Generation start-up: 'Black sheep' forges his own path to break down banking barriers

Abdulla Almoayed's Tarabut Gateway raised $13m from investors in February to fund growth across the region

Tarabut Gateway founder Abdulla Almoayed finds inspiration for his start-up from reading books. Antonie Robertson/The National
Tarabut Gateway founder Abdulla Almoayed finds inspiration for his start-up from reading books. Antonie Robertson/The National

Entrepreneurship “is something that I’ve been brought up with,” says Abdulla Almoayed, the chief executive of open banking platform Tarabut Gateway.

“I was born and raised into a business family that's been a trading family quite known in the Middle East region for the last four generations,” he said.

Yet, instead of taking what would have seemed to many as the natural route into AK Almoayed, a family owned group with construction, building materials and other divisions that has been trading for more than 100 years, Abdullah “decided independence was something that was pretty important” and went his own way.

“I’m definitely the black sheep in the family, I’ll tell you that,” he says.

After graduating with a degree in business management from the University of Westminster and an MBA from London Business School, he began a career in investment banking.

While there, he was raising money for a number of projects, including private equity deals and real estate schemes “that weren’t really within my control”.

“I think [that] sparked a lot of who I am today ... because a lot of the projects got halted, a lot of them went bust and it was really beyond my control.”

Mr Almoayed wanted to continue to do something that involved raising money but allowed him to think big in terms of impact.

“And technology presented this opportunity in terms of being able to build something of regional scale,” he says.

Mr Almoayed says technology had already “democratised” many industries, but financial services was “still very much exactly what it was 50 years ago”, with hundreds of banks still operating in the region. The industry also lagged behind many sectors when it came to serving customers.

“I think that the regulators in the Mena region are starting to realise that there is a customer experience gap between how you deal with any consumer-facing proposition versus your bank. And I think that's starting to change.”

He started Tarabut Gateway in 2017 to create an open banking platform, using Application Programming Interfacing, or APIs, to allow banking systems to integrate with each other and with the growing band of regional financial technology companies.

When the company first began, none of the central banks offered licences or experimental "sandboxes" allowing FinTechs to work with live banking systems.

“So no investor would touch us,” Mr Almoayed explains.

As a result, he had to bootstrap the company, paying the salaries of staff even though the company earned no revenue as he built the team. He also had to hustle – there was little incentive either for lenders or regulators to let people into their systems, even if the goal was to ultimately improve them.

His first letter to the Central Bank of Bahrain, the regulator in Tarabut Gateway's home market "got a hard objection", Mr Al Moayed says. A second letter also met with a refusal, but an offer to maintain a dialogue. Eventually, he secured a meeting, which led to the company securing its sandbox licence.

Regulators across the region are warming to the potential benefits of open banking. The Saudi Central Bank published its Open Banking Policy in January with a view to having it in place next year. Abu Dhabi Global Market published its framework for Open Banking earlier this month.

An open banking platform gives a customer the ability to access accounts from different banks, credit card providers and other financial services companies in one place, allowing them to easily and instantly transfer payments between them. Tarabut Gateway provides the software to facilitate this, and charges the banks to use it under a "software as a service model".

If data is the new oil in the Middle East then we're building the region's modern pipelines

Abdulla Almoayed, founder, Tarabut Gateway

Asked why banks don't just build such systems themselves, Mr Almoayed says there is "no way any bank in the world, whether it's Morgan Stanley or JP Morgan or anybody" can build all of the capabilities and the type of data enrichment that open banking platforms can offer.

"Banking is all about partnerships," he says. "What we do is create an infrastructure that allows for partnerships.

"We secure the pipes. We say that if data is the new oil in the Middle East, then we're building the region's modern pipelines."

With the regulatory framework moving ahead and the business already serving more than 25 banks, it raised $13 million in a seed funding round in February led by Berlin-based venture capital firm Target Global.

"I think our timing, thankfully, has been absolutely perfect," he says.

After establishing the company in Bahrain, it opened in the UAE in October last year and has held talks with both the Dubai International Financial Centre and ADGM who "both love what we're doing".

"The market needs it. We have 100 FinTechs in the UAE that have no access to bank APIs. The banks want to collaborate with FinTech. So all of these things are coming together and we want to be this kind of enabler within the ecosystem."

The funding will help the company to grow its team – it is looking to add 25 staff to the 35 team members already in place by the end of this year – and to develop its open banking platform across the region, Mr Almoayed says.

"We will need much more capital as it grows, but this is the first step to proving scalability."

Q&A with Abdulla Almoayed, founder of Tarabut Gateway

What other start-up do you wish you'd founded?

The one that I hold to the highest regard is probably Amazon. I would love to refer to us as kind of the Amazon [of regional FinTech] because we want to enable the producers, the service suppliers and the consumers on a platform and make it easy for anyone to do business. I love the way they've been able to scale and look at where they are today.

What new skills have you learned since starting the business?

I've had to restructure my entire brain over the last three years. Everything I knew about business, having done my MBA – I hope London Business School don't read this, but I genuinely had to reprogramme my brain. Lean start-up methods are completely different. I read a book or two a week just because I'm constantly trying to stay on top of what's out there in new management theories.

Which book has inspired you the most?

One would definitely be Trailblazer by [Salesforce founder] Marc Benioff. And the other one would probably be The Hard Thing About Hard Things [by Ben Horowitz of venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz]. You need to start thinking like [VCs] to be able to succeed. In the Mena region, not many people have been exposed to this world. We've only had one Careem yet ... there's not many people that have had exits for us to be able to go to as mentors.

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

A lot. Number one is I would raise money early – I would do things much faster. Number two is I would make sure that I have a very strong product team at a very early stage.

Where do you see the business in five years?

Across the entire region, covering every single financial institution in the Mena region, creating the most trusted open banking platform in Mena that is enabling an ecosystem of FinTech start-ups.

Updated: April 29, 2021 02:34 PM

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