Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.
As a student at the American University in Cairo, Islam Shawky remembers being bullish about the digital economy, particularly about the transformational effect that e-commerce could create in the developing world. That’s why, in 2013, he teamed up with Alain El Hajj and Mostafa Menessy to launch an e-commerce platform in Egypt, and that’s also when he started approaching banks to integrate a payments gateway into their platform. “To our surprise, we realized that there was a major void in digital payments facilitation in the market,” Shawky recalls. “There was a gap between what banks were offering, and the financial technology requirements of new business models. No one had been tackling digital payments for e-commerce and digital native startups.”
The idea for Paymob was born right there, with the three co-founders deciding that they would help businesses in Egypt capitalize on the opportunities of the digital economy. “We also realized the huge market potential, since in Egypt alone, there were four million SMEs that would eventually need a digital payments infrastructure to scale their businesses,” he remembers. “We decided to lay the foundation for an emerging digital marketplace, and so, we were early movers in digital payments and took a classic ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach by building a payments infrastructure designed to enable merchants, startups, and SMEs to thrive in the digital economy.”
Today, Paymob is a Cairo-headquartered omnichannel payments facilitator that has a 1,100-person strong team across the MENA and Pakistan. It offers more than 40 payment methods, and it empowers over 150,000 SME merchants to manage and scale their businesses. “Our main focus is enabling SMEs to accept digital transactions through a variety of methods including cards, digital wallets, tap-on-phone, and flexible payments with a buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) model,” Shawky explains. “A greater number of payment acceptance methods correlates to higher sales and growth for SMEs. Mobile wallet payments have grown with the demand for contactless payments accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, recent inflationary pressures have driven demand for deferred payment options like BNPL, consumer finance, and easy payment plans on cards. So, in general, we are seeing more consumers opting to pay in installments.”
Islam Shawky, co-founder and CEO, Paymob. Source: Paymob
Paymob’s idea of enabling merchants to accept digital payments online and in-store has found favor with investors too. In July 2020, Paymob raised US$3.5 million as the first tranche in a Series A round, following which an additional $15 million was raised from the same investors, including Dubai-based Global Ventures, Egyptian investment fund A15, and Dutch development bank FMO, in 2021. “Initially, our challenge was convincing investors to believe in our ability to make our idea market-fit, scalable, and ultimately to succeed,” Shawky recalls. “Character is a value that venture capitalists (VCs) consider, especially early on when you are trying to get their buy-in for your idea and your ability to see it through. They are considering whether you will deliver on your promises, and if you have delivered in the past.”
This explanation offers an indication as why the three investors from the Series A round doubled down on Paymob’s next fundraising round that was completed in 2022, in which they were joined by investment firms like PayPal Ventures (the global corporate venture arm of American fintech company PayPal), Kora Capital, and Clay Point, as well as Nclude, Helios Digital Ventures, and British International Investment (formerly the CDC Group). Together, they invested $50 million in Paymob’s Series B round. “We consider our investors partners and members of the team, not outsiders,” Shawky says. “As much as our goal is to attract the best and the brightest talent, we also aim to attract smart money. Through our different rounds of funding, we strategically looked for investors with the experience, whether in more mature markets or in later stage businesses, to help us grow.”
Shawky’s advice to entrepreneurs raising funds for their startups is thus to focus not only on valuations, but also on the expertise that the right VC can bring to the table. “Don’t build a company focused on the exit,” he adds. “Build a company with a real foundation, and I believe the rest will follow.” Paymob’s growth trajectory can be seen as an example of this point- in addition to its headquarters in Egypt, it is also currently present in Pakistan, Jordan, Palestine and Kenya. Plus, Paymob has just announced its expansion to the UAE. The company plans to make a sizeable investment in the UAE to empower micro businesses and SMEs across the seven emirates with the latest financial technologies to fuel their growth. “We are really focused on micro businesses and SMEs as the drivers of any economy,” Shawky says. “Our goal is to reach one million merchants in the next three years. We are also expanding our product suite to support SMEs in a digital economy. In addition to payments acceptance, we are introducing new products to help SMEs manage their business and enable their growth.”
Omar Haddad, General Manager, UAE, and Imane Adel, Executive VP Strategy, Paymob. Source: Paymob
As a first step to growing Paymob’s business in the GCC, the company has hired Emirati financial services professional Omar Haddad as its General Manager for the region. Haddad has been tasked with building a payments ecosystem focused on serving the UAE’s burgeoning micro business and SME market segments. Another of Paymob’s recent moves to bolster its growth plans has been in the appointment of Imane Adel as its Executive Vice President of Strategy, who will guide the startup’s vision as it continues to deliver value-based digital transformation across the MENA region, through sustainable and inclusive financial technology solutions. Adel’s addition to the team in the UAE will build on the co-founders’ vision to stay several steps ahead of the market in MENA and beyond. But while the company has today come a long way from its early startup days, Shawky believes that its strategy for success remains the same. “What Alain, Mostafa, and I lacked in business experience, we made up for in hustle, drive, and a determination to see our idea through,” he says. “Our strategy has always been to surround ourselves with the best talent and know-how. We hire the best caliber of professionals, and empower them with the environment and the resources to succeed.”
Shawky adds here that there is a reason why he wants only people with strong problem-solving attitudes and skills on his team. “From early on, we were constantly told that the infrastructure we were building in Egypt was impossible because it hadn’t been done before,” he says. “This is why we value ingenuity– that drive to learn and find new ways to solve problems. We also value the power of teamwork, collaboration, and the exchange of ideas. These days, I go into team meetings, and I’m so impressed by the talent within the company. To me, that is success- that we have managed to attract some great minds to take us forward in our next stage of growth.” In case one needed proof that Shawky embraces a culture of learning from (and not fearing of) failure at his startup, he reminds us that Paymob has risen from what he calls a mistake, or a failure to build the e-commerce platform that we set out to build. “It helped us see that there was a gap in the market in digital payments, and we pivoted our business idea to solve that problem,” he explains. “So, the ability to embrace mistakes, listen to the market and customers, and pivot is key to innovation. That’s our every day at Paymob, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
It’s this pioneering spirit that has led Shawky to be named an Endeavor Entrepreneur in 2022, and also to become a member of the Board of Trustees of the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC). At the same time, Shawky remains passionate about building innovative, enterprise technologies that drive financial inclusion in the MENA region, and he believes that the region is now at an inflection point when it comes to digital payments. “The last decade was focused on the enablement phase, as central banks in MENA were focused on card payments, so they built the infrastructure to enable users and businesses with the tools to perform and accept transactions,” Shawky says. “I am now very excited about the new phase, which is focused on activation. Today, there are tens of millions of mobile wallets and cards customers in the region. This will produce a plethora of startups focused on solving problems that will work on the foundation laid during the enablement phase. We will see innovative solutions addressing the consumer and small business credit gap, more software and software-as-a-solution solutions for SMEs that will certainly shape the next decade.”
Shawky points out here that SMEs are the steady engine of economies, and thus, he expects larger contributions in the future from independent merchants that launch home businesses and use social media platforms as sales channels. “As a payment partner to this independent merchant movement, we can empower them to unlock income and fuel growth,” Shawky says. “The impact may not be obvious to everyone, but we see it in the online basket size, in increased sales volume, and in revenue growth for the small businesses that we empower to start accepting digital payments. This is why I wake up in the morning.”