When Omar Onsi launched his payments processor company NymCard, he already had a wealth of experience in navigating the tricky world of entrepreneurship. As a serial entrepreneur, he built companies from scratch, scaled them successfully and even experienced disruption along the way.
“I love business, I love selling things, I love building things,” says Mr Onsi, who before NymCard founded other major telecommunication start-ups, including a Skype-like voice over internet protocol company called Nymgo.
The idea of NymCard came when Mr Onsi was unable to get a payment card issued when he was operating out of Lebanon.
“That got me … [and I] decided to take on the challenge and really work on that big problem,” he says.
He launched NymCard in 2018. The company focuses on processing transactions and issuing cards, including online cards on behalf of banks, financial institutions and FinTechs that could connect with mobile platforms.
NymCard does not compete with payment giants such as MasterCard and Visa, instead it works with them, enabling digital and mobile-first applications to process payments.
The company is also building its own technology to process transactions, which Mr Onsi says is a market gap that NymCard plans to address.
“The current players in this business are all legacy players, specifically, the ones serving the Mena region … they don't own the technology and they're extremely slow and expensive,” he says.
“We built our technology from ground up, and we're offering it over open APIs [application programming interface]. This is something that still does not exist.”
Companies like NymCard are disrupting a $200 billion digital payments industry in the Middle East and North Africa region, which is booming due to an online-only pivot of some of the local lenders as they cater to a tech-savvy millennial customer base, and a rise in e-commerce transactions. The Covid-19 pandemic has further fuelled the boom in digital and contactless payments, fast tracking the region’s journey to reduce its reliance on cash.
Mr Onsi says there is a huge potential to disrupt the card payments industry in the Middle East if the regulations keep pace with the speed of changes.
“The more regulation moves with us at our speed, the more we can serve the market … the demand is massive out there,” he says, particularly in countries with large unbanked populations in the Mena region.
Last year, it teamed up with Iraq-based International Network for Cards, Digital Payment Service and Visa to roll out a digital prepaid payment card called Neo. The users can top up the card through INC’s offline network of agents but the entire 'know your customer' process for the card is done online and powered by NymCard.
“Iraq is the second largest under banked market in the Mena region. It is still a cash-based economy, but at the same time, everyone is on a smartphone [since they are] connected to the internet,” says Mr Onsi.
“People were always looking for a way to pay online, and Visa and MasterCard, can make that happen, but the infrastructure is still not there. We helped our clients to issue the first Visa virtual card in Iraq.”
In Jordan – another promising Middle East market for digital payments – NymCard collaborated with Invest Bank to roll out a mobile payments app called Yap this year. The company enabled app users to link their Invest Bank debit or credit cards to Yap’s digital wallet and make contactless payments.
Going forward, NymCard plans to expand into more “offline” markets but it is not losing sight of markets such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “There are lots of opportunities out there, but you need to know how to navigate through that and customise your service, to make sure you're meeting what your clients are looking for,” he says.
The company has grown since it started operations, but the pace of expansion has accelerated significantly after Mr Onsi decided to relocate the firm to Abu Dhabi’s tech accelerator Hub71 in 2019.
NymCard has received an in-principle approval from Abu Dhabi Global Market’s Financial Services Regulatory Authority, which allows it to hold money, transfer funds, carry out currency exchange transactions and complement its current scope of activities. The ADGM's FSRA approval will also enable the company to work more closely with global players such as Visa, MasterCard and Western Union.
To further fuel its growth, Mr Onsi and his team have raised $12 million in seed funding from investors. Most funds have been invested into research and development, which is a core area of focus for the company.
“We're handling people's money here and it's a highly regulated business. You cannot build a simple POS [point of sale technology] that breaks in the middle, and you lose customer funds or get hacked. So most of our funding goes into the R&D in building the platform.”
NymCard is in hiring mode to support its expansion, Mr Onsi says. The start-up currently employs 30 to 35 people, but it expects to bring another 35 people onboard by the end of 2021.
Going forward, Mr Onsi hopes the technology that NymCard is building will help it replace the “large legacy players”. He did not disclose the payment volume NymCard is currently processing but said he expects it to grow in the future.
“We would definitely be much more mature, larger and [will be] processing significant volumes of payment transactions. That's where we see ourselves in the short to medium term.”
Q&A with Omar Onsi, founder of NymCard
What skills have you learned from your businesses?
I would say communication. You can never really have enough of that skill. There's always room to improve it. Entrepreneurs, employees and team members ... they [all] take things for granted; like how the message is going to go across. This is a skill that [an entrepreneur] needs to keep working on and improving as you go.
What are some of the things you would have done differently if you have a chance to start over?
It’s validating the partners you're going to work with. These partners can be employees, board members or investors. So, when you reflect back, you say, ‘Well, I wish I validated that partnership before I signed on it'. This has always been a common one between all the businesses that I’ve been through.
What is your advice to early stage entrepreneurs who are trying to make it big?
You know, as an entrepreneur, building a company from scratch is never easy, no matter what the business model is. And the only way to make it is to have that persistence and believe in your business. And you don't give up, no matter how hard it gets. But at the same time, be very open to a lot of advice from people that you believe would know more than you. Don't be too stubborn and say ‘this is my conviction, I'm not going to change it’ –that's wrong. Be very persistent but [also] very keen to take in the feedback and filter through the noise.
Do you have any role models in business?
Many years ago, I was in a Hilton Hotel and they had a biography of Conrad Hilton in the drawer next to the bed. I read that, and I believe that guy was an amazing entrepreneur. The journey that he went through, I still reflect on it today and [relate to] the ups and downs that he had to go through. He had lived through the Great Depression, but was persistent and created that massive brand, which is Hilton today. That inspired me at that time and still does.