Tipalti | Interview with its Co-Founder & CEO – Chen Amit
In Palo Alto (CA), we meet Co-Founder & CEO of Tipalti, Chen Amit. Chen talks about his story how he came up with the idea and founded Tipalti, how the current business model works, as well as he provides some advice for young entrepreneurs.
Martin: Hi, today we are in the beautiful Palo Alto in the office of Tipalti. Hi, Chen, who are you and what do you do?
Chen: Tipalti is a mass payment service provider. We have companies who do mass payments; these would be marketplaces, advertising networks, affiliate networks, e-commerce and any company that has a large volume of payments. Those companies share set of challenges and pains and starts with just managing the workflow, so if you have many payments to many payees globally just knowing who you paid, where, what succeeded, what failed, communicating with the payees, communicating with your assistants – all that is a challenging itself. But the more complex challenges to make things sure that you pay those individuals around the world in a payment method that is efficient, timely and in the right method for these individuals.
When you need to make a payment in the US it is easy, it’s called the ACH network and PayPal and other networks which are very efficient. But if you as a US company or any other company from any other place in the world and you need to make global payments you need to tap into the domestic networks that are available in the target country, you need to know what the regulatory in that country requires, what currency the payee wants to get paid in, what currency you want to make the payment in. The e-wallet, PayPal is strong in some markets and there are other e-wallets in other markets. Some people want to get paid by check, in less developed countries they want to get paid by prepaid debit cards or cash on delivery. So supporting all this wide range of payment methods is really unrealistic to expect from our customers to take that and the default to some mediocre solution and before they walk into Tipalti.
On top of that you need to be compliant with IRS requirements W9, W8, tax withholding, treaty management, the whole slew of challenges over there. And then you need to make sure that you are making payments to good actors, that you are not involved in money laundry or drug traffic financing. You have to screen those payees and know your customer processes and so and so forth there are a host of challenges that our customers face and we solve all of these challenges in a very, very frictionless way; frictionless in the sense that to benefit from Tipalti you need one line of code in your supplier, partner, payee website. That one line of code allow Tipalti to look like it is a part of your website, white label completely but interact with the payee and supplier, get all the information required, present the payment options that are available in that country, validating information per what the regulator in that country requires, do all the other processes that I mentioned and when you need to make a payment you will tell us, “Please pay payee X that amount” and we already know how to complete the process. You have to invest no effort in order to to do that. We are frictionless also in the sense that we communicate with the payee on your behalf so we will send an e-mail from payments@ ‘our customer account’ telling them that we just sent a payment, “it will be in your bank account the day after tomorrow, this transaction number, this value—” so reducing the anxiety level on the other side, waiting for the funds to arrive.
Many of our customers push the cost of the transaction to the payee and since Tipalti is predominately transaction based, the business model is predominately transaction based, it means that the cost of working with Tipalti is very low as well. So it is very frictionless from all those aspects and if you as a customer have the sense of the pain some global payments, more than a hundred payments and some global you will be in a world of pain and we will be a great solution for you.
Martin: Chen, your background story is very interesting, can you give us a little bit more insights in what did you do before and what made you start this company in the first place?
Chen: Sure. Almost all of my career was in entrepreneurial phases. So, I started in telecom space building business units around telecom areas in the nineties, in the later part of the nineties I built a ADSL business for what became the second largest ADSL provider in the world at that time. I then was an active board member in a couple of companies one in the security space and the other in mobile messaging. I then co-founded the company in the business intelligence space and before Tipalti I was the CEO of another telecommunication company but we sold it to Nokia-Siemens back in 2008. So a lot of entrepreneurial work and then Tipalti is the combination of all that career.
Martin: How did it start because there was an interesting story with a friend of you?
Chen: Sure. After selling that last company I mentioned I took some time off and later told a friend of mine that I was ready to go back into the game and he later called me and said that one of his portfolio company’s had the pain that friend is Oren Zeev, who is a very well respected investor here in the bay area and the company was an ad network that needed to pay their publishers regularly. They had tens of thousands of publishers and needed to make regular payments. And the founder of that company was expressing a pain, he said “I am making all these payments, it takes days every month to do that” and half jokingly told my co-founder, my friend that if he and his entrepreneur friend started this company they would have their first customer.
So he and I went and met this company and understood the pain completely. I had no background either in payments nor in internet advertising, nothing of that sort but the pain sounded very relevant, very reasonable and it was only question of whether there is enough market and whether there was enough pain there or is it unique to this company. So we started like that – out of customer expressing very explicit pain which is great. We all want to start companies when you have the first customer in your back pocket already.
Martin: And how did you come with the name Tipalti?
Chen: Oren and myself were thinking about names. He was trying some names, I was trying some names and then one day I was at my home and a friend came to visit. The friend is not from the technology space, he is an artist, a sculpture and that is what he does and he asked me how are things going with the new company I was starting. I said “It is great, the need is obvious, I know what I want to do, we already had customers by then or two prospects and everything was great, but the only thing that was missing was a name for the company”. So he kind of pinched his forehead for—it wasn’t long, maybe it was three or four minutes and then he said “Tipalti.” And Tipalti in Hebrew means “I took care of it”.
It was great because it really encompassed the vision that we already had back then to really take ownership of the whole process and take a very, very complex involved process away from the accounts payable team and solve it completely and take complete ownership so Tipalti was very fitting.
Martin: Interesting that the domain was still available.
Chen: Yes, because it is a word in Hebrew. It is very unlikely that his word will be picked up and yet the domain was not taken which is always one of the considerations when you pick a company name.
BUSINESS MODEL OF TIPALTI
Martin: Let’s talk about the business model of Tipalti. You said before that you are targeting mass markets, the mass payments. What is the biggest difference in terms of payment providers if you are looking at PayPal for example and then looking at Tipalti?
Chen: Usually when people talk about payments they think, “How do I get money into my business ”. So PayPal does that and BrainTree and Stripe and Square, Chase Payment. Many companies will help businesses sell and get the money from the buyers into the company. Tipalti is really on the opposite side. Our customers are businesses that have many, many suppliers and need to pay them. So if you are an advertising network you place ads on thousands of websites and at the end of the month you need to pay all those thousands of websites. So this is the major difference, we are focused on paying out while most of the payments world is focused on getting payments in from mobile or website whatever that may be.
And in that space of paying out we are very unique, we take that holistic approach that they said, it’s a suite approach. Payments is one component of a suite of challenges and solutions and solutions to these challenges that we provide and we are very unique there, we are the only game in town.
Martin: And are you also providing some kind of recommendations for selecting some other suppliers for example that might be even better?
Chen: It is not relevant for the way— sometimes we are asked about some companies that need to get paid in and we just do the pay out so and we are asked if we can do the pay in and we don’t. We are focused on the pay out and we will try to recommend pay in solutions but usually it is not in the scope of our work.
Martin: How is the revenue model working? You said before that you have it based on a transactional model and how does that work?
Chen: So there are several components to our pricing. We can divide it into three groups:
- the SaaS– so monthly subscription or pay a unit fee,
- the transaction fees, and
- currency conversion fees.
So if you are sending a thousand payments one payment would be PayPal and another will be a Swift Wire and another will be a local bank transfer in a prepaid debit card and a check and it will be a mix. Each of those payment methods carry a cost and either you as the payer bear the cost of the transaction or as most of our customers do you pass the cost of the transaction to the recipient. You offer them a large selection so they can choose low cost or high cost payment method but it is up to them for pay to them.
The other component is the currency conversion. Again, the payee may choose to get paid in US dollars or can choose to get paid in a foreign currency, it is up to them to choose but they bear the cost. Let’s say, the advertising network pays a thousand dollars but the guy on the other side wants to get paid in Euros then they say, “Ok let Tipalti convert it to you but you carry the cost for that”.
And the SaaS – there is the monthly fee and other components carry different fees so we have an invoice processing fee, we have KYC (know your customer fee). These are all optional modules and there is a basic monthly service fee that we charge.
Martin: From a technology perspective what is the hardest thing you had to solve? Is it payment or some other part of your suite?
Chen: There are many challenges. We are really a financial institution, we are a licensed financial institution so the challenges we face come from different aspects. The breath of the problem is the number one challenge. We took a suite approach, we want to be tax compliant, we want to do mail compliance, payments we want to do a host of things. We want to integrate with the RPC that communicate with the payees. There are a host of challenges. The breath of the problem is the big challenge. We are investing heavily in engineering for five years now and we are not near complete and that is the basic challenge.
Then working in the banking space / financial space has its own set of challenges. They are a significant compliance regulatory licensing challenges that you need to face. Banks are not very startup friendly. It is not their cup of tea usually so there are challenges there. They are not very fast, they are not very techy so we have our work cut out for us.
Martin: And what made you go for the rough suite and not go for the two or three problems?
Chen: When that person I told you in the beginning described to me his pain that was the pain I saw. He said, “This is what I do” and I actually sat with him for half a day in the office literally seeing what he was doing, what his day was. He was logging into his bank user interface and chatting with his support people and doing all that stuff and I understood what is the other extreme. So that was one extreme – doing everything manually, the president of the company logging into a terminal, trying to send wires, it was ridiculous. He did express all the pains. He said the W9 processing is a major part of their support efforts and reconciliation and money laundry, all of that. He expressed all those pains and the next customer expressed literally the same thing so I understood the commonality and the commonality was ‘We are in the business of doing something. We are an ad network and we focus on ad networking, or we are an e-commerce platform and we are focused on e-commerce, please take all that away from us. We are not interested in that. It is unnecessary evil. We know it is the core of the business for the other side, they want to get paid but this is not our core competency. If you can take all that away, you would make us happy.”
And that is what we do, we take all that away. Taking all that away means building a suite that addresses all of the pains that are unsolved.
How did you acquire, let’s say, the first 50 customers?
Chen: So the first year I was working alone. I was the only employee in the company. I was writing the initial code for the platform and the soliciting customers myself and my co-founder. My co-founder is a very well connected individual so I think out of the first four customers three were introductions that he got and one was a high school friend of mine that made the introduction. There is nothing like having a good network and friends. The first two were immediately in the first two weeks— before we even decided to make the company. The first few companies we talked about the pain were already saying, “We have all of that pain. Sign us up.” The next one followed shortly after and the fourth one few months later. These were the first few customers. They were in Israel, obviously for practicality we are focused on Israel.
After the first year I recruited the first employee here at the Bay area some acquaintance from past life and he started going after potential domestic customers. And we knew that we are focused on the advertising network and affiliate networks and there were two major exhibitions AdTech – there were two events – AdTech East and AdTech West and Affiliate Summit (there is Affiilate Summit East and Affiliate Summit West). And we just went to these events and our prospective customers were aligned in booths one after the other. We just went booth by booth and said, “Hello, we are Tipalti, We are making payments…” and this is how the first few dozen customers came through these efforts.
This was all true until about a year ago and we did all outbound all direct sales solicitation of new customers and since last year we have our chief marketing officer join as over a year ago I forget exactly when he joined. But he was the VP marketing of Net Suite which sells to similar customers, similar decision makers and by now more than 50 percent of our business comes from inbound customers. People already know of us and already know that they are interested and reach out to us.
Martin: But in the first phase you started with target segment advertisers. Did you add any other customer segments and if yes when and why?
Chen: ‘Why’ is usually a random usually anecdotal. So we will go to an event let’s say Affiliate Summit. We will go to AdTech initially and see all the names there. Then we will look whether these companies go to other events. We would come across Affiliate Summits so we go to Affiliate Summit and we will say, “Oh it is actually for affiliate networks. It is not exactly what we do. It is a different segment. Ok, let’s go after that segment”.
And then we ourselves were using Odesk (renamed to Upwork – marketplace for freelancer), a marketplace. We were user of Odesk, we know what the market place is, let’s go after marketplaces. So we look for marketplaces and find some marketplaces.
Most recently e-commerce, which we confused marketplace with e-commerce. There was one customer we reached out to, we thought they were a marketplace but they really were an e-commerce platform and we said, “Ok, How did we neglect e-commerce? That is an obvious market for us.”
So it is really endless. There are so many markets that just so many markets, just the low hanging fruit. E-commerce I think is a great market for us and so are all the others. Sometimes it is very planned and strategic, many times it’s just anecdotal.
ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS FROM CHEN AMIT
Martin: Let’s talk about the advice section. What advice could you give to first time entrepreneurs?
Chen: I think first time entrepreneurs would rather work with— not be alone. Tipalti I started alone but it was already my fourth or fifth endeavor and I was able to do everything alone. I was able to solicit customers and do finances and fundraise and do the technical part. But that is not first time.
Now I am supporting two first time entrepreneurs and both are grateful for the fact they are two. But one is dealing more with the technical point, one is dealing more with the outside part and there is a lot of support system. It is hard to be an entrepreneur. For me, my support system was my co-founder, so we are two entrepreneurs. I am not by myself here but I think working as a team initially is very important.
Martin: One thing is more interesting because you are similar to financial institution and you are working with regulatory stuff which is totally not the case for most of the startups. What advice could you give in this regard? How startups could work with regulators?
Chen: So again many things in life are anecdotal and random. I like to say, I am not sure it is true, but I like to say that had I known today all the challenges and the compliance and regulatory work that is required I might have not started Tipalti. I am not sure, maybe it is not true.
But the lesson is don’t be afraid, even if it is not typical. Going into the financial space as a startup like—think Elon Musk, he is now building satellites and flying to space, it is OK to think big don’t be afraid of things that seem unnatural. So maybe it is unnatural to think that you are going to fly satellites to space like Elon Musk does and say it is unreasonable to think that you will play within the financial institutions space. It is all doable. The highest mountain, the more barriers you build, maybe it is harder to climb it, you are building more barriers, you are becoming more special.
I think by now five years later we have built so many barriers and we are so unique in what we do I don’t feel competition that much. Obviously it is so good to be on your toes with competition but I think that we are very well positioned because of all the assets and all the mountains we have climbed in the last five years.
So, regulatory sounds like something which is not startup friendly and it is not startup friendly but it is also not a wall. Literally on Monday I spoke with a regulator of one of the states. There was a challenge for us and the regulator was very accommodating. He didn’t want to be between us and our business. He said, “Oh, I understand what your issue is” and offered a way to work together on resolving it. So it is not always the case there are many times they are rigid, but don’t be afraid. It is surmountable, many times it is surmountable.
Martin: What would be your advice on creating a competitive advantage?
Chen: You are concerned with competitive advantage if you came into the market too late. If you are coming to the hot market then you should be concerned with competitive advantage because it is hot and everyone is there. When we started Tipalti it was a very, very cold market. I don’t think the word fintech excited at that time. Even some of our investors use terminology that describe what we do in less than flattering way. They liked what we do but they say,”You are dealing with what everyone else doesn’t want to deal with. ” “Really? Is that what they do?” I had a lot of passion, you know, but it’s payments so I like the problem solving aspect of entrepreneurship.
If you are solving a problem for a customer that is unsolved then you are already building your competitive advantage because now you are solving something unique and keep on addressing that problem. And there are several ways to have a competitive advantage – one is on the product side which I think we are largely there – we are building very, very rich and robust product that helps our customers. The other is being first movers so you have companies that develop products that are not very technological. There is no rocket science in many of the unicorns of the world but they were just first to the market. So just do it. If you have found a problem go, go fast, go strong and focus on solving a problem to a customer and the differentiation will come from that, either from being first on the market or from building a wide solution for your customers.
Martin: Great. Chen, thank you so much for your time.
Chen: Thank you.
Martin: And if next time you are thinking about starting a company and you are worried about “I am not an expert in this domain” – don’t worry. Chen is a very good example of even if you don’t know the market, if you are able to identify a customer problem and execute on it you might have a good startup. Thank you so much.