Social Entrepreneurship – Interview with Eko Founder [Entrepreneurial Journey, Challenges…and more]

[In continuation of our fortnightly theme on ‘Social Entrepreneurship’, here is presenting an interview with Eko founder, Abhishek Sinha.]

Please tell us about Eko.

Eko envisages a world where mobile phones will be the financial identity of the historically unbanked masses. The customer just walks to the neighbourhood grocer to deposit or withdraw cash, as simply and easily as getting a prepaid talk-time recharge.Or she can transfer money instantly, securely and conveniently to distant relatives by simply dialing from the mobile. And be in control through instant account balance and updates always available via SMS and voice.

For this, Eko along with its partners State Bank of India and Bharti Airtel are building a rapidly scalable and low cost financial services infrastructure.

What’s Eko’s business model?

We at Eko believe that our model catalyses small value transactions. Since these are done from the arm’s length convenience of a mobile phone, we believe the reduction in transaction size will result in an explosive growth in the number of transactions. Eko believes that its model can do this in a transformational way and create a new market for micro-payments.

Our business model aims to monetize this transaction explosion.

Startup Journey

What made you start Eko? And how did you go about it?

I started my career with Satyam Computers and worked for their telecom division for couple of years. I soon realized that I wasn’t cut out for the corporate grind. In 2002, I left Satyam and co-founded Six DEE Telecom Solutions, a telecom value added services provider. Even while at Six DEE, I had implemented m-commerce products and always wondered why the focus was not on serving customers who had no bank accounts and cards. My dream to promote mobile phones as a financial identity for people at the bottom of the pyramid was further validated when I won the TIE-Canaan Entrepreneurial Challenge. I exited Six DEE in February 2007 to start Eko. I would not like to call myself a social entrepreneur just yet – we still have a very long way to go!

What were the typical challenges you faced? – for instance, fighting bureaucracy to convincing banks about the Eko model, Getting people to sign up for the service, working with operators? etc. Please share your perspective.

Since this was my second start-up, I had the benefit of several lessons learned during my Six DEE days. In that sense, I was much better prepared to be patient, and persist through the tough periods. I did not expect instant or easy success – this I had already learnt!

I would not call it “fighting” the bureaucracy per se. For bankers, this is new, uncharted territory. Their skepticism and assessment of risk and appetite for it, is different to that of say, an FMCG outfit or for that matter a Telecom company. We did have a major set-back when our first attempt had to be shut down because of things that were really beyond our control. But I would say we were more encouraged by our small successes than disappointed by our set-backs.

We have been fortunate to have found champions of our cause in many of our partner organizations. As a start-up, this support from an evangelist within a large organization is invaluable. This has been instrumental in bringing us the support of senior executives who have understood our vision and committed resources. This is equally critical, since a start-up fundamentally is severely resource crunched. We are no different.

Finally, we found a team that has shown exceptional commitment in most trying circumstances. When one has so few people, they end up doing everything – some things they’re good at, and others not so; but I have found that if you have passionate people with the right attitude and believe in the business, you’ll be ok. Moving from chaos to order is an integral part of the start-up journey.

Your first mentors?

I had lot of mentors for this project and continue to talk to experts who have been in the space of retail financial services, marketing etc. I would like to specifically mention Kim Askjaer. Kim was then the IT-Director at Nawras (a GSM MNO in Oman) and he left me with some thoughts which led to the conceptualization of Eko. My co-founder Sanjay Bhargava (ex-Citibank, ex-PayPal) has been a great mentor and thinker. He has really helped me draw-up the product roadmap. A great evangelist and a personal mentor to me has been Swami Krishnan (ex-Sasken, ex-Tata Teleservices). Eko has also been mentored by individuals such as Kabir Kumar from CGAP and Graham Wright from MicroSave. We are continually mentored by our partners who have been able to successfully scale businesses rapidly.

Any personal sacrifices, though we understand it brings in a lot of personal satisfaction?

I would not want to term the experiences as personal sacrifices. It’s the choice every entrepreneur makes. I don’t regret. Rather these experiences have given new definitions to terms like “risk”, “ego”, “humiliation”, “humility”. Entrepreneurship has truly been a spiritually enriching journey.

Any support you are receiving from other agencies, Govt, funding houses or corporates?

Our project recently received a grant from CGAP Technology Program which is co-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Additionally, lot of our research around better understanding of the customer is supported by MicroSave and Microsoft Research.


How in your view has your business impacted the lives of your target segment?

It’s early days right now to say that Eko has impacted lives of our customers. We have done some basic research and we are confident that our goals are not misplaced; that our customers do see some of the benefits we felt they would. We hope, are committed to and constantly trying to understand the core needs of our customers so that we can move Eko to a level where we can feel proud of having made a difference.

Please provide any data points on no. of people, no. of families that have been benefited?

Very early for us to claim significant impact. Eko has 2500 customers and growing.

Future Plans and Learnings

What has been your learning since the start?

The most important learning for us has been to really put effort in getting onto the ground and putting effort in understanding the customer. This requires change in attitude. Most of us come from a desk-based job background and hence it took a lot of effort for us to leave our desks and go to the customer.

What are your future plans? Do you plan to expand in more areas?

Our immediate goal is scale up geographically. We have identified our rollout roadmap and hope that we will cover identified geographies before the end of this fiscal. We hope that the first phase of rollout will give us critical mass as well as momentum to undertake the next phase, which will be to go national.

Eko is fundamentally about moving money easily, instantly and safely. On the product front, we will retain a strong focus on domestic remittances initially. We believe that the basic premise of Eko will eventually offer the financial services industry a tremendous platform to innovate on product and service delivery.

Watch this demo video of Eko’s mobile transaction service

Leave a Reply