Amir Wain, Founder & CEO of i2c Inc. | Episode 3

Greg: Hi, I’m your host Greg Myers, and this is episode three of the Leaders in Payments Podcast featuring Amir Wain, the Founder & CEO of i2c Inc. Amir was born in Pakistan, came to the US and has started three successful companies. In this episode he talks about i2c and its role in the payments ecosystem as well as provides some great advice about getting out of your comfort zone to find success. 

Greg: So let’s get started. Hi Amir, thank you for being here and welcome to the Leaders in Payments podcast. 

Amir: Good to be here, Greg, and thank you for inviting me to your podcast. 

Greg: So let’s dive right in. Tell our audience a little bit about you, where you grew up, where you went to school, where you live, things like that. 

Amir: Sure, sure. I was born in Pakistan and before I could legally purchase beer, I came to the US to the University of Texas in Arlington to do my computer science and engineering. So it was an interesting journey coming across the globe to a new place, not knowing anyone. And, I thought besides the education in the class, just being in a new place at that age was a great learning for me. So really, really enjoyed my time and I learned a lot, and I really would call myself a serial entrepreneur because I never really worked for anyone right after college. And in fact, even during my last 18 months at college, a friend of mine and I were doing custom coding and doing projects for people. And as I graduated, I went back to Pakistan to be with my parents and saw a tremendous opportunity in terms of exposing the power of personal computing to the corporate world. And I’m talking 1986 so the IBM XT had come out, Lotus 123 was there, and it was a 10X change on the old way of doing things and just showing people some use cases and how all of this could be used was number one, extremely exciting and offered tremendous benefits to the other party. And, so that kind of got me thinking about starting a business and we started with a training program of computer appreciation for the senior executives. And I started doing this multi-day course for the senior management at large organizations and from one referral to another, that got the business going. 

So, everyone kind of loved the spreadsheet aspect but then they would have problems that couldn’t be solved by a spreadsheet, like inventory management, anything which has historical data and so on. So, we started getting business for custom software development and from there, it was more and more focused on the finance sector and we did a lot of work for banks in that space doing custom software development. And, currently I am based in the Bay area. I’ve been here since 2001, beginning of 2001, so just after the dotcom party ended. So, it was a good time and it’s been a fantastic journey since then. And i2c was my third business that I started. So, between 1986 and 2001, and the other two businesses still operate successfully, with one of them traded on the stock exchange. The other is run by management. I’m on the board and spending most of my time at i2c that I’m very actively engaged with, and since then I’ve invested in a couple of other businesses and help them get started. So absolutely entrepreneurship I think is one thing that I have kind of seen and had in me throughout this journey. 

Greg: Yeah, sounds like a great story. Now let’s just jump into i2c. Tell everyone what i2c does. 

Amir: So, commerce is such an integral part of our lives. Barter and cash and cards and the way to exchange value has changed over the period of time, but it’s been there forever. So i2c is focused on facilitating the exchange of value between two parties. And that’s at a high level. So, in layman’s terms, basically it would mean we process, credit cards, debit cards, mobile payments, rewards and loyalty. Anything that has to do with commerce. The i2c platform allows people to support that and we are the ‘Intel inside’ so we don’t go to the consumer, but we power many of the brands that people are familiar with that offer payment products in the market. 

Greg: Okay, great. So, what would you say differentiates you or makes you better than your competition? 

Amir: We operate in a highly consolidated market where there are a few very large players servicing customers worldwide. Now with size you become more rigid, you become more bureaucratic and it becomes difficult to do things in an agile fashion. On the flip side, if you think about changes at the macro level, the timeframes are compressing, things that are happening quicker and quicker, the product cycles are compressing, and consumer behavior is changing. Consumers are no longer willing to accept the standard product that you offer. They want custom products. And while we are trying to make payments and commerce simple, the infrastructure is becoming more and more complex and this is where the opportunity exists for companies like i2c to come in and transform complexity to agility and that is the core competence of i2c. And how do you do that? So, there’s several things that you have to do. Number one is you have to move from coding to configuration. If you get into coding, the cycle times are much longer. If you design a system which is more around configuration, your cycle times improve. The architecture of the system has to be customer centric rather than account centric. Many of the processing systems in payments basically have an account that has a balance and then debits and credits are posted. So these are like general ledgers, that operate at speed.  So we kind of flipped the whole thing and our architecture is customer centric, but a customer can have multiple IDs, let it be fingerprint, mobile number, 16-digit card, et cetera, et cetera. And can have various, what we call entitlements. So, it’s not just a credit line. It could be a discount at a store, it could be entry to a game park, it could be a variety of those things. This architecture lines up with the needs of the market today and it is very, very difficult for people with the legacy platforms to be able to make that transition. And that’s where i2c is resonating tremendously in the marketplace. The other thing to think about is, let’s just use the credit card industry as an example, 75% of the market share is with the top five players and one wonders why? Because if you look at the banking products, their DDA and their debit card and credit card, the most profitable product is the credit card product.  So, I as a bank, I do all the hard work. I have your checking account, I give you service, I have your debit card. But then you go and you get credit cards from someone else, and from that perspective, you are really letting your competition takeaway the prize business of your customers. And you can’t differentiate because the big processors will offer you the cookie cutter solution. So, the same question that you’re asking me, what’s our differentiation? I go to a regional bank, I go to a small bank, my credit cards are going to have nothing different. In fact, these big five guys have enough resources where they’ve taken the legacy system and built some other bells and whistles around it to make a good competitive product. So i2c acts as the equalizer for the regional and midsize players where they can compete with the big ones and offer a product which is even more competitive. 

Greg: So, you serve not just merchants, you serve issuers and banks and FIs, multiple markets, right? 

Amir: We do. We have cardholders across 216 different countries and territories in  all 29 times zones. When we look at our global database, that means all our customers’ cardholder data, we service every single time zone in the world. We have our applications deployed in 17 different languages, including Japanese and Chinese, which are two unique languages and slightly more complex. So, we are truly a global company with a thousand plus people. I would say that we are big enough to matter, but small enough to care. There are much smaller companies too, but when you are in the payments business, you have to have a certain size in footprint. You need compliance people, you need InfoSec people, you need risk management people, then you need developers, ops, and fraud management. So, when a 150-200 people company comes up, it’s very difficult for them. This is more like an infrastructure business. And that’s why the consolidation, that’s why when I was talking about the highly consolidated industry and few large players, because it is an infrastructure business. You can’t operate very well at a small scale. So i2c has gotten to a size where we are a viable entity. We are very profitable. We’ve been growing and we are still flexible and agile. 

Greg: Great. So, let’s talk a little bit about the industry overall. Where do you think it’s headed in say two to three years and then maybe the same question for out there 10 years from now. 

Amir: So, I say I’m not in the prediction business. And the reason I say that is whenever you predict, then you would place a bet based on that prediction. So, I am let’s say, an issuer. And I said, this is where the industry is going and I’m going to start making investments in that direction and this is what I’m going to do. And let’s say the industry doesn’t go in that direction and goes in a different direction. Think about the amount of money that has gone in, in the wrong direction. Think about the feedback loop and time to adjust, so it could be a very expensive bad decision. So, we step back and we say, okay, well we are in a highly unpredictable environment and things that are driving that unpredictability, one is the compressed timeline. Things change so quickly. Second, consumers, as they get more access to information, are becoming more educated about what they want. The gen Zs have their own way of doing things. So, for us, we say okay, we’ve got to be ready no matter what the future brings. And if you try to come up with an answer, you say, if I’m going to be agile, I should be able to deal with anything that the future brings. I just need to be agile. So, our focus and our recommendation is to build agility as a core competence in the organization and then you will be ready for whatever may come your way. Having said that, I think what you’re going to see is a shift towards making payments invisible. We already see that quite a bit. Uber, right? I mean, every time you do an Uber, you’re making a payment, but you don’t see it, right? Right. And that’s a great experience. No one leaves home saying, I’m going to go make a payment today, right? So, thinking about how do you make payments frictionless and secure. All of us heard about all the security breaches and data breaches and so on. So, it’s extremely important that I can continue to trust in my method of payment as I move forward, and that’s going to be extremely important. And finally, I think the key is if you can figure out a way to convert $1.00 to $1.10, that’s a fantastic thing. Everyone wins, right? So how do I make your money go further? And this could be something as simple as having the right offers at the right time. Merchants are willing to fund some of those offers as well. And, this is just one example, but there is a lot of other interesting ideas in this general theme as to how do I make your money do more for you. And I think companies who would solve for these three things, making the payment experience as frictionless and invisible as possible, making sure it stays super secure, and then thirdly, if they can make your money go further, they will be the winners. And i2c’s role in that future is really to provide the enabling infrastructure because people will use i2c’s infrastructure to come up with use cases and take that product to consumers. i2c does not take the product to consumers. So again, think about how Intel doesn’t necessarily take the notebooks and the PCs and tablets [to the consumer], they do the processor inside.

Greg: I’m looking at a little logo on my laptop that has Intel on it. 

Amir: Exactly. Yep. 

Greg: So great. No, that’s a great answer. Very insightful. Let’s switch gears and let’s talk about you. So, tell us about your journey. You talked a little bit about it already but tell us a little more about your journey to your role as the CEO there. 

Amir: So, as I said, besides my first job at iHOP, which I quickly graduated to Burger King and so on during my first couple of semesters, I haven’t really had what I would call a professional job. So I started out as the CEO of the first company and I think the CEO position while it may be a lonely position, is a great position in terms of learning because you see all different aspects of the business.  And if you are ready for such a challenge, it is a fantastic way to learn. So, I learned tremendously on the job at the first company. And the second thing I’ve always tried to do is to not do things by the book. You should read the book, but then you should try to figure out how do I improve on it or make it a more custom thing which is more suitable for my context. And in that quest, you develop a much deeper understanding of things and you figure out the ‘why’ piece. The why piece is such an important element. You have to know why before you figure out the ‘how’ and so on. So it’s been interesting.  It has given me a lot of direction throughout my life to have something to build and grow, and I’ve tried to create an environment where the team is also able to grow and be successful. Those companies are running successfully and my goal at i2c is the same. It should become something that’s just going to be way bigger than any one individual and will last forever. 

Greg: Great. What are some things you’re passionate about? Could be work related or not. Just something that you have a passion for. 

Amir: I would say questioning the status quo and trying to sort of push things beyond where they are. And this could be both in personal and professional work, right? That really kind of excites me and it’s driven by when I see the gap between the human potential and where we live and operate and that delta is huge, and you can see that…like pick any professional sports. Now those guys are normal human beings, but also look at their level of performance and look at an average person’s level of performance. So there’s a huge delta…that professional player has done something to elevate the game many, many times beyond an average person. Right? So, if you think about our daily lives there is a tremendous delta in our ability and our potential and where we operate. Then questioning that and trying to figure out how I push myself or have tried to do things has always been very exciting for me. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I’ve never been a long-distance runner. And, as I was turning 50, I decided to run my first marathon. Yeah. Running anything beyond two miles was a stretch. But it always fascinated me how people could run  for 26 miles…they made cars for that purpose. But how do you do that? So step-by-step, just going through that training and doing it was just great. Never did biking. So then I did a hundred-mile bike ride around the Lake Tahoe, which was interesting. And I took a classical music class at Stanford.  I would highly, highly recommend to put yourself in a position where you are at the bottom of the class or you’re uncomfortable with something. I didn’t know much about classical music and this was a class with a lot of people that feel an interest and so on and it grounds you. It makes you realize it’s a great experience. So, I would say challenging the status quo. Trying to push yourself beyond your current limit is something I like to do and it gets me going. 

Greg: Right. So, the payments industry over the last five years has been a very hot industry, a lot of investment, a lot of interest, a lot of publicity, mostly good and a lot of young people coming into the industry. So, if you could give someone just starting out some advice, what would that be?

Amir: I would say that sometimes when people think things are super-hot, they start doing something just because it’s hot and think “Oh, I should start a payments company because payments is a hot industry and I’ll be successful.” I think that’s the wrong reason to get into payments. You got to think about what your strengths are, what you are passionate about and where you can really make a difference. And if that happens to be payments, so be it. Also know that payments is a different industry. There are many areas within payments and some of them are infrastructure or a larger play not ideally suited for someone doing something out of the garage. Most of the payments startups that have done well have had a tremendous amount of funding. So, if you’re looking to bootstrap something, payments probably is not the best industry. Now around payments, if you want to make an app that you can upload on the app store and people can download, sure. But if you’re talking about a more payment play, which is a bit more complex, it becomes expensive and a longer initiative very, very quickly, so be clear as to what exactly you want to do in payments. Do you have the right resources? Do you feel that’s what you want to do?  And don’t do it just because payments is hot because there are plenty of failures in payments. We don’t hear about the failures, but there are many, many failures. So, you’ve got to have some sort of differentiation or some advantage that you feel like, I have this advantage to go after this. 

Greg: Great. I think that’s great advice. You know, we’re about to wrap up. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up? 

Amir: I think Greg, this is a great initiative. I wish you the very best. I hope that whatever I have shared, maybe someone will find one little piece of information that will help them because if you have to continue to improve the payments experience and continue to grow, we do need fresh blood people with a fresh viewpoint to come in and do things. And the more we can share knowledge among ourselves, I think the better we will be prepared for the challenges of the future. So I appreciate your effort and wish you the very best. 

Greg: No, I appreciate that. And I know your time is very important, so thank you so much for taking time out today. I really appreciate it. 

Amir: My pleasure. Thank you very much. 

Greg: Thank you. And to all you listeners out there, I thank you for your time as well. And until the next story…