SM: You were able to recognize this as a rudimentary structure which could support banking …
CR: Exactly. I just said, “Wow, there you have it! If we could just generalize the value being put into all of those phones we would have a banking system!” That type of banking system could reach places like Congo. If people can call and text each other then they can use their cell phones to send money to each other. That occurred in 2002 and I was not the only person on the planet to have that idea, but I got really interested in that idea anyways. I wanted to take cell phones and use them as a platform to deliver financial services.
At the same time I was connected to the microfinance industry. I knew a lot about what was happening there. I felt there was a really possibility of banking looking really different. I started doing research in 2004 and one of the first things I noticed was in terms of banking services, there was a whole lot of the planet that got left out and it has been this way over a long period of time. Even in the US 80M people are in the category of ‘under banked’. What that really means is that for a lot of reasons the traditional banking services are not a good fit for their lifestyle. If in a place like the US there are 80M adults left out then you can imagine how many people are left out if you look at it globally.
At the time I was still retired and I was still convinced I was never going to work again. A friend of mine joined me and we funded a research project in mobile financial services. When that research report was done I read it. When I first started reading the report my career was behind me. After I finished reading that report my career was in front of me. I said, “I want to go back to work, and I want to be part of building Obopay.” I made that decision in early 2005 and the rest, as they say, is history.
SM: Take me through the building blocks of Obopay. What did you need to do to put this venture together?
CR: It is a complex infrastructure in reality, yet very simple on the surface. Conceptually it is really easy for everyone to understand. I take a mobile phone and set up an account with Obopay. There are various ways the account can work. It can be an extension of an existing account, it can be a new account, or it can be an account with an attached debit card. As the consumer I decide which method I want to use. Once I set it up it gives me access to however much money I have and allows me to do something which is very important – I can send it to any other mobile phone. If you give me your cell phone number I can send you money without knowing what bank you are with.
SM: Does the receiving side need to have the same infrastructure set up with Obopay?
CR: You have to be in the same country, at least for now. That is the only requirement.