Friday, May 17, 2013

In an Industry of Disappointments, Why is WING Cambodia Successful?


I was delighted to read in the Phnom Penh Post last week that WING Cambodia was now processing close to US$1 billion per annum and had been profitable since the start of the year. Profitability had been achieved just on four years since the launch of the business, and in an industry where profitability is rare, I think it is a remarkable achievement, even if the original estimates assumed breakeven a couple of years earlier. What was even more pleasing was that it has put WING back on the map in the mobile money world, as the business had slipped from view somewhat with an ownership change over the last eighteen months. I was the original Managing Director of the business and saw it through its first three years of development, from creation of the business plan in the offices of ANZ in Australia, to the build of the model in Cambodia, and from launch through its first eighteen months of trading. I have tried to stay close to how it has performed since then so these are my views as to why WING has been successful, when so many others have not.

From the very beginning a strong vision was developed by the project team, articulated to new staff that joined, and then constantly reinforced. The vision of making money fair to Cambodians resonated with staff as we all knew that our target segment of the unbanked in that country didn’t get a fair go when it came to money. They are over-charged by money-lenders, garment workers have money stolen from under the mattress, and money is a source of constant worry. The vision became part of a belief system that we were doing right for the country, and at the same time building a sustainable business. I firmly believe this helped us attract the right kind of staff, and exit those who didn’t believe in the vision. This became so important, as with development of any innovation in a developing market, there were constant barriers. Belief in the vision helped the team to get through obstacles and created resilience. Pleasingly, the vision in WING continues to this day.  

When WING was first conceived, mobile money was very much in its infancy. M-Pesa had just re-launched, and there were few other models in the world operating. With the absence of a template to build the business on, we partnered closely with our marketing agency River Orchid and applied a design framework to the business model. We sought to immerse ourselves in the community we would offer services to, and to deeply understand the customer; her needs, fears and desires. Every element of the value proposition was created with the customer at the core, and segmentation of the market was completed on an attitudinal and behavioural basis, rather then the normal bank segmentation of income groups. Our agency embedded staff in the business so that the design process was integrated, and this resulted in communication strategies and products that were unique, aspirational and targeted. Customer boards were created where the initial target segment of garment workers and university students were inserted in the design process to test and adapt offerings. The focus on design in the early stages of WING has helped develop a strong brand in the market that is being exploited today.

The business model was nascent, product offerings were new, and the development of the agent network was complex and expensive. We made many mistakes during the first three years, but adoption of a test and learn approach allowed the business to adapt as issues arose. Every element of the business was monitored, particularly as reporting tools developed. The agent model was restructured within the first twelve months, and products were adapted quickly. Data became critical to understand what was working and what was not. The business had to be nimble enough to fix product issues within many constraints, particularly with the original risk framework. This test and learn approach has continued with development of new products that have contributed hugely to WING’s growth such as over the counter cash transfers, and cessation of some elements of the original business model such as commission based activation agents.

It is not the most exciting part of any business, but development of a strong operational focus was an important component of WING’s success. We have started to see the emergence of frauds in a number of mobile money operations, and I always contemplate that their operational processes must have elements of weakness. In WING, we had to develop eighty-six new operational processes to support the business. These processes had to be written, tested, audited and then trained in order to ensure they were embedded in the business. Risk management had to be completely integrated into process development to ensure that there were no gaps for fraud. WING had its genesis in a bank, so we brought a bank’s mindset to operations and risk. This included development of a risk framework and management committees that were diligent in assessing new risks, and managing existing risks and issues. This operational focus has provided a foundation for WING’s growth.

Cambodia is a challenging country in many ways. The modern history of the country has meant that an entire generation was tremendously impacted, and one effect has been the ability to find experienced and educated staff of a certain maturity and age. Knowing that we would find it difficult to find senior staff, we adopted an approach of hiring young, and hiring smart. There is no shortage of young managers coming through the system in Cambodia and I was delighted with the quality of staff we had. Augmented by a few expatriates, I had a management team that was largely female, and had an average age in their mid-twenties. Whilst they needed development, they were ambitious, they were intelligent, and they were passionate about the vision for the company. This attitude was present throughout the company and many of the staff from the beginning of WING continue in management and supervisory positions today. Many of those who have left are in impressive roles in international companies in Cambodia and elsewhere, which I believe is a testament to the baptism of fire they had in WING.   

There are of course multiple reasons why any company is successful or not, and I have touched on just a few that were critical in the development of WING. The engagement of IFC in helping to educate the regulator on mobile money among other projects was vital, as was the award of an Enterprise Challenge Fund grant from AusAid in the early days of the business. Internal support from a small number of executives from ANZ who believed in the business model during the early days kept the business funded, whilst the tenacity and determination of some of the original management such as current CEO, Anthony Perkins and Agent Manager, Viseth Thiev have ensured that the business is now thriving. Everyone who has been associated with this business since its start in 2007 should now be justly very proud.

- Brad Jones