American transplant Louis Kinley was “drawn to the allure of Fyzabad”. The 32-year-old software engineer has been coming to TT for almost 12 years. It is only in the last year though that his startup QKYC launched to its first users. The company automates due diligence – think the annoying IDs and proofs of address you have to unearth to open bank or insurance accounts. Their app makes “digital customer due diligence seamless by requesting and verifying documents and identity in seconds, regardless of location.” Through its clients, it “will touch as much as half the adult population of TT, to begin with.
Compliance automation is hardly the most glamorous of trades, and in tech in TT you rarely find people focused on the plumbing, but that is often where greatest value is. Kinley has nevertheless created an indigenous solution which can be adapted to other developing country markets – a point stressed in a previous interview with inventor Patrick Hosein.
What brought you to TT?
I met a Trini friend up in university who was running track who woke the entire floor up at six in the morning playing Junior Gong. He convinced me that Trinidad would be a pretty cool place to visit.
Coming down here…being a child of divorce, I’ve never really had a warm complete family. Having somebody else’s family welcome you like that…just, like, the Sunday lunch was something I never really experienced, just hanging out together and just ole talking…and of course the women.
These immigrants, taking our jobs and our women!
Trinidad actually taught me my timing and certainly my rhythm! Growing up in the States it’s a bit disconnected maybe in the sense that you’re a little more removed from any kind of rhythm of life.
It also taught me a great deal of patience. Sometimes you just got wait at a red light and in some ways its been kind of painful but then you go as fast as you can when it turns green.
We’re at this point where, as a country, we’re trying to diversify dramatically and tech is on everybody’s mind. But you started early right?
I had a computer in my house for as long as I can remember. We had DOS back in the day and we used to, I don’t know, play all these games. I can remember just spending hours there watching my sister. You know when you right click on the page and click source you see how the web page is made and she’d be figuring it out.
I made my first website in sixth grade and brought it to show and tell and everybody thought I was ridiculous. I thought it was super cool at the time though that you could make text flash around the page.
But being in a public high school I succumbed to the pressure of trying to be normal. I wanted to have a girlfriend and wanted to have friends. I put it down at that point.
After college it was tough. I did a spell at the oilfields in North Dakota…I ended up working as a stonemason’s apprentice in Montana and my girlfriend at the time (we) were hitchhiking and we were taking the ferry down to the island that had this little summer festival going on. This couple that picked us up worked at Adobe and they said well you know we went to art school before we knew anything about this. They got their jobs writing code because of side projects at Adobe.
That snapped me out of it. I’m about to go work ten hours out in the hot sun carrying heavy stones and pushing wheelbarrows full of cement around. I’m breaking my back working for somebody. I knew I could pick up programming.
After I got back, I called around some friends and started learning coding. I would be up until two to three in the morning studying, getting back up at six to go to work. After four months I stayed on a friend’s couch and was really fortunate to be introduced to a guy who was at Expedia.com. He started mentoring me.
The first couple years of doing it professionally I really embraced the fact that I knew nothing. Then, ending up at Microsoft working on building the dashboard for what was supposed to be their watch, where we were dealing with Microsoft Health...going to their campus was exciting.
I was really drawn to code, of course, because it's a puzzle but (really) because of the impact it can have to improve lives and society. I like to design solutions more than do computer science.
Fast-forward to TT
Before pivoting to QKYC we attempted payments like a few other folks. My co-founder kept bringing up the idea of e-money and I kept saying that’s not a real problem. But when you are on the ground here you do see how prevalent cash is. Most Facebook sellers are still requiring physical in-person transactions. At the time we were kinda naive. This is a simple tech problem, right?
We spent some time calling the Central Bank. But it turned out we couldn’t open a bank account until we got Central Bank approval and we couldn’t apply for Central Bank approval unless we had a bank account.
I think there are lots of entrepreneurs who would empathise with that kind of bureaucratic catch-22.
We were stuck until a CEO of one of the banks we were talking to (Nigel Romano, former CEO of JMMB) took us under his wing. He said we should forget about payments – customer due diligence and KYC was just a much bigger pain point within the industry.
He said: 'You Americans never listen!' He was right – even if we got going we would have still struggled and would have had to use something like ACH (automated clearing house) to get money into (our) system. ACH is like an Amish e-payments system.
But the new Central Bank e-money order is a game changer right?
The CBTT e-money policy creates opportunities, but also limits them. The order only supports closed-loop, local systems like LINX, which can’t be used outside of TT.
Inexplicably, the e-money order also prohibits joint accounts. Most of the limitations placed are sensible, while others are to the detriment of those who seek to truly innovate in our region.
The nail in the coffin is the inability to issue e-money in currencies other than TTD. This means such a system can never possibly grow beyond the borders of TT, which naturally precludes most people who would be interested, as TT is too small of a market to be of interest on its own. It is only through regional or global integration that such systems are truly useful.
Many people like to point to M-pesa in Africa as the poster child of why e-money is needed or useful – this was useful in Africa because people had to travel for the better part of a day to reach a bank or Western Union. Trinidad doesn’t have such a situation, and while there is certainly a portion of the country who are underbanked or unbanked, this is either by choice or by nature of the cost of maintaining an account. What good does a bank account do (for low balance accounts) if they simply charge fees? Best I pay the taxi man and make the drop in person.
Most people who are savvy enough to use e-money can go on their online banking and submit an ACH transaction. Same with managing their money.
We ran the numbers and the cost of operating any system would struggle to be offset by revenues – so you end up charging what the credit card operators do anyway. If we pull back the curtain, the business model of e-money in a closed loop system will struggle if it were solely based on providing the services of an e-money issuer. That’s why a larger entity like TSTT would be well positioned.
So where is the value captured?
The real value in the business model is the harvesting of user data: 'the new oil' for marketing like the credit card companies do. It is likely that any successful e-money business would have to end up monitoring its users, as much or more than providing a useful service of streamlined transactions.
You’ve had a long road to get to this point. What advice would you have to someone starting out?
What clichés have I left out? Several come to mind but one in particular came up recently. Pride – take pride in what you do and do it to the best of your ability. Have the patience and curiosity to learn.
After working together a few months and me hitting the realisation of coding as a career, the stonemason I apprenticed with told me that whatever I set my mind to I'd be good at. That resonated because he was at the top of his game and he saw something in me – it was just that, listening, watching, learning, studying all the things throughout the day that may be mundane but actually make you wise.
PS: We have all the pieces to make TT a hub for space tethers and low earth orbit shuttles to engage them! Why not?
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.