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Zulfiq Isaacs and Tobie van Zyl want to help you to understand your money better. Moneysmart, their startup, is a user-friendly financial management platform. Users aggregate their banking information into a single place, outlining budgets and setting goals. For those who were once scared of their finances, the enthusiastic founders reckon Moneysmart will put the control back into your hands and help you to “reach your financial dreams”.
I visited the Moneysmart offices in Gardens, Cape Town. Their workplace is akin to a renovated iStore, starkly white and divided into rows of gleaming laptops. From here, we travelled to a coffee store to discuss Moneysmart and discover what it is all about.
An open conversation about money
I met with both Tobie and Zulfiq, the founders of Moneysmart. Tobie, 27, is a self-trained broker and CEO. Zulfiq, 33, is one of the co-founders.
Tobie begins with his definition of Moneysmart: “Moneysmart is a personal finance management platform that enables the user to aggregate their banking information to a single place. It allows them to automatically categorise their transactions, outline budgets and set goals. That in short is what we are releasing to the market right now. It understands how you spend.”
They told me that if you can use an online banking, you can use Moneysmart. Yet since this is a read-only application, nothing can be written to the system. No physical cash transactions, therefore, take place.
“South Africa has a conservative culture, once more people are in the system, we can literally flip a switch to add functionality,” says Tobie. Moneysmart is an aggregator of your information, protected by VeriSign, MacAfee as well as TRUSTe and is built to provide an open level of communication between the consumer and the financial services industry. This is an intelligent system, one that understands how you spend. Notifications will keep users current regarding their financial lifestyle.
For now, users will have to manually upload CSV files which can be obtained from their relevant online banks. Premium users will have the ability to have this reconciled for them; this includes automatic bank integration, reconciliation of short-term investments and more for roughly SAR99 monthly.
The aim of Moneysmart is to educate others so that they can become their own accountant. The interface has been designed in such a way that the “intimidating subject” of money can become elegant and simple to use in conjunction with the application. Everything has been designed around a one button, click-to-call philosophy.
Moneysmart is constantly learning. Tobie continues, “It will pick up those who design budgeting strategies. The engine will begin to recommend some strategies to other people. We can pick this up, finding the people who built different strategies of what they are purchasing. We are here to provide opportunity for the industry to gain a better perspective of the consumers, to improve lives.
This will inspire the industry to say wow, geez. This gives us a real, true perspective of what our country needs and we can now reengineer our products to suit our customers better.”
Moneysmart is challenging people to take control, to invest in their selves and in the theory of money.
The long, winding road
Zulfiq, discussed the initial investment difficulties they experienced. “Angel funding was used to raise capital for the business. We cold-called, we knocked on doors and we brought our own plane tickets to meet with potential investors,” Zulfiq laughs, saying that one day they may publish a list of the investors who turned them down.
“South Africa is filled with old money. There are no new investors. People were weary to invest. But what we have done has never been done before.” In essence, they took something from a purely fiscal background and evolved it into a user-friendly product with a highly technical backend.
The financial Facebook
“We told our investors one day that we are inspired by how Facebook opened up the web. We want the users to be in control and not the institutions.”
This is a marriage between finance and tech. Transactions are reconciled into a single view, with social recommendations matching products to users with similar tastes. According to its creators, Moneysmart is more than a budgeting tool, it is a lifestyle platform. People have an affinity to different brands and the system uses heuristic algorithms to track users spending, gather intelligence and assist each user with their fiscal needs. A community forum will be used to ensure that the customer receives expert advice.
This is an open-source platform, built from the ground up with PHP, HTML 5 and 3D graphing engines which are integrated into the social networks. Three years of financial history are stored, assisting the user to view a timeline of their individual records.
Tobie says that the creation of the financial score card was one of the most difficult aspects to translate into a user-friendly platform. Placing the myriad terms into layman speak is part of their plan to integrate a level of financial education into the system. This was a personal mission for both Zulfiq and Tobie.
There is also the potential for a smart ad delivery platform Zulfiq says. “Google does not know who its ads are being served to. It does not know your name, your earning potential or if the ad is even something you can afford. We have the ability to serve the ad to the user, a relevant ad.” This may change the face of AdWords, as it is contextual semantics searching, serving products based on affordability. Products are matched via social recommendations, to move you from a dreamer to a doer.
Tobie also believes strongly in the presence of relevant ads. “Companies such as Groupon and so on can target people with the relevant salary. They can serve anything based on the projected earning potential. This creates brand loyalty and for the industry, we can give an overview based on where people shop. We can guide them to serve people better.”
A personal journey
Zulfiq places his hand on Tobie’s shoulder and joins him in laughing at an inside joke. The two have an easy camaraderie which is reflected in the respect they share for each other. “Imagine if Nedbank jumped onto FNB’s Facebook page and stabbed at them. Their marketing managers should know better. It just shows how weak you are.”
Zulfiq says this because they are not looking to compete with anyone, or to negatively affect the brand of any similar offering. “Being aggressively competitive is no good, you need to go on the strength of your own merit.”
Tobie is one on of the youngest independent brokers in the industry and leveraged his love of the online sphere to work smarter for his client base. He grew up with the trends but had a limited knowledge of the technical side of the business.
This is when he met Zulfiq, a tech entrepreneur who become his mentor. Zulfiq crystallised Tobie’s idea, packaged it and together they created a product which turned from a potentially explosive local-only business to a global website in common with Mint.com. Their vision is singular, a truly South African concept which they aim to keep in South Africa. It is not their aim to “exit” the market if their product takes off, but to keep it South African, to grow it for a hundred years.
Moneysmart’s aim is to “shift financial control to you”. This is their baby, a product of working 24/7 for close to two and a half years. Tensions are riding high as the dreams and yearlong work of Tobie, Zulfiq and the ten members of their team will hopefully succeed and provide an outstanding return on their sleepless nights spent perfecting the system. This is just the beginning of their story.