Artoo Through Fresh Eyes

Three weeks ago, I arrived in India for the first time, eager to gain as much exposure as possible to social entrepreneurship in a country bustling with entrepreneurial spirit. I got this chance through an internship with Villgro Innovations Foundation, an incubator for early-stage social innovation. Excited and a little nervous, I wasn’t exactly sure what my experience would be. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Artoo, which is one of the social enterprises that Villgro supports. The visit taught me two lessons: first, talented social entrepreneurs are in abundance in India, and second, they work with an authentic commitment to serving the poor.

The problem that Artoo strives to solve is not one that I was familiar with before arriving in India. I learned that loans from financial institutions are less accessible to bottom-of-the-pyramid (BoP) populations in India (and other low- and middle-income countries) in both urban and rural settings because of systemic and physical barriers. Financial institutions have a network of field agents in place to increase the accessibility of loans for BoP populations, but the paper-based process that field agents rely on is inefficient and is typically stunted by avoidable delays.

Screenshot 2016-07-15 16.19.08

Artoo is tackling this inefficiency by providing a paper-free, mobile-based platform for field agents from financial institutions to help them reach BoP populations. The digitization of the loan process avoids delays encountered in the paper-based process, like transportation time. The platform includes digital tools to cover each step involved in the provision of a loan, with specific products designed for financial institutions and their field agents to monitor the transaction.

Touring around the Artoo office, I was impressed by the level of talent of the people I met. Anubhav, a data analyst, showed me extensive and dense sets of data collected for each of Artoo’s customers each month to analyze field agent performance and productivity. Filled with graphics and lots of numbers, it was evident that the financial institutions that Artoo serves are well-informed. Shilpa, Artoo’s only in-house designer, showed me her hand-drawn mockups for the design of the Artoo website, and then demonstrated how she turns those designs digital. The attention to detail was impressive. Then I was led into a room with about a dozen people sitting in front of computer screens filled with code. Each developer described what he was working on before turning back to type out seemingly endless lines of code on his screen. The room gave off the impression of a well-oiled machine, with each person contributing to the smooth overall operation. By the end of the tour, it was obvious to me that Artoo employees are capable and skilled.

Discussions with my hosts, Thuy and Mradula, and Artoo’s co-founder, Sameer, demonstrated the company’s commitment to serving BoP populations. The energy with which Thuy and Mradula explained the problem that Artoo tackles, and its solution, was exuberant; their eyes lit up as eager smiles spread across their faces. Talking with Sameer about his strategic vision for Artoo and the opportunity he recognizes to make a meaningful difference in the lives of BoP populations was inspiring. It was invigorating to engage with people who clearly care deeply about serving BoP populations.

I am grateful to the folks at Artoo for hosting me and helping me understand part of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in such a vibrant country as India. The lessons that I learned from my visit to Artoo provided me with the experience I had hoped for as I planned my trip to India, and the opportunity to gain this exposure firsthand is invaluable for me as I continue to explore social entrepreneurship. I am especially excited for Artoo’s future, because my visit showed me that Artoo has some of the key tools for success: talent and passion.

About the author:

Rebecca Singer | Villgro’s Intern

Rebecca Singer is a budding social entrepreneur interning at Villgro Innovations Foundation, an incubator for early-stage social innovation. Rebecca is currently completing her studies at Princeton University, USA, where she studies Music.
AAEAAQAAAAAAAAMKAAAAJDJhYjk4N2E3LTNmNGUtNGFiMS1iNjgwLThjYmRiNDA2MjY5NQ

MFN 2016 Annual Meeting Report

Slide1
“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.)

Slide1
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.

Driving change through technology is only a click away

The Ashoka Impact Series features Sameer and his work at Artoo — read more below or on the Ashoka India website.


SameerSegal_1_0A lover of Bollywood films and technology, Sameer Segal is a young changemaker who is making the  work of those in the field of development several steps easier. Sameer struggled to find a way to  escape a typical career path after graduating from the National Institute Technology, until Banker to  the Poor, a book by Muhammad Yunus, introduced to him the world of microfinance. Barely after a year of his graduation, Sameer, along with his wife (then girlfriend) Indus, engineered Artoo. Artoo, named after one of Sameer’s favorite characters from Star Wars, has developed a software solution designed to help field agents of enterprises working at the base of the pyramid become more effective in serving their end customers.

Quote_Artoo1_1_0Advocating technology to the rescue, Artoo relieves field agents of the burden of paper work and does away with innumerable delays by utilizing tablets or smart phones to fill in customers’ information—instituting real-time information exchange between microfinance or health institutions and their field staff and reducing turn around times. Artoo takes the entire process of data collection and workflows online, drastically reducing expenses and time consummation.

Sameer, now 25, was born in Delhi but brought up in Bangalore. He went to National Public School for 1st grade, later studying in the Valley School, a school Sameer notes as ‘unconventional’ before returning to conventional schooling in 11th standard.  Sameer described his childhood as very ordinary; he grew up listening to stories from his father about working with ‘Tech giants like HP and IBM.’

Quote_Artoo21_2_2These stories fostered an obsession with computers and programming, ultimately leading him to electrical engineering in NITK. However, like most other engineering students, he gradually lost interest and realized that he wanted to do something different. ‘As I went along my engineering course, I got pretty bored. It was very theoretical, you don’t really learn much and there is not much motivation while you’re at an engineering programme’, said a smiling Sameer. He came across Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI),a unique fellowship program that connected top engineering talent to credible social enterprises driving market-based solutions to development in India. He acquired a fellowship and an internship with Ujjivan Microfinance, Bangalore. He says, ‘I could now see the development track was a viable career option – it is possible to do good and do well!’

Regarding the success of Artoo, ‘I don’t think we have achieved something yet, Its just the beginning,’ Sameer modestly replies. The Paragon100 Fellowship has recognized Sameer as one of the most promising social entrepreneurs and Artoo continues to be a startup on the cusp of an emerging technological breakthrough. To all the budding entreprenuers, he simply wants them to believe in themselves and not give in to criticisms or minor failures. Once calling his choice ‘career suicide,’ his father now stands proud. Believing that he represents a new generation capable of exploring a lot more, Sameer notes that revolution has just begun.

– By Sneha Paul

Published on Ashoka India.

Creating a Killer User Experience for the MFI Field Agents

Vishy Kuruganti wrote about Artoo on his blog TechSangam. Read the whole piece below here or on TechSangam.

Artoo’s name, inspired from the Star Wars anthology, is meant to signify that their solution would be an able companion to MFIs (similar to astromech droid R2D2). Sameer spent the summer of 2008 doing an internship at Bangalore-based Ujjivan (a leading urban/semi-urban focused MFI). He had picked Ujjivan because the internship scope was open-ended and it also gave him exposure on the business side. Eschewing the natural tendency to start coding something, Sameer participated in several focus groups with customers and field agents. Eventually, this led to two defining aha moments:

  • BOP customers perceive MFIs to be the window to outside world: Per RBI regulations, MFIs can only deal with loans and insurance. But the BOP customers don’t know that!
  • MFI workflows terribly inefficient: Paper-based workflows used by MFI field agents and branch offices meant a lot of data entry errors, delays in opening accounts, and collecting loans. One egregious pain point that caught Sameer’s attention was that it took a whopping 15 days for a customer to pre-close his account. Pre-closure is an important milestone for MFI customers because, once completed, it qualified them for a higher loan amount.

The first aha moment wasn’t immediately actionable but the second one was. Sameer quickly created a simple prototype (using off-the-shelf software) that allowed field agents to SMS the customer ID back to a central Ujjivan service which would send back complete details of the customer. The prototype was a rousing success and gave the kind of satisfaction any intern would crave as he headed back to finish his final year of engineering.

FOCUS ON FIELD AGENTS

fieldagents_vishyField agents, who provide last-mile support for virtually all aspects of an MFI’s operations, represent 70-80% of an MFI’s workforce. The key takeaway from Sameer’s internship experience was that there was tremendous scope to improve the efficiency of MFI’s operations. Thus was born the idea of Artoo Slate, an Android-based software framework that takes the entire process of data collection and loan disbursement online. It captures rich data from the field, does away with the back and forth of paper, and thus avoids innumerable delays. It is an intuitive interface that has been designed keeping in mind the field staff’s limited educational training and exposure to technology.

THE ARTOO SOFTWARE: FOCUS ON USER EXPERIENCE

Every startup wants to build a great user experience but why is that enterprise software is never as intuitive as Facebook? Sameer believes that an intuitive user experience is every bit as important as the right business model and he’s put his money where his mouth is. In his seven-person team (of which three are summer interns from his alma mater), he has two user experience folks – a designer and a usability engineer. (Early stage startups almost never hire usability engineers.) I saw an impressive demo on a Google Nexus One device which included several UI tweaks to make the data collection process very efficient. This YouTube video walks you through most of the data collection UI:

UJJIVAN PILOT RESULTS

Artoo ran its first pilot with Ujjivan Financial Services (co-funded by Ujjivan and Lok Capital Foundation) in Dec 2010 which yielded some impressive results. The end-to-end data collection process was reduced from 3+ days to less than one hour. The collections processing time at Ujjivan’s branches previously used to take an hour – the Artoo pilot reduced it to less than 5 minutes. Overall, the Artoo workflow enabled a 35% increase in productivity, reduced the turnaround time for loans to two days and a projected 2.4% reduction in the Operating Expense Ratio (OER). The other big learning was that field agent adoption rates and performance were independent of seniority and technological savvy.

GO TO MARKET STRATEGY

Artoo is focused on building a killer user experience for MFIs to efficiently acquire customers and manage collections. Recognizing that MFIs would differ in their processes and geographic focus areas (urban vs. rural), Artoo’s Slate framework has been designed to be customizable. With a successful Ujjivan pilot under his belt, Sameer is targeting the licensing of Artoo Slate to seven MFI’s this year. Besides Ujjivan, other urban/semi-urban focused Indian MFIs would likely include Janalakshmi, Equitas, Swadhaar, and Arohan. Since their platform (Android) and framework (Artoo Slate) are portable, Artoo is also pursuing some opportunities in Latin America and Africa.

Artoo’s subscription fee model is based on deployed volume of field agents per month. Subscription fee is expected to range between 600 INR and 1500 INR. Artoo hosts the solution with 99% SLA. One of Artoo’s early decisions was to partner with core banking solution and system integration partners. This is a smart move for two reasons: no need to worry about the myriad ERP solutions that MFIs have deployed and, more importantly, system integrators become a second sales channel to evangelize Artoo’s offerings. The incremental investment that MFIs would have to make is Android devices. According to Artoo’s calculations (for a 8000 INR Android device), the investment on devices would be fully recovered within 4 months.

BEYOND FINANCIAL INCLUSION

While owning the MFI field agent user experience is clearly Artoo’s beachhead, their ambitions extend well beyond that. Sameer believes that the Slate framework can also serve as a platform through which MFIs can train their field staff on-the-go (e.g. basic English skills, computer skills, updates on new products and offerings) and monitor them on a real time basis to improve their overall service quality. Against the backdrop of a competitive MFI landscape with 30% attrition rates among field agents, these additional e-Learning modules could serve as retention tools for forward-thinking MFIs.

Additional/companion modules could be commissioned by individual MFIs or Artoo might create them and license them to participating MFIs on an opt-in basis. It’s this latter model that’s rife with interesting possibilities. Enter Indus Chadha – Artoo co-founder and liberal arts graduate from Columbia University. Indus, who also happens to be Sameer’s high school sweetheart and fiance, joins Artoo full-time in September and will focus on creating relevant offerings in the Education and Health verticals.

FUNDRAISING

Artoo has bootstrapped its way so far thanks largely to funding from Sameer’s and Indus’s families. Closing a deal with one of their target MFIs would certainly get the revenue flowing but like any ambitious startup, Artoo wants to run a lot faster. They’ve kicked off a fundraising round (to raise approximately $750,000) either from angels or VCs. Our next Artoo post might either be to announce their Series A or their first partnership with an MFI. What do you want to bet on?

Published on TechSangam

Technology to the Rescue of MFIs

[Artoo Slate is a software solution designed for microfinance field staff that takes the entire process of data collection and loan disbursement online. Sameer has been recognized as one of Asia-Pacific’s most promising young social entrepreneurs by the Paragon100 Fellowship. He holds a B Tech from the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka and is a StartingBloc Fellow (MIT Sloan). His passion is inclusive technology, something he discovered during his internship with Ujjivan. He, along with Co-founder of Artoo, Indus Chadha, has developed Artoo Slate which helps microfinance companies cut down on operation costs. He shares with us in this guest blog, how technology can make a difference to microbanking institutions that cater to the bottom of the pyramid.]

The Malegam Report is finally here. At first glance, we were all glad to see how well balanced it appeared. But now we have to begin to make sense of the constraints that it places on MFIs in the short term. In the words of Vijay Mahajan of BASIX: “some provisions are so severe that some MFIs will be facing death by April”.

Indeed, most MFIs must be grappling at the moment with what changes they will need to make to stay alive.

If MFIs need to reduce costs, remove redundancies, and improve efficiencies at all levels, they need to centralize their operations. Centralizing will also help MFIs ensure the quality of the customers they acquire and thereby reduce risks. To centralize operations and still maintain competitive TATs for all customer-centric activities (e.g. customer acquisition, loan disbursement, and repayments) is the hardest part of the puzzle that needs to be cracked. It will be only possible for MFIs to consolidate branches and have their field agents operate over larger geographies (improving borrower to employee ratio) when they can monitor and remotely manage their staff and activities. For that they need technology.

We believe, however, that this needn’t be a question of the survival of the fittest. It could serve as an opportunity for visionary MFIs, regardless of their size and strength, to re-imagine their operations in a way that, while respecting the RBI’s imminent mandates, dramatically reduces their Operating Expense Ratio (OER) and enables them to remain profitable and survive in the face of the Malegam Report.

At Artoo, we wish to catalyze development through inclusive technology and empowering communication. Our software framework, Artoo Slate, can help MFIs bring down their OERs to meet the RBI’s requirements in a timely manner while enabling them to remain profitable. We believe it has the potential to help MFIs become more productive in helping their customers rise out of poverty. Here’s our take on what the Malegam Report is asking MFIs to do and how we might be able to help.

1

Artoo Slate is a software solution that takes the entire process of data collection (under 18 minutes for complete customer acquisition process*) and loan disbursement online (70+% of Loan Applications can be processed in the field on the same day*). It will capture rich data from the field, do away with the back and forth of paper, avoid innumerable delays (reduction in turn-around-time (TAT) from 3+ days to 1 hour*), and drastically reduce expenses (courier, Document Management System Hubs & outsourced data entry). It will allow for easy exchange of data between field staff and backend systems (CBS/MIS) in a way that will reduce time spent (41% of center meetings take under 1 min to update paper work) on customer query clarification and identification and resolution of errors in customer profile and loan application forms. Even while the credit bureau is stabilizing, it will enable MFIs to implement a field credit check upfront for renewal loans based on internal data and assessment.

artoo2Our framework enables field agents to operate remotely and helps distributed MFIs to centralize their operations, while improving their TAT for all customer-centric activities. MFIs can monitor their business on a real time basis: pick up on trends (mass default, political/economic turbulence) as and when they happen directly from the field (defaulter information available instantaneously as compared to 10-15 days lag in previous implementation*). In addition, MFIs can track their social performance on a daily basis.

It is an intuitive interface that has been designed keeping in mind field staff’s educational training and exposure to technology. It will also serve as platform through which MFIs can train (e.g. basic English skills, computer skills, updates on new products and offerings) their field staff on-the-go and monitor them on a real time basis to improve their overall service quality. MFIs can improve their field agent quality and build their capacity, reducing their attrition to short-term focused aggressive competitors.

Artoo Slate, in the hands of the field agent, promises to be a scalable way for the MFI to engage more effectively with their end customers through videos, graphics, and other interactive media (imparting life skills, financial planning, healthcare information, conversational English, etc.) Engaging with the end customer will not only give them a reason to attend center meetings but also allow them to recognize their MFI as a real partner in their struggle to climb out of poverty, giving forward-thinking MFIs an opportunity to differentiate themselves, improving customer loyalty and therefore profitability.

Application

We have been really lucky to pilot our solution, Artoo Slate, at Ujjivan microfinance, and are happy to share the interim results of our pilot here. The pilot covers a branch in urban Bangalore and includes processes of customer acquisition, collections, branch transactions, and field agent training.

About the author:

Sameer Segal | CEO & Founder

Published here on the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFRM)’s Blog.