The evolution of Wally, from expenses tracking to personal finance AI

The evolution of Wally, from expenses tracking to personal finance AI
Image courtesy of Wally

Resilience is often highlighted as an important skill for entrepreneurs to have and few have shown as much resilience as Saeid Hejazi and his brother Sami, founders of Wally. 

Saeid entered the startup world in 2013 with Nahel, an e-commerce site that preceded Souq and other big names that came after it. 

“When I was at university, I was a little bit broke, so to make some money on the side, I used to help people sell things on the internet,” he says, referring to eBay. A couple of investors heard about Hejazi’s idea and decided to invest a little money and help him set up in Dubai. 

He built what was at the time the largest e-commerce site in the region, with 60,000 products across 11 different categories. He spent several months living in the warehouse, showering with a shattaf and sleeping in a makeshift bed in order to cope with the orders. 

“These are the aspects of entrepreneurship that very few people realise, these days it is not as drastic as that, but the initial builders had to go through this,” he says. 

He raised investment from Aramex, with the logistics giant taking a majority shareholding and investing some $2 million in a deal that seems to have benefited neither party. Aramex, according to Hejazi, treated it like an acquisition, rather than an investment. 

“There was no precedent before that on how to structure something like this and they also learned a lot through the process,” he says. “When you partner up with a 100 pound gorilla, you’re going to feel the weight. They’ve got thousands of employees, they’re publicly listed, everyone has their own opinion on how things should be done, but it was definitely a learning experience.”

It was also during this time that Hejazi learned how to budget and stretch his salary, given the uncertainty of his income. He started putting together an excel sheet of all his monthly expenses, and became frustrated that the whole process was so manual. 

“Back then we barely had online banking, fintech or anything like today. You downloaded the PDF [bank] statement, opened your Excel sheet and then tried to categorise things yourself,” he says. 

This was the moment that triggered the idea for Wally, an expenses tracking app. “Like most things in life, you cannot improve unless you track it, whether it’s your health or education, to set benchmarks and targets and see if we’re following it or not,” he says.

This coincided with a time when smartphones were becoming more ubiquitous in the region and so Hejazi set to work building a website and app to help users in the Middle East track their expenses. 

“I feel sometimes that I might be cursed at doing things way too early. When we launched Wally there was no concept of open banking, there was no concept of the ability to connect your banks and have everything automated.”

He based the initial design on a calorie counter, where users had to manually enter every transaction. Wally also introduced receipt scanning, which while it worked most of the time, was limited by the poor quality of the cameras on the phones.

Moving to India

Hejazi approached investors in 2015, hoping to raise $2 million, but managed to ignite the interest of only a few. Issues over the manual input of expenses kept several investors away and so the team ended up raising only $620,000 mostly from angel investors in the US. 

“VCs tend to follow trends rather than trying to figure out things on their own, so you need to build hype with a lot of the VCs to get them to come in, especially here in the Middle East. Anyone who ends up building deeptech here ends up going to the US, because you cannot raise [funding] here. All our [regional] VCs are ex-bankers, lawyers, consultants, they were not capital allocators and to sit there and explain your technology with diagrams or explain the source code - forget about it. Even their analysts don’t have STEM degrees most of the time,” he says. 

Such an ecosystem of VCs has resulted in a fintech market that is full of copycats according to Hejazi. 

“Back then we didn’t have VCs so we had to go to the family offices and the way you talk to them is different to the way they talk about anyone else. They’re sitting there comparing an e-commerce opportunity in a highly fragmented, low internet penetration market versus a new property being launched in Jumeirah and these were things we were competing against.”

Shortly after raising the $620,000, Hejazi packed his bags and moved to Bangalore where the amount would stretch a lot further and where talent was more abundant than in regional markets like Egypt or Jordan.

“I believed in the problem we were trying to solve. Money is so central to all of our decisions and it is weird that you don’t have a tool to be part of that decision making process,” he says. “India is a great place to be able to hire people, [their startups] build technologies and services at scale.”

The team worked out of a tree house to keep the burn low. They had no chairs, desks, and had curtains in place of walls and paid only $50 per month in rent. 

Hejazi’s move to Bangalore with his brother coincided with the rise of open banking globally and the growth of digital payment gateways and fintech apps. 

“When open banking started, we jumped on it right away,” says Hejazi, who worked on addressing the global market from day one. Its biggest market remains the US. “It took us about two years to launch with 15,000 banks in 70 countries.”

This fast growth was possible by working with open banking platforms like Plaid, and Salt Edge.

“We have this middle layer where we connect all of these aggregators and we found a unique spot for ourselves that we didn’t really see at the beginning because the market hadn't really formed yet,” he says. 

So after almost five years in India, Hejazi decided to return to Dubai to launch the third iteration of Wally, which was now automated, and joined the DIFC’s Fintech Hive Accelerator. 

Throughout the development of the app, Wally considered different ways to monetise. 

“We didn't have that many options, when you have a product that services this many countries, you can’t have local revenue solutions, you need something that works everywhere,” he says. The team experimented with bundles and add ons, but eventually opted for a free basic plan with paid premium features. The “gold subscription” was Dh40 a month or Dh150 a year.

Wally launched its third iteration to the market in 2020, just before COVID. 

“Sometimes things can get very, very dark and really bad. My brother started growing white hairs and I’d grind my teeth so hard while I was sleeping, my tooth broke,” says Hejazi. “The problem is that if you're a startup founder and you take money from friends and family, that’s when it feels like you have to make it, because it’s one thing if you take money from professionals, but we took money from people we knew. It puts on a thick layer of pressure.”

But after the initial fear of the pandemic, consumer behaviour started to shift and online spending grew. 

“People did start to become a little bit more conscious [of their spending] but the dynamics of the environment meant it wasn’t as hard to save [money] then as it is now in a post-Covid world,” he says. “We grew and we did really well and then people started connecting their banks and all this data started flowing in.”

The startup was accepted into the SAMA fintech sandbox shortly after Saudi Arabia’s central bank launched its own open banking framework and it also partnered with UAE-based open banking platform Lean Technologies. 

“So from there it just became about growth - growing the app and getting people to connect their bank accounts.”

Wally then raised a pre-Seed round at $6 million, half of which came from angel investors. But it took 18 months to close the round and the lack of visibility on when the next cheque would arrive caused a great deal of anxiety and an inability to plan effectively. 

“When you don’t have the cash, it changes everything. Your team is smaller, which means you’re working on products and things serially instead of in parallel and then the marketing is sporadic which confuses your customer acquisition costs,” says Hejazi. “When you think about the whole sum, $6 million for a pre-Seed, that’s a pretty large amount for this part of the world, but the fact it came in drips probably forced us to be more agile and perhaps behave more like a bootstrapped startup.”

Chat GPT

When Open AI launched its conversational generative AI tool, Chat GPT, Hejazi took note and saw the opportunity to integrate Wally with this new technology to develop it into a personal finance app, powered by AI.

“We put all our resources into it, it’s all we did all day and every night until we were able to launch what is now the world’s only personal finance AI,” says Hejazi. 

This is Wally version 4.0, WallyGPT, which can offer more comprehensive data and advice for its users. Hejazi gives the example of his brother, who is planning to get married. He asked Chat GPT how much it would cost for a two-day wedding for 100 people in Tuscany. Chat GPT provided the line items, and a price range for the event. The integration with Wally, allows the app to provide a personalised budgeting plan for him.

“He asked GPT how can I save for this, and it knows his income levels, his spending patterns, his commitments, it has access to all of his financial information so it’s literally a financial advisor on your phone,” he says. 

Wally still relies on its own data and machine learning capabilities for the core of its app, but Chat GPT adds a conversational layer that can convey this personalised analysis of the user’s data. It also takes into consideration the data belonging to what Hejazi describes as “responsible users” and can compare their habits with yours to determine how you can better manage your money.

Wally has also introduced investment advisory as part of this fourth version, based on recommendations that Chat GPT gives for each individual user. It can recommend the best credit card based on your spending habits and needs, or suggest funds to invest in. The app is now free to use, but will monetise on the plugins it plans to introduce that can help the user make investment transactions in the app. 

The team is now looking to raise $10 million and Hejazi has high hopes despite the current economic climate. 

“I don’t know what a good environment [for fundraising] is, but to be honest with you, I think I'm better off that way,” he says. 


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