Pollen – fintech for fairness

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Serial entrepreneur, world traveller, handsome devil, 26 years old – hating Benji Wakeham should be easy…

But his new venture, Pollen, is fintech with a moral compass – and he’s a bloody nice bloke to-boot.

In early 2010, fresh from graduating at Nottingham University’s business school, Cheshire-born Benji took to the road to conquer five continents in six months. While travelling, he was exposed to the diffuse relationships between economy, cash and culture the world over.

Home, inspired, ready – he moved to London to put new wisdom into play, and started two businesses in quick succession.

First came discount platform Student Money Saver which, today, is a million-pound community with a small staff and an army of Facebook fans. Then came Vida, a two-pronged service combining prepaid world-traveller cards and an app that used GPS, transaction data, and photos to curate a scrapbook of travel memories.

Despite being named Prepaid Card of the Year, and a MoneySavingExpert Top Pick, Vida struggled with onboarding partners and scaling up – and recently came to close.

But the DNA of both ventures – their ethos, their successes, and their lessons – are baked into the foundations of Benji business #3: Pollen.

Pollen is a new payment mechanism designed to quicken and simplify payroll at home, and to welcome developing world workers into the digital finance fold – and cashlessness is a very definite goal.

I spoke to the Financial Director of a mining company in Mozambique,” Benji tells Follow Innovation. “Every week, a secure truck filled with cash had to drive to the mine, and an official would stand there, in front of all the workers, counting cash and stuffing it into envelopes.

The workers would then have to take the cash back home and set about loading it into their mobile phone, or prepaid cards – it’s dangerous and needless.

For so long, cash has been the lowest common denominator of payment – but in the same way the developing world skipped landlines and went straight to mobile, they’re also skipping traditional bank accounts and going straight to mobile banking services – products that are cheap to set up and have the potential to bring even the poorest of workers into the system on some level.”

In the developing world, Pollen is a way of mediating payments between the payer and the payee’s financial ecosystem of choice – whether it’s bank account, card or mobile. There are now over 5bn mobile phones active in developing countries, and some 293 mobile banking ecosystems jostling for market share.

The problem Benji and co aim to solve is enabling employers to make easy direct payments to a multitude of different platforms in one push – and to strip out commission charges in the process.

Often it’s employees in developing countries who need to hold onto these commission percentage points the most,” says Benji. “The fees to a UK employee may only be 0.5% of someone’s salary, but in Kenya, for example, it really can rack up to have payments administered – sometimes to 5 or 10% of a person’s salary.

Our goal is to create a platform that enables companies to pay people simply, quickly and cheaply, no matter their geography or banking method.”

Pollen, which celebrated its first birthday in May with a new round of angel investment, has handpicked six partners with which they’ll debut the live product. An MVP launch with Ericsson Ethiopia is scheduled for autumn, before more bells and whistles are added for subsequent clients.

But it’s not just workers and merchants in far flung climes that’ll gain from the Pollen vision – the software enables companies anywhere to administer mass payments, not from the usual spreadsheet-based systems but from single, real-time, all-access datasets in the cloud.

It’s a product designed to bring more speed, accuracy and security to the still-archaic process of payment. Though finding product-market fit with new enterprise software can be tricky, the industry jumped at Pollen.

We gathered together 100 industries bodies from our potential markets of interest – pensions, insurance and payroll – and spoke to people at every level,” says Benji.

The response was amazing. Our presentation was only 15 minutes – but people would talk for hours telling us what they’d love to do and see in a product like this – and we baked it all into a product.”

It sounds simple, but a lot of intricate algorithmic tweaking, honing, building, testing and retesting stands between Benji Wakeham and the vision of financial inclusion.

So, while Pollen is polished, and while Student Money Saver sails on, Benji has given himself the heart-wrenching task of shutting down Vida – and personally writing to its 1,000 card holders to apologise that the business didn’t make it. He’s even got plans for an e-shrine to the Vida vision that didn’t quite come to fruition.

Every so often you talk with an entrepreneur that’s got the special something, and I’m happy to add serial entrepreneur, world traveller, handsome devil, 26 years old Benji Wakeham to my list. Hating him should have been so easy.