Tag: startup

What it’s like launching a Fintech startup in the UAE

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Ian Dillon

It took us 4 years – but we launched our Fintech startup NOW Money in May this year, and the reception so far has made it all worth it.

We started NOW Money in the summer of 2015. Back then we didn’t yet know how little we knew about what we were trying to do and how to do it, but we did know exactly the problem we wanted to solve.

Bank accounts are often accessible only to those that earn over AED5,000 per month. In the GCC, there are 25 million low-income workers that earn less than this. This means no bank accounts, no online payments, no ability to send money home using cheap online providers that almost everyone from Europe is used to. Our goal was to provide the best account in the GCC, with these excluded workers our customers.

My co-founder, Katharine, and I had seen the success of the new mobile only ‘challenger banks’ that had started in the UK – the likes of Monzo, Startling and Revolut. Customers loved them and had a passion for them that had never been seen for banks and financial services companies before. We wanted to do the same thing first in the UAE and then across the GCC.

These days, ‘startup’ and ‘Fintech’ are the new big buzzwords. Billions are invested into Fintech startups annually; many people have entrepreneurial ambitions to start or work at a startup and a number of corporates have strategies to partner with or support entrepreneurs and startups. However in 2015 mindsets were completely different. Almost no one understood why we’d left well paid jobs and the corporate ladder. We were laughed out of meetings, often told that what we were trying to do was impossible. We couldn’t get legal support, couldn’t get a bank account ourselves and were lightyears away from being able to raise funding. We made life hard for ourselves by being focused on remaining independent, creating our own technology and providing the best customer service possible from day 1, and the delays were demoralising and at times we wondered if we’d ever get to launch.

However with persistence we broke down each of the barriers – and 4 years and a lot more grey hairs later we launched in May this year. We had to overcome so many challenges in those 4 years to launch, the most time consuming being banking (try getting an account, let alone a banking partnership as a Fintech startup in the UAE) and regulatory issues.

These barriers took so long to break down that we had got used to running the company in a cycle of break down a barrier, move to the next problem, raise funding to keep the lights on, repeat. So when we had finally received the last of the approvals required earlier this year and launched, it all felt quite surreal.

For the first time, and after years of planning, we had customers. This meant the problems we had to solve quickly changed from dealing with bankers, regulators and investors, to issues such as customers losing their cards, remittances being delayed, customers not having the right documentation to open an account, etc. We realised that even with the most comprehensive planning, you cannot prepare for and have no idea what will happen until you launch! We’ve learned to be very nimble and adaptable, aided by our incredible in-house team of tech developers that are all with us in Dubai and everyone in the company (and this means everyone!) is on the ground with customers at least once a fortnight. We believe it is this connection with our customers and ability to innovate quickly to optimise ourselves around their needs which sets us apart from the competition.

The satisfaction and validation of our mission that we’ve seen since launching has been immense. Numbers of customers continue to grow strongly – we’ll accept over 2,000 new customers in September alone – but the most pleasing thing has been the reception from customers. 

With an account like NOW Money, it would be easy for our customers to use the MasterCard we provide to take their salary out at an ATM and continue to spend this cash in the same way in which they did before, and at first they did. In our first month in May just 12% of our customers used the account for anything other than cash withdrawal. However since then the engagement has exploded as customers discover the range of services available to them in the app – services which save them significant amounts of time and money, which ultimately ends up in the hands of their families back home. And as word of mouth spreads amongst our customers, the change in behaviour has happened rapidly. Last month almost 60% of our customers made an in-app transaction or significant card spend in-store, and this ratio is continuing to trend strongly upwards. More importantly, the direct feedback we collect daily has been overwhelmingly positive, with customers used to being ignored often surprised that a company would go to such lengths to provide a great solution for them.

Also pleasing is to see the appreciation of their employers. Employers in the UAE often get a bad rap for the way they treat staff – but those we’ve worked with really do care and on a couple of occasions I have even been called directly to thank us for providing a service their employees like so much and that provides them with financial independence they’ve not experienced before. This has led to employers referring us to other corporates in their networks – the very best form of sales lead.

We’ve just closed a funding round, led by the UK’s leading Fintech Venture Capital investor. We are working hard on adding additional exchange and other partners to our network to give our customers more choices, preparing for upcoming launches to Saudi and Bahrain, and working on an offering for SMEs in the UAE. But one goal that will remain our number one priority – the same mission that got Katharine and I through the tough times for 4 years – is providing the best account in the GCC for our customers. We don’t believe that income, nationality or any other factor should stop anyone from having the best experience and loving their account, and so far the response we’ve seen from our customers is proving that it isn’t.

We’re changing the way financial services operates in the UAE, and operate in a very transparent and openly collaborative manner. If you’d like to learn more or reach out with any opportunities, please reach out to me on LinkedIn, Twitter or comment on this post.

UAE VAT for FinTech companies explained

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Everyone who lives in the UAE knows that on January 1, 2018 value-added tax (VAT) will come into effect. There is a lot of talk, and furthermore, uncertainty, with the date just around the corner. When it comes to the impact that this will have on the world of FinTech – the uncertainty just goes over the top!

As a result of my experience with both VAT and FinTech, I thought I’d write a post about the issue, and address the main points of uncertainty.

Most people will be familiar with VAT in general, but if not, you can email us to view the presentation from my last ‘VAT in the UAE training’ here that was organized by Astrolabs on the 29th of October, 2017.

So what is a FinTech and what attributes does it have which make VAT treatment so vague?

According to Patrick Schueffel, in his paper, Taming the Beast: A Scientific Definition of Fintech in the Journal of Innovation Management; “FinTech is a new financial industry that applies technology to improve financial activities. FinTech is the new applications, processes, products, or business models in the financial services industry, composed of one or more complementary financial services and provided as an end-to-end process via the Internet.”

Based on the definition above, I have come up with some unique features of FinTech companies, and what VAT complications they may face:

1. Provision of financial services

Financial services in relation to VAT is still a grey area in current VAT legislation. However, as draft cabinet decision on the Executive Regulations of UAE VAT law says, if the financial services are performed NOT in return for an explicit fee, discount, commission, rebate or similar, then they are exempt for VAT purposes. However, if the services above are performed for a fee, discount and commission, etc., then they should be taxed at 5 per cent to the extent of the amount of that separately identifiable charge. For example, the remittance operation itself is exempt from VAT however the fee that is charged by the financial institution is not. Therefore, there will be 5 per cent VAT added to the amount of the fee, but not to the amount being remitted. The last point – agreeing to do, or arranging financial services as per current UAE legislation also counts as the provision of financial services.

When it comes to the recovery of input VAT, tax incurred on costs wholly attributable to the standard rated supply of financial services can be fully recovered; and VAT incurred on costs in relation to exempt supplies – cannot be recovered. Therefore, companies should accurately distinguish which costs are attributable to the financial services that are exempt, and which are taxable supplies. If the company has both, then the following ratio should be applied:

Taxable supplies/Taxable + Exempt supplies

For more guidance on this, please have a look at the guidance published by the federal Tax Authority here.

2. Provision of services digitally

Another feature of a FinTech company, is the digital provision of its services. For this we have to be familiar with the place of supply concept, because if the services are provided to someone outside of the UAE, VAT is not applicable, and vice versa.

The place of supply for the goods, for instance, is where the goods are. When it comes to digital services, the provider has to know who is the recipient – whether it’s a company (B2B) or an individual (B2C).

In a B2B scenario, the purchaser is responsible for accounting for the invoice in accordance with a rule known as the reverse-charge mechanism. The purchaser accounts for the VAT of that invoice as an Output VAT (sounds strange but that is the way) and Input VAT at the same time, meaning there is no VAT liability, only reporting of the transaction.

With B2C, the scenarios are as follows:

3. Fintech companies registered in Dubai International Financial Centre and other free zones

There is a lot of talk around free-zones and how they are going to be treated for VAT purposes. The latest draft regulation says that if the company is registered in a designated zone which is a fenced free-zone, then it is considered as outside of the UAE VAT scope. If the free-zone is not fenced – like DIFC – then general UAE VAT rules apply.

I hope the above helps shed some light on VAT treatment for FinTech companies who, just like us are trying their best to navigate in this complex business world.

Please feel free to leave comments if you have more insight on the VAT situation described in this post, or any questions.

Bahrain Welcomes First Two Entrants into Regulatory Sandbox

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London based Tramonex and Dubai firm NOW Money set to expand to Bahrain as global fintech investment market hits $3.2 billion in Q1 2017

The Central Bank of Bahrain (CBB) has announced two entrants into its regulatory sandbox. Tramonex, a London-based forex cash management solution for businesses; and NOW Money, the Dubai-based account and remittance service for low-income workers in the GCC.

Launched in June, the Bahrain regulatory sandbox provides a virtual space for companies to test their financial technology based solutions, and is open to existing CBB licensees and other local and foreign firms. By offering firms an opportunity for expansion and innovation, the framework is expected to help boost fintech businesses around the globe and consolidate Bahrain’s position as a fintech and financial services hub.

For companies dealing in multiple currencies, Tramonex offers an efficient, quick and cheaper way of processing and transferring funds at your fingertips. The start-up focuses on facilitating conversion and settlement services to automate cross border transactions, and provides competitive services.

NOW Money is the first fintech company in the Gulf region to use mobile banking technology to provide accounts, financial inclusion and a range of low-cost remittance options to low-income workers. It aims to provide access to affordable financial services for everyone.

The Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) assisted and advised Tramonex and NOW Money in registering for the regulatory sandbox.

Khalid Hamad, Executive Director of Banking Supervision at CBB, said: “We are pleased to welcome the first two entrants into the regulatory sandbox, in the early stages of the framework’s launch. This initiative highlights the CBB’s continuous efforts as the Kingdom’s single regulator to update and develop the fintech ecosystem and enable industry players to create innovative and forward-looking fintech products while maintaining the overall safety and soundness of the financial system.”

H.E. Khalid Al Rumaihi, Chief Executive of Bahrain EDB, said: “This announcement is a testament to Bahrain’s attractive investment proposition in the Gulf. Bahrain is a great testbed for innovative products in this space due to its size and easy market access to the GCC.

“The Kingdom is ready to be at the forefront of financial innovation and technology as global fintech investment reaches $3.2 billion. In addition to the development of the regulatory sandbox, we have a number of further initiatives we expect to be launched in the coming months including a venture capital fund-of-funds. We are seeing real signs of momentum in the sector and are excited by the potential it will bring.”

Earlier this year, the CBB issued the Regulatory Sandbox Framework directive, which includes the eligibility criteria, filing requirements and timeline for the process. This may be found on Bahrain Startup website (www.startup.bh) and CBB’s website on the following link: http://www.cbb.gov.bh/page-p-regulatory_sandbox_en.htm.

UAE-Based Fintech Start-Up Secures $700K Investment to Advance Financial Services Access for Underserved Migrant Workers

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NOW Money has secured an investment of $700,000 from two U.S.-based venture capital investors – Accion Venture Lab, the seed-stage investment initiative of financial inclusion leader Accion, and Newid Capital.

Both Accion Venture Lab and Newid Capital make investments that target the financially underserved.  Venture Lab invests capital in, and provides support to, innovative fintech start-ups that increase access to, improve the quality of, or reduce the cost of financial services for the underserved at scale. Newid Capital focuses on such investments outside of North America and Western Europe.

NOW Money uses mobile banking technology to provide accounts, financial inclusion and a range of low-cost remittance options to low-income migrant workers in the Gulf region. It aims to provide access to affordable financial services for everyone.

The investment comes a year after NOW Money’s initial seed funding, which allowed the company to expand the team and develop the technology and brand. With the latest investment, also a part of its seed round, the team plans to launch the service across the United Arab Emirates and expand into the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Co-founder of NOW Money, Ian Dillon said, “Having what’s understood to be the first early stage investment from U.S. venture capital into the Middle East is testament to the opportunities available here and how far the GCC has come in making itself a destination for investment. We hope this will be the first of many U.S. venture capital investments in the region, and will help to grow the ecosystem further.”

“We’re excited to be making such a big social impact in the region. Accion is one of the leading global institutions promoting financial inclusion, and Newid Capital was co-founded by Nigel Morris, who previously co-founded Capital One Financial Services. We’re excited to be working with them to bring financial inclusion to the 26 million unbanked in the GCC,” he added.

“Each year, migrant workers contribute more than $400 billion to their home economies, and the United Arab Emiratesis among the top remittance-sending countries in the world,” said Michael Schlein, CEO and President of Accion. “NOW Money’s innovative approach and digital platform provide a faster and safer option for these workers to support their families and communities.”

“Our partnership with NOW Money marks a number of firsts for Accion Venture Lab – our first investment in the Middle East region, our first investment into a wholly-digital neobank, and our first opportunity to focus on reaching low-income migrant workers,” added Amee Parbhoo, Director of Investments at Accion Venture Lab. “As we reach this new group of financially underserved individuals, we’ll look to apply our learnings to Venture Lab’s work around the world.”

In the last 12 months, NOW Money has won six awards, including Chivas’ “The Venture” for the Gulf region. The co-founders Katharine Budd and Ian Dillon speak regularly at fintech events, such as Payfort and Wamda’s State of Fintech report, and are featured regularly in publications such as Entrepreneur Middle East and on the Dubai Eye radio station.

About NOW Money

NOW uses mobile banking technology to provide accounts, financial inclusion and a range of low-cost remittance options to low-income migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, improving their lives and saving them and their families significant money, in a profitable and sustainable manner.

About Accion Venture Lab

Accion Venture Lab is the world’s leading seed-stage investor in fintech for the underserved. Venture Lab invests capital in, and provides support to, innovative fintech start-ups that increase access to, improve the quality of, or reduce the cost of financial services for the underserved at scale. Since launching in 2012, Venture Lab has deployed over US$10 millionacross more than 25 start-ups that work in over 20 countries worldwide. Venture Lab is a part of Accion, a global non-profit committed to creating a financially inclusive world, with a pioneering legacy in microfinance and fintech impact investing. Accion catalyzes financial service providers to deliver high-quality, affordable solutions at scale for the three billion people who are left out of – or poorly served by –  the financial sector. For more than 50 years, Accion has helped tens of millions of people through its work with more than 90 partners in 40 countries. For further information, visit https://www.accion.org/venturelab.

About Newid Capital

Newid Capital is a direct-investment fund focused on financial services and financial technology companies in developing markets. Through its investments, Newid Capital aims to expand financial services to currently underserved markets and individuals. Newid actively seeks early- and mid-stage start-ups that are looking for investment and operational assistance. Newid is able to leverage personal experience in building, and exiting, financial services companies from the viewpoint of both the entrepreneur and the investor.

The power of positive thinking

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Not long ago I was sat outside having breakfast with my boss and Co-founder of NOW Money, Ian Dillon, following a morning event. When time was called to head back to the office, Ian got out his phone and ordered an Uber. The driver who connected to his request had a one-star rating.

Now, in my mind, Uber has star ratings for a reason. I was thinking, “oh dear, this driver must be pretty awful if he’s only got one star”. To my surprise, Ian’s reaction was totally different.

“One star! That guy must have been SO unlucky. He’s probably new, has been on one trip and someone accidentally rated him one star. I bet there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him,” said Ian.

Whilst I couldn’t help but think it was a strange reaction, I had huge admiration for Ian’s understanding and empathetic approach; looking for the positivity in the situation and not jumping to conclusions.

It got me thinking that his relentless positivity is probably one of the things that makes him a successful entrepreneur and gave him the guts to quit his job and start his own company in the first place.

I thought I’d share with you how I believe positivity, or sometimes lack of it, affects life in a start-up.

The belief

To become an entrepreneur, you have the belief your idea will work, so positivity is essential. After all, if you don’t believe in your idea, who will? Investors also often buy into the person, as well as the idea, so if they can see that you’ve got a positive attitude and you’re passionate about your product, they’re far more likely to invest.

As I’ve discovered, an optimistic approach is essential in a start-up, whether you’re the one being optimistic, or you’re trying to instil optimism in your colleagues. After all, positivity is contagious!

My experience of this is when I first joined NOW and we needed a new design for the background of the app, and we needed it fast. I was tasked with overseeing this project, even though I was new and had no experience in app design.  Ian and Katharine’s faith in me helped me to have the courage and faith in myself to complete the task under the time constraints.

Knowing that I was in charge of what our service looked like to the end user was incredibly empowering for me as an employee. Regardless of this, however, I also knew that whilst I was in charge, if anything had gone wrong, we would have worked together to find a solution. A “nothing is impossible” attitude is essential in a start-up; you have to be solutions hungry.

When negative can be positive

Like positivity, a negative attitude is contagious, and it’s hard not to be affected by one in the work place. But a negative attitude can sometimes be useful for highlighting problems.

I don’t mean the kind of negative attitude which deems a task impossible, or shuts down ideas before they’re given a chance. But perhaps a pessimistic attitude, which looks out for potential issues that could arise during a task.

I do think it’s important to include a mix of personalities in the workplace. I’m guilty of being far too positive and getting excited by new projects and seeing everything through rose tinted spectacles. So, I actually work well with people who have a slightly less rosy outlook, as it keeps me reigned in and helps me acknowledge potential problems which need to be accounted for.


We have all experienced that niggle of self-doubt that usually stems from fear. Whilst fear often has negative connotations, it’s actually not always bad. Think about it – it’s fear that protects us from eating poisonous plants, or falling prey to wild animals.

For an entrepreneur, the most productive fear is fear of failure. It can help stop irrational decisions being made, or highlight opportunities which aren’t necessarily right for the business. It’s also the fear of letting others down (especially the shareholders).

So really, fear should be embraced and used as a guidance that can be used in conjunction with optimism. It’s the balance that gets you to that happy, productive medium.

Can you be over-optimistic?

Is there such a thing as over optimism? I guess Ian could have taken a more balanced approach and maybe questioned the driver’s rating. However, his faith was well founded in this situation. We made it back to the office in one piece in good time, so in this case, giving the driver the benefit of the doubt worked in our favour. Living in the Middle East you experience a lot of negativity toward the services industries, so it was refreshing to see Ian’s positive and patient attitude.

Maybe we should all take a leaf out of Ian’s book and throw some more faith in humanity? Come on, what’s the worst that can happen?

5 things to know as a start-up newbie

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Being the youngest one in a start-up is not easy, and trying to keep pace with colleagues who are extremely experienced in their fields has been a challenge. I think I’m getting there, but it hasn’t been easy and it certainly didn’t happen overnight, as frustrating as that can be.

It’s been a steep learning curve for me from the very start and it continues to escalate. As I complete a year in NOW, I would like to share my personal tips for someone with little work experience who’s thinking of joining a start-up.

  1. Be prepared for everything

Working in a start-up is not a piece of cake and there is nowhere to hide. You are a core member of the team and every action of yours is reflected on the business. Be prepared to learn new, unexpected things, this is your opportunity to gain knowledge, so seize it – don’t shy away!

Tasks given to you might not be in your job description. But guess what, those are the tasks that will help develop your career in a more holistic way and bring out the best in you!

  1. Keep a learning log

During your average day at work, when you see or hear something that is new to you, note it down.

It will remind you of the things you’ve learnt that change you from a good employee to a great one. It’s especially important in a start-up when there is so much to learn, writing down those points allows you to reflect over how much you’ve learnt over a short space of time.

  1. Set Targets

Make a to-do list with strict deadlines. Be honest with yourself and organise your time well. Ticking each task off your list gives you a real sense of satisfaction and makes you feel motivated to accomplish more! It’s also a tangible way of showing yourself the value you bring into the business.

  1. Your best friend

Working for a start-up you’re going to be expected to get involved with many new things and, of course, you won’t know how to do it all. Remember Google is your best friend!

It answers your tiniest doubts and things you just don’t know at all. Over time you will learn how to get things done within your capabilities. Starting something new is never easy, so be patient and enjoy the learning process.

  1. Have fun as a team

Be open to conversations with your team members, it can be as simple as ‘good morning’ each day, or ‘how was your weekend?’ at the start of the week, or ‘let’s have lunch together?’. Having fun with your colleagues really helps the day go by in an enjoyable way.

Make an effort to organise a get-together when it’s your cultural festival, teach them about your culture and have a great time together. Be a team player, spread good vibes and it won’t even feel like work!


I like to think that working at NOW Money has made me a more rounded individual and broadened my professional skill set. I have been exposed to a two-way learning corridor about different cultures, beliefs, and traditions.

I didn’t realise working here was going to be so fulfilling, and I’d even go so far as to say the best time of my life. From having lunch together every day, to our never ending conversations, planning team activities, working together and winning awards for our achievements, this journey has been absolutely fantastic.

Here are few of my favourite snaps from the whole year:

6 hacks for self-sufficient start-ups

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I guess, the first thing that needs clarifying is, what is a start-up? According to Investopedia: “A start-up is a young company that is just beginning to develop. In the early stages, start-up companies’ expenses tend to exceed their revenues as they work on developing, testing and marketing their idea.”

Now that we’ve answered that question, I’ll let you know how I got the inspiration for this blog. It involved an “incident” which saw the clashing of a MacBook Pro and a cup of coffee. Thankfully, the story has a happy ending, and the MacBook Pro lived to tell another tale. I can’t take the credit for it, however, it was thanks to a call with Desi, our top-notch IT dude, who came to the rescue. But it could have been an incredibly costly accident.

As a start-up, we understand what it’s like trying to do everything as cost-effectively as possible and this is what’s inspired us to share our top-tips for maximum output on minimum budget with you.

1. IT – water/coffee damage

During said MacBook Pro “incident”, our on-hand IT advisor took control of the situation across a phone line. His advice was invaluable and saved us at least $1,000 on a new laptop.

If you spill liquid on a laptop:

  • DON’T press the on/off button. This sparks an electronic current through the machine which will be conducted by the spilled water and will cause your machine to break.
  • DO tip out the water and close the laptop.
  • Leave the laptop alone until a professional comes to fix it.

2. Marketing – free images

Not all of us have the budget to purchase the perfect stock photography or hire our own graphic designer to create infographics, banners and collateral.

We have found that you can use these tools to get your imagery for free!

  • Flaticon – this website provides hundreds of thousands of icons which are perfect for using in PowerPoint presentations. You name it, they have an icon for it in any colour you want (using hex), and a range of sizes and file types, including every single country flag in the world. But, remember to credit the author!
  • Hubspot – if you’re not already signed up to the Hubspot blog then you must. Not only do they direct you to free stock photography, there’s a whole host of useful information including how to make an awesome infographic, write engaging content and tips for successful social media marketing.
  • Google – I know what you’re thinking “state the obvious”, but if you steal photos from your average Google search to use in your marketing collateral then you’re breaking the law. A tip would be to search for your keyword, click “Images” then “Tools”. Another row of options will appear, one being “Usage rights”, click on it and select “Labelled for reuse”. Voila. Stay legal peeps.

3. Project management

In a start-up every employee seems to have a job title, but the job description is “open to interpretation”, let’s say. So many jobs, so little time. Managing your time is crucial to product development and often scribbles jotted in your notepad just won’t be enough to organise your day.

Luckily, we’ve been introduced to a brilliant and free project management tool, Trello. Within the tool you can create to-do lists, which can be annotated by all team members, and deadlines can be added, files attached, team members assigned to certain tasks and much more.

There are other project management tools out there. Cloudwards wrote a helpful guide taking you through the best virtual team software tools, which will help you decide which is the best one for your team.

4. Secure password storage

Is it just us that think using an Excel spreadsheet to store your passwords should be left in the 90s? It’s unsafe, everyone forgets where the file is kept, and no one ever updates it. Enter LastPass.

We find this online password storage extension so useful. It’s a safe place to store passwords for all online accounts you have. Which means you no longer have to use the same password for everything because you’ll know you’ll forget it if you choose something different. The sharing centre means that you can share company passwords with colleagues safely and you can restrict access too.

5. Competitions

Enter lots of competitions. If you thought your business idea was so good it needed pursuing then others must too! Get recognised for what you do and there’ll be many perks along the way.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have won six awards so far and here are some of the things tangible and intangible that we’ve gained from them.

  • Pitching practice – useful for perfecting your pitch to use on potential investors or clients.
  • PR exposure – the more you attend competitions or industry events the more exposure you’ll get and interest you’ll generate.
  • Meeting investors – you never know when or where you’ll bump into your next investor, so make yourself available.
  • Meeting clients – as above, but substitute in clients.
  • Mentorship – from the judges, to last year’s winner, there’s a huge variety of experience at competitions, and everyone wants to share their journey so we don’t all make the same mistakes.
  • Money – it’s what everyone needs.
  • Travel – global finals of the competitions can be in exotic locations, meaning you can find opportunities in international markets or just extend your trip into a holiday!

6. Incubators/shared office space

So you’re thinking, surely it’s more cost effective to work from your front room if you’re doing things on a budget? Probably true, but how easy is it to motivate yourself from the same room you watch Game of Thrones in? Get yourself down to your nearest incubator.

NOW Money set up base in Astrolabs, Dubai, in mid 2016 and the benefits we’ve had from working there have been invaluable. Firstly, human interaction on a day to day basis is essential and stops us going crazy and the added bonus is you’re surrounded by motivated entrepreneurs. You have availability to mentors, marketing experts or lawyers etc, who come in and give free advice, which would otherwise be very costly. Astrolabs hosts a lot of business-themed meet-up events too, which are free to attend (and you sometimes get free pizza).


If you’re reading this and work for a start-up we’d love to know your hacks! Please comment below if you have any other tips.

Financial modelling for start-ups. Part 4: Hiring plan

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A hiring plan is an essential ingredient when it comes to building a successful business model, therefore, in this post I will show you how to construct one.

Staff-related costs are a huge component of the profit and loss and the hiring plan is something that will help you to calculate these costs precisely, allowing you to later change them accordingly in line with any developments in your forecasts.

Below is an example of how a hiring plan should look:

Below is a step-by-step guide to building your own:

1 – Make a list of the job roles with salaries. Salaries can be found on any local job search website. You might want to allow for salary increases once the company is launched, bearing in mind that there will be more responsibilities which should be awarded for.

2 – Each column to the right of the salaries serves as a month where you can input the number of people that you need to fulfil a particular position. They should all start with zero and grow over time.

3 – Identify the job roles which will require more people as the business grows, and list them in order of growth in sales volume. For our company these are the positions that involve working directly with the customers one-to-one, such as on-boarding, training, and sales managers. These are highlighted in grey in the picture above. Once these roles are identified, their number should be linked to the sales volume. To do that, you can create another table where you identify the number of customers to be covered by each role, as shown below:

This information should be included into your ‘costs assumption’ sheet and will be variable, changing over time. Once you have got this for these “customer-number-dependant” job positions you need to apply the following formula:

Number of training managers required = 1 / No of customers per 1 training manager X No of customers in that particular month / period

After this is done, you don’t need to worry about changing the number of sales agents required each time there is a change in sales pipeline or in the forecast number of customers.

4 – The last step is to multiply the number of employees from each job by their salaries and then link it back to your monthly budget in the staff related costs section (or maybe you have your own name for it)! This can be easily done using the Sumif function, which I’m sure you’re familiar with by now.

Until next time – happy modelling!

NOW Money wins sixth award

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NOW Money, has won its sixth award in six months at the ArabNet Start-up Battle in Dubai.

On Sunday 23rd April ten start-ups were chosen to pitch to a panel of judges at the ArabNet Digital Summit in Dubai. Each company had the opportunity to show the judges why they deserve to win, and three companies were declared winners in the top three places. Being in first place ensured NOW Money a place in the Start-up Championships in May alongside FriendlyCar in second place and Wenaak in third. This gives all three companies a chance of receiving a prize of $20,000 cash, as well as a scholarship for the Blackbox Connect program in Silicon Valley.

The pitch was presented by Co-founder, Katharine Budd, who focused on how NOW Money are using fintech to solve an obvious problem, in the GCC and globally, that wouldn’t be financially viable without the use of technology.

As well as the ten pitches, the event featured a panel entitled “Supporting Corporate Growth through Innovation”.

For the final, Katharine will be attending the Arabnet Digital summit in May and competing against the other regional winners from countries including Beirut, Cairo, Casablanca, Riyadh and Kuwait. Each of the winning entrepreneurs have founded tech start-ups, which create innovative technological solutions to every-day problems.

“What an honour to have been awarded first place at ArabNet’s Start-up Battle” said Ms. Budd. “The competition had some really strong businesses and it was also a great opportunity to network with other start-ups in the region. We’re really looking forward to the final in May, where we can meet even more entrepreneurs and learn about the innovative solutions technology is bringing to the Middle East.”

“And to have won our sixth award is just incredible, we’re so glad that fintech as a path to financial inclusion is being realized.”

Financial Modelling for Start-ups. Part 3: Working Capital

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In this post I will look at a company’s working capital and how to calculate its components in order to build toward a financial model.

You may be wondering, however, what is working capital?

Working capital is the funds a company has for its day-to-day activities. It can also be described as the company’s current position, where  if we take all of its current assets, convert them to cash and pay off all of its liabilities– then whatever is left – positive or negative – describes the company’s current liquidity position. The firm should have enough cash left to support itself. If the figure is negative, it means that the business cannot sustain itself. On the other hand, if you end up with a large positive figure, it may indicate that the company doesn’t maintain its working capital sufficiently enough and is too cash heavy.

The formula for calculating working capital is very simple:

Working Capital = Current Assets – Current Liabilities.

However, this is only simple to calculate if you have a balance sheet in place and know where to get these figures from. If you are, like us, just starting out and in the process of preparing one, how can you derive your working capital figure?

In this case you may need to;

1) identify the components of the working capital based on a monthly budget, and…

2) calculate these components based on the duration of the working capital cycle which reflects the delay in time that cash takes to arrive in/out of your bank account as we all understand that cash doesn’t always flow simultaneously in and out once the transactions take place.

From the formula above, you might have guessed that the working capital consists of the following accounts (=components):

  • Accounts receivable – this is what is owed to the company for its services
  • Accounts payable – this is what the company owes for the purchases it makes
  • Accrued expenses – same as above, apart from these expenses will not yet be invoiced
  • Prepaid expenses – these are prepayments made for purchases in advance

Working capital also includes inventory, as well as other current liabilities and other current assets. For the purpose of this blog, I will not include these, as I want to a) keep this simple, and b) some of these are not relevant for a fintech start-up such as NOW Money.

In order to estimate the working capital duration cycle, I will use the simplified operating cycle method, which takes into consideration the time it takes for each business operation to convert an asset or liability into cash.

Firstly, you’ll need to look at each line of your monthly budget and assign each one a component from the list above.

Secondly, you’ll need to consider how long it will take to pay bills/receive the money. I suggest you use 1 month to start with for most of your AP/AR.

At the end of this exercise you should have a table that looks something like this:

With regard to the terms of payment, instead of using months, if you want to be more precise, you can use days.

Thirdly, by using the Excel Sumif formula with 2 conditions – accounts names (AP/AR/Other/etc) and the terms (1 month/2 months/1 year/etc), accumulate the working capital components on a separate sheet and calculate the amount for each one depending on the operating cycle. For example, 1 month (annual figure divided by 12 or if it’s a monthly budget – just use December figures), a year (if it’s one-off payment at the end of the year) – leave as it is, or even zero – if the payment should be made/received immediately – which is what happens with our revenues. If you used days before – divide the annual figure by 365 and multiply it by the number of days.

As you may have noticed, here we have LT assets as well, which are not part of the working capital, however we will need these later when we start preparing financial statements.

At the end of this exercise you will have calculated the components of the working capital ready to use in your future projected balance sheet and cash flow statements, which I will cover in my next blog!


NOW Money wins heavyweight title at Get In The Ring Abu Dhabi

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NOW Money has won Get In The Ring Abu Dhabi, an annual start-up pitching competition, which aims to provide resources and exposure to start-ups by setting them in a ring to compete against one another in a pitching “battle”.

The competition, which was organised and hosted at Abu Dhabi Global Market by Flat6Labs, on 28th February 2017, selected 20 start-ups to present a three-minute pitch to a panel of four judges, to proceed to the next round. Eight companies were then selected to have a pitch battle against one other opponent in the boxing ring. There were four rounds of one-on-one battles in three categories, lightweight (company valuation $0-500k), middleweight ($500k-2.5m) and heavyweight ($2.5m+), and across two streams, mainstream and fintech.

Anastazja Kociolkowska, Head of Product at NOW Money, led the pitch in the heavyweight category against fellow Astrolabs start-up, Democrance. Both competitors had one minute to pitch their company, followed by five rounds of 30 seconds to prove why their start-up should win the battle, based on team, achievements, business model, financials and a “freestyle” round.

NOW was selected as the winner of the heavyweight category due to Anastazja’s ability to articulate and demonstrate how NOW is a commercially viable company and aims to make a positive impact in the world.

NOW will be among the three winners (along with fellow start-ups Dinodrops and Point Checkout, lightweight and middleweight winners) to represent the UAE in the upcoming Get In The Ring Global Final in Singapore in May 2017, where all the country winners will compete to be crowned the overall champion.

“Having taken part in many start-up pitching competitions before, Get In The Ring was like no other,” said Ms Kociolkowska. “We were so thrilled to hear we’d made it to the second round to pitch in the ring. Thirty seconds for each round wasn’t long to get across all the benefits of NOW Money, and I wanted to really emphasise that our main aim is to bring financial inclusion, and to provide a holistic financial service to those who have been previously overlooked.”

Omar Kandil, Organizer and Host of Get In The Ring Abu Dhabi, and Program Manager of Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi said “We’re very proud as Flat6Labs to be hosting Get In The Ring with Abu Dhabi Global Markets for the first time in the capital of the UAE. The start-ups were very impressive and my sincere congratulations to all who participated! We wish the three winners all the best in Singapore! Go NOW Money, Point Checkout and DinoDrops!”

“Having a social component attached to a fintech start-up is something we’re seeing more and more, especially in a region where most of the population is unbanked. Good luck to NOW Money!”

NOW also won a booth to showcase their start-up at the Step 2017 Start-up Basecamp and will receive access to mentorship from Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi, the leading accelerator in the MENA region.

NOW uses mobile banking technology to provide accounts, financial inclusion and a range of low-cost remittance options to low-income migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, improving their lives and saving them and their families significant money, in a profitable and sustainable manner.

The partners who made this event possible were Wamda, Magnitt, in5, Entrepreneur Middle East.

Am I just misunderstood?

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Having worked in marketing for six years, I feel like I’ve been to every conference, breakfast briefing and information session going, and the messages are always pretty similar:

  • Content is king (massive cringe)
  • Score your leads
  • Nurture your leads
  • Automate all processes (so your role becomes defunct)
  • Read and re-read your copy until there are definitely no errors. Then read it again at least 4 more times, just to make sure.
  • Know your audience

The most recent conferences have taught me that business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) are now being overtaken by something called human to human (H2H).

But, what if that human isn’t a sarcastic Brit like me?

Well, the challenge for me has been to work out my audience and find a way to connect to them on their level. After all, the majority of the population in the UAE are migrants, originating from a wide variety of countries, none of which I have been to.

At Christmas I took an Instagram photo of what I deemed to be an appallingly decorated tree and sarcastically posted it under the heading, “beautiful, just beautiful”. You can imagine my surprise when a Dubai local commented “it is beautiful, isn’t it?”, in complete seriousness. It showed me that what I deemed hilarious, witty commentary, others, who weren’t brought up in the same culture as me, took as face value.

This is when I realised that what to me is glaringly obvious, can be interpreted differently by others; after all, we’re all different. Of course, I was aware of this before, but when you go international, addressing your audience is a whole new ball game.

It has been incredibly important from me to take note from this, because at the end of last year, I took on the UI/UX development of the NOW Money app. I had to detach from what I thought we should do and listen to what our users wanted and needed; as they’re the ones who will be using the app, not us!  So, my job has been to understand how to address these people and ensure they understand the app and want to use it (completely essential to the success of the entire company. No pressure)!

So, I went out and spoke directly to them. After every round of changes with the designer, the team and I took print-outs of the interface to shop keepers, taxi drivers, and construction workers etc, and listened to their feedback.

I discovered that words that made the most sense to me, such as “recipient” (which fitted grammatically for when they pick who to send the money to), were not widely understood. Instead the users requested that we used “receiver”. This was an absolute OCD nightmare for my colleagues and I, but who are we to stand in the way of popular demand? In order to be successful as a company, these days, you have to listen to what your customers want.

It all makes sense now! I’ve noticed a lot of marketing material in Dubai which has made me laugh and would leave the grammar police with a nervous twitch. At first I was quick to judge and think their editor was having a laugh, but now I’m not so sure. It appears that when addressing this audience you just need to ensure the message is conveyed effectively, whichever way that may be.

If spite of this, here are some of my favourite grammatical nightmares; I wonder if you’ll laugh as much as I did? Or is it just me, after all?

Photo 31-01-2017, 15 57 51

That all encompassing plate…

Photo 31-01-2017, 15 58 03

Ok, Shakespeare

Photo 31-01-2017, 15 58 14


Photo 01-02-2017, 20 19 34 (1)

Off or on?!

Photo 31-01-2017, 15 58 26

No, I still can’t get my head around this one.