Simeon Ononobi is Founder & CEO of SimplePay, an innovative payments platform that allows users with an e-mail address and a bank account to securely and conveniently send and receive payments online, sort of reminiscent of PayPal. What SimplePay is doing is however very unique to the Nigerian market. “I don’t believe that you can just borrow something from America and use it in this environment. You have to get into the psyche of the individual”, Ononobi tells us.
SimplePay was awarded “Best Nigerian Startup” in the 2013 edition of Seedstars World Lagos. Ononobi went on to represent Nigeria at the global event where SimplePay emerged 1st runner up to secure $330,000 in funding. In the space of less than 2 years, the startup has grown to upwards of 60,000 transactions a month, amounting to about 80 to 100 million naira.
Without much further ado, meet Simeon Ononobi:
Can you tell us a little about your educational and professional background before SimplePay?
I studied Biochemistry at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri. But as a self-taught coder, I’ve been a tech entrepreneur since I was about 16. My first business was called Compuversity. Compuversity was a programme I built for teaching my colleagues in school how to use computers. People paid to come an watch other students teach different areas of computing. I made enough money from Compuversity to setup my own Cyber Café.
I have created and sold a lot of solutions for Federal Government, most notably YouWin and Project ACT Nollywood. I also worked with the present Minister of Finance, on her tech campaigns, when she was running for World Bank presidency. I also worked with GT Bank – I built their first mobile application which was the GT Bank mobile velocity.
My most notable personal project was called Backup My Phone, which I build in 2003. It was the first online backup solution that was created in Nigeria. I later sold it.
Is it safe to say you have been an entrepreneur practically all your life?
Yes I have. Well, apart from one year when I worked for someone. I was trying to setup something new and I got stuck. I realised that even though I had been an entrepreneur for some years, I didn’t have the requisite knowledge of process management. I needed a structured company so I decided to go work for Logic Sciences for a year. I took the role of Northern Regional Manager, through which I gained the much needed understanding of the processes behind running a structured company.
Some are of the opinion that some of us are born to be entrepreneurs. By virtue of your experience, would you say you were born to be one?
I do not totally agree. I have mentored a lot of people who weren’t necessarily born to be entrepreneurs but today they are entrepreneurs. I believe that it depends on you finding that eureka moment where your solution works. For me that’s entrepreneurship — trying to solve a problem and getting it monetized. I don’t believe there’s anyone person that is made to be an entrepreneur.
What was the inspiration for SimplePay? Please tell us how it all began
Like most entrepreneurs will tell you, it was an accident. A big accident.
While I was still at Logic Sciences, I was sent to South Korea to learn more about Intellectual Property as it relates to IT. While I was there I decided I had learnt enough. So I decided to come back to Nigeria and build an eCommerce shop. I realised that over the years while I was growing up, I had amassed a lot of property – clothes and shoes and the like – I hadn’t worn for years because I was hardly ever home, most times I would sleep in the office. So I had this brainwave to start something like eBay with my own clothes and shoes. The idea was come back to Nigeria and setup. But when I came back, I realised there was a problem here with accepting payments online.
I went out looking for existing solutions before I realised that it was not just me in the space who had the same problem. People that wanted to sell something as meagre as domain names had issues because there was no online payment processing. I went to Interswitch and eTranzact and I was told you had to pay hefty sums. So I decided to invest my time in finding a solution. I had some small money, enough to build my own gateway and process payments for people. That was the beginning of SimplePay. After that, I couldn’t go back to eCommerce. It was just too much stress, too much work. Too much trying to meet up with a lot of things. I can’t do the next big thing I want to do. I tried so many times to startup new ventures besides SimplePay and they all crash because I just don’t have time for it.
What makes SimplePay different from the other payment solutions in the space?
I know they’re so many people trying to do the same thing we are doing but makes us stand out is that we try to innovate, every time. We try to change what people are doing and how they’re doing it.
Imagine if you could, from one mobile app, check all your bank accounts. Imagine if there was an algorithm that can aggregate payments across all your bank accounts for a payment you need to make. That is what SimplePay is about for me. It’s not about accepting card payments online, no. It’s about changing the way people feel about payments. We want a situation where you don’t have to worry about payments any more. You just know that it is done. That’s why we are getting our PCIDSS license soon so that we can actually become the first payment gateway in Nigeria. This will enable us store card details, do recurrent payments and a lot of other things you haven’t actually been able to do in Nigeria.
I feel like not enough people know about SimplePay. Is this deliberate?
When I was building SimplePay I realised that a lot of customers had different needs and I did not want to fail them. I had members of staff who felt we needed to push out our prodcut aggressively but I didn’t think we could serve a 100,000 people without crashing. Why not build a solution that is customer-friendly before making some noise? We just got some very good investments and we’re trying to push into the market but first we need to have a full structure in place. So for now we are doing more of testing and user engagement. What we are building now is based 100% on users’ feedback.
What are some challenges you’ve faced so far running SimplePay
My biggest challenge would be not understanding a lot of things, particularly how to deal with bringing on board a lot of shareholders coming in and my ideas being diluted. You don’t know how to aggregate what you’re worth, what your take home is and all that stuff. It was difficult for me especially as didn’t know what to look out for. One needs to be careful not to get overly excited and lose focus. I’ve been fortunate to work with mentors that have put me through. It’s easier for me because I have foreign mentors that I have always dreamt about meeting who advice me on what to do. I think that’s what most local entrepreneurs don’t have — someone that actually looks out for them. Most local mentors I’ve had didn’t really help me. At the end of the day most of them were more focused on coming into the company for nothing.
Was there ever a time you felt you had gotten to your breaking point with SimplePay?
When I started SimplePay, I heard a lot of “no”s. So I was always getting to that juncture were I felt it wouldn’t work and maybe I should leave the guys already doing payments do what they do. But I’m one person that always tries one extra day. I don’t care how many days that translates to. If it doesn’t work today, maybe we just try tomorrow. Oh, it’s a weekend, let’s try on Monday or let’s try on Tuesday, maybe Monday didn’t work because there was too much traffic. It’s just that tenacity and strength to say “let’s just try one more day and if it doesn’t work tomorrow, maybe we’ll quit” that makes the difference.
There was a time when SimplePay wasn’t making any money and staff were getting really agitated. So I had to sell off virtually all my property, just to be able to pay staff and let them go. Then I sat back down and started over on my own. Our customers didn’t notice there was a break. I would pickup the calls for customer service, changing my voice and persona for every other customer. I did all these just to last “just one more week”. Sometimes I would get my wife to take on some personas. None of our customers had any idea that the people answering calls, making the calls and responding to emails were one and the same person – the CEO. They were just enjoying the service. I just kept telling myself “just one extra day” and then one day Seedstars happened and everything started falling in place.
What are your views on mobile money? Does it have a place in the future of payments in Nigeria?
Mobile money will never pick up. In my opinion, mobile money is for illiterates. I say this because Nigerians have grown too educated to want to use mobile money. We want the latest phones. I mean my mother-in-law called me the other day raving about the latest Samsung phone that she wants. That’s how far we’ve gone. It doesn’t make sense telling us to degenerate from bank accounts to SMS and USSD. Nigerians are too “efizzyfied” for that.
I don’t see the difference between my bank account and my mobile money account. Why don’t we all just innovate our bank accounts to create something unique? You know, teach Americans how to do it right not copy from the Kenyans. Why can’t our established banks be localized in such a way that those banks become institutions that you can use to help payments, and not the way around? Rather we have banks launching eCommerce stores, competing against their own customers with an unfair advantage. The banks won’t charge any commissions on their eCommerce store but will charge transaction fees on customers’ proprietary platforms. That’s very unfair. The banks are killing the entrepreneurship spirit they’re are supposed to be building. That’s why a Citibank is more likely to acquire a PayPal than a Nigerian bank acquiring SimplePay. Rather they want to create their own SimplePay. We cannot grow big that way. You can’t get the best talent (founders) that way.
We need to understand that there’s a difference between a bank, a FinTech and a startup. We should could get to a point where we are all collaborating to make sure that payments work and start exporting what we do here, not importing what we think is better out there.
What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs out there?
Do the right things. Do the wrong things. Fail as much as you want. Don’t be afraid of failure; I failed more times than I’ve been successful so, I’m not afraid of failure anymore.
Try and get friends and family to believe in you because they’re the ones that can help you grow. Stay focused on what your dreams are. But if it’s not working stop and change what you’re doing. Don’t get stuck and lose everything. This took me a while to grasp but I’ve learnt over time not to get sentimentally attached to what I’m doing. Tomorrow I can sell off everything about SimplePay and start something new. There was a time when I used to believe that any idea I got was a billion dollar idea. But today I’ve realised that’s untrue. Getting sentimentally attached stops you from innovating and trying to change the world.
What’s the big picture for SimplePay in say, the next 3 to 5 years
We see a future where when you see a Mastercard and Visa logo, a SimplePay logo is stacked right beside them. That’s where we see ourselves. We want to compete in the big waters, in payments. We also want to help people change the way they do payments.
Nigerian startups raised $377m in 2019, more than twice what they did in 2018. Find out more when you download the full report.