The Path from Coder to Investor

As a kid born in Edmonton with British parents originally from East Africa living in Saudi Arabia, it’s fair to say I had identity issues from the very beginning. Several decades later I still haven’t shaken them. I’ve traversed an unusual professional path to get to where I am, endured lots of scars, lived through some close calls, pretended to know more than I did, and once found myself lost in Botswana (a story for another day). Rather than setting a nicely organized plan, I’ve always hopped from one stone to the next, not knowing what would be on the other side.

In high school, I was a half-witted part-time coder with no skills. It wasn’t until first year of Waterloo Engineering that I found my groove. That was the spark that fired up the next 15 years of my career and drove my entrance into what we now call fintech. I was lucky to land a spot on the RBC online banking team where I helped write the code that underpins today’s Interac eTransfer product. Back then it wasn’t an Interac product, it was called Email Money Transfer and it was the most frictionless way to move money at the time.

A few stone hops later, I found myself working for Redknee Solutions, a junior public company, designing telecom networks for carriers in Africa and Western Europe. Based in Reading, UK, I worked on billing software and mobile money solutions. It was just before Mpesa became the poster child of mobile wallet success. When I started, I didn’t know anything about telecom networks, so I built a special relationship with Uncle Google until I was fluent. One of our biggest successes was “Kama Kawaida” (translates to “as usual”), a cross-border product that allowed subscribers from one African country to move money and top-up their phone from a handful of other African countries — it was pretty special at the time.

In 2009, I got a call, out of the blue, from an old friend who was then working at RIM (now BlackBerry), which had become the household synonym for email-in-your-pocket. I had two in mine at the time. That phone call led me back to Waterloo to help grow the business development practice at RIM, and ultimately took me out to San Francisco where I ended up being the company’s lone corp dev guy in the Valley. I became one of the in-house experts on mobile payments and commerce, helping to launch BlackBerry App World, pushing for NFC payments, and developing a strategy for p2p payments. In a world of talkers, it felt like we were actually building something. The traction of the iPhone, however, began to distract us from this mission, and set us on a course that focused mainly on device hardware. Many of our in-house “fintech” initiatives started to fall into the periphery.

In 2012 my next stone emerged as a one-line email from the person who would end up being my new boss, my mentor and one of the brightest minds in fintech. I joined Xoom, a leading cross-border remittances company, to help drive new streams of revenue through partnerships. We did deals with Sprint, Univision, Walmart and a long list of others. After going public in 2013, it became clear that we needed an inorganic strategy. I started the company’s corp dev practice and began our search for ideal targets who could accelerate us into new geographies and new lines of business. We bought BlueKite, which became the company’s core bill pay and mobile reload product and gave us a presence in Guatemala, which developed into a centre of talent and innovation.

In late 2014, we got a knock on the door to be acquired. Xoom was put in play and by mid-2015 we agreed to be acquired by PayPal for $890M. It was the largest deal PayPal had done at the time, and the first deal since its split from eBay. It was a new era for Xoom — we had a huge balance sheet behind us now, resources that seemed endless and a home that felt like home.

I joined PayPal’s corp dev team after the acquisition closed, focusing on the Canadian market and businesses that were in my domain of expertise. PayPal corp dev holds some of the most exceptional talent in the industry, with combined brainpower that could send a rocket to the moon. We took a bite at opportunities that would truly shape the industry as a whole.

Enter David. David and I were introduced by Chris Arsenault of iNovia, who I’ve known for many years. With David’s investing, marketing and sales background combined with my tech, legal and finance gears, it was clear we had all the right ingredients. We had similar values, large ambitions and fund investors that brought more than just money. While fintech capital had been available for a little while prior to Luge, we had a simple view that the mission to revolutionize financial services needed a kick start at the early stages. We bring a unique combination of highly relevant experience, a network of world-class partners, a diverse team and empathy for our founders.

The next stone awaits and Luge Capital begins…

Karim Gillani, General Partner, Luge Capital