27 June 2023

Algbra: enabling a more sustainable society through values-driven financial technology

Written By Algbra

Algbra: enabling a more sustainable society through values-driven financial technology

Zeiad Idris started his career in financial services at Credit Suisse in the commodities trading business. He then moved into the world of private equity and venture capital investing and spent six years with a boutique private equity business, at first investing in more traditional businesses and then moving into technology start-ups in the US and UK. He started his first business in 2017, a company called New World Group, from which he stepped down in 2020 to co-found Algbra.

Fizel Nejabat started his career at Clifford Chance across a whole range of practices including finance, regulation, banking, insolvency funds, and specialising in M&A in both London and the UAE. He describes himself as “an accidental lawyer” who took “that long to realise that I didn't really want to be one.” He does however recognise it as “a training ground and an experience that I wouldn’t change for the world. It gave me a grounding that that has been so helpful in delivering on the global vision and ambition of Algbra.”

The journey to founding Algbra goes back over twenty years for co-founders Zeiad and Fizel, having met as childhood friends. 

“The actual story of how we met has been lost to history - somehow it's been that long!” says Fizel.

They had never worked for the same company before. But they had spent so much time together as friends discussing their experiences of business in emerging markets, that when they realised there is a gap in financial infrastructure across the world, it seemed natural to look for a solution together. “We recognised that there are people who still don’t have access to very basic financial services” says Zeiad, “but modern technology now exists to address this problem”. Zeiad and Fizel knew that it wouldn’t be easy, and that this would need “the right team of people to get the right technology solution and be able to distribute it to the right people. We knew that it would be a challenge, but one we considered worthy enough to go for and that's how it came about!”

“The concept was something which I felt like I had unknowingly been working my whole life towards” adds Fizel. “Both of us have spent a lot of our extracurricular time doing charitable work, particularly at the community level. We both have big ambitions for the world that we live in, so when the concept of Algbra was born, that was the most compelling thing about it for both of us.”

One of the greatest challenges facing them, however, was the importance of acting as a responsible fiduciary. Zeiad recognises that when “you're going to become a fiduciary of people's money, you have to take your obligations very seriously. It's all well and good working with the regulator ticking all the boxes, meeting those requirements - that's really step one. Step two is actually when you start getting into it and making sure that you're doing this properly and meeting expectations. It probably looks all fun and good being a tech company from the outside, but on the inside there's a lot of stuff to be taken very seriously.”

Fizel also acknowledges the challenges of a custodial role, particularly the ‘expectations’ of a fiduciary that promises its customers a restricted product based on personal values. “It was very difficult because the financial system, generally speaking, is so intertwined. And so it's actually quite hard not to be connected in some way to an institution which is contributing to or working with industries that a lot of mainstream consumers would consider to be unethical and so wouldn't want their money to be associated with.”

This meticulous approach meant the founding team carried out due diligence on all prospective partners and providers both in terms of commerciality and from an ethical standpoint. In doing so, Zeiad and Fizel soon realised they were unable to launch Algbra with an existing  BaaS provider. Fizel explains, “it just wouldn't make sense because we wouldn't be able to make our customers those promises. So we decided to build what is effectively our own BaaS solution. And Algbra was the first customer of that BaaS solution. This allowed us to build out a technology stack which is modularized, completely proprietary, and is, in effect, a banking platform. We could then choose a stack of financial partners that gave us absolute confidence that our customer’s money wouldn't be exposed to  unethical industries. That's genuinely quite a difficult thing to do. It probably added maybe six to eight months onto the timelines, but in hindsight, it was a fantastic choice because we can make such a clear cut promise.”

With an in-house tech stack enabling quick product development and an ability to respond rapidly to ongoing trends, business development is a key consideration for the founding team. How do you scale, in what time frame, and into which markets? And how exactly do you go about this? 

For Zeiad, the answer is complex.  “There are lots of right and wrong answers to that. And then sometimes it's actually about what happens at a particular moment in time!” Ultimately, it comes down to “constantly having to adapt and tweak depending on how things are changing. So you need to be both stubborn about the vision that you've set yourself to go out and achieve, and be adaptable about achieving that and all the things that are going to have to change along the way!”

For the co-founders, their greatest achievement with Algbra is the carefully curated team they have built: “honestly, being able to build a great team is the biggest achievement because that's basically the core of everything. It's all about the people. I think at the end of the day, things scale or do well based on the people involved, and getting the right people involved at such an early stage.”

Beyond the team itself, the importance of the wider company culture and impact that they have achieved is evident to the founders because “building that right culture makes you feel you have the right people around you. As part of this wider culture and impact, Algbra is also committed to a programme of projects in the community. Fizel recognises this as a core component of Agbra’s culture and says the founders are “particularly proud of the community work that we do from financial education, to encouraging women's participation in sport, to supporting culture and the arts. It's a core part of our DNA.”

Moreover, Algbra’s commitment to financial inclusion will be central to their plans going forward. Fizel explains that Algbra is “addressing this by actually providing B2B services which allows for financial inclusion to happen at a much greater pace than if it were to happen completely organically”. Secondly, the expansion of Algbra’s offering in more advanced FinTech markets will continue this year. “In the UK, we are an FCA regulated EMI and principal issuer of MasterCard, we have built a stellar team of people, we've launched already, and we're looking to launch internationally towards the end of this year and first half of next year!”

The coming year sees two primary targets for Algbra: reaching parity in the UK and then beginning the process of going global. Zeiad recognises that “in the UK, we're in a very advanced FinTech market so to reach parity, we are working on a lot of features and services. Thankfully, we've got our own technology that we have built from scratch, and our own engineering team so we're masters of our destiny when it comes to that and we can prioritise features and services that matter to our customers most. For example, we have prioritised going  live on  Apple Pay and Google Pay in response to customer feedback. As this also comes with 1.5% cashback on all spending, the feedback has been fantastic. It’s important that we continue to listen to what our customers want, both in terms of improving the in-app experience but also products such as  home purchase plans and consumer credit that we know are important to our target market.”

Whilst the current downturn can signal worry to some founders, Zeiad remains positive given the real world impact of their product. “There is absolutely a downturn in the VC markets”, he comments, but “I think that's going to clear up a lot of the noise. Hopefully, there's a silver lining to this downturn because I think companies need to be a lot more thoughtful about the problems they're solving. And investors need to be a lot more thoughtful about the solutions that they have to solve those problems. You know, we've seen a massive downturn in investing in FinTech businesses, however, the issue with that is real world problems don't change just because investor appetite changes. So I think companies that have a focus on real world problems, and can stay the course, will do very well!”

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