that of the region towards sustainable finance by launching MOSTADAM; the first platform in Egypt and the MENA region to enact and promote sustainable finance through capacity building, policy advocacy, and promoting sustainable products and services. MOSTADAM is a joint effort between AAIB, the United Nations Development Program, and the Egyptian Corporate Responsibility Center. To date MOSTADAM, has secured the engagement of 60% of the Egyptian financial sector. In 2016, it achieved a partnership with Frankfurt School of Finance and Management to provide two certified programs in SMEs Finance as well Climate and Renewable Energy Finance grooming a new generation of bankers with a new mindset capable of achieving balanced growth.

It is redeeming to see our consistent efforts bearing fruit on the industry level. It feels good to witness the transformation of the Egyptian financial industry driven by all stakeholders.

Interviews

The Beaconsoft story and introducing its one-of-a-kind digital campaign intelligence platform

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The Beaconsoft story and introducing its one-of-a-kind digital campaign intelligence platform 2

By Nigel Bridges, founding CEO of Beaconsoft Limited

What were you doing prior to setting up Beaconsoft?

Before setting up Beaconsoft, I was involved in the leadership and scale up of SoftIron, a ground-breaking British hardware tech company that has now moved its operations to California.

Prior to that, as well as holding the role of managing director/CEO of a number of UK tech firms, I also acted as an independent adviser and non-executive director of several digital media businesses, one of which was a digital marketing agency.

It was with this business that I first encountered the issues surrounding the lack of transparency and accuracy in digital media expenditure.

This was also when I first joined forces with my Beaconsoft co-founders, Stewart Boutcher and Mike Townend.

What were your main motivations for establishing the business?

As a digital marketing agency, one of the biggest challenges we faced was the reporting of accurate and meaningful information to our clients.

Their marketing budgets were not limitless, and we needed to make sure that money was spent wisely and, in doing so, that we achieved, and exceeded, the desired results.

We needed comprehensive yet easy to understand analytics to measure and report on the effectiveness of campaigns and channels, based on accurate, independent data.

If we had this information, we knew that we could help our clients to make improvements to their digital marketing campaigns by drawing on real and meaningful insights. However, like the vast majority of marketers, we struggled to collect and combine accurate data to achieve this.

We became increasingly frustrated that we couldn’t find the right platform, despite searching the marketing technology industry far and wide. Every piece of technology we discovered fell short of our requirements because they didn’t use independent data and tended to underreport the level of fake clicks.

This is why we decided to create something that no-one else was offering – and thus the concept of Beacon was created.

Please could you briefly explain what the Beacon platform does? 

Beacon is an independent digital campaign intelligence platform that uses accurate data to help users know what content, posts, ads, etc. are working effectively and which aren’t across all their digital channels.

The marketing analytics that the platform provides are presented in such a transparent and accurate way that businesses can make better decisions based on independent and reliable data that they can place their trust in.

When did Beacon launch and why did you think it was necessary?

We had early versions to test the market back in 2018 but we launched the platform as it is now in 2019, rolling out regular updates and new functionality since then.

Beacon was born out of the frustration that we felt as a digital agency when facing the challenges of data transparency, data accuracy, multi-channel campaign optimisation and reporting inefficiency.

Beacon is the only platform of its kind on the market that can accurately show how much of a business’ digital marketing budget is being wasted by bot clicks. What exactly are bot clicks?

A bot click is simply a type of click on a post, ad, link, etc. that is not made by a human.

Nigel Bridges

Nigel Bridges

They can either be good or bad for businesses that operate online, but the important measurement from a digital marketing perspective is the number of human responses to messages and clicks through to a website rather than the number of clicks as a whole.

The amount of bot clicks can vary hugely, and can account for as much as 50% of all traffic received in some cases, meaning counting these interactions in campaign statistics can be very misleading.

What threats do bot clicks pose to companies’ digital ad budgets and how widespread a problem are they?

In the world of digital marketing, it is likely that, at best, only 15% of a firm’s budget leads to any form of meaningful engagement with their target audience.

A large portion of this waste is due to online spending on digital ads that attract non-human bot activity and, if malicious bot clicks are left unchecked, businesses will continue to waste their budget on non-human clicks that could be deployed on human clicks, thus making the Return on Investment [ROI] much lower.

It is estimated that expenditure on digital advertising exceeded £250 billion in 2020, with more than 21 trillion ads paid for but never seen by humans each year and digital marketing campaigns subject to fraud rates of more than 50%.

Google and Facebook are forecast to account for 71% of the UK’s online advertising market in the near future, and the prevalence of non-human ad clicks adds up to a massive waste of corporate marketing budgets.

Furthermore, the sheer size of the online advertising market tempts criminals into creating technologies to steal from advertisers, fuelling a global problem within the industry.

What purpose do bot clicks serve and why might people take advantage of them?

Some bots are completely benign and should actually be embraced by businesses.

For example, many email systems will use bots to check the validity of a link to a website, and Google will use bots to list a website for search engine rankings.

These bots are positive and should be encouraged, but at the other end of the spectrum are malicious bots that can, for example, masquerade as humans for the purpose of financial fraud.

How does Beacon help to combat the impact of bot clicks and how much of a difference could this make for businesses? 

Beacon attempts to firstly detect bots, irrespective of the originating marketing channel, and remove them from campaign analytics and then stop the content from being presented to that bot so that the cost of that ‘wasted click’ is avoided.

We have spent a long time and a lot of effort developing some very special technology that makes Beacon a compelling choice for any organisation wanting to reduce its digital marketing waste, drive better engagement with human visitors, and ultimately improve their ROI.

In what other ways can Beacon help businesses to optimise their digital campaigns?

It is worth noting that reducing ad fraud is just one component in optimising digital campaigns.

By reducing the number of bot clicks, the analytics received are far more accurate, and considerable costs can be saved.

However, this is a means to an end as the goal is to improve the overall digital marketing campaign, for which organisations need to measure only the results of human interactions across all their digital marketing channels.

Once they have this, they can then improve their campaigns by looking at what works and what doesn’t by making comparisons between each ad, channel, piece of content, etc., safe in the knowledge that they are drawing on accurate and independent data.

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Mark Wright – No Longer an Apprentice

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How to answer interview questions

Just for context, you won The Apprentice and became Lord Sugar’s business partner in 2014 – you set up your digital marketing business Climb Online and are continuing to successfully grow this business today.

With the beauty of hindsight, would you have started your business journey differently?

When growing up, I always knew that I wanted to be in business and that I wanted to be successful. It wasn’t until I was working for a personal training college in Australia that I realised the true power of digital marketing, as the website I built and ranked on the first page of Google for key search terminology enabled them to accelerate revenue from $2,000 to $240,000 per month.

After I travelled to the UK, I wanted a bank loan to help launch my first business, but I wasn’t able to secure one. A friend suggested I try out for BBC’s The Apprentice as an alternative, which was something I hadn’t heard of, let alone watched before, and the rest is history. I don’t believe in regrets and certainly wouldn’t have changed how I started my business journey. The show provided me with an excellent PR and lead generation platform, and I have had the unique opportunity to meet and learn from some incredible business people, particularly Lord Sugar, for which I am very grateful.

The X Factor winners are often lambasted by the press and not taken seriously as artists by the music industry after winning the show. Have you experienced parallel treatment from the business community after your win?

I would certainly say that I experienced parallel negative treatment from the digital marketing industry when I first won BBC’s The Apprentice; where I was even booed going onto stage to speak at a trade event.  However, I am always a big believer in the fact that how people treat and respond to others is more a reflection of themselves and it wasn’t something that I let impact me. The best people in business are those who can support and celebrate other people’s successes and that’s what I always strive to do, regardless of the treatment I receive in return.

Do you feel you have had to work harder to prove your credence as an entrepreneur?

Yes, on some level I do think I initially felt like I had to work harder to prove my credibility as an entrepreneur and a business owner. A lot of people audition and make it on to BBC’s The Apprentice out of a desire for public recognition and 5 minutes of fame, whereas I only wanted to go on the show to secure investment for my business having been rejected from a number of UK banks due to my nationality.

I still hold the record as the only Apprentice Winner to turn over in excess of £1 million during my first year in business and to actually make a profit, and this was largely due to the fact I was so focused on building a large business with strong foundations from the outset.

You became a UK Citizen earlier this year, why have you chosen to stay permanently in the UK?

Australia will always have a special place in my heart and I still have a desire to return and even open a Climb Online office there, but the UK has really become my home. I have made some amazing friends and have created a number of brilliant businesses and am very excited about what the future brings here.

What have been your stand out moments since launching Climb Online?

I have been very fortunate in that I have had many standout moments since launching Climb Online, from being listed twice on Forbes 30 under 30 to creating and hosting CLIMBCON in 2019.*

However, my real stand out moment is quite simple, and it happens almost daily and that is being in the office with my team, receiving positive feedback from clients and helping and mentoring other business owners or aspiring entrepreneurs with their own challenges. There is no feeling like helping someone else succeed or realise their own ambitions and I feel incredibly fortunate that I am able to support and give back to others in such a way.

Mark Wright

Mark Wright

Have you ever just wanted to throw the towel in and head back to the beach?

All business owners at some point will have that feeling of wanting to throw in the towel, particularly on the days when nothing is going right, and everything feels impossible. However, the true marker of success is the ability to continue to show up each day and work through every single challenge. The ones that do will come out on top, maybe not immediately, but eventually.

I am from a small town in Australia where my Dad owns the local car garage and my mum owns the local hair salon, so when we were all sitting round the table at dinner time, they would discuss the challenges of running a business and I would gain real insight into the hardships. So in starting and continuing to work through my business journey I have always had this in the back of my mind. The power of persistence cannot be underestimated and even on days when I feel like it, I wouldn’t ever head back to the beach.

2020 has been a tough year for business. How was your business affected?

I can honestly say that the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was the hardest period I have ever had to work through in business as like the majority, we lost clients and were forced to make challenging decisions. However, I would also say I have learnt the most about business this year and worked hard to implement an effective survival strategy. This not only meant we were able to continue to navigate through the first difficult three months, but in taking the time to look at our costs, our staff and our processes, have had the opportunity to make vast improvements that have enabled us to thrive beyond pre-COVID levels and really come out on top.

What do you think the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be? Will the economy bounce back quicker than predicted?

I think the figures from Q3 were very promising and show that a ‘bounce back’ is possible. However, with further reports revealing that UK borrowing is now at the highest since records began, it means we have a long way to go and it certainly won’t be easy.

Although there haven’t been any changes to taxes as yet, I do think these will come as we start to see economic recovery and hope any increases don’t impact business owners too heavily, particularly as they have worked so hard to survive this unprecedented period.

How has COVID-19 changed the digital marketing industry?

Although there was an initial hit at the start of the pandemic, with businesses cutting digital marketing spend as a cost-saving exercise, I would actually say the pandemic has since played into the hands of the digital marketing industry by emphasising the importance of having a strong digital presence to sell your product or service online.

There will still be agencies who will be down on a revenue. However this won’t be because the business and sales opportunities aren’t out there, but because they aren’t pushing hard enough and are ultimately using COVID-19 as an excuse. At Climb Online we have won many new clients recently just because we were the only agency to actually answer the phone, which is quite unbelievable and shows that many are still operating remotely and haven’t got the right virtual infrastructure in place.

What advice would you give for business owners struggling to drive new sales?

This is going to sound very simple, but the first thing business owners struggling with sales should do is hire a salesperson to implement a clear and consistent business development strategy. I’ve met thousands of business owners over the years and it still amazes me that the vast majority don’t have any form of sales operation to keep the pipeline full and to proactively sell the product or service. Often the business owner is hesitant to hire a salesperson due to a bad experience or because they believe no one will be able to sell the business as well as they can, and whilst the latter is likely to be true, you still need additional people on the ground generating as many leads as possible. Without a sales team, any form of sales strategy becomes inconsistent and ineffective, limiting the opportunity for growth.

Will you ever retire? Absolutely not. Never.

*CLIMBCON is the only business summit dedicated to teaching businesses how to grow and scale from real life successful entrepreneurs

in an authentic and empowering live event

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The evolving payments landscape

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The evolving payments landscape 3

Q&A with Prajit Nanu, Co-Founder and CEO, Nium

  1. The global pandemic has negatively impacted economies around the world, but we’re also seeing an acceleration in e-commerce and consumer behaviours. What trends are you seeing, and what is the takeaway for Nium?

At the start of the global pandemic, no one had a clue on where things were headed. But luckily for Nium, we have a 360-degree view on how different industries are adapting because of the number of industries we serve. For instance, we saw that there was a rise in gaming, e-learning, and e-commerce while the travel industry was significantly impacted.

According to Newzoo, the leading global provider of games and esports analytics, the games market will to grow to $217.9 billion by 2023, representing a strong +9.4% CAGR between 2018 and 2023. This is up from a previous forecast of $200.8 billion[1]. The sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the globe also led to a rise in e-learning adoption, where schools have had to distribute gadgets to students to ensure they have access to learning materials. Schools in New York, US for example distributed around 500,000 laptops and tablets to their students in early April[2].

To cater to these sudden shifts in consumer behaviour, banks are coming to Nium with an accelerated timeline to leverage and implement our services, including instant real-time cross-border payments. This is positive because banks are reacting to new consumer behaviours promptly.

That said, while these are positive trends, we need to think about how we can sustain this momentum into the future. Initially when the pandemic hit, we saw a huge shift of revenues from offline to online channels. However, now that countries are gradually re-opening, we see that many consumers are preferring to go back to offline channels. The question now lies in how we keep up with these changes and continue to deliver great customer service.

  1. The world is shifting to an API economy, how is this going to impact your customers?

Our definition of an API economy is one that deploys best-of-breed products seamlessly and efficiently – and this is a core mantra of what we believe we are powering at Nium. If you think about it, banks today are being unbundled at a rapid pace. 15 years ago, if a customer wanted a loan or a travel card, they would have had to walk into a physical bank. Today, customers can turn to a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) lender or any pre-paid travel card business.

Nium is actually leading the charge in this rapid unbundling through our banking-as-a-service (BaaS) offering. For instance, E-commerce companies no longer only provide e-commerce as a service but instead have tapped onto a new range of services within that ecosystem. Companies today can choose partners for their payment solutions – for instance, they can use X for payments, Y for card issuance, and Z for lending. The API impact that Nium makes goes beyond just a few customers; we make it easy for everyone to plug in and rapidly deploy our service.

The future of the API economy is all about how to make APIs easy to understand, and that is where Nium is driving our vision forward.

  1. What is Nium doing to cater to the under-penetrated segment that may not have access to payments today?

Nium is providing an infrastructure platform catered for anyone – from everyday customers and businesses, to large banks, and even to fintechs – aimed at levelling the playing field through the provision of financial services to all members of the population. In other words, our platform enables our partners to reach out to the population and provide greater access to payments than ever before.

To take a recent example, Nium partnered with Aptiv8, an IT and manpower solution provider, to launch a remittance service called MyRemit. This service allows migrant workers in Singapore to conduct digital remittance transactions via a mobile app, anywhere and anytime. This has been particularly vital during this year’s strict social distancing and lockdown measures, as migrant workers can still remit money back home for their family’s needs through a digital channel.

Similarly, Nium recently partnered with Cebuana Lhuillier, the Philippines’ largest microfinancial services provider, to launch their mobile remittance app, Quikz, in Singapore. Powered by Nium’s Remittance-as-a-service (RaaS) solution, this app allows thousands of Filipinos based in Singapore to send money to their loved ones back in the Philippines. Our platform ensures the transactions are processed securely and in real-time – providing more customers with a safe and more affordable way to make transactions.

  1. What was 2020 like for Nium and what is it going to be like in 2021?

This year has been interesting for Nium because the pandemic forced us to rethink and review our company playbook for success. At the peak of COVID-19, I gathered my leadership team together to reflect on the impact the world had faced, how the world is going to change, and what we, as a company, need to consider when adapting to these changes. This exercise was extremely useful and it has formed the basis of a refreshed playbook for us.

Our team members came up with many different stories on how we need to over-communicate not only to our clients, but also internally with our colleagues. We also spoke about product prioritisation. For instance, travel used to be an industry that most of our products served, but it has become much smaller today, while other industries such as e-learning and gaming have burst through the scenes. So, do we still create products for the travel industry knowing that it will come back in the next two years, or do we focus on the growing industries right now? The good thing is, because we work with clients across a large spectrum of industries, we have been able to observe these changes panning out early and react swiftly.

Come 2021 and 2022, product will be key for us. There is a lot of pent-up demand across industries that were restricted due to the pandemic, such as travel, and we are looking forward to capturing this new demand, which I believe will definitely come back once we tide over these difficult times. At Nium, we will continue to focus on growing our revenue and expanding our team worldwide.

At the same time, we are also aware of the impact that the pandemic has had on our employees this year. I want to take a brief moment here to acknowledge the efforts of our employees worldwide. They have rallied hard over the past few months, putting in the extra hours as they work remotely, to ensure they deliver quality work. Ensuring that our employees remain engaged and prioritising their mental health will also be a focus for us in the new year.

[1] Global Game Revenues Up an Extra $15 Billion This Year as Engagement Skyrockets, Newzoo.

[2] Challenges of home learning during a pandemic through the eyes of a student, The Jakarta Post, July 2020

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