“Ideas don’t matter — execution is everything”

An interview with Benjamin Fernandes, founder of Africa’s first offline payments app, NALA

Benjamin Fernandes, winner of the Ecobank Fintech Challenge, 2018

I had a chance to talk to one of our portfolio company’s founders, Benjamin Fernandes, about his journey with DFS Lab — from when we first connected with him, to where he is now with his fintech startup NALA.

NALA is the first app in Africa that allows users to pay with mobile money without an internet connection — which you can imagine is really useful in Sub-Saharan Africa where connectivity is limited.

Alina: Can you walk me through the story of how you went from connecting with DFS Lab to joining the DFS Lab’s first bootcamp?

Benjamin: Ha! This is quite the story. I was working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and I was interested in meeting everyone who was involved in the Financial Services for the Poor division. I was hungry to learn and wanted to participate. I was introduced to David Rossow who worked in the Program Related Investments division of the Gates Foundation. I remember showing David a poor pitch deck and listing off a bunch of ideas I was excited about in fintech. Despite the poor pitch deck, David gave me really helpful feedback and encouraged me to commit to a specific project.

He recommended I check out DFS Lab and get in contact with Jake Kendall, the director of the Lab, to learn more about fintech. David followed up with an introductory email to Jake. Jake immediately invited me to one of their mixer events at the University of Washington where they were evaluating fintech startups. I showed up there and knew no one. I was just getting into fintech but at this event I was asked to share my analysis of some of the fintech startups being presented. I noticed that there was a gap in the group of fintechs they were covering and I boldly said, “Can I pitch my idea / project?”

Jake told me to go ahead so I stood up and pitched a version of what is now NALA, the startup I run, (it’s evolved over nine times since the first pitch). All I remember was Stephen Deng, the Lab’s investment officer giving me his usual head nod, and Jake commenting “that’s interesting,” which I later learned meant it wasn’t very interesting.

Regardless, Jake invited me to the same event the following Friday. That’s when I sat across the table from this PhD Computer Science student studying mobile money in East Africa. (I should mention that I’m from Tanzania.) That PhD student became my co-founder a year and a half later.

“Friday — August 19th 2016 — The first time I met DFS Lab — We went out for pizza after.” Photo and caption contributed by Benjamin Fernandes

Alina: You came to our first bootcamp with an idea, not a startup — is that correct? Tell me a little bit about that idea and why you think it caught DFS Lab’s attention.

Benjamin: Obviously it was my swag! Hah, yes, I remember coming to the first bootcamp with an idea.

At that point, I still thought the ‘idea’ was everything. I learned very fast, ideas don’t matter, execution is everything.

I was exploring a peer to peer lending model in Tanzania that was enhanced with vetting from friend groups, religious communities, and closed circles. I think what caught the DFS Lab’s attention was my curiosity to learn, test products and do the research.

A note from Stephen on why what caught our attention: “We were also impressed with his background and clear dedication to the sector in Tanzania.”

Alina: What were you hoping to get out of the first bootcamp you went to? Did that experience provide guidance for you as you moved ahead with your idea?

Benjamin: I thought DFS Lab was going to fund my raw idea from the first bootcamp. I literally thought I hit the jackpot. (If only Jake, Stephen and Ben knew these thoughts back then!).

I did enjoy the Sprint model. It reminded me of many of my business school classes for design and innovation but this was an accelerated version. We actually still use some of the tools we learned from the bootcamp today in the company and have found that to be really useful.

For example, we spent a day of the bootcamp doing user interviews, gathering feedback on our prototype, and this really stuck with me and is something we’ve incorporated into our work process. Spending time with users was key in building NALA, and we’ve built this into our company culture. Every Friday, the whole team spends at least 4 hours in a different part of the city gaining user feedback on our product. We call it NALA Fridays because the entire team, from business and operations to developers to the customer care team, spends the afternoon talking with both new and existing NALA users. We listen to what NALA users want which allows us to better understand how they use the product and how we can improve it, so it has more value for their lives.

Out in the field on a NALA Friday, doing user research.

Something else we found valuable from the bootcamp and replicate in our day to day work is actively participating to build a collaborative ecosystem. The bootcamp demonstrated the value of bringing many perspectives and ideas together to cross-pollinate, so one day a week we work offsite, from working in innovation hubs to co-working spaces to coffee shops, all in order to meet other developers and entrepreneurs and work towards a goal of creating a collaborative ecosystem. Not only is it important to us that we support fellow Tanzanian entrepreneurs, but in doing so we also develop a shared learning environment. This allows us to test new product releases, learn what works, what doesn’t, and where we can become better — all of which saves us a lot of time.

Alina: Between Bootcamp 1 and Bootcamp 3, your idea had grown into a startup. Can you talk about your relationship with DFS Lab after Bootcamp 1 and leading up to Bootcamp 3?

The infamous selfie outside of StartUp Hall, where DFS Lab was based at the time.

Benjamin: Between the first and the third bootcamp, I kept a close relationship with the DFS Lab. I told my boss at the Gates Foundation, Alan Alvarez, on my last day before going back to business school — September 22nd 2016— that DFS Lab will one day fund me. He agreed. I made sure I saw Jake Kendall before I went back to school — I even took a selfie outside of StartUp Hall where the DFS Lab was based at the time.

When I went back to business school, I built a closer relationship with Ben Lyon who was an Entrepreneur in Residence at DFS Lab at the time. Ben was super gracious with his time as I would run tests and prototypes throughout business school. Ben was a great mentor to me throughout this period and still is today.

Alina: You came to Bootcamp 3 with a startup and a co-founder, and you ended up receiving funding and a spot in our 6 month accelerator program. Can you tell me about your experience with NALA after going through both the bootcamp and the accelerator program?

Benjamin: We had a much clearer image of what we were aiming for at Bootcamp 3 compared to Bootcamp 1, which was really helpful. We were building product after hundreds of hours of research in the field where we felt more confident about a validated need.

Going through the accelerator program offered us mentorship we found very valuable. The learnings from other founders building cool products around the world was very insightful. We are first time founders and that means we have a lot to learn. The accelerator program provides that right support to keep us focused and scaling.

Alina: In your opinion, what sets DFS Lab apart from other programs or accelerators you’re familiar with?

Benjamin: I can’t tell you how hard it is for someone in Silicon Valley telling us how to talk to our customers or what engagement tools may work best with zero on-the-ground or market experience.

The two key values I find from the DFS Lab are the following:

  1. Their network of people in the financial services space across the world who we can be introduced to and learn from.
  2. Their expertise and industry experience in the markets we operate in.

I think each person on the DFS Lab’s team brings a unique added value. Jake Kendall’s experience in research and previously working at the Gates Foundation offers a practical and informed perspective and he’s built an extremely valuable network of relationships. I can’t tell you how many times we would say something like “I wonder what (this person) or (that person) would advise about this (situation we are trying to learn more about).” Then Jake would chime in and say something like, “Oh, let me shoot them a quick note and I can introduce you both.”

Stephen Deng brings great market experience and spends hundreds of hours learning from different models that work in South East Asia to Sub Saharan Africa. Stephen has been great in reviewing some of the outreach we have been getting from investors and has been a fantastic backbone to bounce feedback off of as we continue to grow and scale.

Dan Kleinbaum keeps it 100% with us. From his industry experience within markets in Uganda/East Africa and building a payments company there, he’s experienced and recognizes the challenges in the market. Dan is ‘always available’ even when we text him in the middle of the night to ask for advice, he’s always ready to jump on a call and give us advice.

Alina: What’s next for NALA and how does having a community benefit your future plans?

Benjamin: NALA is growing fast, we currently rank #3 in the Google Playstore in Tanzania for top free finance apps in the country.

Without the support of DFS Lab, we wouldn’t be where we are today so we appreciate DFS Lab for betting on us to drive NALA.

As for what’s next, we’ve been accepted to Y Combinator for the Winter 2019 batch and are looking to raise our seed round soon. We’re actually the first Tanzanian company to be selected for YC, which is really exciting.

We’ve also been invited to expand into multiple African markets and are considering expansion into one — potentially two — by the end of 2019.

A collaborative community is extremely important, and we have found some great people to support us along this journey. I love going to fintech meetups or having conversations with people in the space. I’ve found that talking to people from a fintech startup operating in the same or different market than NALA, I can potentially learn three to four years worth of key insights that this person gained which allows us to make better and smarter decisions. That kind of network is invaluable for us.

From our side at DFS Lab, we’re continuously grateful to have the opportunity to work with incredible founders like Benjamin Fernandes and help build the future of fintech in emerging markets by supporting and mentoring these talented founders. If you’re a fintech founder looking for the right network and support to get your startup scaling, reach out to us. We’d love to connect.

Want a little more on NALA? Check out these press hits:

  1. EcoBank Africa FinTech Challenge 2018 Winner — Beating 412 FinTech Companies in Africa —Disrupt Africa Article
  2. Apps Africa Disruptive Innovation Award — For Pioneering Digital Payments Offline in Africa
  3. Seedstars World — Best StartUp In Tanzania 2018 —VentureBurn Article
  4. Y-Combinator — Selection (12,000+ companies applied and only 1.6% acceptance rate) — First Tanzanian company to ever be selected.