Money & Me: 'I know what it's like to have no cash in an emergency'

WorkerAppz founder Praveen Chandiramani says he learnt the value of Dh10 when he had no money to get to hospital for his son's birth

Praveen Chandiramani, Founder and CEO of Workerappz at his office in the Sobha Sapphire building in Business Bay area in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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Praveen Chandiramani is founder and chairman of WorkerAppz, a financial technology start-up that offers cross-border remittances to more than 100 countries.

Mr Chandiramani came to the UAE on a two-week holiday after finishing his chartered accountancy exams in 1989. He stayed on for 32 years and has since launched several companies, including one of the country's earliest online money remittance services, Instant Cash, in 2000.

WorkerAppz is currently live in Bahrain, Jordan, Europe and Asia, with new ventures in the UK and US in the works. Mr Chandiramani is also founder of the Ritman Group, the parent company of WorkerAppz and its sister technology start-ups, RitmanPay, Angootha Pe and YeePeey.

The 58-year-old lives in Dubai. He is married and has two sons who have joined him in business.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was born in 1963 and grew up in Mumbai, India. Being raised in a lower middle-class family without many essentials in my childhood, making money became extremely important and shaped my attitude towards it.

What was an early lesson you learnt about money?

If you need to save, pay yourself first before paying others — you need to decide a figure that needs to be saved from your income and start planning accordingly. This was when I was 18.

At what age did you start working?

I began my articleship — training for chartered accountancy — at the age of 16. My stipend was 125 Indian rupees (about $15 at the time, now $1.67) per month. My first full salary in 1987 was 7,500 rupees a month.

What brought you to the UAE?

I first came here on holiday after the strenuous CA exams in 1989. My brother used to work here and wanted to return after five months. I wanted to persuade him to stay on. I stayed on, too — it’s been almost 32 years.

What was your weakest financial moment?

That was in 1995, when my second son, Monish, was born. I was running an electronics business, which had been performing badly. I had just made some payments to suppliers and was left with no cash.

I received a call from the hospital about the news of my son’s birth, but didn’t have the money to get to the hospital from my showroom. This was when I realised how important even Dh10 can be in certain situations.

I had reached a sort of saturation point. So I quit a full-time C-Level job that paid very well and changed gears from finance to business
Praveen Chandiramani, founder and chairman of WorkerAppz

Why did you go into business for yourself?

After many years of number crunching, I had reached a sort of saturation point and was longing to do something that would give me creative satisfaction. So I quit a full-time C-Level job that paid very well and changed gears from finance to business.

This resulted in the birth of Instant Cash, my first product in the payments industry. The peer-to-peer cross-border remittance product, launched with the House of Patels (the Wall Street Exchange group), disrupted the money transfer market with an online solution and slashed the cost of transfers by nearly 50 per cent.

What were your early successes or failures as an entrepreneur?

At the outset, it was an extremely difficult proposition to sell as nobody was ready to accept that money transfers were possible using an untested channel like the internet. By persisting, I was able to convince all investors and stakeholders. I had many failures, particularly in terms of limited capital and resources while expectations were very high. However, persistence paid off.

The most important lesson I learnt here was that a basic idea, when implemented and targeted at the right market, can make even established industry players uncomfortable.

What is your aim for WorkerAppz?

WorkerAppz was created to offer all the apps that an expatriate or migrant worker needs on a day-to-day basis. Services such as money transfers, bill payments, mobile recharges, microloans and many more services will come under the WorkerAppz umbrella in the years to come.

In five years, I expect WorkerAppz to greatly impact the global banking industry and will change the way money is moved across the world.

What was your greatest financial challenge?

When working capital became an issue in the initial months of my second business venture in 2004. Our limited investment had completely dried up and funding was a luxury in those days.

To keep our staff motivated, we needed to ensure we made ends meet. There were many months where I had to pay their salaries just to ensure business continuity. We reached break-even point in the 10th month of operations and were able to pay our expenses thereafter.

How did the coronavirus impact your business?

All online and e-commerce businesses thrived due to coronavirus. We were no exception. In fact, our business spiked to new highs. We were able to gain new customers, increase sales volumes and expand virtual geographies during the pandemic.

What asset classes do you invest in and why?

I have invested in everything from bank fixed deposits and unit-linked insurance plans to mutual funds, pension funds, bonds and gold bonds, and currency forward deposits. However, I have put the largest chunk of money in properties as real estate offers stability and appreciation in the long run.

What was your first investment?

The first investment that I made was a fixed deposit for 10,000 rupees in 1991 or 1992. This amount has still not been withdrawn and the investment has grown seven times as of now.

What about property?

Over the years, properties have been my biggest investment and I now have multiple properties in India and UAE. The first was a home in Pune, India in 2003. I purchased it for 1.8 million rupees. I sold this property in 2008 for 4.5m rupees, or about 2.5 times the value. This investment, though small, shaped the strategy for all future investments in real estate.

What was your worst investment?

My worst investment has been a freehold property I purchased in Dubai. I bought this property at the peak of the 2008-09 boom. Prices crashed soon after and the property has still not recovered even 50 per cent of its purchase price.

The lesson from this investment is not to invest in what the herd is buying. Follow your own instincts and not those of the herd.

How have you planned your legacy?

I have planned my succession and my sons have taken over three of the start-ups in operation at the moment: WorkerAppz Global Payments (headquartered in Canada), Angootha Pe (Indian payments) and Yeepeey (for online groceries in Dubai). We will soon be looking for investor funding for the companies — as of now, they have all been bootstrapped and internally financed.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

In the next five years, I see myself among the top 50 entrepreneurs in Asia — as my three start-ups would have reached a position to take me to the top 50.

Do you use a financial adviser?

Yes — for help with tax returns in India and other countries to manage corporate regulatory procedures. But for my own needs, I don’t need one. I am a qualified chartered accountant and have been in the finance industry for more than three decades.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I was a very heavy spender all my life but as age has progressed, I have become a saver, partly because of the natural maturity that comes with age and because of life’s responsibilities.

Where and how do you save?

For the past three or four years, I haven’t saved as I have been investing in my three start-ups. Most of my savings and other invested surplus income goes into these start-ups. Before this, I would largely save in Indian equities and mutual funds, as well as bank instruments.

How much do you have in your wallet right now?

At the moment, I have Dh200 and some change in my wallet.

What car do you drive?

Right now, a GL 500 Mercedes. But the Land Cruiser has been my constant companion.

Updated: February 19, 2022, 12:04 PM