Generation Start-up: How WallyGPT uses AI to simplify financial planning

The app allows users to sync their bank accounts to monitor their net worth and get insights on spending, saving and investment

Saeid Hejazi, left, and Sami Hejazi, founders of personal finance app WallyGPT, launched the start-up in 2014. Antonie Robertson / The National
Powered by automated translation

Before Aramex, the Middle East's largest courier company, acquired his online retail start-up Nahel in 2013, Saeid Hejazi had developed the habit of tracking his finances manually on Excel.

It was a frustrating and tedious process of copy-pasting information from bank PDF exports into Excel and categorising it himself, he recalls.

“After Nahel was acquired, I kept the habit going but realised there must be a better solution,” Mr Hejazi says.

“It wasn’t just me; other people were also going through the same frustrating experience. Realising there wasn’t anything better in the market, Wally was born.”

Wally, a personal finance app that helps people worldwide track and manage their finances, was founded in 2014 by Mr Hejazi and his brother Sami.

The app connects with 15,000 banks from 70 countries, giving users a single place to automatically track their net worth, spending and financial goals.

Wally helps the overbanked to take back control of their finances and start reaching their goals,” Mr Hejazi says.

“Too many people have too many credit cards, loans and bills, making it difficult to have oversight, be able to set a plan and track their progress.”

The Covid-19 pandemic raised widespread concern over personal financial issues, highlighting the importance of saving, having an emergency fund for short-term cash needs and having enough money for retirement.

More than eight in 10 savers in the UAE believe it is important to have an emergency fund in place to survive difficult economic times, according to a July study by Sharia-compliant savings and investment company National Bonds.

Forty-five per cent of UAE residents still need to start saving for their retirement, a separate 2022 survey by insurance company Friends Provident International found.

Company profile

Name: WallyGPT
Started: 2014
Founders: Saeid and Sami Hejazi
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech
Investment raised: $7.1 million
Number of staff: 20
Investment stage: Pre-seed round

Since Wally was born before open banking, which is the ability for users to share their financial data with a third party, the app’s users had to manually track their finances initially. However, even back then, the app used some aspects of machine learning, Mr Hejazi says.

In 2020, the co-founders launched Wally 3.0, which allowed users to connect their bank accounts to automate the tracking part. The service was initially launched in North America, and over time rolled out to 15,000 banks from 70 countries.

This year, the co-founders launched version 4 of the app, named WallyGPT as the world’s first generative AI personal finance tool in 70 countries.

“WallyGPT is built from the ground up using machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Mr Hejazi says.

“This gives people the ability to go further than the standard charts and tables to research, set and track their goals, get investment guidance and discover financial services.”

Citing the example of a 20-something-year-old planning to get married soon, WallyGPT can help them get clarity on their current net worth, research the costs of having a wedding anywhere in the world, set a savings plan and track its progress to pay for the wedding, suggest some investment opportunities (for instance, mutual funds or exchange-traded funds) that will help them reach their goal faster, and recommend a credit card that will reward their wedding travel expenses, the chief executive explains.

All these benefits are “hyper-personalised, instant, tailored and intelligent”, he says, adding that the conversational nature of WallyGPT moves it closer to a super app for finance.

Once a user connects their bank accounts to the app, WallyGPT allows them to ask complex questions about their finances, investing, savings and more.

WallyGPT is available in the UAE through an agency model with a local vendor that is regulated by the UAE Central Bank. In Saudi Arabia, the app is regulated and licensed by the Central Bank (Sama), Mr Hejazi says.

The app’s top five markets by active users are the US, India, Singapore, the UAE and the UK.

“In terms of user growth, we’re going to focus on growing our user base in our top five markets. In terms of product development, we are currently working on capabilities that will enable WallyGPT with autopilot functionalities. The plan is to give users the ability to ‘set it and forget it’,” the co-founder explains.

“For example, if you’re paying too much in interest across your different loans, WallyGPT will be able to apply for debt reconciliation on your behalf so you can start saving. For investing, WallyGPT will be able to balance a user’s portfolio based on asset performance.”

The app, which is free to use, plans to earn revenue by providing services in the research and discovery of new financial products, investment optimisation and debt management.

The DIFC-headquartered company has signed a data privacy addendum with ChatGPT creator OpenAI that ensures the data shared with them is not used for training and is deleted in 30 days, according to Mr Hejazi.

WallyGPT does not share any personally identifiable user data, such as user IDs, emails or names, the entrepreneur clarifies.

“When a user asks a question, WallyGPT uses its proprietary machine learning models in natural language processing to understand the context of the question, then queries, processes and prepares the necessary information and shares the final values with GPT to be enriched,” he says.

“So, for example, if someone asks: 'What is my account balance?', we do not share raw data. Without sharing any user information, GPT gets the question asked, the computed values from Wally, and GPT enriches the final answer in a conversational format.”

Comparing WallyGPT with human financial advisers, Mr Hejazi says the latter are only available to affluent and high-net-worth individuals who need to have a minimum amount in cash and assets (at least Dh300,000 or $81,000) to avail of their services, and their fees are high.

In contrast, WallyGPT is free and provides more tailored, instant and intelligent answers than human advisers, he adds.

Also, while robo-advisers help people with a single and narrow part of their finances – passive investing – WallyGPT enables users to manage their end-to-end finances, including passive investing, the app’s co-founder explains.

“For example, WallyGPT helps users cut down unnecessary spending to find more investable cash or pay down debts,” he suggests.

The WallyGPT team comprises 20 people, nearly all developers, and the company has an engineering office in Bengaluru, India.

The app has raised $7.1 million across an angel and pre-seed round and the co-founders plan to raise a seed round soon.

Citing fund-raising as the start-up’s biggest challenge, Mr Hejazi says: “It takes months to raise a round, is completely distracting and keeps you from growing the business.”

Q&A with Saeid Hejazi, chief executive and co-founder of WallyGPT

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

It’s easy to wish I started something after it’s been successful. One of the rewarding parts of Wally is being able to innovate at the core and build solutions that matter to people. So while I can say I wish I built “that” company, I wouldn’t be able to work towards the opportunities that we see ahead of us, despite how challenging they are.

What is your next big dream to make happen?

To provide hundreds of millions of users globally with a completely passive and automated way to improve their finances. Too many people stress about money. WallyGPT will be able to reduce that stress by making better and more intelligent decisions faster and in the background.

What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?

All the skills I have are new. Every aspect of our business has changed completely from when we first launched Wally. Marketing distribution channels evolved and you need to learn new skills.

Regulatory environments are changing and adapting to the activities Wally provides. Technology has evolved from being simple and straightforward to abstract and non-deterministic. And faster than all of that, are consumer expectations.

If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?

Everything happens for a reason and if I changed something in the past, there’s no knowing where we would end up today. Sure, it’s easy to say I wish I didn’t do something specific and reached the same outcome faster or more effectively, but things have to take their course.

Who is your role model?

My brother and I would say it’s our father. You need a lot of resilience to build a business and he taught and showed us how to stay focused and keep moving forward, no matter the conditions and sacrifices.

Where do you see yourself after 10 years?

Chief executive of Wally, I hope.

Updated: August 21, 2023, 4:30 AM
Company profile

Name: WallyGPT
Started: 2014
Founders: Saeid and Sami Hejazi
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech
Investment raised: $7.1 million
Number of staff: 20
Investment stage: Pre-seed round