Fintech/Opinion/

In Turkey, market volatility is nothing new. Here’s what other fintech leaders can learn

As Turkey’s largest neobank, we like to think we’re more than well-versed in traversing tricky market conditions.

Ahmed Karsli, founder of Papara Credit: Papara
Ahmed Karsli

By Ahmed Karsli

This year, we’ve seen the global financial environment flipped on its head.

Fintech is feeling the chill as VCs tighten their purse strings; they raised $59bn in the first half of 2022, according to Innovate Finance. A lot, yes — but not so much when compared to the staggering $98bn provided in the same time period in 2021.

For better or worse, founders and investors are markedly shifting from a “growth at all costs” mindset to one that prioritises business resilience, longevity and profitability. It’s a big change in perspective for founders who have known nothing but easy money. 

As Turkey’s largest neobank, we like to think we’re more than well-versed in traversing tricky market conditions, shifting political landscapes and deteriorating macroeconomic conditions. It’s something we’ve scaled with and always been navigating. While economic growth has waned in Turkey, we have continued to grow and scale at a rapid pace — and all without external funding up to this point.

So, what does it take to overcome complex market conditions? And what can global businesses learn from those who have operated in volatile financial ecosystems for years?

Here are a few takeaways from our experience.

Build a sticky user base

Growing a customer base that is not only loyal to your brand, but champions your business, is key. But this is no mean feat and requires relentless focus on addressing users’ most crucial needs in the most cost-effective way. Western disruptors have struggled to do this so far, because while switching between more traditional banking providers and newer digital payments apps has become a mostly frictionless process, there is still a “trust gap” to overcome with customers. That’s why listening to your users — and letting them know that you are listening to them — is so vital. 

We listen to our users through various channels such as market research focus groups, social media and customer support. Importantly, we take immediate action on their views and suggestions and having dedicated in-house tech and product teams allow us to move as quickly as possible.

We’ve also seen first-hand the importance of innovating when it comes to our customer support mechanisms to build a sticky user base. We not only track how many calls are replied to in how many seconds, but we also track “how” the agent solves the problem to ensure the best customer experience possible. Interacting on social media plays an important role in all this, too, to let customers know that you are responsive and alert to their concerns.

Invest in your product 

The above is all well and good, but customers are unlikely to stick around unless the product you’re offering is the one leading the market. In an increasingly crowded market, it’s important that your product stands out from the competition. That’s why I always advise new fintech startup founders to invest in product over marketing — marketing can and should come later. Word of mouth is worth hundreds of thousands in marketing spend.

Though not a fintech business, Airbnb cofounder and chief executive Brian Chesky last year echoed this sentiment when he claimed the brand would “never go back to spending the same amount of money on marketing as we once did”. He rightly emphasised that the pandemic showed that the brand was able to completely cut its marketing spend, but still drive 95% of the same amount of traffic as the previous year once borders and hospitality reopened. If you have a brand that is strong and resonates — and prioritise your product to achieve this — people will follow.

Build your tech in-house if possible

If you’re not producing your own technology internally, you are effectively an operations startup bound to a third-party, as well as their processes and technology. Whilst it may speed up time to market in the short run, it is fundamentally unsustainable to outsource your tech teams. We’ve always developed our technology in-house, which has allowed us to be nimbler and more responsive to customers’ changing needs and undoubtedly contributed to us reaching where we are now.  

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the world is borderless when it comes to employment. There is an untapped pool of international talent in some markets due to “barriers” like time differences and residency requirements. Making the effort to overcome those blockers will set your business apart from the rest and make a real difference to those who sit in markets where the domestic resource is typically more expensive and less abundant in the first place.  

Diversify your product suite 

One final thing that has been thrust into the spotlight in recent months is the importance of diversifying your product offering. It’s so important not to over-index and rely on one part of the business that might be doing well today — as this might not be the case tomorrow. 

Some features that Papara has implemented have been a foreign currency exchange that offers attractive rates and a budget management tool that provides support to our customers when they want to understand and manage their finances. Looking forward, we plan to introduce micro-loans, salary advances, credit cards and lastly, an equity investing feature.

In the past, it has been the firms with the most feature variability that have tended to mitigate risk, weather market downturns, and come out the other side still intact or — in some cases —  in an even better position than before.

Ahmed F Karsli is founder and chairman of the board at Papara. 

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