How I secured a partnership with Orange Money and built Africa’s first mobile money chatbot

To find my B2B startup’s first customer, I’ve made approximately 30 pitches to potential customers over the past year. Out of those, I had serious conversations with five. Out of those five, only one turned into a real project. What made this one customer stand out? Read on…

It’s been over a year since I participated in the DFS Lab bootcamp, and two years since I started working on my startup, Teller. As I’ve learned, progress at a B2B fintech startup is best measured on an annual timeframe. Therefore, one year is a great time to reflect on the bootcamp and Teller’s progress since participating. Quick background: Teller is an automated messaging platform that helps banks and mobile-money companies onboard and engage customers using channels such as SMS and WhatsApp.

DFS Lab created a nearly perfect opportunity for startups to meet industry experts, operators, and executives. The goal was to spend a week working together prototyping products, interviewing customers, and testing the startup pitch. Crucially, the main intent of the workshop was not to play matchmaker. The resulting environment was a safe space for startups to get genuine feedback and the mentors could benefit from getting a new perspective on digital financial services.

Photos from DFS Lab’s fintech bootcamp.

During this bootcamp, I got a lot of feedback not just on Teller’s product, but also sales tactics for selling to financial institutions in developing markets. I received a lot of advice around how to use the sales call to ask questions and get feedback without jumping into your pitch. I also learned early to try to figure out the decision makers. As one mentor put it, “Your goal should be to figure out what will get your champion inside the company promoted.”

The one-week bootcamp flew by and all of a sudden I was back at my WeWork with brand new ideas on the opportunity for my startup. A few months passed and I received an email from Erwan Gelebart, one of the mentors I worked with at the bootcamp and the head of digital products at Orange Money Madagascar. He wanted to chat a little bit more about how Teller might work with Orange Money and what it would take to work on a pilot. It was exciting for me to have the opportunity to partner with an established company like Orange Money while also witnessing the product we imagined begin to take shape.

It took us about six full months to actually integrate and launch “MoMo”, our new mobile-money chatbot. Along the way, we had to solve numerous technical challenges such as building our own SMS Gateway and figuring out how to integrate MoMo into a USSD menu. After we had built, secured, and tested our SMS Gateway, we still had the challenge of training an NLP engine to accurately understand customer messages (including typos, shorthand, and emojis 🙂). We soft-launched in January to a subset of users to ensure MoMo would scale and we had the right processes in place.

MoMo

Mobile money is a competitive space so understandably Orange Money prefers that I don’t share usage metrics. That being said, we recently concluded our pilot and are moving forward with a full launch and a new marketing campaign. You can see the first TV commercial here.

As customers get comfortable interacting with MoMo, we plan on adding numerous new features and more integrations. Over the past few months we have already built support for MoMo with several innovative products that Orange Money Madagascar has launched like PAYG solar and a brand new loan product.

Aside from the project with Orange Money, business at Teller is also starting to pick up. It turns out having a notable customer gives your startup the kind of validation that no amount of sales tinkering can replace. My top priorities going forward are to ensure that I continue to be a great partner for Orange Money, while also taking on new projects and expanding Teller’s portfolio.