On joining Payfort

Originally posted on http://www.payfort.com/blog/payfort-acquires-white-payments/

“How hard could it possibly be?”, I remember thinking. Boy was I in for a treat.

It was April 2014, and I’d just got back from a month-long biking trip to Iceland — a 1,300km journey around Iceland’s Route 1, the road that circles the entire island.

I was dabbling with new ideas for a startup, and found myself intent on solving the broken public transport system in my native Bahrain. So I built out this super-simple landing page and just needed to setup payments so I could test it out in the wild (with real paying customers). I’d set aside a few hours for the payment integration, but quickly found out that I’d need more than that. Alot more. My initial googling efforts revealed that I needed a trade license, a $30,000 security deposit about a month to get setup with the bank. This was a joke. I knew that the process takes about an hour in the US, and it’s also completely free.

So I wondered: “How hard could it possibly be to build a payment solution?”

Starting White

And that’s how White started. It’s worth noting that I knew absolutely nothing about the Payments Industry, so that’s where I started. I read blogs, watched videos, asked questions on Quora and talked to people in the field. Within 2 days I had a fairly good sense of what the industry was like .. and within a few weeks, understood enough about the larger peripheral banking industry (fractional reserve banking, money, foreign markets, etc.) to understand not just how things worked, but why.

The next step was to setup an agreement with acquiring banks, special banks licensed to process credit cards. I would need to connect to these banks, and then expose the credit card processing facility over a slick API. Easy.

Except it wasn’t. We spent months on end talking to compliance, risk, business and all sorts of other departments I didn’t even know existed. Long story short, we spent the next 9 months (from May ‘14 – Feb ‘15) following up with a bank .. before we finally went live with the largest acquiring bank in the UAE, in early February of this year.

Little did we know, we’d get shut down by that same bank just 40 days later.

Going Live (finally)

That first month we were live was super-exciting. We put 9 merchants live, processing 6 figures in just under 30 days. What was more exciting was the fact that we had almost a backlog of several hundred more merchants (which we had built up over the 9 month waiting period).

Then, lights out. The bank shut us down without even a heads up (we found out when we started noticing tens of errors show up in our Slack channel). Apparently, they had concerns .. many pertaining to our fast-growth (we were on track to hit 7-figures within just a few months of going live).

It was painful to realise, after 10 months of pursuing the deal, that the bank we’d signed with was no longer interested in processing for us. We resumed talking to other acquiring banks in the UAE (there were just 3 in total at the time), but it was clear that it would take another few months before we would be live again. So we were back to pushing paper and following up with banks..

We took this opportunity to reassess our position. We love technology, and we love solving real problems for our customers. But God do we hate bureaucracy, and just the thought of having to go through the entire process of talking to banks again had me contemplating shooting myself. No wonder people flocked to White — everyone hated dealing with the banks just as much as we did.


We’d always had an open door to Payfort, having met in several events prior (including Arabnet and Mix ‘n Mentor). We sat down at the meeting table, through a mutual acquaintance, and discussed the possibility of a partnership. Through these discussions, it became more and more apparent that the two businesses were complementary.

Payfort was absolutely stellar at attracting the larger merchants like governments and airlines. White was kick-ass at attracting smaller merchants that just wanted to go online quickly. This lead to what would eventually become the acquisition. We’d be able to leverage the existing agreements that Payfort has with different acquiring banks across the region, and that was a big deal for us. It also presents a huge opportunity for unprecedented growth — suddenly, the biggest hurdle we faced would be lifted.

We’ve already started working on a new Payfort offering specifically targeted at small and medium sized businesses. It should be ready for show time in a matter of weeks. Then it’s game on.

Playing fortune teller

I've been spending some time lately thinking about things on a grander scale, trying to understand where we are today .. and where we might be headed. This is nothing new .. I often take whimsical thought-trips, stepping away from the laptop, lying down on my back and just staring at the (bland, nondescript) ceiling.

This time, though, I've decided to write my notes down after this exercise and hit the green Publish button.

Here goes nothing.

If I were to start a business today, what would it be?

Here's the approach I'm taking.. I've listed down problems, the technologies that are really taking off (globally) and the industry trends that will likely continue in the near future.

Why this approach? 

Well, startups solve problems .. and that's where all good businesses need to start (from the customer). So, problems. Note that these differ alot based on the region, so I've listed those that affect Middle Eastern countries. Africa will have radically different problems (e.g. issues of infrastructure, access to clean water, etc.) and we all know what first world problems are like.

Technology is an enabler .. or an accelerant. It allows us to connect things that look completely different in order to maximize the chances of success (more on this juiciness down below).

Lastly, trends. These are phenomenons that have stood true for years. By periodically inspecting trends, we start to notice things that people in the field might miss out. Opportunities to fundamentally change how things are done today, because the trend has tipped over into new territory .. so that something that was previously off limits is now actually conceivable. Again, this is me playing abstract nun .. so it can be hard to fathom in concept. Fear not grasshopper, for I'll step down from my pedestal and talk about specific examples in just a bit.

Another way to picture this is on a timescale:

*Let's pretend for a second that you can read my horrible hand mouse-writing above.

- Past = problems
- Present = technology
- Future = trends

Looking at any one of these 3 concepts without considering the others will show you only a piece of the picture. It's by combining these 3 together that you really get all deep in it.


  • Logistics (getting things from A -> B)
    • Adjacent: moving people around (getting someone from A -> B)
  • Payments (moving money around; e.g. from buyer -> seller)
    • Remittances (sending money back home without going bankrupt)


  • Virtual Reality
  • Solar
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Bitcoin
  • Drones
  • 3D printing
  • Self-driving Vehicles


    • Battery density -- at 200 Wh/kg today (growing at 8%/year -- plateaus at 800 Wh/kg, in ~18 years) [2014 Energy Storage Symposium - Tesla CTO, JB Straubel, Keynote]
    • Transistor density / processor speed colloquially (2X every 2 years, plateaus when transistor size approaches atom size in ~20 years) [Moore's Law] 

    Combo time

    Now the fun part .. starting with problems, we'll add the Technology and Trends and stir vigorously (Warning: Never start with the technology just for the heck of it .. unless it's a hobby, in which case it's perfectly cool).

    #1 - Logistics


    Ah yes, the eternal problem. It's almost incredible how we still can't get a measly package from A -> B without it getting stuck somewhere, lost, confiscated or otherwise annihilated before it finally gets to us .. 35 years late. For the most part, we're still using the same transportation mediums that've existed for the past few decades with very-little to no change. We still use freight ships for large container shipments, and aircrafts for smaller quicker deliveries.

    You can already notice that to tackle a problem this huge, you'd have to break it up (both geographically, and by payload size):

    What Technology & Trends bode for Logistics (according to my crystal ball)

    Drones. The most relevant technology here would have to be, without a doubt, drones. Amazon has already opened our eyes to the possibility of using drones for making hyper-local deliveries (whatever radius it can travel to and back on a single charge).

    Today: The best commercial drone we know of (not considering military UAVs) has a 25 minute flight time, with a top speed of 33.5 mph and a payload of 300 grams.

    Factor in the trends and things get really interesting. Battery density is increasing by ~8% every year, and that's going to mean drones are going to be able to carry a greater payload for longer (thereby covering an even bigger distance). Factor in Moore's law and things get really spicy -- the weight of the electronic brains plummet, which means even greater payload action. The great part is that you don't really have to worry too much about signal distance, since autonomous drones are already within means.

    And don't forget Solar. I believe we'll be seeing longer-range autonomous drones with solar panels covering ranges in the hundreds of kilometers in the not-so-distant future.

    You may see now that it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to expect a real change in how hyper-local, low payload deliveries happen over the next 5 years (for context, consider that 86% of products sold on Amazon are < 2.3 kg in weight).

    Applications here in the Middle East context: Food deliveries baby! I can't think of a better place to test out a solution like this .. since places like Dubai or Bahrain are really dense and already have a huge reliance on home delivery (apparently, you can't get Starbucks to deliver to you anywhere else yet).

    Of course, the big question here is around legislation. Is flying a drone for commercial purposes even legal? The UAE has already issued a law on Drones that requires explicit permission for the usage of drones for commercial purposes. Sounds fair.

    3D Printing. Yeah, this is something to consider as well. While not as obvious as drones, there is a potential for 3D Printing to change the need to ship products in the first place. We're already seeing people build prototypes using 3D printing (just download any sketch you like, and voila .. you've got it). Much the same way music was transformed from a physical products like CDs to a virtual file .. we will get to the point where you just pick which items you want and simply print them.

    #2 - Payments

    el Problema:

    Here we go. This is one that I've already started pursuing with White, but there's still plenty to be done. The fundamental problem with payments is that moving them around costs way too much! It's insane, especially considering that in most cases no physical money is being moved around. 

    If you buy a widget from a store and pay by credit card, the store owner loses ~3% of the transaction amount. Seriously. The same happens if you buy online (though that % usually increases -- e.g. Paypal charges UAE startups 5%). This is only possible because Visa and MasterCard have created the mother of all walled gardens, governed almost entirely by suit-wearing people that take themselves way too seriously. They are charge, and they pass no opportunity to remind you of it -- passing decrees when they see fit (something they do quite liberally, considering how insanely hard it is to accept credit cards as a merchant). 

    The next payment method that comes by is NOT going to be a credit card -- that much is clear.

    Why does it cost so much to process payments today? Here are the biggest two reasons:

    • Credit-based transactions. Yes, when you use your credit card, you're being loaned that amount by your bank. Banks don't lend money for free. This also helps us understand why the fee is a percentage of the transaction, and not a fixed amount (there's greater risk with larger amounts).
    • Chargeback protection. Card networks provide their customers chargeback protection (e.g. if the customer was charged fraudulently and demands a refund, they get their money back). Where does this money come from? You guessed it .. the merchant. The card networks charge a fee for mediation and issue resolution.

    What Technology & Trends bode for Payments

    Bitcoin: Obvious, ain't it. There's been alot of talk about bitcoin as an alternative to payments traditionally made using credit cards, debit cards and cash. There's a fundamental issue with Bitcoin, and that is exchanges. It's still pretty damn hard to convert currency to BTC, and back to currency. While there are plenty of exchanges in places like the US and Europe, we're still behind in the Middle East .. and that's the Achille's heel of the bitcoin system. 

    Once free exchanges are setup, it's not a stretch to realize that Bitcoin will EXPLODE. And it's only a matter of time. I would argue that the true power of bitcoin is most felt when, ironically, it happens in the background .. when you don't even know that it's there.

    Imagine a fictional remittance service called TrustMeWithYourMonies.com where the user deposits funds in AED and it pops up the other side in Indian Rupees, or whatever other currency .. with the Bitcoin action happening in the background, converting AED -> BTC, and BTC -> INR in an instant.

    (This, of course, is only possible if exchanges exist in both the UAE and India. Luckily, we're already seeing a bunch of these bad boys come up with Yellow and BitOasis alive and kickin' in the UAE.) At the end of the day, very few people care about Bitcoin for Bitcoin's sake. It's all about what problems you can fix with Bitcoin. That's where it's at.

    One last question

    You might wonder .. If these ideas are so great, why don't I work on them?

    The answer is: I will. I'm already working on Payments, with White -- but if no one steps up to address the former, then I'll find a way to do that too.


    Please let me know what you think in the comments below. Come to think of it, I'd love to hear your predictions for the near future!


    I've spent alot of time trying to figure out what my goals from life are, and these thoughts inevitably lead to the question of purpose: 

    Why was I, Yazin, created?

    Being a Muslim, I'm lucky to already have that answered for me. I say lucky because many a person has already tried to figure out their purpose, expending their entire lives in the process without finding an even remotely convincing answer. Turns out some things you just can't solve with a calculator and unlimited scribble paper. 

    The Quran tells me that I was created to serve Him, God.

    وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالإِنسَ إِلاَّ لِيَعْبُدُونِ (Quran: S51, V56)

    That's it?

    Yup, that's it. While it may sound incredibly limiting -- people often (mistakenly) think a nun praying in the mountains completely excluded from society. In reality however, it's quite the opposite: it's liberating

    Liberating? You're nuts.

    Humor me for a second. Many people subscribe to the "make the world a better place" purpose -- the idea that we were put on this Earth to leave it in better shape than we got it. 

    Well, this is an even more generic purpose than that. To serve God is, in it's essence, to do good -- with one essential difference: it takes into the account the issue of intention

    Two people could do the exact same action, with very different intentions -- and yes, intentions do matter .. alot. So do feelings. So do "soft" things like honesty, kindness and charity.

    Ok, so what's your purpose again?

    Remember, this purpose I mention doesn't tell you what you need to do, but governs why you would do it (namely, to serve God). 

    Done correctly, this gives me (and Muslims, in general) an overwhelming air of peace and tranquility. Why? Because you know something that others struggle so hard to know -- you believe it at your very crux, and want to share it with the entire universe -- shout it from the rooftops, and tell every living soul.

    That sense of pure relief that comes with having a 100% certainty that you know why you were created -- that's absolutely priceless.

    And trust me when I say, it makes ALL the difference in the world.

    Islam & Muslims

    Sadly, Islam is arguably the most misunderstood topic in all of life today. It's ridiculous how a religion - one that I believe in at my very core - can be stretched, and misinterpreted beyond recognition -- to the ridiculous state that we see depicted in the media today. That alone is sufficient cause for distress, but what's even more painful is that Muslim's themselves have begun to succumb to that thought.

    Where Muslims would proudly identify themselves as such in the past, much the way ivy league grads always make it a point to announce their credentials at every opportunity, today speaks a very different story. You very rarely come across a person today that identifies himself/herself as a Muslim anymore -- in their attempt to "fit in".

    Dare to ask for an even gloomier picture? This happens in Muslim countries too.

    To that end, I feel like my purpose is to share that feeling that I hold so dear -- what I know about Islam, the true Islam -- beyond the physical actions to the what-you-really-think-about-when-youre-all-alone Islam  .. that overwhelming sense of inner peace. The feeling that no matter how good or bad (even utterly devastating, as is often the reality that many oppressed Muslims find themselves in these days) things will work out. 

    That ability to make peace with anything and everything that God has planned for you. 

    It's often a combination of two things: 1. doing everything humanly possible to achieve the goal that you so wish to achieve, and 2. leaving things in God's hands. 

    If things work out, then thank God -- it was for the best. If things do NOT work out (and this is where many people struggle to reconcile), then it was also for the best. What? Yes. God knows best after all, and you accept that in his infinite knowledge, he knew that not giving you what you so dearly wanted is actually better for you, even though you don't realize it yet.

    This belief is absolutely priceless.

    Transparency: the cure to Newspaperenuers

    We've all seen it: front page headlines of "visionaries" gazing into the abyss .. every sentence attesting to the incredible success that he/she's been able to conjure in the face adversity.

    There's just one thing missing: numbers.

    I don't know how you could possibly describe someone as successful without knowing what their financial status is like.. and this is especially true of entrepreneurs.

    The media has a strong role to play in terms of getting the facts straight .. and I'm continually surprised at how, over and over again, we fall for this trap. I know of at least 3 entrepreneurs who's businesses are failing miserably (2 of whom haven't made a single $) and yet have been featured on newspapers across the region.

    I call these guys newspaperpreneurs. Entrepreneurs in the eyes of the public, but hobbyists in real life (it's easy to mix up a business and a hobby -- Justin Wilcox does an excellent job of explaining the difference).

    The solution is simple


    For far too long, we've hidden behind the obscurity of the unknown (or worse, false perceptions). Nothing quite cuts through that like a nice strong dose of good ole fashioned transparency.

    What should you be transparent about? Well, everything that matters.

    Imagine if all companies out there published:
    - Revenue figures
    - User registrations, engagement and churn rates
    - Burn rates and net profit

    What's the worst that could happen? 

    In fact, having done this before, I know that you'll quickly start to realize some benefits .. especially in the early stages of a companies lifetime:

    Benefits of transparency

    - Added accountability and incentive to perform (the added peer pressure, knowing that everyone in the world will know if you screw up, is a great motivator to get off your butt and get stuff done).
    - Focus on what matters. Choosing the metrics carefully means that you're always going to have them in front of you -- setup as a public dashboard. The exercise of sharing this information with the public ensures that you'll have to find a way to get real time visibility to the metrics that matter -- something alot of companies don't have today.

    My commitment to transparency

    Going forward, I pledge to transparency in the ventures I'm involved in today .. and ventures I engage in down the line. This follows in the footsteps of startups like Moz, Buffer and many others.