An automation evangelist, he is renowned for disruptive innovations such as RTGS and Mobile Banking with implemented solutions in over 60 banks across the Middle East, India, Far East and Europe. A thought leader and mentor, he is a successful serial entrepreneur, investor and award-winning pioneer.
Q: What is your mantra for wealth and success? What drives you?
IF: The definition of wealth could be different for different people. For me, it is experiencing my entire life through my talents and exploring them for the benefit of others. It is also understanding the gaps we face as a society and fulfilling some of those gaps. I got into banking by chance. I'm an engineer by profession. I started my career as a scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and had nothing to do with banking at the onset. One day I read an article in The Times of India - this is the 80’s I’m talking about.
It said that banks needed to automate signature verification which wasn’t possible at the time because of the use of mainframes that essentially aren’t graphics terminals. At the time, my research in BARC was based on image processing. I was curious to understand what this entailed when it came to banks. Back then, they used cards and took customer signatures for every transaction. If a customer approached the home bank, they were given a token, made to sit down and required to perform all of the tedious verification formalities in order to ensure authenticity. The problem arose when the customer went to another branch. They had to fax the home branch as the only source of validation. I thought about it and recollected this company in the Middle East. I called them up and discussed the issue. They said to me, “We'll give you a challenge. Come over and develop the technology for us. We'll give you royalty and a good package.” That originally planted the seeds of curiosity in my mind, and without any understanding of the space, I gave up my job as a Gazetted Officer in India and set up base in the Gulf in 1988. That’s how I arrived here. I developed the system for them, and the American Bank in Saudi Arabia was my first customer. The second customer was United Saudi Commercial Bank, headed by HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal Al Saud.
When I went there, my solution was facing implementation challenges because their software was taking up all the memory. For us back then, this second bank was very important, so I sat and looked at the problem and took three weeks to solve it. The moment I got it to work, the news reached the Chairman so he called me and said “I understand you actually solved a small problem. Why don't you join us and help solve some other problems within our IT infrastructure?” That’s how I became a banker. For the next 6 years I helped that bank become the best-performing one in Saudi Arabia. In 1995, our net profit per employee was one million Saudi Riyal and we were one of the best technology-savvy banks then. I had worked on innovating so much within branch automation, treasury systems, investment banking, corporate banking, etc. that every other bank was trying to poach me. Suddenly it started to look like an auction house with bidding wars and not an office, but I didn’t apply.
I was the Project Manager for the first EFT real time gross settlement in Saudi Arabia and every project that I touched, turned into gold. Everything went right the first time and the reigning success kicked me off on my entrepreneurial pursuit. I always knew I wanted to be a businessman, but my parents were quite poor. My father was an auto rickshaw driver so he couldn’t afford to give me an education - forget funding to start something from scratch, so I had to take up a job. But, at the time I felt like it was a good opportunity. I was paid very well at the bank and was the blue-eyed boy of the Executive Management. Everything I said was approved without question. Technically, I no longer had anything to prove, because after five years of innovation, I was the man that everybody relied on. However, somehow, I felt likethis was the best time for me to attempt something of my own to see if all these brands which were fighting over me would buy the solution if I built it independently. That is when I decided to return home.
India had just opened up in the 90’s. In 1995 I set up my first software development center in Bangalore, that was devoted to branch automation at a time when banks were not confident about software running on PCs for the fear of being hacked. IBM 5250/3270 terminals were the safe choices back then. I had to go all out and convince these banks. But the problem was that there was no core banking system in India back then. So, when I’d go to evangelize a public sector bank, they wouldn't even understand what I was saying. They would ask me, “What is your solution? Is it for a current account? Is it for a clearing account? Is it for collection?” It was like going back to the classroom. Fortunately, 3 private banks were just set up and I went after them.
They took up an international system at the time and they were the first ones to implement it.
Initially, no one believed in a startup. The only way I was let in the door was because of my banking skills and prior experience. I told the Bank Manager to install the system free of cost for a month. I told them, “If everything works for you the way we stated, then we’ll consider the transaction, otherwise I’ll walk out.” But we never walked out from there. We won over all three banks and went on to win over more.
Back in the day, we were one of the first players to innovate reverse engineering for a big client. We understood their system and provided an integration model that was much better than their own. Naturally, they were stunned with what we had done with their system and how secure we had built it. So, when they came in and reviewed our system, they realized it was so flawless architecturally and security-wise that they said they wanted to acquire us.
Suddenly, out of nowhere I became a product worthy of acquisition...something I had never even dreamt of. I didn’t even know what valuation was, what P/E was. We weren’t profitable back then and this is 1998 that I’m talking about. It is only now that we talk of the startup ecosystem and unicorns but back then none of this was known. Once I decided to take them up on their offer, I told them, “OK, can you put it in writing?” and they sent me a bid. I could not even believe the number of zeros that were in that bid because I had never seen such a bid being placed for a company. I went back to my partners and discussed the whole deal. Our product distributors came in, did the due diligence and placed a counter bid. To cut the story short, within three and a half months, we became one of India’s first FinTech companies to be acquired by an international player.
Around the same time, we (Logica being our Partner) pitched the concept for replacing cheques in India. At the time, they didn’t believe it could be possible.
But a year later, they awarded us the bid - which we won, and that is how we implemented RTGS in India. To sum it up, for me it is all about technology. The results have also made me successful from the perspective of finance because every commercial application ultimately solves a problem. Back in 1998 I had said that mobile phones are not limited to just calling. We could use them securely for data. So, I wrote out a mobile banking platform that was functional. I started a company in Dubai in 2000 and we were the first ever, to initiate mobile banking when banks couldn't even understand SMS-es or figure out what an OTP was. But we were the guys who pitched the idea and made it happen. By the time Paytm was born, my company was acquired.
We were way ahead of the game when it came to mobile payments and banking even as far back as early 2000. Although Android and iPhone were born in 2005 and 2006 respectively, we did provide mobile banking on the hi-tech device for its time - the Nokia Communicator in addition to a Palm operating system and later, the BlackBerry. All of this was just about pursuing the thought of “What could you do to change the world? What is the problem out there? How can you simplify it?”
Q: What is the secret behind your confidence?
IF: My wife’s support. The only person I asked at that time in 1995 when I was 32 years old, was my life partner. I told my wife that this was the age where I could ‘give it a shot.’ I would give it three years. If I succeeded, great. If not, I knew I could always get a job back inany bank in Saudi Arabia because three years wasn’t so long that people would forget you.That was when she agreed and told me “Let’s go and try.”
Everybody else was opposed to it including my entire team. But once I took the decision, everybody supported me, including my boss who was British and who, before me, had never worked with an Indian. When I was hired, everybody at the bank was stunned because of my ethnicity. At the time there was a pervasive thinking that Indians were only good for becoming computer operators and not systems analysts or designers. Well, I ended up becoming the head of the department. And the funniest thing is, once I convinced them to let me go, within three months my boss came to me and said, “Ivan, can I join you?” I told him,“I don't know whether you should… (in those days, Bangalore used to have cows on the roads.) We eat in ‘thaalis’ and I don't know if the water was Bisleri or not. But if you think you can, I'll be more than happy because I’ve had a fantastic tenure with you at the bank.” I knew his skills were complementary to mine because he was very good with presentations and interactions. I told him he was more than welcome to join us.
So, he came to India, joined me and stayed here more than I did, in fact. Not just him, 3 of the staff that I had hired and taken to Saudi Arabia ultimately quit the bank and joined me.
Q: Which of the following resonate with you?
1. Wealth gives me independence
2. Wealth gives me recognition and power
3. Wealth gives me the ability to influence and create impact
4. Wealth gives me the ability to realize my material aspirations
IF: All four are relevant. But if you ask me what the order of priority is then it would be ‘the ability to influence and impact’ that is most important. Because of my achievements, people believe today in what I say, and it allows me to take the lead. People say, “If this guy takes the lead, he will deliver.” If I take the initiative, people think that “He has thought things through and definitely has the right connections to make those things happen.”
Q: How do you keep yourself ahead of the curve?
IF: I never went back to college after graduation. I never went for a post-graduation or PhD. But one thing I do is research. Google is my best friend. Every day I look at something new. For example, in the last few years, I looked at cryptocurrencies. I'm not saying they’re good or bad, but for me understanding them is very important because if I don't understand them, I cannot give my perspective. A lot of people share their perspectives without understanding what they are talking about.
Q: Which of these do you resonate with the most?
“Rejection of the status quo is good”
“Difficult to accept the easy way is good”
“Sacrificing short-term thinking for the long-term is good”
“Hunger to never stop innovating is good”
IF: Statement number 3 (sacrificing short-term thinking for the long-term) and 4 (hunger to never stop innovating) are very relevant to me. I’ve always believed that if you think you know everything, you are dead. So, for me it is important to know “How do I keep myself fresh?” I spend most of my time mentoring young people now and I’ve learned more than I’ve given. I get a different perspective on life from them and what success is, today. I get adifferent perspective on how they visualize the world. By imbibing a few of those elements,you can make yourself younger - both in your thought process as well as implementation.
Q: What do you think is the true reflection of success in a society or country?
IF: Personally, if you ask me, I like being in India full time. But I found that here, I am much less productive. I get distracted and pulled into activities which are not worth my time. The moment I’m in India for more than two weeks, I get calls from politicians, real estate guys and the like. People try to drag you out because they think that you have money that they can exploit. Being away gives me the peace of mind to strategize. For example, one out of the many initiatives that I had undertaken in 2017 was - working with schools across Mangalore and helping them build technology that will improve their platforms for children, teachers, curriculums, etc. Today, we have 250 schools using these platforms. True, we don't really make a lot of money out of the enterprise, but the sheer scale of impact thrills me. To me it is what wealth is, because every year about 1 crore children and lakhs of teachers benefit because of this. The wealth is in these numbers.
Q: How do you stay humble despite everything you have achieved?
IF: For me the money and everything else have come later because of what I was. My family was with me when I had nothing and so were my friends. I have the same values that I had then. Now that I know what the highs and lows are, I'm used to it and have no fear of it. That is why, when I see someone experiencing their lows, I try to understand if there is anything I can do to get them to a better place. For me, that is important in life because I came with nothing. I'm not going to take anything with me when I die. My children have enough forthemselves. So, if I have been given the ability and talent to serve others, then that's the best thing I can do.