How to take your fintech startup global

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Many South African businesses have ambitions far greater than the domestic market. This is particularly true of financial services as its system is the most advanced in Africa, with first world infrastructure that resembles that found in developed markets. Consequently, financial services solutions developed here are highly relevant to developed markets.

“There are a number of strong examples of South African fintech companies that have become global successes. By focusing on the right aspects and learning from key players, you can turn global ambitions into reality,” says Andile Maseko, head of strategy and ecosystem at AlphaCode, the Rand Merchant Investment Holdings (RMI) incubation, acceleration and investment initiative that identifies, partners and grows early-stage financial service ventures.

Here’s how these fintech entrepreneurs penetrated international markets.

Start with the end in mind

South Africa is a small market by global standards which can mean limited opportunities for fintech entrepreneurs. To become a global leader, you have to start knowing this.

For Entersekt, a developer of next-generation authentication and mobile app security, going global was on the agenda from day one.

“We understood, right from the beginning, that we needed to become the global standard or someone else would do so and displace us,” said chief executive officer (CEO) Schalk Nolte.

These global ambitions have seen the firm grow faster in Europe and the US than in the rest of Africa. Bitcoin and ethereum company Luno, and data analytics firm Emerge Analytics both built global aspirations into their mission statements. This is a good way to infuse these ambitions into company culture and ensure everyone is focused on the same global goals.

Conquer your home market first

Your home market is usually the best place to cut your teeth. You know first-hand what the real problems are that need solving, the regulatory environment is familiar and your network is likely to provide the greatest level of support and skills from which to draw. According to Nolte, it could be worthwhile extending your home market into the rest of Africa.

“Africa is home to a billion people, and South Africa is positioned in being able to enter a market that overseas competitors often undervalue or are hesitant to enter,” he said.

By the same token, expanding into other emerging markets can be a helpful step before tackling developed markets. This is what Luno did.

“Initially we targeted emerging markets because we believed we had a lot of emerging market experience given our South African roots. We launched in South East Asia including one of our key strategic hubs in Singapore and Nigeria. Later on we expanded into more developed markets including Europe,” said co-founder and CEO Marcus Swanepoel.

However, your business should be ready to expand.

“What you don’t want is to rush going global and end up as two separate start-ups in different territories, fighting for resources and struggling to align strategically,” Nolte said.

Understand your target market

  • Build relationships

Once you’re confident on your timing, ensure you understand the intricacies of your target market. Co-founder of Emerge Analytics Laurence Rau’s advice is to try establish key partnerships in the geographies you are interested in going to. This will help you get to grips with the subtle differences between your targeted international market and your home market.

“For example, short-term insurance is sold as an annual policy in most countries, unlike in South Africa where it is sold as a monthly policy. This made a big difference to how we positioned our project to the international market,” he said.

Relationship building has also been key to the global success of Luno.

“Our dedicated country teams are focused on building collaborative relationships with local regulators, governing bodies and financial institutions and cross-sharing best-practice and expertise,” said Swanepoel.

  • Know the regulatory requirements

Relationships with regulators will be helpful in navigating a regulatory environment that is likely to be different from your home market. Financial services regulations are becoming more onerous globally and you must be 100 per cent comfortable that you can easily comply.

  • Target the under-targeted

While plenty of businesses enjoy great success in highly competitive markets, servicing parts of the economy that are already well-served, there’s much to be gained from targeting the under- or un-targeted. Prodigy Finance focused on international students that, despite their creditworthiness, are cast aside by banks who are unable to lend internationally. Prodigy Finance’s borderless credit system is increasing access to higher education for students, particularly those from emerging markets.

  • Take your home language with you

Language barriers are also an important consideration. It’s easier to penetrate a market where the participants speak the same language as you do. This helps ensure that the nuances of your offering are properly portrayed. Both Nolte and Swanepoel highlight the language aspect as key to how they decided which international market to target first.

  • Focus on market makers

For Nolte, another key factor is whether the targeted market is a banking market maker or not.

“We wanted to access markets in which there were banking market makers. In other words, if the leading banks in a market have subsidiaries in other territories, we’d be more likely to be able to scale internationally,” he said.

Make sure your technology is transferrable

Being able to scale is also closely related to how transferrable your technology is as Nolte explains. “Our technology solves several very real problems. This has allowed us to pitch to the problem which might be different in each market, but is solved by the same piece of technology, which allowed us to scale,” he said.

Rau, of Emerge Analytics said: “We have standardised our methodology and automated it which has enabled us to be very flexible in our approach. This has meant that we can solve almost any problem our clients come up with regardless of industry and geography.”

Similarly, Cameron Stevens, founder and CEO of Prodigy Finance, highlighted how they localised their code base early.

“We are able to support multiple currencies, country-specific payment methods and local languages. This has helped ensure that our products and services make it safe and easy for people and businesses the world over to buy, store, sell and learn about cryptocurrencies,” he said.

Choose your funding source carefully

Of course, a startup’s ability to transfer its technology to a global audience requires funding. Access to this funding is probably one of the most important determining factors of global success. Incubators and accelerators like AlphaCode exist to help companies get off the ground. This route can be highly beneficial not least because of the extensive networks that it opens up.

“AlphaCode’s support and collaboration helps us with local business operations, sourcing talent as well as fine tuning and accelerating our growth ambitions,” said Stevens.

If companies go this route, however, they must choose their investing partner wisely.

“Make sure you have funders who support your long-term vision and goals and who can give you solid advice from their own experience,” said Nolte.

Sometimes “no” is just a suggestion

There will undoubtedly be stumbling blocks and seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way. However, the advice from Stevens of Prodigy Finance is that entrepreneurs should be resilient and know when to push the boundaries.

“Sometimes, no is just a suggestion,” he said. “When we first started out, we were told by a credit lawyer: “Please don’t do this. This is the only advice we’re going to give you. You’re going to regret it”.”

That advice was entirely misguided. The firm now enjoys global success; it has helped more than 10,000 students from more than 120 countries fund their education. Entersekt’s Nolte also advises entrepreneurs not to be disheartened if their offering is not immediately recognised or valued.

“If your technology offers a superior solution to a real problem, establish exactly who to target, and then use your network to get connected to that person. If all else fails, keep muscling your way through doors and networking until you find someone who will listen,” he said.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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