MFN 2016 Annual Meeting Report

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“The world is not binary. The future of microfinance will not be all agents based, nor will it be all self-service. There is a space where technology can coexist with, and even enhance, human interaction.”

Keynote by Sameer Segal

We invited Sameer Segal to the 2016 Annual Conference to get us closer to the emerging “fintechs” that are often a mystery to the MFIs. Sameer is the founder and CEO of Artoo, a Bangalore, India based startup that complements the MFIs by using inclusive technology to empower loan officers, improve end-to-end processes, and increase customer satisfaction. At its core, Artoo is a financial customer relationship management platform (“CRM”) that allows MFIs to manage the entire customer lifecycle from loan sourcing to post-disbursement servicing, all on a single platform. To date, Ujjivan, India´s third largest MFI, is successfully using Artoo´s technology. Sameer, the 29 year old CEO and founder of Artoo, shared his experience launching and developing this technological solution. The participants were left wondering how someone who knew little about the MF industry five years ago could come in and develop relevant solutions that serve our clients’ needs within a short period of time.

Artoo was born out of a summer internship Sameer did with Ujjivan, where he wondered why the world´s most intuitive technologies could not be applied to the bottom of the pyramid. His fresh entrepreneurial spirit allowed him not only to understand the problem and identify the opportunity to reengineer the end-to-end customer relationship process but also to come up with a valuable solution. He observed how established companies tend to automate existing processes and noted that many companies make the mistake of simply digitizing everything that is on paper and moving it to a tablet, but not enough companies spend sufficient time on thinking how a process should be redesigned once technology is involved (re-ordering steps, eliminating steps, inserting new steps etc.)

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As for the process of developing Artoo, Sameer highlighted the importance of iterative learning on building an impactful business. For example, he explained how the initial designs of the Artoo software for tablets demonstrated that it was not possible to please everyone, thus their design decision-making processes were focused on tradeoffs between the size of the device (male loan officers wanted larger displays while female loan officers cared about the weight of the device and wanted it to fit in their handbags), battery life (management wanted 8 – 10 hours) and features (customers wanted videos on the device to provide more information).

SameerSameer also talked about the challenge of building an entrepreneurial team, integrating people with specialized and complementary skills, and how entrepreneurs need to have skin in the game, for example, he stopped drawing his salary when in the initial phases Artoo only had 6 months of money in the bank.

Sameer is highly optimistic about the future. He is open to taking Artoo in various directions depending on how opportunities present, but at the same time he has it very clear that the company needs some strategic anchors around which it should grow. He calls these Artoo´s “north stars and guiding lights”, and defines them as three simple principles:

  • How do we make field staff happy?
  • How do we dramatically change economics of this model and its business results?
  • How do you radically improve the experience of the borrower?

This was a session in which we could radically contrast the speed and frugality with which an entrepreneur operates, versus the abundance of resources and slowness of mature MFIs entrepreneurial processes. We were quickly reminded of the early days of microfinance, when we were entrepreneurs finding a new business model to serve our clients. The session left us with a sense of urgency to rekindle our entrepreneurial spirit. We were also reminded that we are not alone in this pursuit, if we open our eyes to the world of financial inclusion around us there are great opportunities. We can get the best of both worlds if we are apt to find suitable partners with whom we could ally to build the solutions of the future.

Click here to read the full report.

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