Zero To Scale is a new web series that focuses on the journeys of African founders and their startups from day zero until the day they achieve scale. Zero To Scale is produced in partnership with Oneroute.io, an all-in-one tool for your customer communication needs.
In June 2021, TeamApt announced that its agency banking product—Moniepoint—had processed nearly $2.4 billion in the preceding month, making it one of the biggest players in a highly competitive market.
In this first chapter of Zero to Scale, we are speaking with the man behind growth at Moniepoint. Tolu Adetuyi carries the title of Head of Growth at Moniepoint. He joined TeamApt, just before Moniepoint was launched and was a part of its founding team. Tolu gives us a peek behind the scenes of the early days at TeamApt and how the team hacked distribution to achieve scale.
TeamApt used to be an enterprise software builder for banks. What was the reason TeamApt stopped building for banks and went into the market themselves with Moniepoint?
The story is pretty much one. The entire vision of TeamApt has always been to provide financial happiness to people. However, if you have a huge vision, you also need money to fund it, which we didn’t have at the time. What we had were the willingness and the technical know-how.
The closest organisations to that vision were banks, so we decided to build financial access products for banks and help them to reach these same people.
We continued that for a while until we realised that there were so many blocks with banks. It was complicated. They were complicated. So, we started out to to reimagine how we could reach out to some of these customers directly. We continued that for a while until we realised there was more we could do to help these customers achieve their financial happiness.
It was around that time that the company raised a $5 million series A to provide some liquidity. A number of products were born after that including Moniepoint and Monnify.
At what point did Moniepoint go from a project to something you believed was really going to be successful?
Moniepoint actually started as a side project within the company. We were testing out a few things to see if they would work. Our defining moment was in May 2019. We had been running for a while but as a nimble team, testing out our product in the market and iterating.
We had an issue in May that made our products slow down and the way people started agitating was a shock to us. Our phones were ringing non-stop and our customers were anxious for us to get back online as soon as possible.
That communicated to us that we were already making an impact. So, we decided to build it and scale it. After that incident, we decided to relaunch Moniepoint and go all in.
At that point, we didn’t have the best pricing, but people were still heavily reliant on us. That communicated to us that we were doing something right.
After deciding to directly serve customers, what challenges did Moniepoint face after going to the market?
We faced a lot of challenges. We have a very young, energy-driven set of people who are tech-savvy. So, naturally, people might have expected us to churn out a digital-only product. However, our experience with banks and other organisations we built for taught us differently.
We had about four iterations of the product before we finally settled on what to go with. Then we had to answer the question of how to reach out to our customers. We wanted to get POS to agents as soon as possible, so they could start transacting. Back then, if you wanted to be an agent, you reached out to your bank and they’d give you a couple of really lengthy forms to fill. Then the prospective agent would have to wait for up to a month before the bank got back to them to let them know whether they were eligible to be agents or not.
One of our biggest hurdles was how to get the POS terminals to the agents in under 24 hours, so they could begin transactions. We tried partnering with third parties, but it didn’t work. We tried shipping directly from our Lagos office, but that was too expensive and unsustainable because we had to ship to very far distances sometimes.
How were you able to finally overcome this distribution challenge?
After trying different tactics, we decided to use first-principle thinking to re-imagine what the process should look like before considering what other competing agency banking companies were doing. We also studied organisations with strong distribution networks, even though they weren’t in the same industry.
We studied the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), the Redeemed Christian Church of God, and politicians to see how they handled distribution. These people had a way of reaching the bottom-of-pyramid masses. It’s difficult for you to find a commercial vehicle on the road which doesn’t remit to NURTW.
We studied their distribution to see what we could learn and adapt it to our specific use case. For instance, with NURTW, you’ll realise that they have boys at every single bus stop. Those boys collect fees from all cars that pass through at their station and remit fees to a park boss. That boss remits to someone at the local government level who in turn remits to the state level.
This informed our strategy because we began to see that if we are going to get to these agents, we have to get people within their communities who are close to them. So, we created an aggregator model.
The aggregator model worked this way: instead of trying to get agents by ourselves, we got people who were centrally positioned within the community and allowed them to recruit agents who they knew better than we could. We distributed the terminals to the aggregators, who in turn distributed to their agents.
We tested the model first in Lagos and invited a couple of our agents. They were eager to come and pick up the terminals, which solved the issue of extra cost for us.
One other thing we figured during our study of these organisations, was that their members were incentivised to guarantee performance. Every day an NURTW member steps out to work, they know there’s something in it for them. So, we did the same with our aggregators, allowing them to get daily returns based on the work they did. That’s how we hacked distribution.
Interesting. How pivotal was this distribution hack to Moniepoint’s growth?
Yes, it was. It wasn’t just about hacking a distribution network. We had to internalise it. We’re a tech firm, first and foremost, which means that we have a bias for outsourcing any non-core-tech solutions.
We initially tried using third parties who had promised access to their distribution networks, but that didn’t work out. We would give out 100 devices and find out that most of them had disappeared. Only about 10 devices would be functioning, albeit passively.
So, we internalised the solution and created a performance structure to manage it internally.
Your aggregator model meant that the aggregators had to do a lot more work than the regular agents. How were you able to incentivise them?There’s no one who can work without motivation. Today, the remuneration for the aggregators is commission-driven. One of the first things we pioneered was to allow these aggregators to earn money on the go. If they got an agent, on-boarded the agent today, and the agent started transacting, they could see their earnings and withdraw them instantly.
Prior to then, the modus operandi for other companies was to delay the gratification of the aggregators until month-end. There was also a lack of transparency where the companies would only inform the aggregators of what they had earned without clearly showing them how.
We solved that transparency problem by helping these aggregators clearly see what they were earning and where it came from. That inspired them to do more.
We also built the aggregator model as part of the team and made sure to listen to their voices. When we need to create a new initiative, we’d consult them and take feedback. There have been times when they’ve suggested changes and we’ve been able to implement them in under 48 hours. These things helped us grow loyalty with our aggregators.
What are the important growth lessons you’ve learned from growing Moniepoint over the years?
One of the first things I’d say is that you should ensure you have the right product before scaling it. It’s first-principles to make sure that people want your product before you start to spend money scaling it. Customers have to attest that your product is needed in the market—that’s how you achieve product-market-fit.
Secondly, you need to understand your distribution before scaling. That has to happen in the pre-growth stage. You need to understand how your product will get to your customers.
Third, you have to understand your growth levers. Every business has them—could be one or two. Growth levers are things that if you turn on, can turbocharge growth.
Fourth, security is paramount, especially for financial access products. You need military-grade security in your business, if not you can end up being bled dry.
Finally, when you talk about product-market-fit, it’s not only about customer-fit, there’s also regulatory-fit and compliance-fit before you turn on your growth levers. This is especially important if you’re in a highly regulated sector.
Once you have all these things, you should test them out quickly with a subset. We did so by starting first in Lagos and then moving on to other locations steadily. This gives you the ability to build out other support systems for your team.