MAGNiTT interviews Faisal Toukan, Co-Founder and CEO of Ziina, the UAE's first licensed peer-to-peer social payment app

Ziina, a peer-to-peer payment app recently announced it's Pre-Seed round investment led by Class 5 Global. Following on from the exciting announcement, MAGNiTT spoke with Co-Founder and CEO of Ziina, Faisal Toukan to discover more about this growing startup. 

Q1. To start, tell us briefly about Ziina. How does it work?

Ziina is the UAE's first licensed peer-to-peer social payment app that enables people to securely send money to each other's bank accounts with just a phone number—no IBAN or swift code required. The app offers bank-grade security and end-to-end encryption, never holding onto your money so every transfer goes fast. Ziina provides a seamless way for friends and family to settle the tab, share a Careem fare, and split the grocery or the takeaway bill. You can find us on Apple App Store and Google Play Store!

Q2. This is the first social P2P payment app in the UAE. Why do you think it’s taken so long to bring this model to the region?

We’re at a significant inflection point in MENA when it comes to financial applications – as a result, the applications you interact with daily will be different in the next two years. For applications like Ziina to exist you need two components: infrastructure and regulation. Up to the end of last year, we hadn’t seen infrastructure companies enter the space. Also, the regulation was completely closed out to money transmitter services until October of last year. The confluence of open regulation and newly built infrastructure has brought about the opportunity for consumer-facing fintech platforms to come to life in the region. Ziina is the first. 

Q3. What is your big-picture vision for the future of Ziina?

At Ziina we aim to collaborate with current players to become the layer above the current infrastructure that solves everyday problems. We want Ziina to be the way you split the Careem bill, pay for services, send money to your cousin in Saudi, pay for your package, and invest through third-party integrations. We want to place financial services in the hands of every individual in MENA.

If we want to take it one step further, all great products in history combine two aspects of life that usually don’t mesh. For Apple, it was computer software meets design; for Nike it was a commodity (shoes) meets inspiration; for Ziina we want financial services to intersect with the next generation of Middle Eastern Art. Hence the name Ziina, meaning beauty or ornament in Arabic. We’ll have more on that later.

Q4. It is quite extraordinary that you managed to raise this round with the current COVID-19 crisis. Was this round in the works from much earlier? How did COVID-19 affect your fundraising efforts?

We began fundraising before the pandemic. We were able to continue to raise throughout the COVID-19 crisis because of the current acceleration of the adoption of financial applications.

Q5. It’s safe to assume that after this round, you're going to have some exciting growth plans. Can you share some of Ziina’s short-term plans for expansion with us? (e.g. geographic, product, talent)

At the moment we’re focusing on one objective: changing the way people deal with their daily cash transactions as seamless as possible. We will integrate more value-added services after we’ve perfected this use case.

In terms of talent, we’re onboarding our next wave of hires who will strictly focus on improving our product. Our team strongly believes in lean mythology by continuously rolling out incremental improvements to our product in two-week cycles. In our first two weeks after launch, we’ve already implemented two changes based on user feedback – including a “show balance” option and shorter loading times when sending a payment. Our next batch of hires will center on an expansion of the product team.

One small spoiler is that we’re onboarding a user-experience advisor from a certain peer-to-peer application in the US.

Q6. How have you tried to overcome user behaviour challenges e.g. people sticking to cash on-demand payments and not adapting to this new tech-heavy world?

First and foremost, by patiently listening to users’ concerns and addressing them one by one. This allows us to both to closely understand their perspectives and to build the trust that is imperative to the adoption of fintech products. From there we can start to build products that truly serve users’ needs, and in the process mold users’ behaviour.

Paypal published a very enlightening article that alludes to how MENA is tied with Africa for the lowest level of trust of financial institutions amongst users. We were expecting the adoption of Ziina to be an uphill battle. Fortunately, this hasn’t been the case with our users. People have adopted the platform quite quickly to send payments to one another. Our volume of payments is increasing by the day as people become more comfortable with Ziina’s value proposition.

Having a completely secure product was key to building this user trust. That’s why Andrew, Ziina’s Head of Engineering, and his team have invested heavily in our security practices and built a robust product. User’s bank account details are only ever stored encrypted. One of the keys necessary to decrypt their credentials is stored on the user's phone only. This means that we never have access to their information or funds. Only users have the power to move their own money. In addition, if their bank requires a second factor of authentication, we do as well.

Q7. Has the current climate affected the apps usage in any way? E.g. more customers are now using the platform due to COVID-19 restrictions

We consider the impact of the pandemic on our business from two perspectives: 1) a global perspective impacting digital and Fintech services broadly 2) a perspective specific to our value proposition of cashless payments.

From the first perspective, history has shown us that global events have accelerated the adoption of the latest technologies. For example, according to Ark Invest, SaaS and online retail experienced significant growth during the 2008 financial crisis. This technology acceleration is playing out with the COVID-19 pandemic as people have adopted digital conferencing (Zoom) and remote work collaboration tools (Microsoft Meet); online gaming has spiked (Call of Duty), and movie streaming servers cannot keep up with demand (Netflix). This is also the case with Fintech applications, where we see a 72% rise in the use of Fintech apps according to Forbes.

We also consider the impact of the pandemic from a second perspective, specific to our value proposition. Ziina provides its users with the ability to send and receive cashless payments securely and easily. 

Current circumstances will have a mixed impact on how people use our app, however overall we have seen quick adoption from our first day of launch. This is for two reasons. Firstly, people have fewer opportunities to meet in person, so they will resort to sending remote payments when they need to pay someone back. Secondly, people are hesitant to handle physical cash which can be a carrier of germs.  We’ve also seen 60% of new users coming from referrals from friends. I can tell you that my personal feed had a lot of my friends sending Eideyeh to their families and loved ones. This is in part due to circumstances relating to COVID-19, and in part, because our users have been looking for an alternative to cash for some time now.

We put our users first and strive to build out use cases that are adapted to their changing needs. We seek to help our community during this difficult time.

Q8. What were you looking for from your investors, beyond capital?

We’ve spoken with a lot of other successful start-ups that came before us. One common theme we’ve seen is that scaling across MENA needs the right strategy that influences every aspect of your business - product, regulation, hiring, business development, etc. We are looking for investors that can help us study how past start-ups have succeeded in these markets and how that translates to Ziina. Given the scale of fintech in MENA we need investors that have their feet on the ground and understand the pulse of individual markets.

Q9. What do you foresee as the largest challenges to scaling Ziina in MENA / beyond?

Fintech is an extremely localized experience. Credit scores in the United States are looked at as an essential aspect of everyday life. Credit Karma gamified this experience and exited to intuit for $7.1 billion. This same concept is struggling to pick up traction in Europe.

We are onboarding some excellent talent for user-experience research and setting internal research structures. Finding out about user habits around money on a country-by-country basis in MENA is a very exciting challenge that we look forward to tackling. Of course, the user’s needs and experience will be our north star in everything we develop.

Q10. Finally, what advice would you give to yourself five years ago?

Fail fast, fail forward. Looking back I’m proud of how much I’ve learned through failure. I wasn’t as accepting of failure in the past.

Also, you learn more from being on the fringes of an industry and diving in than being in the thick of it. The best technological advances have been made by people that come into an industry with an outside perspective. A new perspective in approaching a problem builds new solutions from the ground up. 

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An encouraging 33 startup deals took place in May 2020, which was an increase of 93% compared to April. This was largely driven by the Misk500 MENA Accelerator, which graduated its third batch of startups. Discover more details in our May 2020 Dashboard Report.