FOO started as a mobile app development company in 2009 in Lebanon. Founded by Elie Nasr and Ghady Rayess, the pair pivoted their business model to focus on the financial technology (fintech) sector. The company now develops apps and services like peer-to-peer payments, remittance and bill payments and online digital banking platforms for its clients which have included bank and telecoms operators.
FOO is now looking to raise $7 million by the end of this year. We spoke with Nasr about his entrepreneurial journey.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
My entrepreneurial life started in school, I would organise cake sales to make money. At university I started two companies one which was a social platform for elections at the American University of Beirut.
I worked at Accenture and after six years of corporate life, I said it’s time for me to do my own thing, I was so eager to start. We built something like Whatsapp, a chat service between different devices. At the time in 2009 there were no smartphones in the market. But no one was willing to invest and we had to kill it. We were not in the right ecosystem and the right region. We couldn’t compete because Whatsapp was in the right ecosystem with the right funding.
Why did you decide to pivot to fintech?
It was a series of reasons why we shifted. Lebanon cannot compete with servicing prices in India, Eastern Europe and the Far East. So we stopped being a servicing company and said let’s focus on building products in the domain of banking and fintech. We built something similar to MPesa in Iraq, a wallet for financial inclusion and to bank the unbanked. This is how it all started, we started focusing more on fintech and innovating in that space and delivering our own products.
Did you and Rayess ever consider parting ways?
We’re school friends, we’ve always been on the same line. Our failures brought us closer together and strengthened us as entrepreneurs.
We always come up with concepts that we try. We fail a lot. In 2012 we tried something like [dating app] Tinder before Tinder launched. The problem was we based it on friends.
What’s the biggest sacrifice you have made?
I don’t feel like I have made any. I’m not after the money. If you were, you could make more money starting your company elsewhere. If you do things you love and like, you don’t feel like you’re working. We were lucky and now we’re investing in companies. I spend a lot of time seeding companies and educating entrepreneurs and connecting them with the right people.
What was your main challenge setting up?
In the beginning it was the infrastructure. We had very bad internet, access to electricity and water was ridiculous and there was little access to money and funding. Back in 2009 it was very hard to start your own business unless you came from a rich family and they had connections who injected money and sustained the business.
Now it is the brain drain, losing people who leave and go to work at Google, Amazon or Apple. These are the people we are not able to retain over the years.
But fintech is more interesting and has helped us retain people and compete with the big players. We’ve grown from a company of two people to 80, so you have communications and structuring problems, things you need to organise and fix. Now our challenge is how you keep an organisation lean in order to constantly innovate and launch products quickly in the market. Every year has its own challenges, but no challenge is no fun.
What is the most important lesson you have learned?
It’s all about the people. I learned to work with people who are ethical, intelligent and people who have the drive, who are hungry to perform, those are the qualities we use to hire.
Where do you see the fintech industry over the next decade?
You will see a lot of money spent on launching fintech initiatives by big banks. I see a lot of consolidation, ultimately everything will converge to something similar to WeChat in China. One player will dominate the region.