Interview: Eko - Your financial freedom

By : praval

eko_logo Continuing our efforts to interview the top Indian startups which are surviving in the times when the U.S. has officially declared it to be a recession; we have another Indian startup which intends to extend banking facilities in unbanked areas using the existing branch network and new technology in combination with outsourcing. Eko calls it financial freedom for urban as well as rural areas.

I got a chance to interview Mugdha Bhargava, the director for communications at Eko.

When I asked her for what do they look out in candidates while hiring, she proudly states - entrepreneurial spirit, ability to work well in unstructured environment & smartness as key traits.

What follows is a brief interaction with Mugdha,

eko-team

The Eko team with Bill Gates!

“Eko” What significance does this name have? How was it coined?

Nothing specific. Initially we thought of “echo” as in something that gets heard multiple times after a sound is reflected.than we got a suggestion to drop the “ch” and replace it with “k” and Eko was born. The company’s complete name is Eko India Financial Services Pvt. Ltd., so you may hear us as EIFSPL.

What is the basis of Eko an how was the theme conceived?

Eko’s goal is to bring financial inclusion to the hitherto financially underserved middle- and low-income population in India. Profitability will come if we succeed in lowering transaction cost by leveraging existing infrastructure and behaviors. We partner with Airtel to gain access to a nationwide network of retailers who will sell and service the financial products (basic savings and current accounts initially, and more complex products such as insurance, pensions and investments later on). The financial products are supplied by our partner banks, which see us as a highly efficient, very low cost channel through which distribute their products to a market segment so far untapped and/or unprofitable.

Who is behind the efforts you people make? Can you introduce us to your team mates with their work profiles respectively?

Eko was started in mid 2007 by four entrepreneurs: Abhishek Sinha, Sanjay Bhargava, Abhinav Sinha, and Manoranjan Kumar.

Sanjay Bhargava (50), Co-founder & Chief Mentor - Sanjay is excited by companies that start small and become big. He created two elephants for Citibank. A corporate cash management business in India that had 95% market share and moved 5% of India’s GDP. This was followed by a custodial services business in Thailand that became a market leader with 36% market share. Sanjay joined PayPal as a member of the management team (VP, Payments). He was one of the first few employees and was the main architect of the PayPal back end. One of his inventions that enhanced usability and security is widely recognized as key to PayPal’s success. Sanjay hopes that Eko will have an impact on financial inclusion that will be greater than all of his previous successes combined and is excited to be part of a team that could positively impact people globally. Sanjay holds a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT, Mumbai and a MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad. He is a Reuters Digital Vision fellow from Stanford University.

Abhishek Sinha (30), Co-founder, Chairman & CEO - Abhishek believes in creation of wealth and degrees of freedom. He started his career with Satyam Computers and worked for their telecom division for couple of years. In 2002, he co-founded Six DEE Telecom Solutions, a telecom value added services company. He grew this business to span nine countries and fifteen operators. He implemented m-commerce products in the last start-up and always wondered why the focus was not on serving customers who had no bank accounts and cards. He exited Six DEE in February 2007 to pursue his vision to promote mobile phones as a financial identity for people at the bottom of the pyramid which was further validated when he won the TIE-Canaan Entrepreneurial Challenge, 2006. Abhishek holds a BE in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra.

Manoranjan Kumar (28), Co-founder & VP Distribution Alliances - Manoranjan possess six years of combined experience in the arena of customer service, process migration, operations management and credit management. In different capacities, he played a significant role in the successful transition and management of processes of a large USA based electronic testing company for HCL. He started his professional career at Hutchinson Essar in the customer service department. Manoranjan holds a B.A in Economics from Fergusson College, Pune.

Abhinav Sinha (26), Co-founder & VP Business Development - Abhinav started with a stint at Oracle in Hyderabad as an Application Engineer for two years. Abhinav left Oracle and joined a startup, Six DEE Telecom Solutions as product manager for their Online Recharge Platform. Abhinav grew his one man online recharge team to ten people. This team developed and supported installation of the product across different operators and countries. Abhinav graduated from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra in 2003 with a BE in Electronics and Communication Engineering.

Also an integral part of the Eko team are: Vice Admiral Venkat Bharathan (I.N. – Retd), CEO Eko Aspire Foundation, Anupam Varghese, VP Technology; Matteo Chiampo, Sr. VP Operations; Pooja Kumar, Director Products; Mansi Kohli, Manager Products and Biswajit Chakravarty, Manager – Corporate Affairs and Facilities.

How was Eko bootstrapped?

Personal savings of the 4 founders, small investments of FFF (friends, family and fools!)

Considering a country like India, how difficult it is to implement the concept you have at Eko? You may consider the hurdles at various physical levels, corruption, logistics, etc.

Various levels of difficulties: regulatory risk, whereby the regulatory framework for branchless/mobile banking and mobile payments is under development as we start up the company. Difficulties in “making elephants dance” – as Eko is a small startup building a network of relationships with much larger players (think Airtel and SBI...), it is difficult to have such established partners move to the beat required by a small startup. Difficulties in building trust with the target market segment, which even though is money-smart, has little to no understanding of financial service product offering.

What is the best revenue model that you could figure out for yourselves?

We are still playing around with ideas, modeling and testing various hypotheses.

Who are your major clients? How many clients do you have today?

We have run a pilot project in Uttam Nagar, an area in West Delhi, for three months in mid-2008, and acquired around 2,000 customers. We expect to soft-launch in various areas of Delhi in early 2009 and have customer acquisition targets ranging from few thousand customers to few tens of thousands within few months.

What steps have you taken to spread your wings in the rural areas of the nation? Which are the areas you’ve covered?

We will cover rural areas after we have refined and consolidated our delivery and service model, technology infrastructure and product design among the urban poor. Rural markets are definitely a target for us, but after an initial phase of testing and consolidation.

Do you hire people for now? If yes, what do you look out in them?

Yes we do. We look out for;

  • Entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Ability to work well in unstructured environment.
  • Smartness.

What are your learning experiences with Eko?

Relationships are incredibly important in Eko’s business, with partners, distribution chain, customers. Also that execution is very important, to quickly test ideas on the ground.

What was the most memorable day for you at Eko?

Each day on which we signed up a new, key partner was memorable.

What do you have to share with us as a part of your agenda for 2009?

2009 shall be a great year for Eko! We’ll launch in large areas of the country, with very strong partners. We are going to make financial inclusion a reality for many more Indians.

Topics : interviews

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