Q. Let’s start with a general question; how is the startup life treating you since you left the professional career after 32 years? It has now been almost two years since you started this journey, right?
Well, so far so good. Although I had some roadblocks along the way, honestly there has not been something which made me tell myself “wow I did not see that coming”…yet:) I am pleased that I had the courage to start a company at the age of 54 and that positive feeling continues.
Q. OK then tell us what you did in these 22 months since you left BBVA.
Many things. First a lot of good-bye dinners in Spain, Istanbul and Brussels. Then a short vacation with my two sons. Trips to San Francisco to understand the city. And finally setting up the company and opening the office in San Francisco.
I then formed the team, found the best partners to develop the software, finished and tested it which is now up and running. Launched it in Money 20/20 in Vegas last October. We now continue working with Visa and MasterCard and retailers for the connections and of course we are visiting potential customers meaning financial institutions.
Q. You are well known in payments and within the banking industry both in Turkey and in Europe as you served long years at MasterCard Europe Board. Yet you chose to establish your company in San Francisco. Why the USA and why San Fran? Wouldn’t it be easier to set something up in Istanbul?
Undoubtedly it would be much easier. Yet you don’t set up a company just because you can do it easily in one place, you set up a company because you believe in an idea. My idea was to set up a payments company in the US for American banks and retailers as well as American consumers. I think there is a higher need as well as a more significant opportunity in the US. Payment systems are a global business, but each country has its unique development path and resulting unique dynamics. US market offers many advantages toward what I want to accomplish. It is a vast market to start with: Card based payments are 6.3 trillion dollars! Visa and MasterCard act as domestic networks meaning all the banks use their systems. Although there are several big banks that dominate the industry, thousands of Credit Unions and Community and regional banks still are in play. As a last but a very important point, regulation compared to other markets is more favorable for banks and fin-tech companies in the payments industry. While all these conditions present a better landscape, within the retail banking and cards business the quality and variety of offers to retailers and consumers are surprisingly limited. Many other markets although not enjoying similar profitability levels are more developed in this area. Turkey is one of the most developed markets when it comes to its banking and payment systems. Yes, it would be much easier to set up something in Istanbul but I would not be able to focus on one market I believed offered the best potential and its consumers a better payment experience.
As far as the choice of the city, there were for me two options. New York and San Francisco as MasterCard and Visa are based in those cities. I chose San Francisco as it had a more advanced startup ecosystem and warmer climate. To sum up, the USA and San Francisco offered me a better local focus while positioning us as a global player.
Q. We heard that at the beginning your company was called Sezginpay and some people thought if you were being a bit self-centric. But now it is called myGini, Inc. what happened and how did you find the name?
Haha, that was just a name I used to be able to find a much better brand later. As you know, I care about branding and I was not going to make up a name in a couple of weeks and use it for years. Plus there are many legal as well as domain name issues with a brand name which means you need to apply for trademarks and so on which usually take months. Sezginpay is the name I use on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages. My name is very generic, and mehmet sezgin domains in these platforms were taken before I started. I had to use a name and Sezginpay for payments, and the similarity to the word Mr. (bey) in Turkish ended up as Sezginpay. Anyhow, we knew the company was not going to be called that and I started talking to marketing companies to help me create a good brand and company name. After some search, I founda Los Angeles based agency owned by Emrah Yucel who still has ties with Turkey. Together we worked on a branding and corporate identity project which ended up with myGini, and we named the company the same as myGini, Inc. I suffered long years for having Garanti Odeme Sistemleri A.S. which was called GOSAS, and Bonus Card brand as two different names and did not want to repeat the same mistake here. Emrah created a character, a brand motto, as well as a sound logo along with the name and we, are very happy with the results.
Q. Yes let’s move from the name to what the company does. Its motto is “magic in your cards.” As you have been working on cards and payment systems for many years tell us what you are up to now.
Well, It is a software platform to bring the best purchase experience for the consumers while creating incremental revenue for the retailers. It is designed to be offered to the financial institution as a turnkey solution so that they don’t have to deal with IT and integration issues. We developed it with Verisoft in Turkey and resides in Microsoft Azure cloud. It has several key features. One is its ability to create more targeted and creative promotions for the retailers. American retailers offer cash or percentages but do not have the platforms to make an offer, say “come for the 4th time and we will give $5 off”. Another is to act as a mobile app for the card issuers letting cardholders have total control of their cards remotely like temporary block, international on/off, PIN change, statement date change etc. Most banking apps in the US don’t even show the debit card number linked to the checking account. The app also bypasses the POS systems to offer point redemption and installments for the US market through its real-time push notifications.
Q. Wow that sounds exciting. As you could not do all this alone, tell us about your team. Who are the brave hearts working with you on this endeavor?
Unlike many startups that are found by young and smart people we tend to be experienced and wise:) Toga Koktuna is my COO. He and I know each other since 1990 and worked on many projects together. Kemal Uyan is our CTO and I met him again back in 1990 when working on an ATM project. He worked at MasterCard for 15 years. Then there is Yalin Ozcan who was at Garanti’s R&D team who later joined marketing department. I lured him from Akbank when he was the head of payment systems there. We also hired Onur Turna who worked at Inveon in Turkey helping to design our UX. We have other advisors who are former Visa Inc managers in our team as well as some software developers that we contracted.
Q. Office, company, systems, people… all of this is a significant investment. How did you deal with the funding then?
Yes, money money money! Of course, I invested in my own company in the beginning but I had a friend who is more experienced than me in such issues so I went to him. Emre Berkin is a former Microsoft executive and we know each other since the 90s and lately, he has been in the investment business especially with tech startups. Together we found investors who were willing to invest with us and also willing to wait for some years rather than immediate returns. I feel privileged to have all those people believing in me and in my idea and of course grateful that Emre has been helping me.
Q. Well, you have money, people, systems, a new company, a new office and hopefully customers will come soon. But to many readers, this all may sound like you are having a great time without any difficulties or challenges. Aren’t there some?
Some??? Haha, you must be kidding. Yes, you are right when you look at it like that, it all seems very easy and enjoyable. I wish. Let’s start from the beginning. Setting up a company in a different country is never easy. Especially in the US where lawyers meddle with everything and charge very high fees, you need to have a very good law firm. Even then, of course, some things will come as a surprise. For instance, how can a simple office lease contact be 42 pages?
Apart from logistical issues like moving and starting in a new city, the most difficult thing here in San Francisco is to find IT talent. There is so much demand the supply has gotten a bit spoilt. When I interviewed a candidate he asked me how much paid time off he would have. I said two weeks the first year. He scoffed and said that he now has as much as he wants!!!
I have many connections within Visa and MasterCard world yet you can not have enough plus establishing trust with a newly met person takes time. For instance, we went to talk with a bank at the end of our second meeting they asked if we have a customer in the US yet. When we said we were just starting they said ‘oh no we can’t be the first bank”! Meeting new people and gaining their trust will take time.
Also at the end of the day, don’t forget you sell an idea to all the stakeholders. Investors, employees, suppliers and of course customers all demand the best and most from you all the time. You can not imagine how much energy it takes. Here the key for startups; you must never doubt yourself. The minute you doubt, al the parties see that immediately. You can, and must, of course, adjust your course but the ultimate idea should be an unshakable one.
Q. Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, right?
Of course. In the corporate world, you carry a title and big resources of the company you work for, while in a startup it is basically you and your self-confidence which takes a lot of mental power and needs perseverance. And don’t forget the personal sacrifices that I needed to go through to move to another country, like seeing the family and the friends much less and starting a new life at this age.
Q. Yet you don’t regret do you?
No no definitely not. On the contrary, I enjoy every bit of it. I find such challenges as learning. My regret would have been much more if I have not tried this after gaining all this knowledge and experience.
Q. Great. Tell us your end goal then. Where do you see your idea going in the medium and long-term?
At the very least it should facilitate a change in the way American banks and retailers do business in payments and cards. There are so many things that can be done in these areas with the rise of new technologies and most banks will not have resources to cope with that. Meaning American consumers will not enjoy the benefits of such advances would there be no companies like ours. And the best scenario for myGini is to become a global household name for fun and smart shopping while providing state of the art technologies to the retailers and Financial Institutions around the globe.
Wow, these sound ambitious. Good luck then.
*The above Q&A is the compilation of questions that were asked me by various people during this time. I took the liberty of combining them in an interview with myself:)