Generation Start-up: How Telr is supporting the GCC's pivot to digital payments

UAE-based FinTech platform handles payments in more than 120 currencies and 30 languages

Telr chief executive Khalil Alami plans to invest significantly in research and development to expand the reach of his start-up. Photo: Telr
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For Khalil Alami, founder and chief executive of Telr, the Dubai-based start-up is competing with cash, which he says is "our biggest enemy”.

Back in 2014, when the payment gateway set up shop in the UAE, merchants used PayPal or some other European or US platforms “but at a very high cost … and basically, with non-existent customer service”, says Mr Alami.

The steep cost of using these platforms to accept payments turned into an opportunity for Telr, which moved to fill the gap.

“There was definitely a demand for a payment gateway springing out of this region. And at that point, merchants’ costs were running roughly around 6 per cent to 8 per cent. So, that was pretty expensive,” Mr Alami says.

“And that’s when we decided to launch Telr.”

Telr was set up by Elias Ghanem in 2014, a former general manager for PayPal in the Mena region, as a local online payment gateway catering to the region’s financial needs. He left the company later.

Mr Alami, who has been in the payments business for more than 20 years, took the reins in 2019.

The gateway handles payments in more than 120 currencies and 30 languages, with a high level of security. It counts Visa, Mastercard, American Express, UnionPay, Apple Pay, PayPal, Sadad, Mada and STC Pay among the platforms it offers to users.

“Our unique selling point is our ability to actually customise for each and every merchant on every single level — for free,” says Mr Alami.

“We noticed that each client that we were onboarding had a unique need for our services. And they thought about accepting payments in a different way.

“Most of the other players in the market today are using third-party technology. So, in order to customise, they need to go to a third party or evaluate the mandates and the costs.”

However, it was also a challenge to convince people to switch from cash to online payments back in 2014.

Business dynamics changed when Covid-19 hit. Cashless payments in the region began to surge due to the pandemic as traditional brick-and-mortar businesses strengthened their online offerings.

“Getting consumers to adopt and trust digital payments was a challenge … [but when] the pandemic hit, people had no choice,” Mr Alami says.

“Because of the precautionary measures during the lockdowns, different methodologies were implemented in the region, which drove customer behaviour towards a significant shift for digital payments and e-commerce.”

The region’s digital payments market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 15.39 per cent from 2021 to 2026, with 47 per cent of consumers set to shop more online over the next year, according to MarketWatch.

The UAE's e-commerce market significantly grew after the onset of the pandemic as more consumers turned to online channels for their shopping needs.

The payment market in the Emirates is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 13.67 per cent from 2022 to 2027, according to Mordor Intelligence.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s payments market is forecast to record a compound annual growth of 15.4 per cent over the same period.

Dubai’s issuance of e-commerce licences — which allow business activities online and across social networking accounts — resulted in solid growth in the first half of 2021, rising 63 per cent to 3,243, from 1,989 a year ago.

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Telr, which competes with the companies such as Stripe, and Network International in the GCC, today processes more than 500,000 transactions a month, says Mr Alami.

“I'd love to double it in the next 24 months,” he says.

Telr charges a fee for each transaction. There are three different pricing plans that customers can choose from — entry, small and medium, depending on the transaction volume.

“We can also customise our pricing. You don’t have to go for the preset plans that are available on our website,” he says.

“So, really, it's all about being flexible, supportive and customising everything for everyone’s need. And that's our secret sauce.”

Telr offers payment gateway solutions for small and medium enterprises, start-ups, government bodies, big corporations and multinationals.

Start-ups and SMEs make up the majority of its business.

“Payments covers all sectors … it’s agnostic, but we love start-ups and SMEs,” says Mr Alami.

“We try to gear towards them because they need the most support. And let's not forget that SMEs are the largest sector in any economy … that they drive the actual economy.

“So, we try to cater for them and customise the products specifically for start-ups and SMEs.”

There are a number of small start-ups that Telr supported that are now unicorns, he says. Unicorns are start-ups that have a market value of $1 billion or more.

Having completed an undisclosed series B funding round in January 2022, to drive growth in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Telr has raised a little under $30 million so far from various investors, including the iMena Group, India’s Cashfree Payments and Codify.

"We made our strategic investment in Telr in 2021. Telr’s trusted presence and significant operations in the Mena region spurred us to execute this investment deal, in our bid to launch our distinctive offerings in this lucrative market. Through Telr, we will continue our course of innovation in payments for global markets," says Akash Sinha, chief executive and co-founder of Cashfree Payments.

In the future, the company's focus is on the Mena region and the GCC.

“Egypt could be the next market for Telr to set up operations in, given its size and its dynamic regulator, and the new regulations with FinTech,” Mr Alami says.

“We are looking at entering the market at the right time. I don’t think it’s going to be 2023, but definitely in the next 18 to 24 months.”


Name: Telr
Based: Dubai, UAE
Launch year: 2014
Number of employees: 65
Sector: FinTech and payments
Funding: nearly $30 million so far

While Telr might have helped some start-ups become unicorns, it hopes to be one too someday.

“The idea here behind Telr is a little bit more geared towards creating and supporting that payment ecosystem, and to be in line with the vision of the UAE and the vision of Saudi Arabia in order to come up with innovative solutions that address the evolving needs of our customers,” says Mr Alami.

“And focusing on that as our main objective will pave the way for us to become, hopefully, … a unicorn in the near future,” Mr Alami says.

Q&A with Khalil Alami, founder and chief executive of Telr

Where do you want to be in five years?

Over the next five years, my objective is to continue expanding my business by providing innovative solutions that cater to the changing needs of our customers. I aim to be at the forefront of the payments industry, driving change and shaping its future in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Overall, my vision for the next five years is to become a leader in the payments industry, renowned for our innovative solutions, outstanding customer service and unwavering dedication to growth and innovation.

What other successful start-up do you wish you had started?

Although I am not one to dwell on missed opportunities or past regrets, there are certainly successful start-ups that I admire and respect. I would have loved to achieve the same level of success as some of these companies.

One such company that I greatly admire is Square. Their user-friendly payment processing solutions have revolutionised the payments industry, and their focus on empowering small businesses and entrepreneurs is truly remarkable. They have successfully created a brand that resonates with their target audience, which is something I highly respect.

If you could do it all differently, what would you change?

In my view, every experience — good or bad — has contributed to my growth as a business owner. Although I may have made some mistakes and errors that I regret, I wouldn't necessarily say that I would do things “differently” if given another chance.

Nonetheless, there are some lessons that I learnt along the way. For instance, I now understand the importance of creating a strong team and delegating tasks effectively, instead of trying to do everything by myself.

Additionally, I have realised the significance of having a well-crafted business plan and a clear understanding of the market and competition before launching a new product or service.

If there is one thing that I could change, it would be to prioritise work-life balance earlier in my career. It is easy to get caught up in the demands of running a business and overlook self-care.

Overall, I believe that every experience has contributed to my development and progression as an entrepreneur.

Who is your role model?

A role model would be Mohamed Alabbar, founder and chairman of Emaar Properties. Mr Alabbar is a strong advocate for entrepreneurship and has been actively involved in promoting the start-up culture in the Middle East.

He would be an excellent role model for anyone aspiring to succeed in business. His entrepreneurial spirit, innovative thinking and commitment to promoting economic growth and development make him an inspiration to aspiring business leaders in the Middle East and beyond.

Mr Alabbar is a prominent entrepreneur and investor and has made significant contributions to the growth and development of the Middle East's property sector. He founded Emaar Properties in 1997 and has since transformed it into one of the most successful and well-known real estate development companies in the world, with projects in several countries.

Under Mr Alabbar's leadership, Emaar has developed several high-profile projects, including the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall, one of the largest shopping centres in the world. He is also the founder and chairman of e-commerce platform

What is your next big dream that you plan to make a reality?

My dream is to expand the reach of my payment technology platform and provide seamless payment solutions for businesses of all sizes, enabling them to accept payments from customers globally. My aim is to revolutionise the payments industry in the region and beyond, which I believe is still ripe for disruption.

To realise my vision, I will make significant investments in research and development, fostering a world-class team of engineers, designers and product managers passionate about shaping the future of payments.

What is your biggest lesson from launching Telr?

The most significant lesson I have learnt from launching Telr is the crucial role of flexibility and adaptability in the face of rapid change.

While we had a clear vision for our payment platform, we soon realised that the payments industry is continuously changing, and we needed to be flexible and quick to adapt to new trends and technology.

The regulatory landscape in the region was one of the significant challenges we faced. It was essential to be proactive and work closely with regulators to ensure that we complied with local laws while providing the highest level of service.

Staying ahead of the curve in technology and innovation was another challenge. We had to be continuously on the lookout for new payment solutions and trends, investing in research and development to remain competitive.

What new skills have you learnt since launching your business?

In the fast-paced and constantly changing payments industry, I have had to continuously acquire new skills and knowledge to keep Telr ahead of the curve.

I had to adapt strategic thinking — to make data-driven decisions while also trusting my intuition. This involves analysing market trends, identifying customer needs and developing a long-term vision for the business.

Growing Telr has required me to be adaptable and continuously learn new skills.

Updated: March 01, 2023, 1:35 PM

Name: Telr
Based: Dubai, UAE
Launch year: 2014
Number of employees: 65
Sector: FinTech and payments
Funding: nearly $30 million so far