BY Walter Hayward 4 MINUTE READ

After relocating to South Africa in 2005, Frenchman Thomas Pays quickly realised that if he wanted to succeed in his career, he’d be better off starting his own business. Thomas launched and sold a few highly successful businesses – and one not-so-successful one – before landing on, what he calls, the million-dollar idea that is Ozow – an automated instant EFT and bank-to-bank payment service. Previously i-Pay, the company went through a rebranding in April to cater to a more international clientele.

I basically started as a call centre agent. [laughs] I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to lose my job and I could excel at it, having the responsibility of a wife and a new-born. I quickly progressed in the business, getting promoted to marketing manager and did extremely well. I then realised if I really wanted to succeed and grow, I would be better off starting my own business.

I started my first company in 2007, which was a gaming agency that we grew internationally. I sold the business in 2009 and took a sabbatical. In 2010, I started our first South African venture, which was an auction website solely focused on the local market. It grew from 0 to 300 000 unique visitors, which was great for an eCommerce site in 2010. It was incredibly successful and we got to exit within the first nine months.

I then ran out of million-dollar ideas. I then thought about dating as a possible source of revenue. We launched a dating website – big mistake. Not that it was a big failure but it was a big opportunity with big partnerships. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t something I felt passionate about and so, after a year, we decided to pull the plug.

I decided to focus on what I was good at – marketing. I started a digital agency with 360-degree service for large clients and corporates in South Africa – from insurance to telecoms. Part of the goal of this agency was to find solutions we could offer the market, so we created a dev-house which would start building the tech that would enable us to better service South Africa.

We started with an ecommerce platform, which allowed anyone to create a website under two minutes. Part of it required a plug-in payment service – this is where the idea of i-Pay was born. What was supposed to be a three-month plug-in project ended up becoming i-Pay five years later.

Is launching a business in South Africa easier than in Europe?

Absolutely. I think at the end of the day, there are two perceptions. I’m fortunate enough to come from a continent where doing business is very difficult because the market is usually oversaturated. I come with a mindset that it’s not that difficult in South Africa — I see a lot more opportunities. However, I think anyone that is from South Africa probably thinks the same of it as I think of Europe, in that every city is super competitive.

Why did you decide Ozow was the route to go?

We wanted to enable any South African to visit an ecommerce platform and start accepting payment. It would allow them to set up their website, domain name, payment structure and then go live under two minutes.

Initially, we focused mainly on the ecommerce platform and the plug-in component was very important. There’s also the fact that with card transactions a lot of fraud happens, so we looked at it from the perspective where new merchants entering the ecommerce landscape want to be protected. With Ozow and bank-to-bank payment, you’re a lot safer than with a card.

So what happened was that our ecommerce platform became very successful, but we started getting a lot of interest in the payment plug-in. I’ve run many businesses in the past and I understand that in order to succeed in the early stage of a startup, you need to focus on one thing if you want to execute it well and grow it quickly. This is where we made the decision to focus solely on the payment solution and discontinue all our other businesses and sell them.

Why the rebrand to Ozow?

The time is never the right to rebrand so the sooner you do it, the better. It’s like ripping off a band aid. We decided now is a good time and we’ve received great support from clients and partners. Change is good.

Ozow is a play on words. Think of all the phrases you can build around it: “Oh so fast”, “Oh so secure”, “Oh so amazing”. Part of giving back was to launch a 0% fee campaign where we want to make payments affordable for SMEs and entrepreneurs. So all new merchants signing up on Ozow will be free for up to R1 million a month which is significant enough for people to be able to grow and scale their business, and save money on their payment processing. Our core focus is more on the enterprise client and the public sector. We make our revenue through very large companies and it’s a nice way to give back in that way.

Despite i-Pay experiencing double-digit growth month-on-month, do you think that will hit a plateau soon?

We’re seeing the opposite. We’re seeing a snowball effect where January, February, March are known as quiet months for businesses – we’ve seen the opposite. We’ve seen double-digit growth month-on-month following Black Friday and the festive season. Normally, you should experience a dip but we’re seeing acceleration and bigger uptake from our clients as well as new enquiries. We’re at that stage where we’re now starting to reach critical mass and we need to start scaling the business. To date, we have about 2.5 million South Africans using us. This year, our goal is to get an extra two million users. This gives you a perspective on how the scale is happening.

What are your plans to tap into the rest of Africa?

Our five-to-10-year goal is to be present in all 52 countries of Africa. That’s our target. In Europe you have one regulation and one licence – it’s very easy for a payment company to be successful in multiple countries. In Africa, it’s 52 different regulations, licences, cultures and banks. We want to simplify that ecosystem and allow global players to transact in any African country by using our platform.
What works in South Africa might not work in Ghana or Tanzania, and this preparation in our market research and execution in adapting to that culture is what will make the difference.

Read more in the May 2019 issue of Fast Company SA