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From Private to Public. Advice from a Fintech Veteran

Farhan Ahmad, CEO of PayNet, Discusses His Career and Asian Fintech Today

In May 2023, Nick Holland, Global Head of Insights and Networks at Money20/20 spoke with Farhan Ahmad, Group CEO of PayNet (Malaysia’s national payment network) about startups, his current position, and what excites him in today’s fintech industry.

Nick: So what advice would you give to today's founders who are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed going into the fintech industry?

Farhan: I've had the benefit of starting a few companies and I've also had the benefit of working for large incumbent banks and payment companies. But some basic ones I think are generally true are that most startups fail. Chances are you are and I think joining a startup is significantly harder than most people ever imagined. I would always say to join a startup is an act of pure foolishness because the chances of failure are so high. You must be so passionate, you must have so much conviction in what you're doing.

And then when you start off, I think people have these ambitious plans and sometimes try to boil the ocean too much, and what I always say to every startup… find one customer. All you need is one customer. When you find one non-friendly, non-known, paying customer that is completely out of the blue, that means you have one story to tell to one type of person. And since your product has value to one person, then you profile that person and you find ten more like that and you sell to ten more. If you can sell to ten more customers that look the same, by and large, I would say you know that you've got a story for a vertical.

Nick: Farhan – you're now with PayNet which is the national payments network for Malaysia. How's that going and what’s different from being in the private sector?

Farhan: I mean, it's different. It's very different than a startup right? As you can imagine, the stakes are much higher, much, much higher. If my startup had some hiccups, a few people would suffer. If PayNet has any hiccups the entire country doesn't get paid so yeah, it's quite different. So I think it's the scale and the enormity of the whole thing is actually quite different. The importance of what you do is quite different. Domestic networks exist for two primary reasons. One is sovereignty, and the other is building payment efficiency to lower costs. It's a very different way to approach a market, right? Here my stakeholders are banks, regulators, they're politicians, they are common people in the country.

Nick: What's exciting you in fintech at the moment?

Farhan: Well, first of all, being in Asia is pretty exciting. I feel like I was part of the wave of (fintech) innovation in the US when it was happening, and it was exciting. I think that the market is more saturated, more mature now, whereas in Asia, I feel like it's the wild west with countries like Indonesia, where hundreds of millions of people are for the first time coming onto the internet. In India, in one year, they opened up 400 million bank accounts. That's more than the population of the USA in one year. So I'm watching this amazing, just massive repeat of a different kind, so I feel like I get to see this movie twice.

Another cool thing I see here is a younger population. In Europe the median age of countries is typically in the high 30s or mid-40s, whereas in Asia, it's all in the 20s. I mean, these are a young population of digitally native digital citizens. They have never seen anything else. They don't know what analog means. I think that's super exciting.

And last thing I'll say on this topic is, I mean, personally I'm following AI and it's going to change everything in my opinion, and it's the most exhilarating thing to watch the journey. And a couple of horrifying things as well. It’s just something that's keeping me on my feet and I feel like I'm watching a movie – this could be a horror movie or a comedy.

Nick: One final question – you're one of our early speakers for our Bangkok show next year. What are you most excited about?

Farhan: I was probably one of the first few sponsors of the very first ever Money20/20 event. I've grown up with the event, all my friends and peers and colleagues and people that I know go, and it's a great place to go meet the people. I'm just stoked to see what all these people are doing in Asia and I hope this is the forum where we get to see it and experience it and meet the people and the movers and shakers all in one place.

Nick: This has been great, Farhan. I've really enjoyed speaking with you and look forward to meeting you in person in Bangkok in 2024.

Farhan: Thanks very much! Me too!

Nick Holland

Global Head of Research, Money20/20

Nick Holland

Global Head, Insights and Networks