Why did you start Obopay?
The idea for mobile phones to serve as the catalyst to deliver financial services was seeded when I was on a trip in Africa to support social entrepreneurs. I was in Congo (DRC), where the infrastructure was inadequate – power, roads, electricity. Yet in a place where so little worked, mobile phones were connecting large numbers of people who never had a land line.
This was in 2002, when there were only about 1.5 billion mobile phones in the world. It wasn’t obvious to me before that trip, but once I saw how people in Africa were using mobile phones, it became clear that sometime soon everyone in the world would be connected via the mobile phone. Today, there are more than 4 billion people with mobile phones, out of a total world population of 6 billion people. I knew that this was going to transform the world of communications.
Why mobile payments and mobile banking?
When I got home from Africa, I couldn’t stop thinking about mobile phones and banking. It was a simple idea – use the soon-to-be-ubiquitous model phone network to deliver financial services to everyone with a mobile phone. This would give everyone with a mobile phone access to basic banking services –savings, credit and electronic payments.
The idea had two dimensions – first, mobilizing the existing banking products, and second, developing new low cost mobile- based services that would be affordable to the underserved. The potential was huge – about 1 billion traditional consumers and 3 billion underserved. And connecting the two was key since so many of the traditional consumers send money to the underserved.
But, you were in retirement, no?
I was retired from technology, but helping non-profits foster entrepreneurship in developing countries. This non-profit work gave me easy access to other people who were thinking about the potential of mobile financial services. Many connections really came from the microfinance community, they were always talking about technology to propel things forward and mobile payments was one of the special topics at microfinance conferences.
It was not my plan to go back to work. After finishing extensive research, the founding team came together to make our idea a reality. We saw our careers in a different context – the three of us felt very passionate about the potential of mobile financial services and saw our past careers as great preparation for building Obopay.
What’s the connection between what you experienced in the Congo and what you started in the U.S.?
The connection is everyone needs banking. In places like the US, most people have good access – although there is still a large segment of our population that is underbanked (overcharged and underserved). In the U.S., we can give people banking and payments via mobile and do a better job at a lower price for the underserved. For emerging markets/developing countries where the banking infrastructure can be quite weak, mobile will leap frog traditional approaches and be the primary way people do banking.
In most places in the world, the simple act of paying a merchant or holding money you have in a bank is not easy to do and the impact on small business, individuals and families is huge. And, it has all sorts of impact on the economy, personal family and small business success.
What background work did you do to understand the market opportunity what drove you forward to start Obopay?
We did quite a lot of global research to understand what early projects were happening in the world – Korea, Philippeans and Africa. At the time, the most advanced mobile money implementations were in Japan and the Philippines. These implementations were just beginning and were local to those markets but demonstrated the potential. Since then, there have been other successes and proof points, but it was that research project (again I was not going to go back to work) that really propelled me forward to start Obopay. At the end of the research project, I read the research report. At the beginning of reading the research report, my career was behind me and at the end of the research report, my career was in front of me. I got so excited and passionate about the opportunity to leverage the growing number of mobile phones to enable financial services, I just had to come out of retirement and start Obopay.
What did you think would happen with the research if you didn’t start Obopay?
I don’t really know. I thought we would publish the research or maybe get some entrepreneur to take it on. If we just published the research we would never know the full impact of disseminating the information. I probably would have stayed living in Aspen with my husband and become a really great skier. But, that wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting as Obopay. At Obopay, we have the opportunity to empower people’s lives and change the way businesses transact. What could be more meaningful?
In Part 2, we’ll hear from Carol about the “early days of Obopay,” surprising feedback from early investors, and how the Company’s partnerships evolved.
December 1st, 2009