by Y Combinator10/16/2018
Shola’s on Twitter @shollsman.
00:00 – What is Paystack?
00:40 – Shola’s background and previous company
4:00 – Paystack’s YC application
5:35 – Meeting his cofounder
7:00 – Interviewing at YC
9:55 – Joining YC as a Nigerian company
10:30 – Differences between startups in Nigeria and the US
13:00 – Nigeria’s payments market
15:30 – Paystack’s growth
19:00 – Expanding to other countries and hiring
25:00 – The best part of doing YC
29:00 – Crypto developments in Africa
29:55 – Creative Joe asks – How difficult is it to get into YC?
30:30 – Educating US investors
31:40 – Paul Israel asks – What gaps do you think still exist in the Nigerian fintech space?
32:35 – Nelson asks – Are there any conventional startup advice that did not work for Paystack as their target market is Africa?
34:55 – Nelson asks – What are some important lessons he learnt while building Paystack?
37:20 – Nelson asks – What are some applications he would love to see been built on top of Paystack?
39:30 – Building for Africa
41:50 – Nestor Ezeagu asks – Do you think something like GoFundMe could work in Nigeria?
42:20 – Car Joyy asks – Can I receive payments as an MVP ecommerce site before registering as a company?
43:40 – Achyut Shrestha asks – What’s your tech stack?
44:15 – Jordan Jackson asks – What are the biggest cultural differences that you account for in UX and product design?
48:15 – Shola’s outlook
50:10 – What he misses about life before Paystack
52:25 – Paystack in five years
53:50 – Music recommendations
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s Podcast. Today’s episode is with Shola Akinlade. Shola is CEO and co-founder of Paystack. Paystack helps businesses in Africa get paid online and offline. They’re based in Lagos, Nigeria, and they were part of the Winter 2016 Batch. You can learn more about them at paystack.com. Shola’s on Twitter @shollsman. Alright, here we go. Many people know about Paystack, but can you give us the one line explanation?
Shola Akinlade [00:33] – We are a payments company. We help merchants in Africa accept payments from their customers. Businesses will connect to Paystack, and almost immediately the customers can pay them with the credit cards, debit cards, and different payment methods. I know you said one-line description but…
Craig Cannon [00:50] – That was a perfect description.
Shola Akinlade [00:52] – We’re currently live in Nigeria and we’re trying to just go into other markets very quickly.
Craig Cannon [00:57] – Nice, and how long you guys been around?
Shola Akinlade [00:59] – We launched in January 2016.
Craig Cannon [01:01] – Okay, and so before that you were also a founder, right?
Shola Akinlade [01:04] – Yes, yes, yes, I can take you back a little.
Craig Cannon [01:08] – I think you should.
Shola Akinlade [01:09] – You want me to?
Craig Cannon [01:09] – Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Shola Akinlade [01:10] – I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, spent all my life there, actually. After college, I studied computer science, after college I worked with Heineken, the beer company, I did it for two years. And then I left because I just thought I’m a maker, I should be making things.
Craig Cannon [01:29] – Okay, were you pushing code at Heineken?
Shola Akinlade [01:32] – No, no, no, no I was management trainee.
Craig Cannon [01:34] – Oh, okay.
Shola Akinlade [01:35] – Exactly. I roomed with my co-founder then, Mayowa, we thought Dropbox, that was 2007, 2008. We thought Dropbox was cloud, and the cloud in emerging markets was a good concept, I don’t know, I was naive, I think. We said, “What if someone builds a Dropbox on premise that people, you don’t need cloud, you don’t need broadband, and all that.” We did it, we called it Precurio. We put it up on SourceForge, SourceForge was very big then. I think it went well. We had over 200,000 companies using it. It was available in six languages. So it went very well. I did that for about five years. Then banks in Nigeria started reaching out to me to help them build software. I built software for about three banks. Quickly, I said “You know what, these payments…” I always knew the state of payments wasn’t where it should be, but I didn’t think it was going to be me. But just working with the banks, I just figured if there’s someone that can figure out payments, it probably will be me because I built world class software before and now I have access. I understand how the financial system works, so started Paystack very quickly. Spent about one year just doing the underground work, had a wait list of about 300 customers and I was courting all of them, just talking through what they wanted, and building for them. Then one day one of my friends actually sent an email, copied all the YC founders, it was late because Nigeria’s nine hours, I think it was nine hours ahead, or eight hours. It was about 1:00 AM.
Shola Akinlade [03:15] – I saw that email and it said “Hey YC, blah, blah, blah… “This is Paystack.” He just sent that email and copied all, everybody, Sam, Michael, everybody. I’m like “What is this?” And then, well, I slept, and then I woke up in the morning and Michael had responded, Michael Siebel, and said, “Hey Shola, tell me more about Paystack.” I spent about five hours trying to compose–
Craig Cannon [03:39] – Write an email?
Shola Akinlade [03:41] – The best email ever, which worked, because Michael responded with another one line. We had back and forth, they asked me to apply. I applied for YC Fellowship and I didn’t get in, actually. I think it was August, so immediately, asked them to apply again for the YC. It was October, so I applied. Thankfully I got in. We became the first Nigerian company to get into YC. Now, there are over 10 other companies that have got in in just two years, which is really amazing, exciting. Yeah, and we launched Paystack, it’s good so far since we launched.
Craig Cannon [04:18] – And you guys just raised again?
Shola Akinlade [04:20] – Yes, yes we just raised a Series A, a million dollars from Stripe and Visa.
Craig Cannon [04:25] – Congrats. A lot of people are curious, who are probably from Africa, about what your YC application looks like.
Shola Akinlade [04:34] – Yes, yes.
Craig Cannon [04:34] – What were your stats, what were your metrics?
Shola Akinlade [04:37] – And that was the first one I… When I started my first company, I couldn’t use the profile, I think I opened it 2008 or 2007. So I actually applied for YC then.
Craig Cannon [04:50] – With your hosted Dropbox?
Shola Akinlade [04:51] – Yes, exactly.
Craig Cannon [04:52] – Oh man, I should have looked that up.
Shola Akinlade [04:54] – Please do I didn’t expect to get in too because there was no reference, why would a Nigerian company get into YC? But very quickly, I realized that YC structure is actually optimized for just finding the best companies. My application was very simple. On the interview day, actually remember, they asked us how much had we processed that month, I said $200. It didn’t matter, you know? Now last month, we did over $20 million, that’s just three years. Our application was really simple, it was just clear, just wanted to say what we were.
Craig Cannon [05:40] – What you’re building right now, is it basically identical to what Paystack, to the application?
Shola Akinlade [05:47] – Exactly, nothing has changed.
Craig Cannon [05:49] – Really.
Shola Akinlade [05:49] – Yes, yes, it’s the same vision. We knew payments was broken, I think it’s still broken but we’ve made a lot of progress just trying to figure it out.
Craig Cannon [06:00] – How did you meet Ezra?
Shola Akinlade [06:02] – Oh we went to school together. We went to Babcock University together. After school we lived together. He had worked on a payments company actually that didn’t work out, so when I wanted to do payments, it was obvious, I had to call Ezra at work.
Craig Cannon [06:20] – You just built a prototype and pitched him, what did you do?
Shola Akinlade [06:23] – No no no, I built it, I actually built it, I had customers and while I was engaging- I told you of the back and forth with Michael. So one of the back and forths, Michael was saying who else is working with me on the project, so I talk about Ezra and a few people. Was like you know what, is this someone that you can take along with you on this journey, and was yeah of course Ezra, let’s call Ezra up. Like Ezra, it’s success, let’s do this.
Craig Cannon [06:50] – And he was like, yeah alright.
Shola Akinlade [06:52] – Of course. I didn’t even wait for an answer. So he started, very obvious…
Craig Cannon [06:58] – Wow okay so-
Shola Akinlade [06:59] – It was a very good decision because just having two people connected with the same vision, building this, we start moving faster and things just started getting better.
Craig Cannon [07:13] – Tou were in the Winter 2016 Batch? When you arrived in January or you did your interview in November or something?
Shola Akinlade [07:23] – Exactly, exactly. It was fun, it’s my favorite story. Every time I talk about the Paystack story, I talk about the interview day because we got into YC, we wanted to just see what was happening, so we came in a day earlier and just came in to see what was happening. The first company I saw was someone just building a kind of shirt that never gets dirty. It had dirt when I had it, I don’t know if they got into YC. Had a white shirt, poured the water, the water didn’t even get dirty, I’m like wow. I saw two ladies, I think they got into YC, they were building a bra that detects breast cancer. Cool stuff.
Craig Cannon [08:04] – Yeah that’s impressive.
Shola Akinlade [08:04] – People were asking us, what are you guys building? We’re like, “Oh we’re building payments. We’re building something Stripe built eight years ago.” It was fascinating for people and people were like, “Wow, this is amazing. Obviously, there’s so many people in Africa there’s a lot of transactions happening, if there’s anything trying to figure out payments there, I want to be their friend.” We were really excited, I got at least two emails the night before our interview from people I met saying they we were building something cool so it was really good the next morning, going into the interview we were a bit more confident.
Craig Cannon [08:41] – What were the interview questions, were they saying things like why won’t Stripe build this?
Shola Akinlade [08:47] – It was very fast, we got on a very long flight, I think it was 22 hours just from Lagos to San Francisco and I wrote my notes and I think I crammed them with it. It was just the first line, as I just got in, they’re like, “Hey, tell us what are you guys working on?” I’m like, “I’m working on Paystack it’s a payments company. We’ve made a huge leap over what currently exists. It used to be about seven steps before, it’s now about two steps.” They’re like, “Show us.” I had to just pull out a laptop, show them, “Wow, this is interesting.” I forgot all my talking points. It went very fast, but it went well I think. I remember they asked us why we were not live. We said we just had a waitlist, we were worried about fraud and all that. They said, they don’t think we should put in a shell barrier to growth. We’re growing, if people want it then open it up. We’re like, “Okay.” I thought that might have been a problem but it didn’t matter. Then we got a call in the evening asking if we wanted YC’s investment. Of course. It was very exciting actually.
Craig Cannon [10:08] – I don’t know nearly as much as you do about the Nigerian startup scene, but when you were just thrown in with everyone else in January…
Shola Akinlade [10:18] – No it was fun, so YC is pretty much international. A lot of people don’t recognize that, but we didn’t feel out of place. Actually I thought I was going to have a problem. We got in, we met people from Ghana working on, I think she’s from Chicago but she’s originally from Ghana so there’s a lot of diversity in YC so we didn’t feel any…
Craig Cannon [10:46] – Are there substantial differences in any element of the startup scene in Nigeria?
Shola Akinlade [10:54] – A lot. One of the things we just saw quickly was just the… I don’t want to say the age I think in Nigeria, when I was starting up the kind of people that were building cool stuff, were really in their 30s, in their 40s, in their 50s. Just coming here and seeing young people just doing amazing stuff, young people that have done amazing stuff eight years ago, I remember Justin Kan for example, I remember watching Justin.tv and just seeing him about 12 years or 10 years later still looking young, I’m like wow, everybody’s still young so I was really shocked at how much, how young everyone was, how connected everyone was so that was shocking. The other thing is also just the quality of the advice. Things are not as intuitive as they should be… How they say- that’s my favorite, at YC that’s the first thing I picked up, one of the first few things I picked up. Instead of founders think the way they want to be to network, the way to get out there is to network and just be everywhere.
Craig Cannon [12:20] – But the way to build a strong network is to build something impressive, and just learning that very quickly made me focus, heads down, and it was helpful. Now I feel like I know the people I need to know now without having to just be everywhere. That was me in college, I was like, “Oh man how do I meet all these people.” I was asking the handful of impressive people that I met, and they’re just like, “Don’t worry about it, just make cool stuff.”
Shola Akinlade [12:48] – Exactly. The long term view is also very helpful, which helped me. I remember my conversation I had, I think it was with Michael, just asking about what this would look like and he said, it takes about seven years to build a solid startup. He agreed I have to do it for a long time. That was really refreshing for me to say you know what, I’m not going to make it in one month, no pressure, let’s just do it every year. This is our third year now and I’m looking forward to the next four years.
Craig Cannon [13:23] – What does the payments market look like in Nigeria? How much is cash, how much is card, how does it go?
Shola Akinlade [13:30] – It’s a lot of cash, so I will say Nigeria’s GDP is about $500 billion, consumer spending is about $150 billion.
Craig Cannon [13:44] – The population is like 200 million?
Shola Akinlade [13:47] – 200 million, but less than 2% of consumer spending is spent with cards. A lot of that is people using their cards at the ATM to get cash out so they can spend it. It’s still very very early. There’s a lot of transactions happening most of them are still happening offline but online are kicking off, new business models are being created and it’s getting obvious that digital payments will win. There’s a company called BuyPower, I think they’re in YC too, they’re selling electricity online, they use Paystack. Before now, before them, you would have had to go buy electricity at a store, but if your electricity goes off at 9 p.m. on a Friday night, then you have to wait til Monday morning, that doesn’t make sense. Just the fact that you can pay digitally means you can always have electricity. Then multiple business models like that making it very easy for people to do things. People are realizing this smart phone adoption increasing, mobile penetration is increasing so I think it’s a good time, it’s really a good time, everything is picking up and we’re just there, just trying to connect consumers with the merchants and remove all the friction because I think- and just to say why Paystack is extremely interesting, I think before now a lot of the payments infrastructure was built for enterprise companies. Of course enterprise companies like complexity, I don’t know why. Just detangling all that and just keeping things simple was the first thing we had to do, make it easy for businesses to start accepting payments,
Shola Akinlade [15:41] – figure out the cards infrastructure, understand why things are why they are and doing all that.
Craig Cannon [15:48] – In terms of your growth, are you trying to incentivize more businesses to figure out a card system? What do you do?
Shola Akinlade [15:56] – I will say we’ve been overwhelmed, since we launched Paystack that day, January 11th, I can’t forget the day. 2016, it’s been like, we haven’t had time to even think. A few things we were doing very well, number one we know that, we see these transactions we see what is missing, we see what’s wrong so we think the first thing to do is to make sure transactions can happen transactions can be successful. Which we’re doing, the next is also just ensuring that the customer experience is good enough, if someone is trying to pay, we have to make that payment happen as soon as it can. If someone has a dispute, we have to figure it out. We’re the first company, I think we’re the only company that has an automated dispute process. Because everything is connected. We tell ourselves that if someone has a problem with the transaction, that’s someone that will never trust digital payments again so we don’t take it lightly, we try our best to make sure we can make it work, so I will say in the short term, half of our strategy is just making it work.
Craig Cannon [17:09] – That’s a good tip for every product.
Shola Akinlade [17:11] – The other half is building a community around our merchants. We know why people are using Paystack, we know people want to start and scale businesses so how can we help them do this. We know just having a community, helping with tools, with content, with events, last month we had an event. With Facebook, just teaching people how to sell on Instagram. That’s on one hand, we have multiple things we do in the community. It’s really make it work and build a community around the businesses so that it would be easy for people to start and scale their businesses.
Craig Cannon [17:53] – Is there an average type of business that you guys are…
Shola Akinlade [17:58] – Now no, because we have people just starting up, people building side projects on one hand, on the other hand we have airlines. With the airline we have tax collections, we have bus ticketing. That’s the beauty of payments, everybody is affected and in fact, the bigger you are, the bigger the pain so it’s exciting.
Craig Cannon [18:31] – In terms of your growth over the past few years, were there particular features that made a big impact in your growth rate?
Shola Akinlade [18:39] – I wouldn’t say so, I think it’s still the same, just making it work and even our customers have been growing themselves so when I was doing the fundraise I had time to look at the data and I saw that the first cohort that launched in Q1 2016, by Q4 2017, they were doing 30x, their volumes, that was the lowest, other cohorts were growing faster. The businesses themselves are early and everybody is growing at the same time so it’s really exciting.
Craig Cannon [19:19] – Wow, so when it comes to expanding to other countries in Africa I assume.
Shola Akinlade [19:25] – No definitely Africa.
Craig Cannon [19:27] – Definitely Africa okay. Do you just assume that their economies function in similar ways to Nigeria’s or do you have to get someone on the ground to figure it all out, how do you do it?
Shola Akinlade [19:38] – It’s two ways, so the first part is everyday we get people just ping us and say when are you coming down or when are you coming to Morocco, when are you coming here? There’s that. There’s the fact that we know that this problem is continent wide and we know what we’ve built can work because payments is really simple. Well I hope. Well the way we think about Paystack, it’s like full stack payment. What happens before the payments, what happens during the payment and after. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and these things work same way in this market, the part that just changes is the look, our context. But I will admit that Africa is really, really interesting. My favorite expansion story, I used to be very excited that we’re just going to scale across Africa and then I got an opportunity to go to Egypt, Cairo actually and we got to Cairo, I went with my friend, we got to the airport, he called an Uber I think, I think it was Uber Careem and then it occurred to us that the Uber, the plate number was in Arabic. Cars are in Arabic, I can’t read Arabic. I can’t tell which is my Uber, so it was like, “Oh yeah, I’m not going to be the one to launch Paystack here.” That was really exciting. But like you said, finding the right people to help us figure this out will be very helpful, that’s one of the reasons why in just thinking about that Series A we had to think about companies that have figured out scale, companies like Stripe, companies like Visa. If there are companies that have thought
Shola Akinlade [21:17] – about moving payments from one place to another, it’s these companies. We’re really really going to have to learn how to do this in another country. But we’ve made a lot of progress with Ghana which is really close to Nigeria. As we go to other countries, it would even be more difficult. The good thing is we understand this, we’re ready to learn, we’re ready for the challenge, this is why we created the company and that is why when people say, “Oh why won’t an international company just come to Africa?” Because it’s very difficult. This local context is difficult and it really takes a team that believes that this is why they’re here, this is why we created the company. We’re really willing to do the work, and hopefully we’ll see what will come out.
Craig Cannon [22:10] – When it comes to scaling up, what does your team look like, are you hiring people exclusively from Visa or what do you do?
Shola Akinlade [22:22] – Talking about team, that’s like my greatest problem now. I used read a lot about when this was the CEO’s work. Always be hiring and all that. I didn’t realize that, I used to wonder, why would the CEO be trying to hire? But now, it’s the only thing in my head. I will say right now, we have about 36 people, this time last year, probably was about 15, two years ago it was about five. It’s been very interesting, we have so many problems been thrown at us across all corners. Right now I’m actively looking for Senior Engineers to help us figure some of these things out. It’s a typical thing that happens in a start up where you don’t really optimize so far, you’ve built it, but now you’re having millions and millions of records in your db and you’re wondering should I switch it, but you can’t even switch because then more problems coming and there’s still more things to build, so it takes some skill and some experience to figure some of these things out. Just actively looking for people that are really ready for that challenge because it’s not easy to just come help us and figure some of these things out.
Craig Cannon [23:45] – My understanding is that you’re looking for people from anywhere in the world to come.
Shola Akinlade [23:49] – Yes. My goal, my vision is to build the best talent in Africa. I think there’s so many talented people in Africa and we want to have them around building for us. But also understand very clearly that because of where we’re going to, we need some help, we need people that have done these thing before to show us some of these things. I want to set a standard for engineering culture in Africa but how will I do that if I don’t know, if we haven’t seen how it’s done elsewhere. We think the best case scenario for us is can we find the best people in the world irrespective of where they’re from, can they come spend time with us, about a year or more? Can they upskill people? Can we learn from them? For everyone person we get, that’s about 20 people that will be upskilled or even more, so how can we find these people, how can we learn from them, how can we become better than them? Because I think there’s a lot happening. The startups actually that do that now for us, in fact we thought about creating a bootcamp. Can we find someone to help us run a bootcamp, an internal bootcamp just to help us upskill people because the problems are there. The real problem is, do we have enough people that have right experience to fix it?
Shola Akinlade [25:20] – I run this company on Google. I search how do you do this, how do you do that. At some point it will get more difficult to do that so is there someone that can just be inside and just help us with all these things?
Craig Cannon [25:33] – Yeah absolutely, you can definitely email anyone who’s done YC before but even that…
Shola Akinlade [25:40] – But also the YC community has been extremely helpful, that’s like the best part of YC. I thought the best part of YC was going through YC. At every point in my career in Paystack I’ve always thought the best part of YC was something else, so in the beginning I thought the best part of YC was the 120k but very quickly, I saw the best part of YC was YC and now I think the best part of YC is just passively seeing cohort conversations happening, and so some of the times when I see some of these things, I’m like “Oh, I saw this, someone talked about this three months ago. Can I search for it, can I see the responses?” It’s just feels like I’m building a company with about a thousand other people so it feels like, I don’t know, it’s really exciting.
Craig Cannon [26:32] – Everyone’s in the same struggle, and they’re just helpful, because everyone’s been helped out so many times.
Shola Akinlade [26:37] – Exactly. The network is really amazing and like you said, everybody is helpful. Sometimes I wonder, does this person really need to help me? But yeah I think so.
Craig Cannon [26:51] – When you were talking about building a bootcamp, are there bootcamps?
Shola Akinlade [26:56] – There’s a company doing it very well that are, I think they’re doing very well, they find the best people and they do it for four years. I like that model, I think that builds skill in the longterm but what I think at Paystack, what I was saying is, can we find the best engineers locally and can we find someone that can help us make them extremely… Can we find good engineers and turn them to great and amazing engineers in as short as possible, in as short as three months? Because I know with engineering, some things, you just have to have seen the problems before, you can’t anticipate some things. Just having someone, having a 10x engineer just sit with a team of five engineers, I think it helps everybody.
Shola Akinlade [28:09] – Exactly, exactly, and I agree completely and I think the earlier we start figuring this out, the better because I don’t think our problems will reduce, I think it’s going to get more complicated. Get more difficult so… I hope we can take on this challenge, I hope we can find the right people. But yeah if there’s anyone listening, if there’s anyone interested in just the challenge of building in Africa, building some of the best, just working with the payments infrastructure in Africa, building for some of the best businesses in Africa, please reach out to me. We’re willing to even help with the experience, just give very good experience living in Lagos, help with logistics, help with accommodation, help them even travel, see the continent. It’s going to be a good offer. But we just think, can we find the best people, can we figure some of these problems out as soon as we can and can we just help businesses start and scale.
Craig Cannon [29:12] – I think it’s awesome. You got a ton of questions, people seem very excited to talk to you.
Shola Akinlade [29:18] – Do you have time?
Craig Cannon [29:20] – Yeah we’ll make it happen. I want to make sure I give them credit… Someone asked about crypto and people have talked about as crypto exploded in the past couple years, maybe it’s in these less developed markets that it’ll really take hold. You’re on the ground, what’s actually happening?
Shola Akinlade [29:40] – There’s a lot of activity happening, I will admit that most of the activity is around trading, people are buying and selling very quickly. The wide use cases are still just being formed, but there’s a lot of trading activity happening there.
Craig Cannon [30:04] – Many people from Nigeria are also asking you questions. Let’s just start with the basic stuff, so @creativeJoe007, their question is how difficult is it to get into YC, what do you think about that?
Shola Akinlade [30:21] – I think how easy is it to get into YC if you have a good business. I think the YC process, I used to think it was difficult too, I think the YC process actually selects the right people. I don’t know how to explain that but if you have all the right components it’s extremely easy. The hard work is can you clearly articulate how impressive your business is, can you explain what you’re doing and can they understand what you’re saying?
Craig Cannon [30:51] – Were there certain things that, I mean maybe this was in fundraising too where you felt that you had to educate U.S. investors about the market.
Shola Akinlade [31:00] – A lot, a lot of times. The right investors, they know what to look out for and that’s what makes YC exciting. I told you I was just processing $200 they didn’t mind. Their questions were around other things like can you build it, why will you be the one to build it? What is your experience and all that so, I think YC is in that bucket of sophisticated investors that know the right questions to ask. Even if they don’t have the local context they know what to look out for which is good that’s why I think it’s relatively easy. Founders need to focus on building the businesses, such that when your opportunities come it becomes easy for them to take advantage of those opportunities.
Craig Cannon [31:51] – Yeah I think in large part people are looking for cheat codes
Shola Akinlade [31:55] – Exactly.
Craig Cannon [31:56] – And the only cheat code is to make something good.
Shola Akinlade [31:58] – Make something people want.
Craig Cannon [32:00] – Alright so @Paul_Israel_O, he asks what gaps do you think still exist in the Nigerian fintech space?
Shola Akinlade [32:08] – Whoa I think there’s still a lot. There’s still a lot. Nigeria like we said is very big. Financial services in Nigeria is very big so there’s still a lot, I think there’s some opportunity for scoring, credit scoring. I know a few people are doing that now, there’s some opportunity there. There’s still no Cash App, Venmo there’s something around, I know there are also things happening there but there’s still no- I will say across all financial services industries, they still have to say this is the winner. I will say because there’s still no clear winner in all parts, there are multiple opportunities.
Craig Cannon [32:59] – Alright, @nelsonkamga asks, are there any conventional startup pieces of advice that did not work for Paystack as their target market is in Africa?
Shola Akinlade [33:11] – That’s a good question. Generally, I found the advice I received here actually more useful. Because building a business is building a business. Building a business is hard everywhere and that’s the hardest part for me, finding people, building the business, what should you be doing, what are your priorities and all that, and I think that’s constant wherever you are. I will say this, I haven’t seen anything that didn’t really work, I haven’t. Maybe some things around fundraising, you know? I think things are more difficult I will say, but I think the principles are still the same.
Craig Cannon [34:06] – It must have been in some other interview I heard with you, but you were kind of talking about the psychology there, but more people were telling you, like you couldn’t do something.
Shola Akinlade [34:16] – Exactly, exactly, that’s it exactly, and I talk about it just coming here. The psychology is, and I think that’s changing now, two years later I think it has changed. But two years ago, when I tell people I’m building a payments company, people laughed at me like like how, your competition is a 14 year old company that has more than a billion dollars, who are you? I got a lot of that, and I’m sure people still get it that why will you be the one to figure this out but I think that mindset is changing now. Does it seem that it’s focused on solving a problem? It’s getting easier for them to just get access to whatever they need you know so I think that’s helpful so that mindset is changing, I think with companies like Paystack and a lot of other companies in different industries just breaking some of these barriers is getting easier for other people.
Craig Cannon [35:16] – You’re leading the way. For better or worse. Nelson had another question I thought was interesting. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned while building Paystack?
Shola Akinlade [35:27] – Wow a lot I think, okay that’s a very good question. Your team is very important. I think it’s tied to the first question around how that courage, people will worry like, “Who are you, how would you figure this out?” But in building Paystack I’ve seen that you can be courageous, just pick a big problem and solve it, but you won’t be the one to solve it yourself. You’re going to have to find the right team to help you figure this out. Just learn that quickly, can I find people better than me? I switched into that mode maybe one month into Paystack, one month into YC and everybody that has joined the team has been better than me because I started doing everything: customer success, funding, backend design, everything on my own.
Craig Cannon [36:25] – Fundraising.
Shola Akinlade [36:27] – Just started disconnecting that and finding the best people, people that can do it better than me. I think just learning that has really helped. I think that’s one. Then number two is just around, I think there’s an ecosystem available so don’t try to do it yourself. Can you learn how to use the ecosystem to solve some of the problems you have?
Craig Cannon [36:56] – Do you guys think you’ve fund raised at the right time?
Shola Akinlade [37:00] – So every time we fund raise, it came at us. So this fund raise for example, should have just started now, actually September, that was when we set it up for because I came, I had a conversation, I said I wanted to do it at the end of the year, I went to HN School, just got into that mode very quickly and saw that you know what, okay, I can spend the rest of the year just building up for the September fund raise and then things just happened very quickly, so yeah, that’s it.
Craig Cannon [37:38] – It just happened.
Shola Akinlade [37:39] – Yes yes yes.
Craig Cannon [37:41] – Okay alright, let’s do another Nelson question, they ask what are some applications you would love to see built on top of Paystack?
Shola Akinlade [37:49] – I would definitely love to see a P2P payment, so something like Cash App will be interesting, I think something for businesses too. Before Paystack, while I was figuring out Paystack I really wanted to build something like Brex actually which is like expenses, employee expenses and all that. I really, really wanted to build that. I thought that well the foundational infrastructure wasn’t even there so we had to start from collections. If someone can build something for expense management and all that, that will be exciting on Paystack. I had a name for it, Expendly or something like that I think I still have the domain.
Craig Cannon [38:42] – Bought the domain.
Shola Akinlade [38:43] – If you want it, I can give it to you. Yeah so just a few things like that.
Craig Cannon [38:46] – What about the market in general, because of all the startups that exist in the States, for example, what would you love to see over there?
Shola Akinlade [38:54] – Interesting, that’s a big question. I will say actually that most of these startups already exist in apps in some form
Craig Cannon [39:09] – In some way in some country.
Shola Akinlade [39:12] – Just maybe not at this scale, it’s like being executed here, I was excited to see that we are the ones building Stripe. Because I spent about three or four years just following Stripe, all their blog posts, everything on their documentation and all that so I’m excited but other than that, I think most of the other companies have some form built, maybe something like Apple. Which is up to
Craig Cannon [39:40] – Make your own phones.
Shola Akinlade [39:42] – Maybe something around phones, something around games, but I will say most of the things have some form.
Craig Cannon [39:54] – Because there were a handful of questions around how the market in Africa is maturing. What’s the state of the infrastructure?
Shola Akinlade [40:01] – I will say this is a very exciting time to be building for Africa. There’s a very young population. For context, in 19- okay, this is going to be very interesting. I don’t have the numbers in my head but I think in 1960, Nigeria’s population was about 45 million, Italy’s population was about 45 million I think and just going through 40 years or 45 years, Nigeria is at 200 million Italy is probably still about 60 million, it’s still in that range. This is not just Nigeria, countries are moving very fast and the next five years I think Nigeria is going to be even more than the U.S. The population is young, active they have access to phones and all that. This is the right time to build for these people. The market is just getting there. Some foundational things are now being built so the payments layer has been figured out now, the logistics layer has been figured out now.
Craig Cannon [41:11] – What does that look like, is there a train network, what’s the road situation, what does it look like?
Shola Akinlade [41:17] – Well yeah, I think there’s a road network.
Craig Cannon [41:22] – What quality are we talking about?
Shola Akinlade [41:25] – No, no it’s I am ashamed to say that, but I think it can definitely be better especially in Nigeria in Lagos but I think the companies figuring it out, the exciting thing is about can we go against the constraints, can we, even if the roads are bad, can we find the best ways to solve the problem? The interesting companies figuring out logistics, this company called Max Energy I think, so I will say, it’s getting easier, people are figuring out payments, people are figuring out logistics, people are figuring out housing and so whatever you want to build on top of this is going to become easier.
Craig Cannon [42:13] – Okay Nestor (@nestor_nbsix), is that a Nigerian name, can you pronounce that one?
Shola Akinlade [42:21] – Isiagu
Craig Cannon [42:22] – Alright there you go. Do you think something like GoFundMe could work in Nigeria?
Shola Akinlade [42:29] – There’s multiple sites like that. There’s a company called DonateNG I think already working. (I can work, anything can work.
Craig Cannon [42:37] – Anything can work, boom, easy.
Shola Akinlade [42:39] – Yes, yes yes.
Craig Cannon [42:41] – This next one, Car Joyy (@Global16Citizen) asks can I receive payments on MVP e-commerce website before registering a company, is that a specific question?
Shola Akinlade [42:50] – We just launched, so when we launched Paystack you had to be a registered business to use Paystack. But we just launched something near the end of the year called Startup Businesses so yes you can register business with your personal details. There’s something called the BVN which is the Barometric Verification Number that everybody has, so it’s made it easy for us to just identify people. Just talking about the former question about how things had changed. The identity infrastructure is just being built so imagine how long ago you guys at the U.S. had the Social Security Number. Now just three or four years into a BVN, which is not really a direct comparison but it’s the closest we have to identifying people.
Craig Cannon [43:36] – In other words you connect a personal checking account or something like that.
Shola Akinlade [43:40] – Exactly we can just get your BVN and we get your details, we can verify that and we can allow you to accept payments for I think up to about $3,000 and then after that you have to register the business.
Craig Cannon [43:52] – Alright, so the answer is yes.
Shola Akinlade [43:54] – Exactly. We got it a lot, that’s why we launched the startup business accounts.
Craig Cannon [44:00] – Oh right on. Achyut Shrestha (@achyutq), is that a Nigerian name?
Shola Akinlade [44:06] – No it’s not.
Craig Cannon [44:07] – Achyut Shrestha asks, what’s your tech stack?
Shola Akinlade [44:12] – It’s a lot of Node, Node.js and sitting on AWS. We have Vue.js, we have some Angular on the front end. One or two PHP services, I think we have one or two Python services. But it’s primarily Node.js.
Craig Cannon [44:36] – Modern internet.
Shola Akinlade [44:38] – Yes, exactly.
Craig Cannon [44:38] – Jordan Jackson (@samehueasyou) is curious about the biggest cultural differences that you account for in product design and user interface.
Shola Akinlade [44:46] – Yeah that’s a very good question, so I think early this came at us very quickly like when we designed our checkout form and we had CVV, blah blah blah and we were like what? Even expiry date, you know how in the U.S. you just put like DD/MM or something like that? MM/YY and people were putting their date of birth and I’m saying this because for most people… When we started, we started with early adopters, but we moved quickly from early adopters to people were using their card for the first time online or Paystack. The first time you’re using a card in your life online is on Paystack. We don’t take that lightly. We have to do all it takes to make sure that when you are making that payment when you hear CVV, you’ve never had CVV before.
Craig Cannon [45:42] – That’s totally fair.
Shola Akinlade [45:44] – Exactly so we have to make it easy. Designing the UX has been like can we build from first principles? Can we realize that some of these people, this is their first payment they will ever make online. How can we make it easy for them to use?
Craig Cannon [46:04] – What are the affordances that you put in there, is it like a video showing this is what that is?
Shola Akinlade [46:14] – We played around with it a lot of tool tips to be honest, a lot around moving things around very quickly for them, so just helping them move to the next level and showing them what it is. It’s showing like having a diagram of the back of the card, for example.
Craig Cannon [46:34] – What’s the average internet speed, is it similar to the States?
Shola Akinlade [46:37] – I think it’s fair, it works like now I can’t tell when I’m browsing if I’m in the U.S. or I’m in Lagos to be honest. There’s also a YC company called Tizeti figuring out wifi. That’s the point, people are building stuff solving all those problems so there’s no problems again. Well, there are problems but people are making progress and trying to figure all these things out.
Craig Cannon [47:03] – You haven’t had to do any hacks around latency or internet speed or anything like that?
Shola Akinlade [47:08] – I will say we have because also when you’re designing for multiple people, you have to figure multiple things out you. In fact, very quickly we moved past paying with cards because not everybody wants to pay with a card so we allow people to pay directly with their bank account, we allow people to pay with USSD. USSD is, I don’t really fool with it, well it’s something *737, you dial a code on your phone, unstructured
Craig Cannon [47:38] – It’s connected to your mobile billing?
Shola Akinlade [47:40] – No not really, it’s connected to your bank.
Craig Cannon [47:43] – So you connect with your phone provider, your bank account, and then you can pay through that.
Shola Akinlade [47:49] – Exactly, something like that. Just realizing that people are different. The very interesting thing about Africa and Nigeria specifically is how different. They have about 250 tribes so it’s different. 250 languages, more than 250 languages so when you’re figuring some of these things out, of course the language is English but the cultural, you have to design for everybody, inclusion, you know? But it’s exciting. These are some of things, that’s why we know that we are in a good business. We know that this is going to be a lot of work but we’re going to do the work, we’ll figure it out and we’ll make it work.
Craig Cannon [48:33] – Total tangent, are your family members as happy as you are? Are they as smiley?
Shola Akinlade [48:41] – I think they are happier .I used to be happier than this but I started Paystack.
Craig Cannon [48:46] – Oh no.
Shola Akinlade [48:49] – Yeah but I think things are really exciting, I think five years ago this was my dream to just be able to figure stuff out, without excuses. I’m in a bad place I say it because I don’t have excuses. It was easy to have excuses and say, “Oh we don’t have money. Oh it’s hard to raise money. I don’t have people.” Now I have money, well a little money. I have a strong team, I have very good people supporting us, I have access, we have regulatory cover. We have everything so the only thing we have to do is just build which is bad. It’s just really we have to build and no excuses. I’m excited to be honest because I know this is just going to as far as we want it to go.
Craig Cannon [49:43] – How do you keep yourself sane?
Shola Akinlade [49:45] – Just moving. I travel a lot for work but it helps me because when I’m in Lagos I’m just doing meetings back-to-back, when I come to maybe San Francisco switches to maybe coffee meetings and all that and I go somewhere else like switches again. I’m able to switch it off like very quickly. And then when I’m flying I sleep.
Craig Cannon [50:20] – One of those guys.
Shola Akinlade [50:22] – That’s the act of making jet lag, I just sleep all through this so when I get back I’m awake.
Craig Cannon [50:33] – It’s funny, the excuses you may have had five years ago. Are there any elements of your life five years ago that you miss now? Now that you’re busy founder guy.
Shola Akinlade [50:42] – To be honest, it’s just building deeper relationships, you know. I was flying in today for example, and I just wanted to respond to, catch up on my messages, when I looked at it, and it was so overwhelming, I’m like no I can’t catch up, no I’m not doing this again. I could be very deep before, now I still a few deep relationships, but five years ago I could really spend more time with people and all that. I hope I will start doing more of that, that’s what I’m looking for, just more people to help me figure some of these things out. But I think that’s it. But thankfully I think people understand. My friends understand and so the little opportunities we have, we just catch up very quickly.
Craig Cannon [51:38] – Do you find time to exercise or go on dates or hang out like that?
Shola Akinlade [51:44] – No, I’m married actually so that’s good. I exercise, people wouldn’t agree with me but I don’t know, I don’t know, I try to exercise, I don’t really exercise when I’m in Lagos, only when I’m out of town.
Craig Cannon [51:59] – It’s 100% work all the time and that’s cool with you, that works?
Shola Akinlade [52:03] – Well about 99% work.
Craig Cannon [52:06] – You been doing it for years so…
Shola Akinlade [52:08] – There are phases to this to be honest. We’re just at this very crazy phase now. I recognize that my health is also very important and I tell my team to feel free to just stop. Sometimes there’s some meetings I actually stop, I just text and say “You know what, I’m sorry I can’t make this meeting.” I just can’t. Sometimes I do that where I just give up.
Craig Cannon [52:36] – Just tap out.
Shola Akinlade [52:38] – Exactly I can’t do this again. And then once I get my energy back I continue.
Craig Cannon [52:45] – In terms of your personal and Paystack’s growth, where do you want to be in five years?
Shola Akinlade [52:50] – Wow, that’s interesting. With Paystack specifically, the payments problem is still very big. Five years down the line, I think there are so many businesses, there’s so many people building interesting stuff in Africa, I want to look at the next five years and see Paystack actually helping these people figure some of these things out. I want to see the very successful companies over next five years being supported, being helped, being powered by Paystack. I think that’s going to be exciting for me. Because they’re going to be winners in Africa and I really want to be the one hiring these winners. That’s it and I think if Paystack is successful, obviously, I probably hope-
Craig Cannon [53:41] – You’re around. And personally?
Shola Akinlade [53:45] – My personal goals are really tied to the company’s goals. I just want to see this work, I want to help. Not even help, I just want to do my work and I know that in just doing my work, a new generation of people are going to be able to do their own work. I’m in a very interesting place.
Craig Cannon [54:10] – Alright man, the question I’ve been wondering this whole time, might be my last one. I want some music recommendations from Africa.
Shola Akinlade [54:19] – That’s easy.
Craig Cannon [54:21] – What’s the good stuff?
Shola Akinlade [54:22] – I went Vietnam actually, and I was thinking about it, that if I ever stopped doing Paystack I’ll have to be a DJ. Because it’s so easy to be an African DJ, because the songs are very easy. I just answered.
Craig Cannon [54:40] – Send me like a playlist or something.
Shola Akinlade [54:42] – So I think it’s just Wizkid, Davido, are some very popular artists, and they’re very interesting songs. Tiwa Savage, Duncan Mighty. The Nigerian music scene is really really exciting.
Craig Cannon [54:56] – The whole African music scene is pretty awesome. I just discovered, I think it’s called Analog Africa, it’s this YouTube channel that just pull in all these LPs from the 60s and 70s and putting it up. That have some black and white music videos, they’re so good.
Shola Akinlade [55:14] – I love it, I get inspired by just listening to some of the songs, like wow, these guys are doing well. If they’re doing well in music, then let’s do this in tech.
Craig Cannon [55:26] – Absolutely. Has the festival scene taken hold there as well?
Shola Akinlade [55:31] – Well I think a lot of things happened in December. I think that’s declared when there’s a lot of activity, so if you want to visit Lagos go.
Craig Cannon [55:40] – Wasn’t there some African Burning Man thing too?
Shola Akinlade [55:43] – Well I don’t know, maybe there is. Maybe it happened, I don’t know.
Craig Cannon [55:49] – Alright man so if some want to come work for you guys, what should they go?
Shola Akinlade [55:54] – Because it’s very urgent now, just reach out to me directly . On Twitter, I’m Shola @shollsman on twitter, but send us an email actually, you can just send me an email shola at paystack dot com and say you heard this. You heard the YC podcast. We are looking for the best people to just help us figure this out.
Craig Cannon [56:18] – Right on man, well thanks for coming in.
Shola Akinlade [56:20] – Thanks so much, had a good time.
Craig Cannon [56:23] – Alright thanks for listening. As always you can find the transcript and the video at blog.ycombinator.com and if you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.
Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon